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.

Hope Is a Bold Answer

Cynicism is the plank in my eye.

I am constantly fighting off cynicism, especially when I spend a lot of time shut up in my house (this describes at least half of the average month for me.) For anyone who is unfamiliar with the proper definition of cynicism, it is as follows:

An inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest.

I woke up this morning and checked my Twitter feed (my new morning habit, now that Facebook has left my phone.) I noticed two things immediately, one of which I managed to forget in the hustle and bustle of the month of January.

  1. Today is the Iowa Caucus, which begins in earnest the presidential primaries.
  2. Today is the beginning of Black History Month.

These two facts actually make it easy to get lost in cynicism – and it’s bitter cousin, Hopelessness. After all, what is motivated more by self-interest than American politics?

But, what could make us cynical and hopeless about Black History Month? Well, it’s that magical time of year where everyone argues about whether we need a Black History Month, whether Black History Month is racist by nature, why we can’t have a White History Month… Black History Month is a madhouse of cynicism, with several self-interested parties making waves about how self-interested it is to have an entire month celebrating Black History.

Pause, calmly, and think on this.

Being prone to cynicism and hopelessness on my best days, it would be very easy for me to spend this entire month ranting about how self-interested everyone else is, and how we should all be motivated completely by altruism, just like me.

See that’s the caveat that is often unspoken when the Christian blogger starts to get cynical/hopeless. Why can’t you all follow Jesus like me?

This is the plank in my eye, the log that I can’t see past to remove the speck in my brother’s eye: why can’t you all follow Jesus like me? Why can’t you all care about Black History like me? Why can’t you all support populist candidates like me? Why can’t you all be altruistic like me?

I might as well wear a T-shirt that says, in giant letters, “LORD, I THANK YOU THAT I AM NOT LIKE THESE OTHER WHITE MEN!

The problem with cynicism is that we’re quick to see the self-interest in others, while ignoring it in ourselves.

The speck looms large, whilst the plank is ignored.

************************************************************************

What does this have to do with either of the events that I pointed out?

Well, the Presidential Primaries represent the spirit of American democracy. It’s a time when a group of people come together, to vote for who their party’s nominee will be, who they will vote for when the general election comes around.

Think about that for a moment: we vote for the person that we want to vote for later.

There’s no greater expression of hope than an election. When I patrolled the streets of Ramadi in 2006, people wouldn’t even leave their homes. But, when I came back in 2008, I saw crowds of those same Iraqis lining up to vote. Voting gave them a sense of hope.

I read an article not long ago about a suicide bomber that detonated himself in the middle of one of those election lines.

The voters lined back up.

Hope is a bold answer to cynicism.

When I think of all the arguments and controversy that surround something as simple as a month celebrating the history of Black people, it would be easy to get cynical. I certainly have responded that way in years past.

But, today, I’m thinking of what Black History Month has to teach us. Black History Month teaches us so many important lessons about perseverance in the face of adversity, hope in the face of hopelessness, strength of spirit, courage… there are so many vital lessons to be learned from those giants of Black History (of American History), that it pains me that we only think about them for one month out of the year.

If we view Black History Month in the light of recent Black History, it’s easy to become hopeless. As I opined on MLK Day, it doesn’t seem like we’ve made much progress since MLK was murdered in Memphis. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose… that’s only a fraction of the list, only the people who have died because of police abuses, and it seems like we’re adding to it every day.

But, if we view recent history in the light of what Black History Month teaches us, we can see that these moments of great adversity, these moments in history where we want so badly to sink into hopelessness… these are the moments when our hope shines the brightest, where our hope is the boldest answer to give, where the light of justice is blazing through the cracks.

Hope is what links the two events of February 1st, 2016.

Hope is what keeps us coming back to the polls, even when we haven’t seen an election change anything in a long time.

Hope is what drives us to continue to teach our children the value of Black History, even as the world around us seeks to marginalize it.

Cynicism is easy. Hopelessness is easy. These attitudes are the death cries of a broken spirit: a weak and ineffectual last gasp.

But hope, like love and faith, remains after everything else has failed.

Join me in giving a bold answer to cynicism today. Join me in countering hopelessness today.

Join me in daring to hope.

MBW

PS – If you live in a state that holds open primaries, please, please, PLEASE get out and vote. Politics won’t save us – only Jesus can do that – but following Jesus can mean giving voice to the kind of person we want leading the country that we live in.

 

Second Thoughts on MLK Day

I wrote a post on Monday about how it feels to see Dr. King’s words, ideas, hopes, and dreams become so trite and meaningless in today’s world.

This isn’t titled “second thoughts” because I’ve changed my mind. That sense of mourning, of lamentation, is still present in my thoughts when I think of Dr. King.

But, something occurred to me after writing the post on Monday. It’s something that Dr. King said, something that’s so powerful, but that tends to get lost in the litany of inspirational quotes.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

After a little bit of research, I found that this quote is not original to Dr. King (nor did he claim authorship.) The context in which he placed the quote bears repeating.

Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

Dr. King wrote those words in an article in 1958. He would be assassinated only 10 years later.

Did he believe those ideas as he struggled on through the next decade? Did he hold onto the hope that all things would eventually resolve into justice? As he and his friends and followers were beaten, imprisoned, defamed, and murdered, did he believe that “truth crushed to earth will rise again?”

I don’t know for certain that he held onto his hope, his faith, his optimism. But, a speech that he delivered shortly before his death suggests it.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

He gave that speech the night before his death.

So, if Dr. King could believe, after a decade of abuse and struggle, that progress would continue, that the arc of the moral universe really would bend towards justice, then a man as privileged as I am can believe the same.

Frustration has its place. Mourning and lamentation have their place. But, after all has passed away, faith, hope and love remain.

We live in such amazing times. Even though our times are sometime dark, there are thousands upon thousands of bright lights. We have groups like Black Lives Matter, who are willing to continue crying in the wilderness, regardless of the voices raised against them. We have ministers, actors, comedians, and all kinds of public figures who use their fame and fortunes as a platform to bring attention to injustice. We have a President who continues to eloquently and boldly speak to our national sins of racism and injustice.

And, we have millions of individuals on social media who are educating, advocating, and demanding that this generation be the last one to see the evils of racism and injustice in our country.

So, I’m more hopeful today than I was on Monday. Because, no matter how complacent we have become in America, we are still the Sleeping Giant that can be awakened to justice. We are still capable of progress.

But, I need to temper my optimism, my hope, with a little bit of a warning. I mentioned that the “arc of the moral universe” quote did not originate with Dr. King. The quote came from a Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker. He was a 19th century Transcendentalist and abolitionist. In 1853, a book was published of 10 of his sermons. The third sermon, titled “Of Justice and the Conscience”, contains this passage:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

We must not be complacent for long. We must remember that God is just.

 

Michael Brian Woywood

Blogging When You Don’t Want To: An MLK Post for 2016

Rachel Held Evans is much cooler than I am.

I don’t say that in jest, or sarcastically, or in any way other than true admiration (and a small bit of jealousy.) RHE has been publishing really stellar posts since she was… in the womb, probably. She’s really the reason that I started in the Christian blogosphere. In fact, if they are talking about early millenial Christian writing 50 years from now – when they’re reading RHE, Benjamin Corey, Sarah Bessey, and John Pavlovitz in churches and seminary classrooms – I just hope to be in the “Also Ran” category of Christian blogging of the decade.

Granted, you don’t get into Internet blogging – especially Christian blogging – for the money, fame, or beautiful women. You start writing a blog because you have always written stuff, and suddenly there’s a gigantic bullhorn called the Internet where you can post the stuff that you write. So, you get a website, you start pounding out posts, maybe you take a six month break and reevaluate your commitment to blogging… but, it’s always about the message, the ideas, not who reads them.

The problem is that you have days like today. Today is MLK Day in the United States.  And, while I personally love this day, and observe it as thoughtfully as I can, every blogger in the known universe has a post today.

And, as usual, RHE has said it better than me.

When I saw that she had posted, and the title of her post, I resisted reading it. I hadn’t decided if I was going to post anything today, and I didn’t want to be swayed by her elegant prose and incisive commentary – as I was pretty sure that my idea for an MLK post would be almost exactly the same as hers.

Which it was. Only she said it better.

Okay, I’ll go ahead and link it.

***************************************************************************************

Last year, at this time, I wrote a post about MLK and Chris Kyle, which was a post that I really wanted to write. It felt like it was really from my heart, because I think I’m at my best when I’m writing about issues relating to war and violence.

This year? I feel like my heart is full of things to say, and yet so, so weary. I think the reason that I struggled with whether or not to write this post is less because my blogging heroes will say it better, and more because I am really afraid that none of these posts are going to matter one bit. Because in January of 2015, we all wrote about MLK Jr., while in the midst of the ongoing struggle in Ferguson. And, before even six months had passed, we were all writing about Eric Garner. And then the tragedy of Freddie Gray and a neighborhood in Baltimore. Then, a horrific hate crime at Emmanuel AME in Charleston.

Confederate flags. Sandra Bland. Samuel Dubose.

The list was endless.

We wrote. We cried out in the wilderness. And nothing changed.

Today, we’re living in the moment of Donald Trump, a walking joke that has turned into a living nightmare. As Mrs. Evans mentioned in her post, a candidate supported by white supremacist groups – a candidate who has risen to prominence by saying the most heinous, racist, and unjust things imaginable – is speaking at an MLK event at Liberty University, a university founded by a religious leader who rose to prominence by saying the most heinous, racist, and unjust things imaginable.

No irony here, folks. Move along.

We seem to have reached a point in our national history in which our capacity for self-criticism has reached such staggering depths that we are beginning to look like a parody of ourselves. Real news is starting to read like satire. Presidential politics plays like a farce.

And Christian blogging, our so-called “prophetic voice,” feels like an exercise in futility.

I mean, I saw a meme a couple of weeks ago – originating with Ted Nugent – that featured a picture of Rosa Parks with the words, “Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. But, she didn’t tear up the bus.”

We have made such an utter joke of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. – and his contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement – that a white kid from Texas writing about him today just seems… insincere? Insulting?

I know that it makes me feel amazingly self-conscious, and ridiculously self-critical. I grew up around family members who advocated “George Wallace Day” every year at this time. I have family members today who spew bile and hatred towards Black Lives Matter, who considered the shooting of Michael Brown to be just, who defended the cops who shot Tamir Rice. I love these people. I respect most of their opinions and insights. But, as I try to write a meaningful post on MLK Day, I can’t help but realize that I am part of that legacy. No matter how fast or how far I try to run from it, I am part of that community. I am part of the culture that beat the living sh*t out of marchers in Selma, who shouted at Ruby Bridges, who killed Dr. King.

So, when I write about Dr. King, when I think about a post that might give meaningful tribute to a man that I have been truly and deeply inspired by, I can’t help but feel a little disingenuous, a little bit like I’m co-opting a hero of the community of People of Color for my own purposes. I admire people like RHE and others who are willing to continue entering this fray, who are determined to be effective and sensitive white allies, who are internalizing the message of Dr. King and trying to preach it to those in the white world who don’t quite get it.

But, I’m having a hard time being one of them today, because all I can think about is how we’re the faces of white moderates who called for unity while Dr. King was in a Birmingham jail. All I can think is that we’re those white faces that abandoned our support of #BlackLivesMatter in droves when two women dared to interrupt a Bernie Sanders rally. We love Dr. King when he presents himself gently, when his oratory calls for unity and peace.

We’re not quite as fond of him when he appears in a disruptive, disorderly manner. We don’t like him when he interrupts us, when he calls us to self-criticism, when he demands that we repent and feel just a little bit of guilt for our sins and the sins of our fathers. We’re not crazy about him when he feels sympathy for rioters, when he speaks against the military-industrial complex, when he becomes what we stereotype as the “angry black man.”

So, I wasn’t sure about posting today, and I’ve now written close to 1200 words. Which, interestingly enough, makes me feel even more self-conscious and self-critical.

Let me end this by getting, finally, to the point. Here’s what I would like to say about Dr. King.

I’m sorry that his dream has yet to be realized, and that injustice and racism still rules the day. I’m sorry that I felt too tired and weary in my soul to write anything meaningful, when the black community is even more tired and weary from being the actual victims of injustice. I’m sorry that I have far too much of the white moderate in me, and that I have a hard time speaking to the legacy of racism and injustice in my own community. I’m sorry that we killed Dr. King, and that we continue to kill and defame black men, women, and children. I’m sorry that we have lost our capacity to understand, to look inward, to criticize and change what we see.

But, as I read what others have to say today, I have a little bit of hope. Maybe this is the year that we actually get it. Maybe this is the year that we’ll really understand every facet of the man that we honor today, that we’ll realize everything that he was trying to teach us. Maybe this is the year that we’ll actually listen to the black voices that are crying out for justice, and the white Christian blogging community can stop our very well-intentioned whitesplaining.

Michael Brian Woywood

 

PS – Here’s a fantastic article that I saw first thing this morning. It really set the tone for me today.

 

Discipleship is not a math problem

I have been reading through The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was given to me about a year and a half ago by my best friend, as a gift after joining him in youth ministry. He swears by the book, and I have heard much about it. Thus, I accepted the gift with excitement and anticipation.

I dove in almost immediately, pouring through the first two chapters in a single night. I had never seen this kind of message. Costly grace? Those two words redefined my theology. I had asked that question for a long time, but Bonhoeffer really clarified it for me. While we celebrate the free gift of grace, do we remember how costly it was? While we know that we can never repay the cost, do we voluntarily attempt to share in that cost as disciples?

I read those first two chapters, and my life was changed. And, then, I put the book down, and didn’t pick it up again until about a week ago.

It wasn’t any conscious decision. Like with so many other books, I just got absorbed in something else, and never came back to it. But, I felt like I had the essence of the book down: costly grace. Grace that was freely given, but still had a price. Armed with my first two chapters, I went out and formulated my own theology. So many messages that I preached and wrote were based off that little bit of Bonhoeffer: The Dangerous Gospel of Good Friday was probably the sermon most closely related to my experience with Bonhoeffer.

But, after reading a little more over the past week, I realized that I have only skimmed the surface. The more I dug in, the more I realized that there was so much more to this theology of discipleship than I had initially realized. The acceptance of costly grace is only the beginning. You have to dig deeper, into what Bonhoeffer has to say about the everyday path of following Jesus, in order to really appreciate the impact this man has had on so many different people.

There were times when I felt encouraged while reading, because I thought, I’m already on this path. But, there were also times when my spirit was sorely convicted, because I realize how far off the path I am in some areas. And, the more I read, the more I thought, Nobody can do this. This is too heavy a burden.

It really hit me yesterday. I had an opportunity to put a conviction into action, and I sat there arguing myself. What was the most Christian thing to do? How far did I have to go in order to prove myself worthy of the mantle of true discipleship?

That’s when it hit me. I was reading Bonhoeffer the wrong way. I was reading Jesus the wrong way. I was looking at discipleship like a math problem.

We have this problem in progressive Christianity, where we tend to reduce our faith down to a kinder, gentler legalism.  We don’t want to put rules on people when it comes to sex, or drinking, or any of the other traditional legalist rules. But, when it comes to social morality, public justice, we definitely have some rules for each other.

You can only consider yourself a progressive Christian in some circles if you believe and do x, y, and z. God help you if you consider yourself any kind of Christian without following the formula.

I’m not criticizing the deeds of progressive Christians (or Christians who do good works, regardless of what kind of Christian they consider themselves.) It’s the spirit of the thing that gets me, because it’s a spirit that I’ve found myself infected by. We’ve reduced discipleship to the sum of its parts, into something that we can measure up to, something that we can rate on a sliding scale of moral goodness. And, ultimately, we’ll never get there, and so we’ll have to fall back on the cheap grace that allows us to be “imperfect, but forgiven.”

When I help the poor, I can’t do it in order to be a disciple. I do it because I am already a disciple. When I stand up for racial justice, or for gender equality, or for religious tolerance, I can’t do it so that Jesus will save me. I do it because Jesus has saved me. When I claim to love and forgive my enemies, I can’t do it because it’s what Jesus told me to do (and thus, the “right thing”). I must do it because I was His enemy, and He forgave me.

The difference might seem minute, or a matter of semantics, but I swear that it’s the difference between the easy yoke and light burden of discipleship, and the unbearable mantle of legalism.

I love and forgive my enemies, because He has loved and forgiven me.

I feed the hungry, because He feeds me.

I clothe the naked, because He has clothed me.

I serve, because He has served me.

I kneel down and wash my neighbors feet, because He has washed me clean.

In the end, discipleship isn’t about action, but reaction. I can only do the things that I do, because He has shown me how. He has enabled me. I can pantomime on my own. I can do things that look like good works and righteousness, but at the end of the day, I’m doing them to add to my own moral scorecard. I’m only doing x+y=z.

Thank God that we have so many people in the world who are willing to do these things, regardless of their reasons. This is a work that needs to be done, and I believe that people do the work of Christ in the name of Allah, of enlightenment, of simple compassion, and they should be praised for, and encouraged in, that work. But, for the disciple, for the follower of Jesus, we do these things because we know Him, because He has done these things for us.

To do them for other reasons is good and proper. But, it’s not discipleship.

I could still be reading it wrong. I could have come to the entirely wrong conclusion. But, let us pause, calmly, and think on this.

Grace and peace to you.