The Uncomfortable Truth of a Riot

Part of me says that I shouldn’t write about this.

Somehow, I missed the news that there were riots ongoing in an impoverished neighborhood in Baltimore. I missed the news that yet another young black man had died after an encounter with police. I missed the news that what started as a reasonably non-violent arrest of a young man – even if the arrest was for reasons that seem less than legitimate – ended with his spinal column being mostly severed, sometime between him being put into a police van and arriving at the police station.

I missed the interviews with the police commissioner and mayor, where the former said that there was no evidence of trauma beyond the spinal cord injury and the latter could only admit that Mr. Gray hadn’t received timely medical attention for an asthma attack.

I’m not surprised that I missed this event, or overlooked it, because the news has been filled recently with these kinds of stories: stories of young men (mostly black) who have encounters with police and end up dead under suspicious circumstances. I’ve read and watched so many police chiefs and politicians explain it away, or shrug their shoulders in either ignorance or apathy.

I have watched friends that I consider to be conscientious and well-meaning people use language to describe both the arrested young men and the inevitable protesters that makes me wince. While very few have ever used the forbidden “N-Word”, I have heard “animals”, “savages” and “thugs” far more often than I’m comfortable with.

I have watched other friends – and I include myself in this group – wrestle with the socioeconomic and racial issues that surround these kinds of incidents, these kinds of neighborhoods, and the protests that spring up. Yet, they all get backed into a corner when protests turn violent, when they are suddenly asked to explain how people who burn businesses and destroy cars can possibly be victims.

I have moved beyond disappointment where police killings are concerned. I have moved into a place that can most accurately be described as despair – that place where you want to care, but it feels so useless, so futile.

I want to mouth empty words about the importance of non-violence, how I condemn the riots (as if my condemnation or support matters at all). I want to quote MLK Jr. and Ghandi and Jesus. I want to just say that I’m praying for peace in cities like Baltimore, New York, Ferguson. But, I just can’t.

There’s an uncomfortable truth in a riot that a peaceful protest can never convey.

A peaceful protest says, “Please listen to us. We’re hurting, we want justice, we want reconciliation.”

A riot screams, “Enough is enough! We’re tired, we’re angry, and YOU’RE NOT LISTENING TO US!

Riots are typically not carried out by well-meaning, conscientious people. The videos and pictures you see from riots are generally of young, angry men, who have neither the experience or wisdom of years to take well-considered, patient action. The justice that their actions demand is immediate. They’re not asking to be listened to.

They’re demanding to be heard.

The entire nation does a lot of hand-wringing when protests are voiced with thrown rocks and burned buildings. The Internet community falls into two categories: those who are simply shocked that violence has erupted, and those who recognize the root causes but don’t ever want to be backed into a corner, with anyone thinking that they condone the violence.

I don’t condone it either. Actually, I don’t feel that I have the right or the context to either condone or condemn the violence in Baltimore.

I hear a cry for help in every rock thrown. I hear a desperate plea in every business and community center put to the flame. And while I weep for the residents and business owners of the community in turmoil, I can’t help but also weep for the crowds of young people who feel that they have no other redress than destruction, no other means of negotiation than to strike back against a police force that they feel has brutalized and oppressed them.

A documented history of years of abuses by the police against residents in this community was not enough to be heard.

Peaceful marches by the black community (and others on behalf of the community) going back to Selma in 1965 have not been enough to be heard.

The cries of mothers and grandmothers and men of all ages have not been enough to be heard.

Now, a community is in flames, a state of emergency has been declared, a curfew has been imposed, the National Guard has been called in to restore order, and we wring our hands and wish that “they” could find more peaceful forms of protest.

The uncomfortable truth of a riot is that it surely is, as MLK Jr. so eloquently stated, the “voice of the unheard.” It is a form of protest that is turned to when all other forms of protest have been ignored. It is the citizens of Jerusalem standing up against a vastly superior Roman empire after living under its brutal yoke. It is the American colonists firing on British troops after years of attempts at negotiation. It is the homegrown insurgency of Iraq firing AK-47s at an army that had tanks and low-altitude bombers.

Maybe that’s why I’m so sensitive about this. I was part of a policing force that was, at times, brutal to a small neighborhood in Ramadi. We felt it was necessary to protect those citizens that weren’t shooting at us. But, we never stopped to consider that we – the vastly superior force – had helped create the conditions from which the residents needed protecting. All we saw were “military aged males” out in the streets with AKs, not people who chafed under decades of rule from a dictator and years of rule by men with guns. Every bullet fired at us was an act of protest.

I lost friends and comrades in that city, and I am hesitant to show empathy to the men who killed them. But I can’t help but see the parallels between what I saw and experienced in Ramadi, and what I see happening on the streets of our cities almost a decade later. A group of angry young people rising up against a vastly superior and better armed force, because they need to be heard. I can’t imagine that any of them entertain the thought of overthrowing the entire Baltimore Police Department or the Maryland National Guard, and yet the desperation is so great that they’re willing to risk the crushing violence that could be visited on them at any time by the arrayed forces of the local, state and national governments.

I do pray that the violence will stop. But, my more earnest prayer is that we will stop and listen. It is an uncomfortable truth that we’re hearing, and it’s far easier to dismiss it as “outside agitators” or “thugs” or “animals” or “savages” instead of desperate young people who see no hope beyond a small gesture of retaliation.

I pray for the faith leaders – of many different faiths – who are actively working for peace and reconciliation in this community. I also pray that they will remember that Jesus preached non-violent action for years, but it was only the cleansing of the Temple that got him noticed by the authorities.

And I pray for all the people, young and old, who are beyond hope, who are beyond reason, who are beyond non-violent protest. I pray that we, as a nation, could finally stop reacting to these events and start creating better outcomes, better communities, better conditions for the people whose only hope is in a bullet fired, a rock thrown, a building burned. Because the violence against these communities goes far beyond deaths at the hands of police. There is the sustained violence of desperate poverty, hunger, unemployment, and that violence has been ignored for far longer.

I pray that our community leaders, politicians, and police officers – our entire government – can find a better way to live than violent responses to perceived threats. Because, if we keep living by the sword, we’re going to keep watching our communities die by it.

Grace and peace to the citizens of Baltimore. Lord, let it be so.

What’s So Tough About Grace?

Grace is, arguably, the foundation of the Christian faith.

“It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not of yourselves, it is a gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

“Amazing grace – how sweet the sound! – that saved a wretch like me!”

The idea is that God saves us – from our sin, from ourselves – with His grace. We cannot be in relationship with a perfect, infinite God as finite, imperfect beings. Thus, God gives His grace as a bridge between Himself and His creation (forgive the gender pronouns – it’s hard to break a 30+ year habit.) And though we have different ideas about the atonement through Jesus – whether it was a substitution, an exemplar, a liberation from death – we have always understood grace as having come from the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So, what’s so tough about grace?

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about what I saw as the idolatry in our pursuit of religious freedom. That post generated more discussion – both positive and negative – than I have seen on my writing, since I started writing publicly. But, what was meant to be a discussion of our pursuit of religious freedom at any cost and our willingness to hurt others in the name of it quickly turned into a discussion of who God’s grace was for. Also, there were many words said about who deserves God’s grace, who can have God’s grace. There are some who believe that His grace is available to all, a gift freely given that must only be realized and accepted. Others believe that grace can only be received through repentance. Some believe that God’s grace can only be given by God, to an elect group of people.

There are enough different theologies of grace that I would require months worth of weekly posts to discuss them all. I am a Wesleyan in my personal belief system, but I know Southern Baptists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and many others whose grace theology is very different than mine.

From many discussions, I think I’ve narrowed down our problem with grace to two areas.

For some, the issue with grace is in receiving grace. We live in a culture that constantly reminds us of our unworthiness. The airwaves are flooded with weight loss products, because you’re too fat. We hear about anti-aging creams and cosmetics, because you’re not pretty enough. We have all experienced failure and rejection, whether it be from a career, a relationship, a church. We pile on these responsibilities in order to make ourselves more worthy. We do good deeds to feel like we deserve better in life than we sometimes get.

I understand this very well, because I have experienced these feelings of unworthiness for many years. After my time in Iraq, I felt as though anything that was good in me had died, and that I had to atone for the lives lost, my personal failures. I was unwilling to receive the love and grace of the people closest to me, and thus could not even approach the love and grace of God.

But, over years, something happened (which is something that I also wrote about very recently): I began to understand that my worthiness or unworthiness had nothing to do with grace or love. Love, true love, flows freely from the giver to the receiver. I have always understood this in my family relationships. I have two sons, and I love them both dearly. They don’t deserve my love – they are constantly doing and saying things that are hurtful, that make me angry, that go against everything that I have taught them. Yet, just as there is nothing that they could do to deserve my love, there is also nothing that they could do to become unworthy of my love. They’re my kids – I could stop breathing more easily than I could stop loving my children. There is no talk of earning or deserving or being worthy when I tell my sons that I love them. My love is a gift, and all that they have to do is receive it.

So it is with the grace of God. We might be unworthy, but that doesn’t matter. We might not deserve it, but that doesn’t matter. We can’t earn it, because it’s not ours to earn. It’s only His to give, and ours to receive.

The second problem that I think we have with grace is in the area of sharing grace. You can see this most clearly in the constant war of words and legislative actions surrounding the LGBT community. Religious people are almost always at the forefront of attempts to discriminate against this group of people. More than that, religious heterosexual people are telling religious LGBT people that they are not welcome in communion, in congregation, in fellowship, because of their sin. Grace is supposed to be a free gift, available to all who want it, and yet people who confess Jesus as Lord and seek that grace are denied it by the same people who had no problem receiving it for themselves.

Obviously, I think this is the worse of the two offenses. The Bible tells me that we cannot say that we love God, yet hate our neighbor. And, for all the talk about “speaking the truth in love” and “tough love”, I cannot imagine a love that looks more like hate than the “love” that much of the Christian community has shown to LGBT persons.

While that is the most egregious example of ways that we have failed to share the grace given to us, it is certainly not the only one. How many churches keep the poor at arms length? How many churches refuse to visit prisons, or would accept a felon into their congregation? How many churches would accept a drug addict? How many would accept a prostitute?

Time and time again, we see grace denied to those who are willing to receive it, who need grace in their life the most.

Why do we do this? What’s so tough about grace?

We quote verses like Ephesians 2:8-9, but in the end, we think we get grace because we’re better than those others. Even though we’ll speak the words about how “we’re all sinners”, the grace that is afforded to us can’t be extended to those whose sin is worse in our eyes. I also often hear, “Well, I’ve repented of my sin. They (homosexuals, drug addicts, prostitutes) are still living in sin.”

“Repentance” is a kind of buzzword in much of church culture. It’s much like a child who grudgingly says, “I’m sorry” when caught hitting their sibling. The behavior probably won’t stop, but at least we apologized. In much of Christianity, we seem to think that cheating on your taxes, lying to your boss, divorcing and remarrying – these are all things that we can do regularly, but as long as we repent, we are still “covered by grace.”

The word for that is hypocrisy, and we’re really, really good at it.

What’s so tough about grace is that receiving grace is hardest for those who need it most: the drug addict, the prostitute, the war veteran, the felon. Those plagued with feelings of unworthiness just can’t see why they’d ever be worth loving, forgiving or saving.

What’s so tough about grace is that sharing or giving grace is hardest for those who never really felt the need for it: the righteous of the world, who have never felt the shame, the guilt, the desperate sense of unworthiness that claws at the soul of so many. For those righteous ones, they can’t imagine what a wondrous gift grace is, how abundant it is, how amazing it really is. And so, they hoard it for themselves, never realizing that it’s only free so that you can give it away.

What’s so tough about grace? Nothing.

And everything.

You Must Be Born Again: Reclaiming the Theology of Conversion

Grace and peace to you in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I had a conversion experience this past weekend. Granted, I have been a follower of Jesus for a long time. I first “made the decision” when I was 7 years old, and was baptized in a large Southern Baptist Church in Texas. Years later, as a teenager, I belonged to a couple of churches that were part of the “Charismatic Movement”, and they believed in frequent baptizing, just to make sure you were getting it right. Finally, when I was stationed at a camp in Baghdad, Iraq in 2009, I chose to be baptized in a small ceremony on Easter Sunday. The last is the one that I consider my “real baptism” or my “true baptism.” Up to that point, I didn’t understand what the sacrament of baptism really represented – I thought it was just a thing that you did when you “got saved”. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties and early thirties that I realized that “getting saved” wasn’t a one-time event – it was a lifelong process of surrendering your life to God, and truly allowing Jesus to become the Lord and Master of your life.

But, in this long process and journey of surrender, I have never had an experience quite so powerful as the one this past weekend. Though I had what I considered a “true baptism” in the desert in 2009, I don’t think I ever had a “true conversion” of my own heart. I dedicated myself to living as a follower of Jesus, always caring for “the least of these” and seeing Christ in the worst of sinners. I have tried to love my enemies, to bless those that persecute me. I have tried to live by those qualities that Jesus called “blessed”: peacemaking, meekness, purity of spirit. I have tried to earnestly live a life without sin, especially those sins which harm others in their commission. And, most importantly, I have tried to spread the love of God that is found in Jesus Christ to every person that I meet, and to live that life of radical, sacrificial and unconditional love.

But, my spirit was always rather stubborn when it came to receiving this love. I have been surrounded by people who love me, who think the world of me, who affirm me constantly. Yet, I have never allowed that love in – I always viewed the love of God as something that I gave rather than something I received. Put another way: I tried to let the love of God flow from me, rather than through me.

So, I felt the love and grace of God powerfully during my conversion experience, and it made me realize that the restlessness of my soul was always because I did not find my rest in Him. (That’s a paraphrase of an Augustine quote, and one of my favorites.) And, it made me realize the importance of conversion in the Christian – or Yeshuan, if you prefer – life.

We Progressive-types tend to shy away from talk of “conversion” or being “born again”, because those terms are so firmly rooted in the conservative evangelical culture that many of us have been spiritually and emotionally hurt by. And, I think we do a great disservice to our theology when we do so, because the power of conversion is something that is absolutely essential in the life of a follower of Jesus. When you read the Gospels, you can see that power of conversion in all of the original disciples. In the Acts, you can see the power of conversion in the Damascus Road experience of Saul of Tarsus. Conversion caused Francis of Assisi to give up a life of luxury to become a beacon of faith, love and simplicity. Conversion caused John Wesley to put himself at odds with the Church that he loved to start a new movement in the American colonies and beyond. History is full of examples of women and men who had conversion experiences, and then went on into a radical way of living.

But, these conversions  were never a matter of praying a prayer with a pastor or raising their hand and walking down to an altar. While true conversions can happen like that, too often those types of “conversions” are a conversion of the head, rather than the heart. We have made “getting saved” and being “born again” into an intellectual game of “Do you agree to believe all of these intellectual propositions, and to say out loud that you believe them, so that you can get into Heaven?” And so, the words are said, the words are believed, and a person walks away from the altar or the baptismal pool largely unchanged. They have been made a convert to Christianity, but they have not become a Disciple of Jesus Christ.

My thinking about “heart conversion” or “soul conversion” led me back to the Gospel of John. Now, I’ve never had a great love of John’s Gospel, because it focuses almost exclusively on Christology and spends far less time on the teachings of Jesus. It’s also the Gospel that many people use to exclude others from the grace of God, with such passages as John 3:16 and John 14:6. So, I prefer Luke, I enjoy Mark, I am fascinated by Matthew, but I merely tolerate John.

However, there is a story at the beginning of the Gospel of John that has always resounded with me, and it resounded with me even louder this weekend. It is the story of a Pharisee of some authority and influence coming to Jesus in the dead of night to try and figure out what was so compelling about this teacher from Nazareth. It was a dangerous move on his part, as Jesus had already put Himself on the wrong side of the religious power structure, but he came anyway.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again if he is to enter the Kingdom. And Nicodemus asks – possibly rhetorically – “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he climb back into his mother’s womb?” I imagine Jesus chuckling a bit, but then He tells Nicodemus that a man must be born of water and the Spirit.

Now, there are several ideas that stand out here. “Water and the Spirit” can be taken to mean a couple of things. The symbolism of water is very important in the Bible, as both a source of life and a source of cleansing. So, “water and the Spirit” could be interconnected in this statement, meaning that a man must be cleansed and reborn in the Spirit” in order to become a citizen of God’s kingdom. It could also mean that a man must first be born of water (the natural birth through the waters of the womb) and then the Spirit (the “second birth” that Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus.) Both of these interpretations are important, though I lack the theological education to discuss them in detail. For the purposes of this blog, I will tend towards the second interpretation.

We think of being “born again” as a completely benign experience, and yet there is a great deal of pain in the birth experience as well. Some people refer to birth as “birth trauma”, because of the excruciating trauma to both mother and child during birth. There is water, there is blood, there is pain, there is disorientation. The mother gives something up that she has carried for nearly a year. The child leaves the warm comfort of the womb and moves into a world that is unfamiliar, strange, blinding, and uncomfortable.

So, when Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again”, it conjures up a number of feeilngs and images for me. I was fortunate enough to witness the birth of both of my sons. There was great joy when they came into the world, but the joy only came after a great deal of pain. Before a child can feel the love and comfort of the arms of his or her parents, they must first endure the absolute indignity and discomfort of being expelled from a place of peace.

So many of us live lives of spiritual comfort. We sit comfortably in church, we walk about comfortably with an intellectual “blessed assurance” that we are special and will spend eternity in paradise. But, so few of us have ever experienced that pain of leaving, the blinding light of a new world, the experience of being naked and vulnerable in a cold, unfamiliar place.

For me, this process of being born again was painful. Even though I have long understood on an intellectual level that the Christian life is not meant to be comfortable, and preached that understanding, I don’t know that I have ever really stood naked before God. I am no stranger to vulnerability, and yet I have always held onto my walls. I have always created a “safe space” for myself, both emotionally and spiritually, that I can retreat to when the cost became to high, when the experience became too uncomfortable.

How many of us share in that state of closure in our spiritual lives? How many of us have a place in our hearts and spirits that we have not allowed God to touch? How many of us have of us have never felt the love and comfort of our Father’s and Mother’s arms, because we are unwilling to endure the pain?

I sat in a darkened sanctuary, with a group of other men, and we all cried and wrestled in our spirits. There is nothing more beautiful than a group of men crying, in total vulnerability, when society so often demands that we repress those emotions. We cried in pain, because we were suddenly leaving the comfort of our old spirituality, our years of religion, and being forcibly brought into a world of blinding Light. We were spirtually naked and vulnerable, many of us for the first time in our lives. We were being forced to give up our place of safety, our walls of defense.

But, something happened amidst the crying and the pain. The arms of the Father reached down and clothed us in His Love, and we were held both gently and firmly in those arms. And, in the darkness of the sanctuary and the Light of this new birth, we sang, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.'”

There is an old Roman saying, that is powerful in its truth, though some of that truth has been lost over the years. The saying goes: “Blood is thicker than water.” It has been used to emphasize the absolute importance of natural family, but that is not what the saying means. It is better explained as: “The blood of battle is thicker than the water of the womb.”

We were all born in water, but when we are reborn, we are born in blood and Spirit. That blood is the redeeming blood of Christ, and the Spirit is the Spirit of His love and grace. And that blood that we are “born again” in is thicker than the water of our mother’s womb, the Spirit more comforting and healing than the arms of our natural mothers and fathers. It forms bonds that cannot be broken.

After this painful, wonderful experience of rebirth, this group of men held each other as brothers in something that is so much stronger than natural family. We held hands with one another. We whispered words of comfort and love into each other’s ears. It was an experience unlike anything I have ever experienced, even with the pain and the discomfort that accompanied it.

The Kingdom of God that we were all born into is a Kingdom of the here and now, as well as a Kingdom to come. And that Kingdom was best expressed in the vulnerability and love that we were allowed to share with one another, the affection of True Brothers that we allowed ourselves to feel. This Kingdom changes the heart, not just the mind. It changes the world today, not just the world of eternity.

I hope that each of us can experience this beautiful, terrible, wonderful experience of being “born again.” I hope that these words will never again be toxic or poisonous to us, just because they have been used in a way that hurts. I hope that we can hold hands and embrace one another as True Brothers and Sisters in this world, rather than simply waiting desperately for the next. I hope that we will allow the Blood and the Spirit to tear down our walls of safety and comfort, and that we will be willing to stand naked and vulnerable together before God.

Will you be born again with me, Sisters and Brothers? Will you go through the pain, in order to be wrapped and held by the arms of the Father? This is my prayer for you, for me, and for the world.

Let it be so.

Michael Brian Woywood

The Dangerous Gospel of Good Friday

What follows is the text of the sermon I gave for our Good Friday service, only an hour ago.

Today is Good Friday, the day that we commemorate the death of our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ.

On Sunday, we will have Easter. Easter is one of those times of year where many people that we would not normally see in church will come. They will come, because Easter Sunday is a day of hope. It’s the day that we celebrate the new life that comes with resurrection. It’s a wonderful day to start a Christian journey, or to reaffirm a journey that we’ve gone astray from. New life is something that we always seek; every year, every month, every day, we seek to “wipe the slate clean” to “start fresh.” And so, we all come on Easter Sunday, to celebrate the chance at new, abundant life that Jesus gave us when He walked out of the tomb. And we call Good Friday “good”, because we believe that Jesus took our old lives to the cross, so that we could have this new life on Sunday.

But, today is not Sunday. Today is Friday. And, while the Gospel of Easter Sunday is affirming, and joyful, and comfortable, the Gospel of Good Friday is dangerous, controversial, and solemn. Yet, we ignore this Gospel at our own peril.
This dangerous Gospel begins in the Garden, when Jesus says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” It continues when Jesus tells His disciples to “put away their swords” in defense of their lives and His. It reaches a climax when Jesus, accused before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, answers the charges laid before Him with a simple, “It is as you say.” And, it culminates with Jesus looking at His enemies, the ones who had nailed Him to the cross, and saying, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

This dangerous Gospel demands more than it gives. It calls us to death, rather than new life. It strips us of our rights, our privileges, our pride and our freedom, and gives us a cross. Resurrection Sunday offers us a crown of glory, but all that Good Friday has to offer is a crown of thorns. Easter gives us clean and shining white robes, but Good Friday divides our garments and strips us naked.

What will we do with this dangerous, perilous Gospel? Will we run and hide, in fear of our lives, as most of the disciples did? Will we deny that we know Jesus, as Peter did? Will we stand helplessly at the foot of the cross, as Mary and John did? Will we recognize the innocence of the Son of God, as the murderer next to Jesus did? Will we help Him carry the cross, as Simon of Cyrene did? Or, will we stand and mock him for His impotence, as the Roman soldiers did?

The call to follow Jesus on Good Friday is a call to die “to” and to die “for”. When Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever would come after me must take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it. But, whoever will lose his life, for my sake, will find it”, He was not using a spiritual metaphor. They lived under a brutal occupation by the most powerful empire in the world, and the message that they spread would have dire consequences for them. We can see the evidence for the literal meaning of Jesus’ call in the way that so many of His disciples died in the same way that He did.
So, the first and most important lesson that we can learn from this dangerous Gospel, is that the call to die may very well be literal. Many Christians around the world understand this. As we sit, comfortably, in this church, there are thousands across the world who live in fear of a very physical death, such as the university students in Kenya, who were dragged out of a worship service and killed just this week. Christians in Iraq and Syria live in fear of extremists who drag them into the streets and behead them, regularly. Christians in Communist regimes worship in secret, for fear of a State that will not tolerate any form of religious expression. For these Followers of Jesus, the decision to follow Jesus is a literal laying down of their lives.

But, as Americans, we do not understand this as fully as we should. We have always lived in a country where the greatest persecution we suffer is the insults of those who do not share our faith. In our country, we worship in public. We have prayer breakfasts in government buildings, we have churches on every street corner, the words “Under God” are enshrined in our pledge of allegiance, the words “In God We Trust” printed on every dollar bill that comes into circulation. For us, the idea of death in the name of Jesus is an abstract, a hypothetical. We may boldly proclaim that we are willing, but would we still proclaim as boldly if our faith was put to the test, if our lives were truly threatened?

In this culture, the things that we have to die to are much more subtle. When we Christians talk of dying, we often talk of dying to our sin, dying to the world. But, there are things that we must die to that we would balk at. Dying to our sin is easy, compared to the cross that Jesus would have us bear. Dying to “the world” is a cop-out, when we see the Savior inviting us to share in His suffering. Jesus tells us that we must die to ourselves: everything that comprises ourselves. We must die to our pride. We must die to our concept of freedom, of liberty, of rights. We must die to our families: our parents, spouses, children, friends.

We must die to our responsibilities. I heard a tragic story recently of a young man. This young man went to a Chrysalis retreat, and he came back full of fire, passion and zeal. He literally wanted to leave everything that he had behind, and go and use the skills that he had cultivated as a carpenter to build houses in third-world countries. He was committed to this course, until a very well-meaning relative said, “You can’t do that. You have to get a job, you have to go to college, you have responsibilities.”

That young man was ready to die to everything that he had built and cultivated in his short life, and he was ready to die for a group of people that he had never met. But, someone told him that he couldn’t, that the call was too much, too foolish. And now, that young man drifts through life, unfulfilled, restless, because the call that he answered, the call to die, was also his hope of resurrection. It was denied to him, because he was told that the cross was too heavy, that he had another cross to bear, the false cross of responsibility.

How often do we, in this culture, chase these responsibilities, these activities, things to fill the emptiness, the lack of fulfillment? How many of us have burned in our hearts to do something radical, something dangerous, something so perilous and foolish that it can only be a call from Jesus? How many of us have quenched that fire in our hearts with the responsibilities that we have made an article of our faith?

If we are to follow Jesus on Good Friday, we must learn that our responsibilities are often nothing more than a well-dressed idol. They are an outgrowth of our pride, our need to be important to the world around us, our need to have purpose in a world that so often seems purposeless. Yet, Jesus demands only one purpose for us on Good Friday: a long road to a lonely hill, and a cross. He calls us to be despised by those for whom we wish to be so important, to surrender the rights and the earthly responsibilities that we have filled our lives with. He calls us to be fulfilled in death.

To follow Jesus on Good Friday, it is not enough to die “to”, we must also die “for.” We call this Friday “Good” because Jesus died “for” us. So, if we are to follow Jesus on this road, who do we die for? We die for the same ones that Jesus died for. We die for the poor, the helpless, the hopeless, the broken, the bloodied, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. We die for the young veteran in our congregation who can’t see a way to go on living. We die for the young mother who worries about how to pay the rent, how to put food on the table, how to raise children with a spouse who is either absent or non-existent. We die for the desperately drug addicted man, whose only hope lies in a needle in his arm. We die for the man on the side of the road, holding a cardboard sign, living without pride or dignity. We die for the senior citizen, who has to choose between buying food and buying medicine. We die for the parent of the adult child, who wonders day and night if their child still lives, after months and years of not hearing from them. We die for the thieves and the murders. We die for the prostitutes and the pimps. We die for the Muslim, for the black person, for the immigrant, for the terrorist, for the hypocrite. We die for them when we die to ourselves, when we make the task of being Jesus to them our only responsibility, our only purpose. We die for them when we give up our time, our energy, our money, to minister to their physical needs, as well as their spiritual.

In 2006, I went to Iraq for the first time. In 2008, I went for the second time. And, by June of 2012, I was only a shell of the person that I had once been. I had purpose, I had responsibilities, but it was all I was. I was crushed by all the things in my life that made me feel important, that made me feel useful. My family, my duty to my country, my responsibilities to the soldiers under my command, my responsibilities to the commander that I served… all of it made me popular in the eyes of those I worked with. It made me valuable to those that I served. And yet, for all the acclaim and value that I had cultivated, I could not see a way to go on living. And so, on a normal day in June, I woke up in the morning and decided to take my own life. I would leave no note: my life was my note. I simply decided to drive as fast as I could into a utility pole on Peacher’s Mill, which I drove down every day.

As I passed the stop light at the intersection of Peacher’s Mill and Creek Coyote, I saw a church sign. I had passed this church many times, but today was different. Today, I was ready to die. And, the sign said something simple, something like, “God loves you, and so do we.” That simple message, that profound statement, made me buckle my seatbelt, slow down my car, and find a new way to live.

But, I died that day. SGT Woywood, a man who was respected for all of the responsibilities that he was willing to undertake, ceased to be. And, over a period of months spent in this sacred space, that man was resurrected into the man you see here today, a man who tries so desperately to make his only responsibility that of following Jesus. A man who has died, but who has discovered that it was the only way to be reborn, the only way to find new life.

I want to die for each of you. I want to die for those that Jesus died for. I want to be like the young man who was willing to leave everything to die for those who live in desperate poverty and homelessness.

I want to be a Good Friday follower, not just an Easter Sunday follower. I want a dangerous Gospel, not a comfortable one. I want to die before I am resurrected.

Do we all want that? Or do we only want to worship the triumphant Jesus coming out of the tomb, and ignore the Jesus who willingly went to the cross?

Will we live for our rights, our freedoms, or will we die to them? Will we chase after our responsibilities, or will we carry them with us to the cross? Will we seek a crown of glory, or a crown of thorns? Will we accept only an easy path to new life, or will we desire the dangerous, but authentic, road to death?

I found a quote some time ago, and it so perfectly encapsulates what I’ve been trying to say tonight, that I must share it as I close.

“Religion seeks to transform a man; the Cross seeks to crucify him. Religion may fail to bring about the desired result, but the Cross never fails to achieve its end. Mankind will pursue morality, virtue, spirituality, even perform religious works and good deeds, in order to avoid death on a Cross. But there are no wounds, no scars, no evidence of having ever died and been made alive again unto God. Either a man has never died, or he has died and been raised again. You cannot fake a resurrection.” – Chip Brogden

Sisters and brothers, will we follow Jesus unto death? Will we follow Him, though it means scars? Will we follow Him, though it means death to everything that we hold dear? Will we follow Him, though it means giving our life for the least, the last and the lost? For it is only in dying with Him on Good Friday that we can ever have hope of a true, authentic resurrection on Easter Sunday. Because the straight and narrow that Jesus would have us walk is only as straight as the road to Golgotha, and exactly as narrow as the cross on which Jesus died for love.