Being Bilingual

I spent my teenage years in the southern tip of Texas, about a 30 minute drive to the border. Many of my classmates in Junior High and High School had either been born in Mexico, or had parents or grandparents who immigrated.

Being a friend of families who had immigrated was a singular experience that I would not trade for the world. The culture was similar in so many ways, but different in many others. It was not uncommon to find a house with grandparents, even great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – either living there or as very frequent guests. It’s hard to remember any time I went hungry at a friend’s house – fresh tortillas, tamales, or just good American pizza.

Most of my friends who came from immigrant families were fully “Americanized”, and lived their daily lives in the same way you’d expect from any family. All of them spoke English – either as their first language, or as a slightly broken, second language.

It’s that bilingualism that I’ve been thinking of a lot recently. For many of my friends who spoke English as their first language, Spanish was still spoken frequently in their home. And, I also had friends who spoke English at school, but whose family spoke nothing but Spanish at home.

Then, there were the friends whose English was halting, who struggled to find words at times. I am ashamed to admit that many of us laughed when they struggled (they laughed with us, but probably not because it was funny.) They spoke slowly when they spoke in English, with great deliberation and concentration.

But, when they spoke Spanish, they came alive. Suddenly, they were speaking fluently, excitedly, with inflections that I didn’t know they were capable of. I couldn’t understand a word that they were saying, but it was almost enough just to hear the way that they were saying the words.

Eventually, they would remember that I couldn’t understand, and they’d slip back into English. But, those few moments that they were speaking their native tongue, they were home.

Faith has a language all its own. We speak in Scripture verses, in the lyrics to hymns, in Common prayers. We learn creeds and call-and-response, and we respond to those liturgies and litanies automatically.

“The Lord be with you.” And also with you.

“The word of God for the people of God.” Thanks be to God.

Who among us can fail to be moved by the words of 1 Corinthians 13 when spoken at a wedding? Love is patient and kind. Love is not proud, it does not boast…. the greatest of these is love.

Who would object to the words of Psalm 23 being spoken over the grave of a loved one? The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want… yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

Or, when the song Amazing Grace is sung or played over the same grave? Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found – was blind, but now I see.

People of faith come alive when we hear our language being spoken. Not everyone we know can understand our first language, and we learn to slip back into the less familiar language of the world we live in now.

But, those cadences and inflections are forever echoing in our hearts.

I’ve thought of this many times before, and a dear family member reminded me of it a few weeks ago: no matter where I roam, no matter whether I am in the church or out, my primary language will always be the language of faith.

I will never hear the problems of a friend without an encouraging Scripture coming to mind.

I will never see a cross or a dove without hearing the words of familiar hymns and songs in my head.

I will never face a dangerous situation without whispering a few words of prayer under my breath – even if it’s just an exercise, a habit, a comforting ritual.

No one can take that language from me. I can be cast out, tried and convicted as a heretic, lose my church membership, be ostracized from the community of faith, but I will never unlearn this language.

So many of us spend most of our lives in communities of faith, and then later find that we have to go. No matter the reasons, we share the experience of losing our foundation, our family. Many of us return to the Church, if for no other reason than because we don’t know who we are without it. Many more stay away, and do everything that they can to scour the presence, language, even the memory of religion from their minds, their hearts, and their mouths.

But, there are some of us who choose to live as immigrants – strangers, foreigners, who love our new home as much as our old one.

We know that we’ll probably never go back to our old home, our old way of living. The reasons that we left will still be there, as are the reasons that we came to this strange land. We know that there are others like us, people who come from similar places, who speak in familiar tones, and we just can’t help to slip into our first language when we see them.

So, don’t be afraid to speak in comforting Scripture, or sing familiar songs. Don’t be worried that you still pray under your breath. You might do these things and not believe. You may do these things and be unsure if you believe or not. These rituals and words are sometimes only tangentially tied to beliefs. Sometimes, speaking familiar words is enough.

No matter where you are or what language that you’re speaking, know that there is a whole community of spiritual immigrants who understand what you’re saying, and we’re probably ready to speak back.

 

The Detox (Who Am I Without This?)

I am sitting in my home on a Sunday morning, and every fiber of my being tells me that I need to be in church.

It feels like I haven’t been to church in ages. It has only been two weeks.

As I took a shower this morning, I mulled over the central question of this post: “Who am I without this?” My next thought was, “I know what I am without this! I need to go to church!” I nearly stopped the shower then, got dressed, and drove down the street in time to greet folks before Sunday service.

It’s not a sin to enjoy going to church. For many people, the church is a place of comfort and healing, a place where they truly belong. Not going to church might make them feel sad or lonely, but it won’t cause them physical pain to be absent.

When I can think clearly about this, I realize what’s going on.

I’m detoxing from church.

Addiction runs pretty deep in my family, and I have a lot of secondhand experience with it. My only firsthand experience is with nicotine (which is a hell of a drug.)

I was smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day until about a year and a half ago. Over the years that I smoked, there were many attempts to quit. Every attempt ended in failure – even this last attempt is a very qualified success – but each attempt shared a few characteristics.

First, there was the elation. I’m finally quitting. I’m quitting for real this time. I’ve got this.

Then came the sullenness. This sucks. I don’t know if this is worth it. I feel like shit.

Next comes the anxiety. Oh my God, I’m never going to have another cigarette in my life. I’m going to die.

Who am I without this?

It might seem like a silly question to ask about nicotine or alcohol, but it’s a question that every addict asks themselves, in one form or another.

What am I without this? What am I going to do to fill this aching need? Who am I without a cigarette/drink in my hand?

When you give up an addiction, whether by colossal amount of will or with proper treatment – and the second option is much more viable – when you give it up, you do more than just leave the drug behind. You also leave behind an entire community of people.

For smokers, you leave behind all those folks that you used to light up with behind your workplace.

For alcoholics, you leave behind your favorite watering holes, and all the people who welcomed you in and helped you into an Uber when you were too shitfaced to drive.

You leave family behind. You leave community behind. You leave a thousand little rituals behind.

And, you know that you can never go back.

To go back means that you fall right back into those old habits and rituals, because you’re among the community. You belong there. This is who you are. Who are you without this?

There are many people at that old watering hole who can come in, have a few drinks, and then leave. They’ll never understand why you can’t walk into a bar without leaving in an Uber.

There are people out there who can smoke a cigarette or two at a party, and not even think about smoking for months. They’ll never understand why you can’t take even a drag without immediately needing a pack.

There are people at the church who can come to church and love every moment of it, but can also take a vacation without feeling the absolute, aching need to be in church. There are people who don’t feel like they have to apologize when they miss a Sunday or two. There are people who don’t come back after a short absence with the frenetic, manic energy of someone who is finally getting a fix after weeks without.

Those people – those wonderful, loving, amazing people – will never understand why you’re not happy. They’ll never understand why you cringe during the sermon, or during the song service, all the while saying, “Amen” and raising your hands and singing along.

Because, you don’t belong there. You don’t really want to be there. But, you don’t know who you are without these people. You don’t know who you are without these rituals, these songs, these sermons.

These aren’t good reasons to keep doing something. These aren’t the signs of a properly devout religious person.

These are the signs of an addict.

 

This journey isn’t done. I’ve tried to quit before. But, “cold turkey” is never a good technique. You, my dear readers, are my support group.

Some of you might not understand this. For you, church is something completely different than it is for me. If that’s you, please give me grace. If you can’t understand me, then at least continue to love me.

If you’re reading this and you attend my wonderful, loving church, please understand that there is nothing wrong with you or our church. The bar isn’t to blame for the alcoholism, nor are the patrons.

If you see me at church, most of you will hug me and say, “Welcome back.” Just like most of my old smoking buddies will offer me a cigarette when they smoke in front of me. Just like most of them would never judge me for bumming one.

But, I hope that at least one of you will be like that rare friend of an addict. After greeting me and hugging me, I hope that at least one of you will look me in the eyes and say, “What are you doing? I thought you quit.”

Because, I don’t know who I am without this. But, I need to find out.

A Journey Away

Friends, there has been a long silence on this blog, and I’d like to explain why.

I have always striven to make this blog as honest as possible: about mental health, about military service, about theologically difficult concepts. But, I don’t know that I’ve been as honest about what the Christian religion means to me – where I’ve been, where I am now, and where I see myself in the future.

My faith has meant many things to me at different times in my life. At times, it’s been a blessing and a strength. At other times, it’s been a great burden and a thing that injures. I have been faithful at times, and I have strayed at times. I have counted the cost of discipleship, and I do not shrink from the price.

Something different is happening inside me now. I no longer have the patience or the grace that I have struggled to maintain in the face of toxic theology and those who practice it. It no longer seems like something that I can fight, this battle for the soul of Christianity. I have tried to dedicate my life to following the Jesus that I see in the Gospels, but so many Christians seem to have found a completely different Jesus than the one that I see.

Perhaps they’re right, and I am in the wrong. Perhaps the God of the Universe is actually as petty, capricious, and vindictive as many Christians would make him out to be. Perhaps he is simply indifferent to our plight, seeing us as beneath his Divine Notice.

Perhaps he is not even there.

Or, there could be something entirely different going on. Perhaps, the God of the Universe is so vast, so all-encompassing, that it is impossible to know it. Perhaps God is Nameless, Faceless, forever a Stranger to those who would seek to define and worship it.

Where does this leave me, this constant exploration that always leads back to doubt? I’m not entirely sure, and I’m not sure that I will ever understand my own thoughts on the matter. But, I know that I am journeying away.

This is not a journey away from the one that I have set my feet to follow. If anything, I feel closer in discipleship than I ever have. Rather, this is a journey away from all the toxic ideas that have led to a faith in a God that you can only really worship with fear and self-loathing.

This is a journey away from the lines that are drawn around God, and the lines that are drawn in the midst of people – to keep some out and some in.

This is a journey away from the idea that we are all doomed from birth to lead lives of barely contained evil.

This is a journey away from the idea that action is somehow less important than an intangible faith, and that we must accompany the first with the second in order for it to have any value.

Mostly, this is a journey away from the lies that I have told myself for years, the molds that I have constantly tried to force myself into. This is a journey away from both passionate declarations of faith and renunciations of it. This is a journey away from the conservative fundamentalism that declares itself infallible, and the liberal fundamentalism that declares itself unassailable.

And, as hard as it is to admit, this is a journey away from the Church that has been my life vest and safety blanket for so much of my life. This is a journey away from the creeds that have defined me, the worship that has shaped me, and even – sadly, but almost inevitably – a journey away from friends and family that will see any such journey as a damnable heresy.

In the next few weeks, I hope to write about what this is a journey towards. Something is waiting down this road – perhaps something and Someone. As frightening as a journey can be, I need to see where it leads.

As Bilbo Baggins says, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

And, “not all those who wander are lost.”

America’s Porn Addiction

The first snuff film that I ever saw was in March of 2003. I was sitting in my bedroom, in my apartment at Blinn College, when my roommate ran down the hall and yelled, “They’re bombing Baghdad!”

Without thinking, I tuned my TV to the first news channel that I could find. I watched, engrossed, as my country dropped thousands of pounds of ordinance on one of the oldest civilizations in the world. I called my father, and I remember saying something like, “This is horrifying.” I was watching as thousands of years of culture was vaporized by high-yield explosives, and I knew what I was watching.

But, I couldn’t look away.

A bit over a year later, I watched the grainy video of Nicholas Berg – a freelance, radio-tower repairman – being gruesomely beheaded by militants in Iraq. I sat in my father’s office, with headphones in my ears, sitting close to the screen and listening to the man’s gurgling screams as he died painfully.

I was in Ramadi in 2006, and personally witnessed countless gunfights and had who-knows-how-many mortars and rocket-propelled grenades launched at the outpost I lived in. And, we videotaped it. And, we watched it, over and over again. (I still see these videos pop up on my Facebook feed from friends that were there.)

We have an addiction to violence in America that is pornographic in the way that we consume it.

Just yesterday, I began to see alerts from friends on Facebook about an ongoing violent incident in Cleveland. After a breakup, a man went on a killing spree – he went so far as to murder a man on a Facebook live video.

Ever since, I have seen this video on the news. I have heard from people who watched it. And, all I could think about was that moment in my father’s office – over a decade ago – when I watched a man get his head chopped off.

We know what’s on that video, just like I knew what was on the Nick Berg video.

But, we can’t look away.

Last week, many churches put on a “Passion Play”, which is a dramatization of the death of Jesus. Mel Gibson went so far as to put a Passion Play in cinematic form – “The Passion of the Christ.” Even in Christendom, we aren’t content to imagine the horrible way in which our Messiah was killed – we have to see, we have to watch, we can’t look away.

Everywhere you look, this pornographic violence saturates our culture. There is no escaping it. Turn on the news, and you get videos of hard-core police shootings, murderous rampages. Log onto your favorite social media site, and you are inundated with images of beaten and bloodied bodies, videos of people bleeding to death and being shot in the head, of children being gassed and drowning. And, we sit in front of our computer screens consuming this porn, complete with heavy breathing and sweating.

And, if your interests are more soft-core, the news is happy to drown you with images of missiles being launched, of bombs being dropped, of aircraft launching from carriers in a blaze of glory, of naval destroyers speeding towards hostile waters to obliterate our enemies, dear Jesus Christ can we PLEASE look away?

For just a moment, could we refuse to consume? Could we somehow protest violence without constantly viewing it? Could we celebrate our Savior without having to watch a snuff-style re-enactment of His brutal death?

I don’t know. But, dear God, I hope so.

On Being Simon Peter

When I was in high school, we had “visiting evangelists/prophets” that would come into our church for revival Sundays – or whole weekends. Because this was a very emotional time, I would always find myself at the altar at the end of such services: with hands lifted high, tears in my eyes, praying for God’s forgiveness for whatever misdeeds I had committed recently. On one such occasion, the visiting evangelist came up to me, put his hand on my chest, and announced that I had “the heart of Simon Peter.”

I reflect on that moment a lot. It was formative for me in my spiritual upbringing. When I was younger, it was a point of pride for me that someone had recognized my closeness to Jesus.

Of course, the legacy and the heart of Simon Peter is a bit more complicated than that.

I have been given more reason than usual to reflect on that experience, those words, this year. Our church is putting on a production called “Twelve Seats at the Table.” It’s a dramatic interpretation of the thoughts of the twelve disciples after Jesus announces that one of them will betray Him. And, I was asked to be Simon Peter.

Naturally, the director had no idea that I had once been compared to the disciple as a young man, nor that so much of my spiritual formation has been centered around the idea that I have the “heart of Peter.” I didn’t tell him. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I told anyone, because it’s just been the background noise of my Christian experience. But, as I have delivered the monologue – in rehearsals and last night for our first performance – it has really struck home how much Peter’s story is my story. In fact, Peter’s story might be all of our stories.

How could a man who loved Jesus so faithfully turn so faithless? How could a man who confessed Him so strongly as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” turn and deny ever knowing Him when his back was to the wall? How could a man who followed Him so closely misunderstand Him so completely?

It’s easy to view this story through the lens of two thousand years of history and assume that we would have done things differently. It’s easy to scorn Peter for loving his safety far more than he loved Jesus. But, how many times have I denied Jesus with my lips, just because it became to hard to believe in Him? How many times have I denied knowing Him, because the world didn’t make sense – or because I was grieving, or because I was angry, or because I was afraid?

Worse, how many times have I denied Him with my life?

Simon Peter was a man of bold promises and rash action. I sympathize, because I am such a man.

Are we all? On this day of all days – on this Good Friday – do we make bold promises to Jesus and the world about our faithfulness, our steadfastness, our willingness to follow Him even unto death? Do we do this, and then deny ever knowing Him only a few hours later? Do we deny Him with our lips, or do we confess Him as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” with our lips and then deny Him with our lives – both in our personal lives and in the life of our nation? Do we deny Him by denying the homeless person on the side of the road eye contact, the money we have in our wallet, or the dignity of a fellow person? Do we deny Him by waving our swords (or Tomahawk missiles, or 21,600 pound bombs) in the face of our enemies when He has told us to put them away?

Do we tell others that we “don’t know Him” by worshiping on Sunday and being uncharitable on Monday? Do we say “I don’t know the man!” when we wear a cross around our necks but scream our disdain at people of color, at immigrants, at refugees, at LGBT persons, at all the other marginalized and oppressed in our society and around the world?

And, if we do, do we even bother to “weep bitterly” when we realize what we’ve done?

When I was young, I thought that being Simon Peter was about being faithful to Jesus.

Later, I thought that being Simon Peter was about denying Him when it mattered most.

Now, I understand that being Simon Peter is about constant, passionate repentance for failing Him.

Will we all repent for our denial?

The Temptation of Jesus

In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar – which feels like the soundtrack to my life sometimes – there’s big number where Simon the Zealot is dancing around with a bunch of people singing, “Christ, you know I love you!” (It’s actually my least favorite song in the opera.) But, there’s a moment that I’ve been reflecting on this morning.

Simon sings, “There must be over 50,000/Screaming love and more for you!/And every one of 50,000/ Would do whatever you asked them to.”

He then leans in conspiratorially to Jesus, and sings, “Keep them yelling their devotion/But add a touch of hate at Rome./You will rise to greater power/We will win ourselves a home!”

It’s pretty well accepted, both historically and as an article of faith in Christianity, that the term Messiah was used for someone who was going to deliver the Jews from Roman oppression. It wasn’t a term that invoked images of lions lying down with lambs or a “suffering servant.”

There’s also a story of Jesus being tempted in the desert, before beginning His public ministry. Satan comes to Him, and the third temptation is, “I will give you all the Kingdoms of this world, if you will only bow down and worship me.”

Of course, Jesus refuses. And, all my life, I have assumed that the refusal to lead the Jewish people in violent revolution was just as easy as refusing Satan’s offer of power.

But, what if it wasn’t?

 

Words have always been my most powerful tool. Even as a kid, I always seemed to know just how to say something to get my point across. It’s why I take so much pleasure in blogging, or writing on social media: there’s such a feeling of triumph when your words turn someone’s head or change someone’s mind on an important issue. The greatest words that I’ve ever heard or read after I’ve written something is, “I’ve never thought about it that way.”

Lately, my words have been turning ugly. The election of Donald Trump and the ugly, public hatred that led to it and has followed from it has put me in a state of constant anger. And, my words have turned from a tool into a weapon. Instead of preaching love and forgiveness, compassion even for our enemies, I’m advocating punching Nazis. Instead of praying for those who curse and hurt me – and those I love – I’m lashing out, calling names, even going so far as wishing for their deaths.

It’s like I’ve become all the worst parts of the Old Testament, a copy of the vengeful God that commanded the Israelites to pillage every village and kill every foreigner in their path to the Promised Land.

It feels so damn right, though. I mean, I’m on the side of justice. My anger is righteous. I’m advocating punching Nazis… because they’re fucking Nazis who publicly talk about black genocide and follow a man who killed 6 million Jews. I’m wishing for the death of people who would leave refugees out in the cold, detain and handcuff old people and children because of their country of origin.

These are truly bad, awful people, and I feel so good and right about hating them.

But, then I reflect on this moment in Jesus Christ Superstar. Even though it’s a fictionalized account, I imagine that this was a constant temptation for Jesus. He might have easily said “no” to Satan’s offer of power… but, how easy was it to say “no” to the endless crowds who wanted Him to deliver them from injustice. How hard was it to refuse that power to bring righteous anger onto the people who were oppressing his followers and countrymen? It wouldn’t have taken much. All He had to do was change the tone a little, stop speaking against violence and loving enemies, let His rhetoric stir up just a little bit of that anger that was simmering beneath the system. It would have all been for a good cause.

But, He wouldn’t. He still taught that we need to love our enemies, to not resist evil with evil methods… because He knew that we become that evil. He knew that the slide from righteous anger to outright, blind hatred was quick and steep. He told Peter to put away his sword because He knew how easy it was to take it out and keep it out.

I would have rejoiced at Peter cutting off that Roman toady’s ear. I would have burned with righteous fury.

But, Jesus didn’t. He kept feeling that compassion, that love for the people who were ready to kill him. Somehow, Jesus resisted both the narrow-minded, bigoted, moralistic religion of His detractors and the militant, violent, revolutionary spirit of some of His followers.

I don’t know how He did it. I’m stuck on that steep slide into hatred. But, I want to get back up it. I’m trying to.

And that’s more than I could say yesterday.

The Revolution Begins

The Christian faith is about revolutionary spirit.

I’ve been thinking the past few weeks about the “language of faith.” Since the election last month… actually, it’s not just the election. Since I heard the first name in the long list of unarmed (mostly) black (mostly) men that have been shot by police, since I first heard the acronym ISIS and witnessed their takeover of places in Iraq that my friends died in an effort to make and keep safe… since I heard about a school named Sandy Hook… since I watched my own denomination stall and drag their feet in recognizing that Confessing and practicing Christians are actually Confessing and practicing Christian (no matter their sexuality) and then watched the larger American church enthusiastically approve an vile and evil man (and a vile and evil administration, by all accounts) to the leadership of our country…

In light of all of this, I have grown increasingly resistant and sometimes even hostile to the language that people of my faith have chosen to use to counter these very difficult times in our nation and world.

“God is in control.” (Or “Christ is on the throne”, or other dull variations.)

“Pray for our nation/world.”

“Love trumps hate.”

It’s not that the sentiments are bad. It’s certainly not that the people are bad. But, when we live in a time where very real and explicit evil and injustice are openly approved of and practiced, the language of faith seems inadequate. And, people of faith seem irrelevant.

I have sat in despair over the past month, mostly unable to even attend church, unable to pray, unable to read and meditate on the Scriptures. I have lamented that we seem to have no more Amoses or Moseses. No John the Baptists. No Samuels or Nathans. No Esthers, no Deborahs, no Miriams.

I know that they are there. I see them in the pulpits and the protest lines. But, they seem so few, when those who confess Christ are so many.

As I sit in my cave, I have had an opportunity to help some folks closer to home. Most of the time, I don’t even see those small things as ministry. They fall into the category of “Stuff that I do because I can.” But, I realized this morning (after getting an unexpected hug from one of these folks) that this “stuff” is revolutionary.

It is an incredible act of resistance – in a world that has declared its approval of avarice, infidelity, and hate – to live your life believing that you are not the most important person around. It is an act of upheaval to place the needs of others above your own needs or comforts.

The revolution really does begin in love.

But, it’s not the soft and safe love that so many churches try to sell – the kind of love that makes nice and whispers dull and useless platitudes to hurting and needy people.

It is not a love that just prays for those in need. It is a love that aggressively pursues the hurting, helpless, and hopeless.

It is not a love that soft-pedals on topics of grace and forgiveness. It is a love that is militant in its pursuit of reconciliation, justice, and peace.

It is not a love that simply “trumps” hate, or a love that passively “wins” against hate. It is a love that rebukes hate.

I believe that more prophets will rise up in the coming days, that the Spirit of the Lord will fall upon many, and that we will once again speak the unvarnished and unapologetic truth to the principalities and powers that threaten the fundamentals of our confession of Christ as Lord.

But, I also see the unlikely prophets that are already in the streets. They are feeding, clothing, and sheltering the homeless. They are welcoming the refugees and the immigrants. They are protecting – with their very bodies – the bodies of protestors and victims of police violence. They are speaking out and writing on opinion sites and columns. William Barber II, Tony Campolo, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sarah Bessey… the “lesser knowns”, like my friend the local campus minister and my Quaker cousin.

When I started this blog, I named it “The Unlikely Evangelist”, because I felt that “evangelism” was so far outside my calling that I was an unlikely person to spread the Good News (also, it’s catchy.) But, I realized today that it’s not me that’s “unlikely”. The Bible is full of men – flawed, reluctant men – just like me, just as unlikely. What the name really means to me today, right now is that the Good News is so damn unlikely. We live in a world that is so harsh, so hostile, so self-centered, so violent, so unjust… that it is nearly inconceivable that a Prince of Peace, a Lord that comes explicitly for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, that Lord is the physical expression of the Creator of the Universe.

As I am fond of saying, it’s a dangerous Gospel. It’s a radical Gospel. It’s a Gospel that leaves no prisoners, that demands revolution and does not allow for stagnation. It’s a Gospel that requires such a drastic and dramatic upheaval of the established social order, of the status quo, that the faint of heart shouldn’t even approach it.

It’s a Gospel that can only be told, retold, and described using dangerous, revolutionary language.

I leave you with a passage of Scripture that spoke volumes to me this morning, especially in the season of Advent. It uses the kind of language that we so desperately need to reclaim: the Scriptural, the prophetic, and the revolutionary.

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan–The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

The revolution begins in love. The revolution begins in peace. The revolution begins in justice.

 

How To Be Peacemakers (Without Being Wimps)

I have a framed copy of the Beatitudes above my computer screen. I put it there when I started writing on a regular basis, to remind me of Jesus’ most important commandments to anyone who would be His follower.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

It’s being called a son of God that’s been sitting with me this week.

How can we be a peacemaker in a time that calls so loudly for resistance? Does peacemaking mean passivity? Does loving our enemies mean singing Kumbaya while they burn the house down around us?

As a Christian, a follower of Jesus and someone who tries daily to live by that example, it is my highest calling and my most important commitment to love everyone around me. I am to love the oppressor as much as I love the oppressed. I am to love the abuser as much as the abused. I am to love the murderer as much as the victim.

I am to love those people. But, that love does not look the same in all cases.

Let me say it again: love does not look the same in all cases.

Loving an oppressed person or people looks like support and solidarity.

Loving an oppressor must look like resistance.

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The featured image is of Confessing Church protestors in 1933 Germany. (Note: the image is difficult to translate. “…church remains. …: Gospel and Church” is all I got from it.) For anyone unfamiliar with the Confessing Church: it was a movement that grew in resistance to continued Nazi interference in Church affairs. It was primarily a movement dedicated to State non-interference, but many of its leaders (including Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) spoke out eloquently against the social injustices of the Nazi regime.

Many leaders of the Confessing Church were arrested, imprisoned, and even executed in concentration camps.

They were subjected to arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution because of their resistance to an unjust society.

Not all Christians followed the example of the Confessing Church in resistance. Many Christians in Nazi Germany were committed to a passive form of peacemaking – a preservation of status quo. No matter that they objected to State interference – they were unwilling to commit to resistance, to protest. No doubt, they wished for the unity of the German Church and the German State.

Now, it’s been very fashionable to compare the rise of Donald Trump with the rise of Hitler, and I had a tendency to roll my eyes quite a bit every time I saw a meme that suggested similarities.

But, after the last week, I’m seeing those similarities. Attacks on scapegoated minorities. Calls for unity. A church that is passive at best and complicit at worst.

Donald Trump might not be Hitler, but 2016 America looks a lot like 1933 Germany.

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This is a moment for the Church. This is a moment for us to be peacemakers, to love both our enemies and the most vulnerable… and to reclaim our militant, non-violent spirit of protest against injustice. The time for nicety and passive peacemaking is over.

We have to be willing to love the vulnerable, the oppressed, the harassed, the insulted, and the assaulted. We have to be willing to love them in a sacrificial way, in a way that makes us into the body and blood of Christ – broken and poured out for the world and her sins.

We have to be willing to love the abusers, the oppressors, the harassers, the crass, the bullies, and the brutalizers. We have to be willing to love them by standing in their way, between them and those that they would hurt, and saying “Only through me.”

We have to resist the easy, comfortable path of unity and status quo – the path that makes us into mewling theological wimps instead of the cubs of the Lion of Judah.

Karl Barth said in 1935: “For the millions that suffer unjustly, the Confessing Church does not yet have a heart.”

Berlin Deaconess Marga Meusel said, of the Confessing Church’s timidity to directly protest the social injustices of the Nazis: “Why does the church do nothing? Why does it allow unspeakable injustice to occur? … What shall we one day answer to the question, where is thy brother Abel? The only answer that will be left to us, as well as to the Confessing Church, is the answer of Cain.”

Think on that: the greatest regret of the leaders of the Confessing Church – the Church that placed itself in direct opposition to the Nazis – is that they didn’t speak firmly enough against injustice.

May we never be so timid, or so passive. Let us take our peacemaking into the streets.

 

When the World Hurts Too Much (Part 2)

I wrote part 1 of this blog back in March (you can read it here.) I never anticipated writing a Part 2, yet here I find myself.

Just as with Part 1, I’m having a really difficult time finding the words for this. I’ve written a paragraph, backspaced the entire thing, then written two more paragraphs – only to then cut those out too. Everything seems either too much or not enough this morning.

I feel a little like lamenting this morning, but I mostly just feel really, really angry. And, I think that this is a perfect mood in which to write this Part 2.

When I was in my very early 20s, I was in a really bad romantic relationship. We were living together, with her infant child, and I was absolutely miserable. But, I didn’t know what to do. I was hurt, and that hurt was turning to anger.

My father told me that “anger is the emotion of self-defense.” Anger is what happens when you’re finally tired of being hurt.

There are a lot of conciliatory sentiments out there on social media this morning. Lots of unity posts. Lots of “Christ is King” and “God is in control” posts. And, I appreciate the sentiments, I appreciate the way that we’re already trying to heal.

But, we don’t need it. We don’t need to heal. We need to keep this wound open. We need to get angry.

In order for there to be unity, there first has to be common ground. And I refuse – I absolutely, vehemently refuse – to have any common ground with the kind of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and outright hatred that drove the Trump campaign. I don’t care that not all of his supporters held those qualities. I care that it was those qualities, on very public display, that led directly to his victory. And, if some of his supporters didn’t share those horrendous values, then they at least declared their implicit tolerance of those values.

I refuse to have any common ground with Christians who claim that their vote for Trump was a moral one, who claim that somehow a man who embodies every single thing that Jesus ever taught against could be God’s great champion in America. Because, their Jesus doesn’t exist anywhere except their minds and their dangerous misreading of the overall message of justice in the Bible.

I refuse to have common ground with people who think that shock therapy is an appropriate response to being LGBT.

Or, that being black in certain neighborhoods is reason enough to get stopped by police.

Or that anyone shot by police is guilty until proven innocent – ESPECIALLY if it’s a person of color.

I refuse to find common ground with people who think that those who are struggling to eat, those who cannot afford to even sleep in a bed, those who are disabled… that those people are inherently lazy or criminal and don’t deserve assistance from our society.

There are times when compromise and common ground is important. In fact, most times require those qualities, and zealots are rightly given a wide berth.

But, today – November 9th, 2016 – is not a day when I’m willing to concede a middle ground between basic human rights and oppression.

I’m not willing to concede that the Jesus that I follow, whose teachings I try so desperately to let transform me, has anything in common with the Jesus of the so-called “Religious Right.”

I’m not willing to concede that there is any value – at all – to these dangerous and self-destructive viewpoints. I’m not going to wring my hands about the plight of the ignored white supremacist or the overlooked homophobe.

I’m not even going to tell you that “Christ is King” or that “God is in control” – not because I don’t believe those things, but because those things are such useless things to say right now. The terrified people of color who are my friends and family – who now have a President-elect who thinks it’s okay that they be beaten and forcibly ejected from a political rally, a President who talks about “law and order” when black men and women are being killed in police custody with impunity – those people might not feel like God is in control. (If they feel that He is, they might question His plan right about now.)

I’m not going to pontificate about God being in control when my friends who are women – who know someone who has been or have been themselves sexually abused or assaulted – now have a President-elect who brags about doing those things, and then brags about getting away with it.

I’m not going to tell my LGBT friends that “God is in control” when their President-elect chose a VP that supports dangerous conversion therapy, who believes that everything about them is an abomination.

What I am going to tell them is that anger is the emotion of self-defense, and that it’s high time that we stopped being nice about this.

We can tolerate disagreement, but we can’t tolerate disenfranchisement.

We can tolerate differences of opinion, but not differences of treatment by the police and in the court system.

We can celebrate religious freedom, but not the lordship of one sect of Christianity over the entire nation.

We can celebrate the freedom of expression, but we cannot tolerate violence and abuse against the vulnerable.

I don’t know how we do this. It still hurts too much. But, I have two more things to say.

Americans of all faiths, creeds, ethnic backgrounds, economic backgrounds, sexuality, gender orientation… all Americans who make America a land of such promise: we are not as good as we thought we were.

We’re not better than this. This is exactly who we are.

Time to change it.

To Christians who still meditate on the Beatitudes daily, who believe that Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost, to heal a broken world, to lift up the humble and cast down the proud….

Our Temple is filthy. Let’s clean it out.

 

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.