The Luxury of Division

First: Julie Rodgers (who apparently isn’t dead, despite the funerary tone of many articles) is a dear friend who has endured far more gross scrutiny with far more grace than most people would be capable of. Her urgent passion to serve those who have been marginalized by society has made the world a better place, and I am sure that wherever she decides to minister next she will witness to God’s love through deep friendships, hospitable spaces, and simple human kindness.[1]

Second: A few years ago I was visiting a small Palestinian town that had lost much of its surrounding land to illegal settlements and was facing restricted access to its ancestral olive groves. After a Catholic mass in the morning we all (local Catholics included) attended a lunch hosted by the evangelical church before being shown around the village by the Greek Orthodox priest. I couldn’t help but marvel at the familial closeness displayed between those from various church traditions as they worked together to welcome this obtrusive group of college students into their threatened home. It was more than mere cooperation; it was genuine friendship.

While chatting with one of the hosts I mentioned how struck I was by the ecumenical character of the village and the solid relationships between the different Christians. He tilted his head. “Our land is being stolen, people are leaving, the olive groves are being terrorized, and we are at risk of forgetting who we are. Unlike some places in the world, we do not have the luxury or the time to be divided.”

In 21st century American churches, however, division seems to be almost all we have time for.

This past week, like most weeks before it, has been a bit of a beast. I can’t be the only one worn down by the sheer volume of blog posts and Twitter explosions that dominate social media. I get it, though. Really. Theology is important, and the topic of faith and sexuality is deeply significant.

But what makes weeks like this so ugly is not the presence of controversy so much as the absence of charity. More exhausting than the immense drama that surrounds disagreements on sexual ethics, perhaps, is the sheer glee with which some people disavow/expose/denounce/break-ties-with others, the speed with which social media can become a mass-grave of ‘good opinions’ thrown out while they were still warm. Far too many commentators seem completely unconcerned that their caustic words are directed at actual human beings made in God’s image, unmoved by the reality that their sentences may be poisoning someone’s understanding of what Christian ‘love’ really looks like. I know quite a few people who have received this week like a wound.

We’ve forgotten that we, as humans, belong to each other, and I don’t know what to do about that except grieve.

But, actually, maybe that’s the appropriate response. Maybe that’s the first step to a more honest witness. Grief, at least, begins with an acknowledgment that people have been wounded, relationships have been ruptured, and communities have often been sources of pain and stigma.

Lament beholds the broken world as it is and forces us to consider how we might enter into that brokenness, how we might need to change to become more effective agents of healing and redemption. And this, I think, clears a small space in which empathy can take root and grow into friendship or community with people different than ‘us’ (whatever ‘us’ looks like for someone).

Friendship, or even just ‘relationship,’ isn’t some magic panacea that soothes all division and removes the need for difficult conversations. Hardly. There are still the fraught issues of policy and church life and public response and so much else to deal with. But at the same time I have been consistently surprised at how resilient friendship is, how it can bear the weight and tension of various disagreements and still be a source of beauty.

I find it hard to believe, then, that the most faithful way to pursue Jesus’ high priestly prayer – ‘that they may be one…’ – is through reflexive tribalism; there has to be a better alternative. Painful disagreement may sometimes be unavoidable, and division inevitable, but I think we suffer when we as Christians allow rejection and alienation to become habits, when we cease to lament the tragedy of fragmentation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Palestinian village this past week. I know it isn’t perfect, that there are still struggles and disputes and miscommunications, but I am thankful there are people in the community who, at the very least, have recognized that they need each other, that they don’t have the ‘luxury’ of treating each other as disposable. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the Christians in that village have a healthy relationship with the Muslim population as well – in their volatile context they each see the other as necessary for their own well-being and for the future of the community.

I’m not holding up that village as some sort of model or analogy. I’m not even sure what that would look like. But I am saying that I witnessed something profoundly Christlike in their acknowledged connectedness, something that I feel we in the States have too casually abandoned.

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[1] Julie, if you’re reading this, please wait at least two years before becoming a psychopathic axe-murderer or else I’m going to look so stupid.

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Avoiding Hypocrisy as the Church

Hey! Long time no me-doing-anything-remotely-related-to-maintaining-this-blog. Hope you’ve been well. I recently contributed to a series on sexuality and the church over at OnFaith, focusing on ways his current church community is modeling a traditional sexual ethic that avoids much of the hypocrisy found in more conservative churches. Some excerpts:

When I joined, I simply became a part of that redemptive movement. This is an enormous blessing, because — believe it or not — I really want to proclaim the gospel through ministry and advocacy. (And, as a white dude brimming with privilege, learning how to do this in a way that doesn’t reinforce inequality can be a challenge!) I want to be a Christian, and I want my church to urge the congregants on in our shared vocation of pursuing justice for the marginalized (which includes a sizable portion of the church population itself).

Often lgbt+ Christians are treated as if we have one job this side of Jesus’ return: don’t have gay sex. But, as Eve Tushnet so quotably stated, “You can’t have a vocation of no,” of only avoiding something. We need something to live for, and let me say that Christianity never makes more sense to me than when I am witnessing or participating in a Christian community that is unified toward imitating and proclaiming Jesus’ liberative gospel.

And:

It continues to amaze me how hard celibate lgbt+ people have to work to find space in churches that claim a more traditional sexual ethic. The social burdens experienced by sexual minorities in these communities vary widely, but usually include increased scrutiny and suspicion, painful comments from congregants who may or may not know about one’s sexuality, reduced ministry possibilities (e.g. I was once stripped of an internship and prevented from helping with a youth group because I was attracted to men), insanely exhausting language policing,**** and at times, the general ache of being single in a culture that over-valorizes marriage and romance to the detriment of the church’s calling to be family.

I’m not sure how churches decided that the best ‘defense’ of the traditional sexual ethic is to place excessive burdens on those trying to abide by it and then fail to provide the support structures that would make such an ethic intelligible and healthy . . . but, well, here we are.

I believe the traditional sexual ethic is beautiful and good — I try to live according to it for a reason! — but I also believe that the way churches have approached the topic of human sexuality has largely failed to do any justice to the scope and nuance of the doctrine and has, in fact, done injustice to countless people who should have found a home and family within the church, and this requires sincere repentance.

Read the Whole Article at FaithStreet.

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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.

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*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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