Poem: Good Friday

So, a goal of my Lent this year was to reflect upon the coming Easter weekend through the lens of the various realities that Lent so inevitably confronts me with – human mortality, desolation, need, and disorientation – and then to (probably unadvisedly) respond with three poems, one for each day (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday), addressing how these days, too, can be sources of pain and confusion in their own ways. (Especially since they came up too fast to really finish the poems!)

All that obnoxious introduction to say: they’re messy and maybe a little bit blasphemous, but perhaps only in the way Psalm 39 or Christ’s cry of abandonment on the cross might have been. Feel free to ask questions.

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Good Friday:

 

I swing passion like hammer blows
to pin you up, keep you
from peeling off
blood-keeping beams –

I need time to see meaning in this,
more time to find mystery or some
shook-foil reflection flipped in your
concave chest as it dilates

wild eyes sliding down you like sweat
that makes the coverslip stick.
And yet for all the burnt-black prayers your
flat stare sees crust over white-knuckled believing

every fucked up year
isn’t it us you leave hanging

because one-thousand nine-hundred and eighty five
days of you dying have not been enough to
explain this earth
you so love

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…just like everybody else

This was originally posted in February 2013. There have been a number of great articles written recently about similar topics (Julie Rodgers wrote one today), so I figured I’d repost this. So much could be said against this kind of stigma that was and still is so pervasive in more conservative churches – how it tears into young people’s hearts and promotes a brand of poisonous neo-gnosticism – and if you’re interested Spiritual Friendship’s “Identity” tag has some further exploration.

***

I shifted my legs around to restore pin-prick circulation as the conversation stretched into its second hour. Coming-out was rarely a quick ordeal during those early stages of growth and he was only confidante number eleven, I believe. Equal parts disarming sincerity and riotous impulsivity, he had been a dear friend from the first month of college. And then, two years after he first learned my name, he learned my Deepest Secret™.*

As the conversation began to lull, he decided to change the topic a bit. Looking me in the eye he asked, in his typical here-is-a-thought-I-am-literally-having-right-now directness, “So, are you attracted to me?”

Uh. I diverted my gaze and threw out my honest answer with a less-than-natural laugh, “Ha, no, you’re safe, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Worry about? Dude, I don’t care if you’re attracted to me. It’s not like it’d be a bad thing. I’m attracted to, like, lots of my close friends who are girls. I just wanted to know.”

Leave it to this guy to turn such an ill-advised question into one of the most profound offerings of grace I’ve ever experienced.

You see, at that point in my life I lived in terror of being attracted to anybody, especially friends. I mean, this can be a common anxiety of coming out, right? That not only will those closest to you distance themselves because they’re afraid that you might fall for them, but also that, well, you might seriously fall for them.

But more than that, I was still in the midst of a painful war with my body. While the rest of my hormonal peers were frolicking in their dopamine-addled pairing endeavors,** I was beginning to despair of ever feeling at peace because attraction, that bewildering spatial distortion that would sweep over me when I saw him, whoever he was, made me feel abusive and criminal.

It was, I think, the inevitable result of being told, and believing, the toxic lie that this particular uncontrollable, biological response was a willful act of sin. Like most underexposed evangelicals, I equated homosexual attractions with lust; they were one and the same – dire failures of holiness to be avoided at all cost.

I remember ranting to my accountability partner (poor soul greatly to be pitied) time after time about my crush(es), “I have no right to even look at him, much less tell you his name! It’s disgusting. I just feel like such a monster.”

This was during the “stable” phase of my college career. Good times.

But this is why that friend’s comment lingered so forcefully in my mind. By saying that it wouldn’t bother him if I was attracted to him because, duh, attraction happens to almost everybody and is totally not a big deal, he offered a distinct manifestation of grace that I had refused myself:

The grace of a common experience. 

The grace of not being a monster. 

The grace of being human, just like everybody else.

In the years since we sat together in that light-filled prayer chapel, tears in our eyes, rejoicing in the goodness of it all, I’ve found profound healing as I daily live into my humanity – a lifetime of aching otherness slowly finding its place in the humbly unfolding narrative of becoming whole.

And lust? I’ve finally begun to understand what it really is. By binding that willful vice up with the inescapable neurological occurrence of attraction, I not only turned my body into an enemy of holiness but I also crippled my ability to effectively fight against lust.

I used to conceive of it as little more than excessively strong attractions, something beyond my control, something that was ultimately about me and my “purity.”*** Wrong. Lust is about ignoring the dignity and inviolable humanity of another and turning them into an object for my own personal pleasure. Lust isn’t so terrible just because it makes it harder for me not to type Google searches of questionable character, though that’s a part of it; it’s so terrible because it makes it harder for me to treat every person as the absurdly beloved-by-God people that they are, because it turns them into a “thing” and turns me into a hypocrite.

But what is more, I’m no longer hopeless in this struggle. Back when I thought it was lustful to even notice another guy, the overwhelming impossibility of “purity” haunted me. I think I knew then, even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time, that to be free from lust as I defined it – as others had defined it for me – would require me to eviscerate a part of my humanity, to deaden myself to the very real desirability of others.

But now, rather than fear I will lose my humanity in the good fight against lust, I am thrilled to see it come more vibrantly into focus and fullness as I reclaim the true purposes of the struggle and realize what is actually at stake:

that I might see each person, whether or not they possess that indefinable breath-sapping spark, as beautiful, worthy of love, full of dignity, and to be served with joy.

I’ll be the first to say that this is easier said than done, but at least now I know that I’m not a lost cause, that I’m not some exceptionally broken screw-up with an entirely different set of rules. At least now I know, and at least usually believe, that my body is good and that there are much worse things I could do than realize someone has incredible eyes and great hair.

______________________________________________________

* Y’all, being closeted was just so unhealthy. If you ever doubt that, read my journals from college. (But actually no don’t you dare read those.)

** … or something like that. I might have been a little bitter at the time.

*** I don’t really like how we use the word “purity” to almost exclusively reference sexuality, especially as it has historically contributed to the social marginalization of women. Biblically speaking, greed and gossip and whatever else are also fraught with “impurity.”

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The New Ex-Gay

While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)

I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…

It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”

“These words” range from banal prejudices that cast all gay people as exceptionally promiscuous or obsessed with any number of threatening agendas to more contextually specific comments like “Shouldn’t we, as Christians, not have to talk about this so much? Can’t they just keep it between them and a few friends or a counselor? We all have problems; can’t they just find their identity in Christ and stop whining?”

And they’re being heard.

Over the past few weeks there has been a rash of articles “introducing” the internet to celibate gay Christians. The responses have been, unsurprisingly, mixed. The most common reaction I’ve seen has been a reflexive categorization of “side-B”* beliefs as “the new ex-gay,” as nothing more than the next tool of homophobic fundamentalists to marginalize gay people.

These “response” articles – and particularly the subsequent comments – are often uninspiring, caustic, and full of caricature. I also don’t think they are entirely wrong.

Rant with me, please?

"I can admire your rampage against the hegemony much better from here, thank you."

“I can admire your rampage against hypocrisy much better from here, thank you.” “Ugh, whatever Darcy.”

As I’ve engaged the conversation surrounding faith and sexuality, one of the main sources of frustration has been the persistent sense that most conservative straight Christians are more passionate about gay people not having sex than they are about gay people flourishing in church communities and in society at large. Put more witheringly, I get the sense that when people say things like “Why do they even have to ‘come out’ at all?” what they mean is that it would be better if gay people simply didn’t exist.

This is why the ex-gay narrative was (is) so attractive – it literally removed the “problem” of gay people. As that narrative continues to unravel some people are searching for a new way to pursue their unchanged desire to pray the gays away.**

Some may balk at that claim, and maybe it’s ungracious – there are some important differences in rhetoric, and I get that. But here’s what I see: one way or another, championing ex-gay ideology or appropriating a ravaged shade of the “traditional sexual ethic,” these particular people are looking for a belief that demands nothing from them and everything from sexual minorities.

Given that the ex-gay narrative placed all the weight of “faithful response” on the gay people themselves, it makes sense that prior supporters of that ideology would continue to focus exclusively on what the gay person needs to do, just in different language. Unless the switch from the ex-gay narrative to the “side-B” narrative of celibacy/chastity coincides with a shift in one’s understanding of church community and personal responsibility, then the “traditional sexual ethic” becomes a rather cruel farce, a perpetuation of unequal power structures and shame.

Those highly critical articles are responding in part, I think, to this ultra-lame permutation of a conservative ethic. So, I understand the hate; ex-gay ideologies have left so many scars on beloved people, and to see the phantoms of those ideologies take on new skins merits unequivocal response.

I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone, or even most people, will accept the differentiation of what we are trying to do at Spiritual Friendship from the ex-gay narrative in all of its forms. Or, even if they do see the difference, that it will matter at all.

But, well, here we are.

One of the things that I find beautiful about the “traditional sexual ethic” as I see it expressed by people who have thought through it extensively is how it is about so much more than just what certain people do or don’t do with certain parts of their bodies.

Rather, it is a sweeping yet grounded reimagining of what it means to be embodied beings in mutual communion with each other for the sake of human flourishing and the demonstration of the gospel in our particular contexts.

In other words, it is just as much about churches and communities addressing their trenchant sins of inhospitality and marginalization as it is about an individual’s stewardship of her mind and body.

For me, such a reframing provides motion and purpose and is far more true to the reality of the gospel than the one-sided and apodictic platitudes that characterize the rhetoric of those interested primarily in maintaining the status-quo and keeping this “problem” at a distance.

What kills me is how these Christians think they are preserving the witness of the church, but because many of them are blind to the actual lives of gay people they are unaware of the destructive character of their words and actions, how they are so profoundly corroding the beauty of the gospel*** and, in a very real way, making all expressions of a “traditional sexual ethic” culturally equivalent to ex-gay ideology and homophobia.

And I hate how I can’t escape saying “these people,” as if “they” aren’t often friends and family who I know and respect, or how, even still, my brain gets so caught up in the distressing tension of it all and becomes paralyzed by weariness and the most boring kind of despair.

But then, when I’m tempted toward total apathy, I encounter beautiful moments of community done well and am reminded how much there is to be gained from pursuing, together, a better way forward.

So I guess I want to end with this: would you, whoever you are, just examine the underlying character of your beliefs about sexuality, whether or not they have been formed in relationship with gay people, whether or not they are also concerned with whole church communities becoming more tightly knit and hospitable and responsibly sexual beings, and whether or not they manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their expression?

Because, honestly, it often feels as if the church is asking gay people to walk through a minefield as everyone else just stands back and yells instructions, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has grown a bit tired of being one of its human minesweepers.

_________________________

* I will give my holographic Charizard to anyone who can institute a better-yet-still-pithy phrase to communicate “side-B” beliefs without having to actually use that arcane label.

** High-five!

*** I’m not unaware that most affirming Christians feel the exact same about me.

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In Weakness

This was originally written in May, 2013. I have edited and reposted it as I find myself facing a similar moment in my life: starting to speak publicly about faith and sexuality.

***

There are certain words that we carry with us wherever we go. Sometimes tacked onto us by friends or strangers, sometimes dragged behind us by leashes of our own making, they follow us and seem to declare their existence at every moment.

Mine is weak.*

It’s like some indelible curse, scrawled on every mirror, sports field, tool, or disappointed face – a damning refrain of inescapable truth. I hate it. And yet I continue to grip the worn tether.

I think it’s because I have generally understood weak to be a safe word; one that demands nothing from me and gives me a reason to push away all that might complicate my life. If I’m so weak, I must protect myself. Tension and complexity and nuance become the enemy – threats to my fragile stability and brokers of an inevitable compromise. After all, I’m weak, I can’t handle it. A pious and poisonous half-truth that I’ve believed for most of my life.

But that’s changing.

The conviction that I need to speak up and step out, to move deep into the tension and dedicate myself to truly loving those around me, allowing their lives to press into mine, is overriding the base urge to shield myself from any and all pain. And as pin-prick circulation returns to my knuckles I am realizing that being weak isn’t the problem: being selfish and afraid is.

Because I am weak. And yet as I started to see years ago, such weakness can be a beautiful opportunity to move forward in trust. That one word, weak, used to bring forth a comprehensive, anxious distrust that paralyzed me, but now it’s starting to have the opposite effect. Over the past year as I’ve blogged, emailed, met-for-coffee, and prayed, I’ve never ceased to be filled with wonder at the ways God has proven himself faithful to use my weakness to bring life…

…as a hushed confession of shame erupts into a boisterous oh-my-god-metoo! and a newfound freedom takes root amidst the shared laughter.

…as friends step up and become heroes.

…as an “issue” becomes a living, breathing, hurting human for someone and their world changes.

…as I find myself feeling more alive, more loved, more hopeful, and more passionate than ever before.

I could go on. I’ve had the chance to meet and become friends with so many incredible people as a result of that one decision to move beyond my frightened comfort zone. Friends who agree with me, disagree with me, think I’m crazy, force me to dig deep and reexamine what I thought to be true, inspire me, frustrate me, and point me to Christ. I would have never met any of them, never encountered the gospel of their lives, if I’d let my fear of pain decide it was more important to shelter myself from it all.

So you think I’d get it by now. But…

Sometimes the damning refrain creeps back into my mind.

You’re pathetic.

They’ll tear you apart.

You’re so disgustingly weak, you’ll never make it.

A year ago I was sprawled on the couch of a friend unsuccessfully trying to convince my exhausted brain that, really, it’s more fun to sleep than implode, watching tattered visions of all that could undo me flicker in an out of focus. It was my first week back in the States; DoMA and SCOTUS were still trending on Twitter and lighting up my Facebook feed. From the moment I deplaned I was confronted with the fact that I was, once again, caught in a controversy. An old anxiety started gathering around the fringes of my awareness and I couldn’t shake it off.

You’re going to fail.

I pulled the blanket over my head. I’d spent the afternoon hanging out with new friends – a warm and hilarious couple who let me tag along on a date – and I was wrestling with my tired mind about it.

You’re weak. Protect yourself.

Those old lies that would have me believe it was “dangerous” to hang out with a loving, affectionate gay couple – two passionate Christians, at that! – kept replaying because wouldn’t life be simpler if you isolated yourself from anything that would complicate your beliefs?  Wouldn’t it be easier if you spent all your effort on drawing lines and defending yourself and pushing away those who disagree? You’re going to crumble if you keep this up.

I carried these bitter thoughts with me to church the next morning. It had been almost ten months since I’d attended a eucharistic service, though I wasn’t really thinking about that as I waited in line to receive the elements. I was starting to feel a little bit crazy. The decision to begin living and writing more openly about my sexuality and faith seemed increasingly foolish in light of the mounting tension and you won’t be strong enough to help anyone, much less –

“This is Christ’s body, broken for you.”

– yourself and the controversy will consume you and you’ll be –

“This is Christ’s blood, shed for you.”

– ridiculed and misunderstood and abandoned and –

The accusations ended abruptly as I watched the chunk of bread slowly turn crimson. My mouth started to water. Then my eyes. I gently placed the elements in my mouth, and breathed deeply.

“Epiphany” is the only word I can use to describe that moment: a sudden burst of clarity that overwhelmed me and my whispering fears. The confusion of the preceding moments dissolved and in its place there appeared a calm certainty: this is the shape my life must take.

The eucharist rendered my life intelligible again.

Please bear with me as I gush:

We follow a Christ who was, and is every day, torn to pieces. He was misunderstood and ridiculed, or sometimes understood perfectly well and hated for what he said and did. He was nailed to a low-hanging plank and slowly suffocated outside the city gate. And this is how we are told to remember him.

Because this is our story. This is who we are becoming. People who love so fiercely that we throw ourselves into the midst of things so that there may be peace, so that the unloved would know the touch of a friend, so that the hopeless would see with new eyes and the neglected would discover what it means to have a family. We proclaim Christ, and him crucified.

And people may tear us apart for it. The tension will pull at our seams and always feel as if it is a second away from undoing us. We will have to struggle against the impulse to move back to safety, relieve the tension, remain untroubled, and bury our weakness.

But eucharist is the utmost display of weakness. The cross is weakness.

And this is the beauty of it.

The celebration of bread and wine is a sacrificial, destructive act. But the miracle of it is that as the body of Christ, the bread, is torn to pieces the body of Christ, the Church, is made more whole. We are nourished and drawn together and given the strength to carry on. We are empowered to boldly live in weakness.

This is how the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness: that although we are vulnerable we press deep into the suffering of the world and make it our own, although we may receive blows from every direction we refuse to let our capacity to love and forgive be beaten out of us, and although we are silenced and misunderstood we never disdain the sacred act of listening to another and seeking to understand. It seems like I will never cease having to relearn this most basic of truths, and I imagine that is why celebrating the eucharist will never cease to astonish and amaze me.

The fears that plagued me on my friend’s couch are still with me. Honestly, despite there being many incredible men and women who have gone before me, the idea of opening my life and sexuality to the scrutiny of others is terrifying. I mean, gosh, public discourse in the States has proven itself to be a rather volatile thing.

Pictured: healthy dialogue

Pictured: healthy dialogue

And yet as I have committed to serving with my local church and growing in community with the wonderful not-like-me people I am blessed to know, I find I am more aware of the living grace of my God who offered himself to the world and more in love with his Church that sustains me and inspires me to act in truth and humility. I am seeing more clearly what will enable me, enable us, to proclaim the gospel of hope to an understandably cynical culture, and I am praying that we will allow that gospel to take hold of us in new and profound ways.

Please pray with me.

Peace, friends.

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* Like, if Harry Potter and all that were real (deep breaths deep breaths) my patronus would probably be an asthmatic woodland rodent of some kind.**

** Just kidding, I’ve actually thought about this a lot and it would totally be an otter, which is, according to trustworthy friend-sources, my “animal personality” (i.e. playful, creative, smelling of shellfish and brine, intelligent, et al.).***

*** It is also, I’ve been told, my gay bar body-type classification. Layers, you guys, layers.****

**** No, mom, I’ve never been to a gay bar. *****

***** I’d rather not end on that note, so here’s 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (NRSV). Blessings.

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Home-makers

One of the unfortunate realities of life is that the best time to really think about something is often when you no longer have access to it, the oddly formed hole it leaves behind an easier way to understand its shape.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about friendship recently.

I wasn’t so naïve as to imagine that I would arrive in Los Angeles, step out of my car and magically be surrounded by a glorious cabal of soul-mates. (Well, ok, wasn’t so naïve as to seriously believe that would happen.) But I think I’ve been a little bit surprised at how intimidated I am by the whole process of making new friends, of weaving together the fabrics of our existence in profoundly life-giving ways.

Now, this isn’t to say I don’t have friends here. I do. And I am sure, over time, they will become good friends, and best friends, and lifelong friends. But it takes a while to be truly known, and in the interim I’ve become weary. I find I forget who I am. Not in some amnesiac-crisis kind of way, but in the quiet moments of fury when I screw up an important task or fail, again, to really devote time to nurturing my relationship with God or simply lay on my couch and mentally admire how well I wear labels such as failure or hypocrite or whatever.

Those struggles aren’t novel by any means – in fact they’ve been faithful companions throughout most of my “adult” life – but as I’ve most recently encountered them again on my high-wire of existence it has distinctly felt as if there were no net beneath me. It’s just me, the monsters, and the empty, beckoning air.

It’s been in those moments that I have started to understand what the presence of intimate friendship had meant to me, and I’m increasingly convinced that one of the greatest blessings of friendship is that it reminds me who I am. And I need to be reminded.

After having only lived in Los Angeles for two weeks, there was a night when all I wanted was a hug. And yet, as time wore on, I realized that it wasn’t the hug that I wanted so much as the reminder that I was enmeshed in community, that I was known and still worthy of love; just any old hug wouldn’t be able to communicate that.

When I lived with my two closest friends, every interaction was based upon a deep understanding of each other, an enduring web of shared experiences. They had seen me in almost every conceivable light, so when they talked to me, joked with me, played with me, prayed with me, they did so while knowing me better than anyone.

It’s one thing to be known generally, but it’s another thing to have yourself made known in every hug, every word of advice, every conversation about global politics or God or vegetarian Dementors, every disagreement, every affirmation of love and support. And so, in a way, I continued to be reminded of who I was because of how they simply were with me. As someone who is prone to fits of doubt or low self-esteem, it is these small reminders that make all the difference.

I don’t think I really appreciated how much these friends had become home for me.

@$^%$ ninjas and their onions.

@$^% ninjas hiding onions around my house.

It takes a while for someone’s words/eyes/arms to become filled with those kinds of memories, and I honestly don’t know how long it will be until my friendships here in this utterly bizarre land of Los Angeles take root.

But I must admit, re-experiencing what it means to be a “stranger” has allowed me to witness embarrassingly profound displays of hospitality from innumerable people. It has made me hopeful. Not just hopeful for myself – that one day I’ll find that fabled soul-mate cabal – but hopeful for churches and the life-giving communities they are supposed to be.

So even as I mourn the absence of those few who make me feel the most like myself, I will happily repeat the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

And sometimes I think that, maybe, this creeping growth of friendship is really just learning to see the way each person uniquely embodies that welcoming presence. And then sometimes I think that such a thought is unforgivably saccharine and my life is probably forfeit, but I still kind of hope it will be proven true.*

I’ll let you guys know when I find out.

Peace.

_________________

*And then I think about how badly I wish I could control the elements with my mind because honestly three consecutive thoughts without a wild flight of imagination is beyond me.

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Gratitude

Sometimes I am treated with such grace and generosity that any notion of “repayment” just falls to pieces, and the only thing left to do is marvel that I should be so blessed to have encountered something so rare and profound.

But it kind of ruins my day.

You see, reciprocation is easy. You only have to quantify the approximate value of what was given to you and respond with a gift of your own, a pure-motive token of appreciation that also levels the scales and removes the lingering weight of obligation.

But what happens when you can’t reciprocate? When not only the worth of what you received is too great but any attempt to “break even” would somehow corrode the beauty of the gift?

I turned 23 two weeks ago. On that day, I was called into the apartment of one of the orphanage’s cooks whose daughter is attending medical school with some support from my family. She handed me, amidst numerous apologies for the paucity of the gift, a large coffee mug filled with candy.

I wanted to cry.

She had figured out when my birthday was, remembered it, and then gone out of her way to communicate to me that I was known and appreciated. It was totally unexpected, totally unnecessary, and totally wonderful. And now I can drink 50% more coffee each morning without trespassing into the realm of the addict’s “third-cup.” I was suddenly staggeringly deep in grace-debt, and began trying to think of at least a small way to say thank you.

Then, a week later, she assassinated any chance of “getting even” like some sort of master hospitality ninja.

As I picked up lunch for the kids she asked if I would be able to stop by the kitchen around 6pm that night “for a surprise.” Right on time, I walked into the magical wonderland of food production expecting, I don’t know, cookies or something.

But these cookies looked suspiciously like a tabled covered in a white cloth and laden with all my favorite food.

Oh no she didn’t.

Apparently for the past month she’d been slowly manipulating me into confessing what I loved to eat here and simply needed to wait for a time when she and her daughter would both have the dinner shift so they could make it all for me. Eggs covered in a meat sauce, black beans with cream, fresh bread, rosa de jamaica to drink, and, dear lord, a cheese cake from an amazing nearby bakery. It was all perfect.

I really, really wanted to cry.

We ate the overly lavish meal together at the makeshift table, laughing and trading stories as I also tried to express how thankful I was in as many ways as I could. But eventually I needed to return back to the house to help with homework. Saying goodbye and, for the millionth time, thank you, I stepped out into the chilly night air.

And I cried.

I couldn’t handle it. It was too much for me. Gratitude was crackling through my synapses and inciting such a firestorm of emotions that I could only stand and stare up at the roiling, misty sky and wonder what on earth was left for me to do.

The obvious thing would be to look for creative ways to thank them, and I’m doing that. But the sheer force of their hospitality and generosity requires something greater of me.

It requires that I change.

It requires that I become the kind of person whose life reflects and embodies the grace I have received.

When I left Wheaton, I felt the same about the mentors who poured hours and hours into me, sharing wisdom and passion far beyond their requisite classroom quota. I can no longer just stop by their offices whenever I have questions about life, purpose, God, human origins, political witness, inspiration, wealth, social justice, sexuality, or whatever else, but I can be someone who treats each topic with care and solid theology, always with a commitment to growing in love, never losing sight of what truly matters. I can be someone who learns with the grace with which they taught me to learn, who goes out of his way to communicate to others their overwhelming worth, even when they may not believe it themselves.

When I left South Africa, I felt the same about my coworkers and clients and new friends who welcomed me into their lives. I can no longer walk down the streets of beachside Muizenberg to the rehab clinic or chill in one of the many wonderful coffee shops talking about the bewilderment of existence, nor can I sit by the waves and listen to men and women who have been through numerous hells often of their own design speak of the cataclysmic power of the gospel, but I can be someone who doesn’t allow another’s brokenness (or my own), self-inflicted or not, to fully limit the hope I have for them in the present and future, to dull my holy imagination that sees into and beyond their chaos-fraught lives.

And now, as I am in the slow process of leaving Guatemala, I am daily confronted by my need to be someone who includes others with a free and easy joy, who goes out of his way to affirm and encourage, to give and to help. My time here has been as wonderful as it has because blessed men and women made me a part of this place.

Basically, what it all comes down to is that I need to become the kind of person whose life does justice to the innumerable gifts of grace that have been given to me. I can never say thank you enough to adequately communicate my gratitude, but I can try to embody that gratitude in a life spent in loving service of those around me; I can demonstrate my thanks by allowing their actions to shape and conform me more into the likeness of Christ.

And that is the ultimate example, isn’t it? Because of the infinite worth of his life and death and resurrection, for my and our salvation, there is no hope of repayment. But that’s not the point. In the wake of his lightning intervention we are to live as he lived – we are to allow his existence and work to form us, to be people who display the grace of his gift by living a life “worthy of the calling” we have received in which we become like him in his love.

And maybe that kind of life starts by buying that precious women some flowers.

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“…is this the real life?”

(From June 19, 2010)

We live on a planet called Earth. On a daily basis we interact with thousands upon thousands of material objects, whether it be a crunchy piece of gravel beneath our feet or another human being. We sense things, we know things. This is real life. This existence of ours is true and good; it is not an illusion from which we must break free in order to reach some spiritual existence beyond our mortal chains. I am not arguing for the rejection of this reality in favor of another. Rather, I am arguing for the transformation of this reality by the truth of another, namely (and solely) the eternal kingdom of God and the inauguration of the Church through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is more than just a moral transformation. The purpose of Christ’s coming was not to change us from bad people to good people upon our conversion which then allows us into heaven (or more popularly, saves us from hell). His coming changed the very nature of our existence. In an admittedly limited sense, our conversion is akin to transplanting ourselves into a foreign culture. If you wake up some day in Uganda, it would be remarkably foolish to assume that adhering to the norms and cultural rules of America will get you anywhere. It would also be remarkably foolish to assume that you are no longer American now that you are in Uganda. A posture of humility and learning must be adopted as you try to understand this new context. You have a cultural reference book that seems strangely inadequate in some situations and a native guide who you wish would be a little more direct. You mess up. A lot. But your hosts are gracious and you continue to become more accustomed to your daily life. There are some things that you were able to do in America that are simply impossible now, some things that are strange and bizarre to the Ugandans that you should probably avoid, and some things that are acceptable and good.

Such is our arrival into the kingdom of God, only completely different and multiplied by infinity. It is our tendency, at least in America, to assume that our conversion only changes our character and moral axis instead of transporting us wholly (or opening our eyes) to a new kingdom, a new reality (which really is not very “new” at all) that functions entirely uniquely to anything we have previously experienced. We are now first and foremost citizens of the all consuming kingdom of heaven, manifested on earth as the global body of Christians as one unified and unbreakable Church, bound together by the love of Christ poured out for us as a sacrifice upon an altar composed of sin and constructed by our own hands. This kingdom is not something we are journeying toward nor is it something we are trying to create on earth; we are already in it and it is already established. It is not yet a complete kingdom, however. It cannot be because then we would not so desperately long for the return of Christ, nor would we need Him any more. We who have entered through the narrow gate could only have entered by passing through Christ who now stands between us and the world.

The implications of this are, of course, rather daunting, as events which demand of us everything tend to be. Some people have called Christianity the “upside-down kingdom”, but I don’t think that’s correct because it makes our mundane, secular existence the normative experience and the kingdom of God a radical departure from the apparent. Instead, the kingdom of God is the truest truth, the most real reality, the basic actuality by which all humanity must measure its existence. We do not, we must not begin with our secular lives and from there gauge how we should act. We, as Christians, begin and end with obedience and submission to the reality of Christ’s call on our lives. This call will often (in fact almost always) demand that we act in defiance of what we and the world perceive as real. Our defiance will bring persecution upon us because it is so thoroughly distressing to be confronted by the revelation that everything we have accumulated and striven for on this earth is ashes and dead weight that drag us willingly to hell because we did not first have Christ, in and through whom alone we find the redemption of our being. As the anointed bearers of this glorious reality, we gain the added benefit of no longer fearing what the world may do to us because it will never be able to change the eternal reality that Christ has called us into communion with Him.

Christ’s call does not lead us out of the world, but rather directly into the heart of it. We must not reject the world and its troubles because we have found something better. If Christ had done that we would all be in hell right now. We must follow Christ into the darkest reaches of the world (which are never far away), armed not with judgment or condemnation but with renewal and transformation, healing and acceptance, love and love and love and more love that flows through us from the fount of the Cross and empowers us to do all things.

This is Christianity. It is not an institution, a moral guideline, a secluded retreat, a facebook note or a comfortable existence. It is the eternally present reality of our complete and total bondage to Christ and His kingdom which frees us to joyfully and powerfully seek restoration in all the earth to the glory of God. It is a reality that not only extends beyond borders but destroys them, not only reaches through socio-economic differences but renders them unimaginable, not only gives us a reason to live but makes life everlasting. It is a reality to which God has drawn us. It is Himself.

And we reject it, we reject Him, every day. We reject Him for the things of this world. We reject Him because the world has told us to act a certain way, to see a certain way. It has told us that our allegiance is to arbitrary and divisive political systems, that our brothers and sisters, fellow members of the kingdom of God to whom we are inextricably linked, are “others”, different from us. It tells us that the demand of Christ to live entirely for Him, to serve with our whole lives, to cling to nothing except to Him, to go to the poor and needy, to seek peace with all, is not really what the Bible says, or that it does not matter what the Bible says because current “reality” seems to say something different and God most certainly could not demand something impractical of His children (such as dying on a cross).

I reject God every day because I just cannot yet accept the full demand of my conversion. I’m scared, I’m weak, and I love too much that which I should not. And yet the pursuit of this reality has been the most life-giving aspect of my entire existence. God is so faithful and is forever with me and my broken, failing, beautiful brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world.

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Gospel

Sometimes the Gospel bores me. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced the occasional onset of slack-jawed numbness as some overly enthusiastic brother or sister prattles on and on about how, can you believe it, Jesus Christ died for our sins. If I don’t entertain myself with thoughts of tennis or food or something, I’ll probably fall asleep. I think it’s actually quite an amazing feat of the human spirit to remain so willfully unimpressed by the most mind-shattering truth that could ever be spoken.

I’ve heard this is a common occurrence for students of theology or people who have grown up in the church. Yes yes, Jesus cross death grave resurrection ascension hooray life-everlasting. Now get to the stuff that is interesting, like inverted parallelisms or etymological controversies; this is too basic. And all the saints and martyrs of the Church gape in horror.

Now, I would never verbally disparage the Gospel like that, but I’m sure I’ve come pretty close to such a sentiment in my heart. After all, I “prayed the prayer” when I was four, what do I know about the seismic upheaval Paul speaks of in Colossians 1:13? What do I know about salvation?

Consequently, I used to regularly come down with a bad case of “testimony envy.” I’d be sitting next to some guy tearfully speaking about how he was born in a slum, used to be an international crime lord, hourly smoked forty illegal substances, poached baby pandas, and watched the Bachelorette before Jesus rescued him from the pit of hell, and all I could think of was how my biggest spiritual crisis in the past month was having to eat a horizontally-cut sandwich my mom made for me (diagonal slices bring out the fair-trade, organic raspberry jelly flavor). It’s not my fault I became a Christian before I could spectacularly destroy my life like all the cool kids, growing up as a nice boy in a nice suburb with nice parents and nice things.

The Gospel bored me because my testimony bored me. The Gospel didn’t impress me because I had blinded myself to all Christ had overcome to save me. My life was so insular that I rarely observed the arresting transformation from sinner to saint, and thus I had a listless, lifeless faith for some time.

All I want to say is this: I was wrong. Dear God forgive me, I was so wrong.

This past year, God has revealed much to me about the overwhelming beauty and power of the Son’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and glorification. And not just abstractly, but played out like a mighty symphony in the lives of broken men and women – myself included.

Interning at a Christian recovery center for homeless drug addicts this past fall afforded me countless, blessed opportunities to see this “boring” Gospel shake hardened, angry, desperate people to their cirrhosis-riddled core and draw forth something both unexpected and magnificent. I watched, daily, as dawning wonderment stole over faces unaccustomed to making such an expression, the reality that, can you believe itJesus Christ died for our sins slowly sinking into their souls, a megaton truth displacing the acid-pool of lies that had entirely corroded them.

And their smiles in those moments! Often toothless, usually crooked, but radiant all the same. And I found that, no matter what I was lecturing on, no matter what question they threw at the staff members, it always came back to this:

We were once separated from God in the wild dark, adrift in the bitter sea of our sin and brokenness, when, in humble glory, Jesus Christ, the full faithfulness of God, reconciled us to himself with now-resplendent outstretched and punctured arms, catching us up into a binding embrace, filling us with life urgently abundant, and empowering us to go forth and joyfully demonstrate the healing love of our Savior to a sick and tragic world for the sake of his eternal praise.

And, wouldn’t you know it, I’ve become the overly enthusiastic prattler that I once disdained. Sure, I couldn’t relate to the clients’ abusive pasts, their meth addictions, or their homelessness, and I don’t think I ever convinced them that I made it to 22 without impregnating some poor woman, but we weren’t really so different as I might have once thought.

I may not know the weight of a father’s drunken blows, but I’ve binged on the lies of Satan and beaten myself into the mud. I may not know the head-splitting ache of a heroin withdrawal, but I have been tossed and torn by overpowering desires. I may not know what it’s like to have nowhere to sleep safely, but I have made my bed in the depths of Sheol and, unlike David, failed to sense the presence of God there.

But more importantly than any of that, they and I, we together, were in the thrilling process of discovering the endless breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us. And as I saw, day by day, the very real force of the Gospel in their lives – as barriers were overcome, relationships were mended, and failures were met with grace – I became more aware of how that same Gospel is moving in me, and their testimonies became a part of my own.

I’m reminded that my testimony isn’t really about me – this isn’t a pageant in which I dress up my sins and struggles and put them on display to be judged more or less powerful than the next person’s. Rather, my testimony is all about God and how he has made himself known to me. And he has made himself known: on each page of Scripture and in each redeemed masterpiece that constitutes “the Church” he has revealed himself to be a glorious Christ who is love, who lived and died and rose to save the world from a deserved condemnation and only asks that we proclaim him as Lord and follow his perfect will, humbly serving everyone in need as we move toward the consummation of things, the everlasting feast in which all is as it should be and we finally behold the face of our Savior.

And for a dorky kid from the suburbs who just wants to know he isn’t alone, that is some seriously good news.

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