Finding God in Exodus International [Deeper Story]

Exodus Billboard

 

It’s been a long day of work, so I’m a little late in throwing this up, but here it is. My latest piece for Deeper Story.

The beginning:

 

Last year, Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organization in the world, shut down.

I was at a Starbucks late at night when the news erupted over Twitter. I all but cried. I called my mom. “This is such good news, wow! wow!” she said and then I texted my brother who took to Facebook, posting the news by saying “This is a HUGE WIN for humanity.” This was monumental. A miracle. An answer to so many prayers said by so many souls in our community.

My total “ex-gay experience” was a rainy afternoon, in the home of a man who was not a counselor. He wasn’t from Exodus. In fact, I never met an Exodus counselor nor I have been to any Exodus events. And yet Exodus International once held a daily presence in my life. A powerful one.

Late one night, in my closeted teenage years, I quietly tapped into the Google search bar my most desperate question: “is there a cure for homosexuality?”

Topping the list of results was Exodus.

Read the rest over at Deeper Story

On Quit(ting)

sugar-bowl-167851_640

 

 

A couple weeks ago, I published a piece at Deeper Story. It was about addiction and my desperate reach for grace. My awkward stance in the dark crook of debauchery and sin and struggle. I wrote it a full month before it was published, and almost immediately after I finished typing, I heard a yearly voice. An annual summoning from the base of my heart. Quietly, it said:

 

It’s time.

 

And I would’ve batted it away had I not blown past a startling number of stop signs this year. Friends have confided in me their concerns about my health. Two of them dreamed I died from it. My mom reminded me of the Lung Cancer in our family history. My brother, gently, informed me of the newly discovered danger of “Third Hand Smoke”– i.e. my smoky smell was toxic- especially to babies- i.e., his son. And sometimes I feel chest pain. Or a sore throat. And let’s not even talk about the money.

 

I spent a month thinking about how to go about this. I ended up improvising.

 

A week ago, I got an electronic cigarette, a device that imitates the look and feel of a cigarette, but without the smoke, just vaporized nicotine instead. Like the gum or the patch, but a million times better. I am not so smart about the movements of the spirit- but my God, I swear this stuff is sacrament. Almost immediately, it made a dent in my cigarette intake. I went from half of what I was smoking, to then one-third. Ever dwindling, oh so fast.

 

One day my quota was set at five real cigarettes, and around 8pm, I had had my third one. Glancing into my pack, I saw only two left. I decided then, that that was the last of them. Forever. Starting the following day, I would be smoke free. Clean slate. Voila.

 

But quitting smoking is the same as Chinese water drop torture. I woke up the following day thinking about it, immediately puffing on my e-cig to stave away the crave. I distracted myself with a good book, and then a hard jog, and by evening time, my family was throwing me high-fives, everyone so proud. In the living room, my dad pointed to my brother Aaron, asked if I was too stressed out, because I could totally hit him.

 

I was stressed out.

Achingly so. Brutally so. My mind spastically skittering on the edge without the cigarettes to hold it back.

 

All I could think of was smoking. Smoke. Smoke. Smoke. A broken record spun round and round my mind. My mouth watered. I needed a cigarette. My body tensed up with all the anxiety and none of the cure. I reached into my pocket unconsciously- out of habit, and then I felt a wave of loss. Like a death.

 

Because that’s what we’re dealing with here: loss.

 

It sounds so weird and dirty to say, but the truth is, smoking has been laced up in my identity since I was seventeen. It was what I turned to when I was anxious. When I was depressed. When I was overjoyed. When I was lonely. When I was bored. When I just needed it, it was always there. Instant fix.

 

And this is just the top layer. Let’s go beneath it to the rituals. 

 

 

Take coffee, for example. The first time I combined those two addictions, I thought to myself, Wow! I haven’t really had coffee until THIS. And so it was. Coffee and cigarettes, fused forever. What was first merely a sweetener, quickly became a trigger. I could always have a smoke without coffee, but I could not have coffee without a cigarette.

 

The same happened for meals. For the first half hour after I woke up. For reading. For the last five minutes before I went to sleep. For writing. For long phone conversations and definitely in person conversations. For minutes after I clocked out of work. For insomnia. For years and years and years, simple everyday things, times, decisions have been deeply knotted to smoking. And every attempt to do them smoke-free provokes every violent craving.

 

If you’re wondering why I’ve been absent this past week, it’s because writing does that to me. I am used to writing half a page, taking a smoke, drinking the coffee, writing again, repeat, repeat, repeat. And so writing now, without it, right here, typing this thing out, my head feels like it just might burst through the roof. My mouth feels dry.

 

The day I was supposed to be done for good, I went to my brother’s house, continuing to plow my way into all things distracting. We watched a show. I sat on the couch sucking on my e-cigarette like a straw, until it ran out of battery and I panicked even more. An avalanche of thoughts. I reached out to a friend who said: “You are so close. Don’t give up.” And truly I was. It would be the first full smoke-free day in years and I would’ve tasted the nearness of that if my skin didn’t feel like it was vibrating and my throat didn’t feel so thirsty for tar.

 

At 11:30 PM, I stopped at a gas station. I stopped at a gas station and bought my damn marlboro’s. I asked for a book of matches, but the cashier said they didn’t carry any, but hey, she was headed out for her smoke anyway and wouldn’t mind lighting up.

 

And there I was. Beneath the gas station neon lights smoking with a stranger, telling her proudly that this was my first of the day, because I was quitting.

 

She stole glance at my shaky fingers dangling the white smoldering stick, and then exhaled to the sky: good luck with that. I smoked another.

 

The following morning, I couldn’t bear lying to my puffed-up-proud folks, so I told them. I told them I felt like a miserable failure. Like this would never end. I would never be done.

 

“You’re too hard on yourself.” They said, and there wasn’t the slightest cringe or disappointment in their voice. They echoed my twitter followers the night before who rejoiced in the fact that I didn’t have a smoke until 11:30 PM. What a feat! What a win! A month ago, what an impossibility.

 

Grace catches us like that. All it needs is for us to speak the lie out loud: I feel like a failure. This feels impossible. And in our cannonball dive we hit a trampoline. We bounce back up with the truth. With the reminder of our own tendencies to tear ourselves apart. With realizing the HUGE victories that were wrongly got categorized as defeats, as not enough, as failure.

 

And so I’m back on the slow and steady, going at one-third of my usual, supplementing it with the e-cigarette, moving a few feet forward every day. And no, it’s not cold turkey. It’s not a clean breakaway. It’s not goodbye. But it’s working for me. For now. I am in progress, albeit slowly, but moving nonetheless.

 

Quitting is hard work, and it feels a little fragile, requiring more perseverance than anything I’ve done before. But it’s working, and I can feel it. Every day, I am stronger.

Grace for the Addict (at Deeper Story)

smoke-108664_640

A few weeks ago, I was blown away when I received an email inviting me to join A Deeper Story. Most of you know who that is, but in case you don’t- A Deeper Story is a group of Christian writers writing about faith in the peaks and weeds of life. They are some of the best writers on the internet today. I’ve been following them for well over a year now and I have learned so much from the writers there about writing and life and God. It has been a well of encouragement that I have turned to time and time again.

 

And today, I have my first post up over there, and I am hoping I can reflect just a fraction of that encouragement. It’s about a part of my life that’s a little profane: my addiction. And it’s about the grace of God, which is so much more offensive.

 

Here’s the beginning.

 

In the seventh grade, I won the Ramsey County Police Department Poetry Contest after I penned a poem telling anyone addicted to nicotine to just stop it. It was a district wide contest; a winner would be selected from every school. And a couple weeks after I submitted, my Language Arts teacher burst through the door of my history class. She walked straight up to my teacher and whispered in his ear. They both turned to me, smiling. I beamed back.

They gave me one hundred and fifty dollars. More money than I had ever held in my hands. And two weeks later, with my parents standing proud at the back wall and the local paper’s intern snapping shots next to them, I stood in front of my class and read the poem aloud.

“I know the chains of addiction may be holding you down, but think of your family! They still want you around!” I roared like FDR and the class went wild.

I am no poet. But my life has been riddled with irony. Here’s some: only a few years after speaking my plea into class, I was twirling the feathery white stick between my own two fingers. I was sparking the cherry at the end, inhaling it deep into my lungs. Over a lake, I lay down on a dock with friends, blowing filmy rings into the stars. Watching them rise and rise and wash away in the wind. Dizzied by the buzz that was breaking over me, I felt euphoric, badass, and truly alive. I did not feel the chain clinking around my ankle.

 

Click here to read the rest.

hymnals and the way of faith in the story of church

belief-2657_640

Thee, Thine, Thou never felt natural in my ears or on my tongue and the slow, few instruments that played had a way of boring me to sleep as a kid. Some Sunday mornings, I’d sneak a look at the back wall where a red digital clock hung. And by the time the sermon closed, I was lethargic, but straight up relieved.

 

At a certain point, my parents, seeing us kids in our shared listlessness, having noticed the slow blinking of our eyes, decided to take us to the later, contemporary service. And it was there that my faith was forged. Songs like “Light the Fire” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord” and “In the Secret” seemed to inject me with a spiritual oomph I had not felt. I was moved to tears. I was dancing. Every chorus of those power ballads made me stretch my hands in the air as if to brush the Holy Spirit’s fingers.

 

Several years later now, with my heart weathered and worn, I’m at a kind of of standstill with church. Having been hit a hundred thousand times by evangelicalism, having become a survivor of the place that initially swept me off my feet, I am instinctively suspicious of all of it. All of Church. And also, wanting so badly to be a part of it.

 

But all the pop Christian jams still ring shrill in my ears. I am very annoyed by the use of music as a means of emotional manipulation when the pastor prays. And goodness, it takes every ounce of strength in my being to stay on the ground when I hear a secular pop song, sung by the worship band, sometimes with words changed. Stop the sale’s pitch! Stop your need to be Cool! I want to scream. I want to walk out. 

 

One such song was played last night at the Easter service and at the start, when I recognized it, I started shaking my head in a very obvious, take-note-of-my-disapproval way. I turned around to my family hoping to find solidarity but No. They were feeling it. Loving it. They were clapping joyfully and crooning out the catchy song from the radio. And I. was. appalled.

 

These little triggers, sensitivities, chinks in my armor are really all it takes to dirty up an entire church service for me. One cringe-worthy thing lingers in the back of my mind like a leaky faucet and it is Game Over. And I hate this about me. I wish I could roll it off my shoulders and just gel in with everyone else, but my heart is weathered and worn. Once I sense the evangelical spirit, with all it’s wrongness and past crimes against me, the dominos effect begins within. Everything is called into question. Every. Last. Thing.

 

And I don’t know why I keep coming back to this form of faith. The Evangelical. The bubble-gum joy. The cheap sentimentality. Because it’s all I know, but still. I wish I knew more.

 

The music slowed down for the next song. The electric guitar was set aside and a soft ripple of piano began. A steady, functional, reliable chord. I looked up. I felt a centering. A simplicity that made me want to cry with relief. And then the words:

 

I hear the Savior say

“Thy strength indeed is small

Child of weakness, watch and pray,

Find in me Thine all in all”

 

These are the songs I once hated, but they are meeting me right now with a precision and truth I cannot explain. In the midst of my own cynicism and sensitivity and anger, in the mess of all the wrong and unkindness of the Church, these plain and poetic words arrive standing before me, unadorned and beautiful, like peace, like Jesus out on the water.

 cup-coffee-220413_640

They don’t push me into an exclamation. They don’t pressure me to feel when I don’t. They don’t carry the slushiness, schmaltziness that transfixes everyone into a moment of emotional intoxication. They come wearing no mask, blowing no incense, dangling no carrot before me.

 

I speak them and I know what they’re saying: Jesus Paid it All. I feel a rush of gratitude at that lyric. I wonder why we feel the need to sing any other line. Then I heart Come Thou Fount, It is Well, and There is a Fountain and I know why. This the fabric of Church. This is her story.

 

sunset-in-grass-142186_640

There is a timeworn dependability to them, too. I hold the hymnal in my hands and it’s crinkled, the paper, thin, the crush of a thousand fingers opening and closing and folding and leaving and returning, week after week, year after year. And there’s something about that history. I can trace these works through generations that have come before me, that have endured their own battles here, and maybe, for them, it was just this, this small little book with its’ crinkled up pages, that gave them the grit to come back week after week after week.

 

pine-273826_640

 

And maybe it’s not about fitting back into something. Maybe it’s about being aware of the new shape of my faith. I’ve grown and changed and it’s different now, maybe better. In this season, I can’t hear the electric zest of an era that is still too raw, that left me high and dry and bitter and cold. Maybe I can only be with the old songs. The simple ones. I can lean into the sturdiness of lyrics long-lived.

 

As I return in my own battle regalia, week after week, searching for my own Sunday Morning, I am finding that for now, this is enough to hang onto. It’s a small raft, but it is mine, and it’s holding me up.

May We Never Stop Speaking

medium_447721982

 

photo credit

Last weekend, I sat around a small stove fire on the driveway of my brother’s house with his friends. We were cracking open beers, listening to country music, talking March Madness (which I feigned stress over). And one of the guys brought up the World Vision fiasco and my responses and how I was going about mending from the tragic turn of events that steamrolled over last week.

 

One of the guys, who I didn’t recognize, looked back and forth at us.

“What?”

 

I then explained everything, starting with a stuttered, awkward, “Well, you know, first off- I’m gay and christian, and a blogger, and, also, I’m Ben- nice to meet you!”

 

Then I dove into all the details of everything that went down. All the excruciating messages I heard in the conservative response, the swift and unanticipated betrayal from World Vision, and then, I talked a bit about gatekeepers and their ever shrinking circles. The kid sat their blinking,

 

“So, you’re uh, gay and Christian?”

 

It’s a fair question. Especially after learning about his conservative background, which we share, and his current beliefs, which we don’t. He told me he had a total of one gay friend, but after he came out, that friend quickly walked away from the faith, and from him. And I found it so devastating, the end of a relationship that could’ve borne so much fruit in that tension. The faith his friend was told was not for him. All it did was prove the point right, gay and Christian are mutually exclusive.

 

We talked then, through theology and books and the very essence of Jesus. He posed some brave, awkward questions, ones that showed how little he actually knew about what it is to be gay. Do you believe it is a choice? As in, just tell me the truth, did you decide this? An ignorant question, indeed! But you know what? His eyes were wide open and curious. This was an honest wondering. To him, he explained, all he knew was the old retired debate of choice vs genetics.

 

I explained to him that, no, of course I didn’t. He asked, if it were possible, would choose to be straight. I said, years ago, yes. Today, without a shadow of doubt in my mind, no. And I also told him I wasn’t entirely convinced in the born this way assumptions. I believed it was a mix of things, but perhaps with a divine plan in place? Who knows? Not me. But that’s missing the point. For all we know, heterosexuality isn’t in the genes either. Here we are today.

 

Conversations about sin led him into what I thought was the classic, “but we all sin…” olive branch, but then, instead of passing it back to me, going into what he believed my sin was, we found ourselves standing together on the beautiful core conviction that shame is not of Jesus. We lamented over the obsession conservative Christians have regarding any and all sex. Grieved over our Bible, the way it had been sharpened into a shank against every one of us. All around the fire, friends nodded their heads. Gave sighs of agreement. And we began sharing stories- real, meaningful ones. And we talked about grace. That offensiveness of it. We gave a long hug at the end. He said this conversation was such a relief for him to have. And the truth is, it wouldn’t have happened had I not said I was a gay Christian.

 

Jen Hatmaker published today one of the best pieces I have read from the conservative corner. I was surprised by the warmth it left on me. Like love does, I suppose. And I was impressed with her grace, honesty and her pledge to continue to find ways to love one another (and her acknowledgement that not all Christians agree here, some are-heaven forbid- affirming. An important point which is not ever mentioned in the GATEKEEPER, “Gays are not Christians! Allies are traitors!” posts.) There are gay Christians like me out here, searching and finding and living, and that, my brothers and sisters, is a victory for the kingdom.

 

I am a gay Christian. I have come to feel the destabilizing truth of this declaration. It packs a punch. It pisses off the gatekeepers more than anything, and evokes a call to love and learn from those with searching hearts. It provokes conversations that are fruitful and drop seeds, into both our souls, as we learn the difference between hate and disagreement, gay pride floats and committed relationships, as we, as I, ply apart the person from the, now inflammatory, Evangelical.

 

And so I’ll keep saying it because I am reaping such a harvest, such a renewal of life is growing in the ground of my soul: I am gay and I am Christian. I’m a gay Christian. You are straight and you are Christian. You are man, woman, genderqueer, black, white, brown, and Christian and the kingdom is where we meet and grow together. Sling arms over shoulders. Open our hands and choose to see the best behind our eyes. Choose to stay even when it scares us.

 

God love us all and may we never stop speaking. 

When World Vision Drops Me

Worldvision_large

I got the news that World Vision had reversed its’ policy on employing gay and lesbians right after I got done with work. I was outside the school where I aid elementary age kids, special needs kids, and though I sometimes struggle with feelings of inadequacy in my job, I am actually a pretty awesome paraprofessional. Turns out, I’m pretty great at caring for kids in need.

 

And I was in my car when I got the news and I sped away, lest any of my little guys climbing the bus would see me, should I start to cry.

 

Before I headed home where I would find my mom, on the phone with another mom of a gay kid, telling her, “We will not respond the way they did. I refuse to be like them. We will be like Jesus, instead.” Before I got the text message from my brother, a very simple and needed, “I Love You.” I pulled over and parked in a vacant lot.

 

I turned off my ignition and I didn’t cry. I just sat there. Breathing. Stunned and struck by betrayal and pain and anger, wave after wave of it, and I couldn’t form a coherent thought or calm my heart. But in the midst of it, a memory came to me of a conversation I once had with Jay Bakker.

 

Jay, if you don’t know of him, was born into Christian Royalty. His parents were televangelists and their faces were amongst the most well-known and adored in Christian culture. Then the scandal. His dad had an affair, resigned, and then went to prison for fraud, leading Christians to banish the Bakker family outright. And for years, Jay would never step foot in a church.

 

Jay and I bonded over coffee in our shared experiences of feeling orphaned by the faith that raised us. And we also bonded over a shared hero, a man who, in a very real way, saved us.

 

That man is Brennan Manning. I will say it today and tomorrow and every day for the rest of my life that no one has left a larger impression on my faith than this man. Besides Jesus, he is the one I am most looking forward to meet in Heaven.

 

Jay was also swept off his feet by the Ragamuffin himself, and when Jay was set to publish his first big book, Son of a Preacher Man, Brennan agreed to write the forward. It was Jay’s dream come true.

 

Not long after, Jay heard from a representative of Brennan that he decided to pull out. He was afraid of the backlash he might receive by associating with the Bakker family. To this day, Jay says that that was the greatest let down, it left him completely disillusioned.

 

Don’t idolize your heroes, he told me. They will inevitably let you down. They’re human, too.

 

Years later, Jay was asked to pen an endorsement of Brennan’s book, and in the years between, they built a relationship based on forgiveness and trust and love. There was restoration. And Jay was brimming over with grace.

 

What Brennan had done was deny the Jesus in Jay. What he did was wrong and unfair and deeply hurtful. He ditched Jay when Jay most needed him, ran straight off the road off the gospel.

 

And yet, at the same time, in the Midwest, a teenager was reading Brennan’s books and his life would never be the same. A teenager would read these words, “God loves you just as you are and not as you should be.” And it would be enough, just that line, to give me the strength to move forward.

 

Though I understand that World Vision essentially had a gun to its head after evangelical leaders incited a mass backlash of dropped funds, it doesn’t make what they did right. Their reversal hurts more than anything I read from the evangelicals ranting. It was the kiss of Judas. And in the end, this was simply wrong and ungodly and deeply defeating.

 

I read Richard Stearns apology to conservatives through gritted teeth, because it is that bad. Richard Stearns, the man I praised the other day, disqualified me in a way against serving alongside him, and begged the forgiveness from those like Graham, Burk, Moore and Piper. And it does really hurt, this abrupt abandonment, this puncture of what was so much hope and pride and encouragement. Suddenly, reversed.

 

But, and not many years ago, it was Richard Stearns who shook up my faith in the best possible way. I read his book The Hole in Our Gospel, twice, and I recommended it to every person I knew. It was and still is one of the best Christian books I have ever read.

 

And who can understand the vehemence of yesterday upon him and his? Who can completely throw out he, Stearns, who left a life of luxury, to serve the world’s poor? Who can deny that World Vision is a rarity in Christianity, a group of folks whose sole purpose is to give the gospel hands and feet, bringing bread and water and mercy? Who can look at those pictures of kids being fed, of kids writing letters, those going to school and becoming kingdom builders themselves and write off an organization that is doing such beautiful work?

 

The truth is, friends, I am sitting in a coffee shop and writing this, and my teeth are still gritted, because I am writing things I am not feeling. But I believe, wholeheartedly, that there will come a day when I will. I know I will.

 

And when it comes to forgiveness, I take something like that very seriously. If it’s not flowing through my veins, then it’s not really there and I refuse to pretend it is. So I’ll say it true, as it is, right now:

 

I am not ready to forgive those that held starving children as ransom because of who I am and I am not ready to forgive Richard Stearns for this profoundly deep betrayal. I am not ready to forgive either of them for the devastating message they have sent to gay children everywhere.

 

But I can do grace. I can reach into the deep pockets of all that I have left and let it be a balm on my heart, let it tend to me until that moment comes when, as Anne Lamott says, “it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” I can give and give and give even as I’m pissed off and hurt because although they don’t deserve this, neither do I.

 

And my rage isn’t wrong, because this isn’t right. And so I will channel it all into doing my job here as a blogger, as a believer, loving gay kids and talking about the Jesus that wouldn’t change them for the world.

 

And though a Christian nonprofit embracing me, if just for a moment, is quite an event of subversion, I know in my own little world, the most radical act I can take is to say this: Yes, I love Jesus, too, and you’re my brother, and the Love of God makes us both enough.  It might be offensive to you, infuriating perhaps, it might even tempt you into dropping a kid off the face of the earth and blame it on me, but here’s the truth:

 

My chains are gone. I’ve been set free. My God my savior, has ransomed me.

 

And like a flood, his mercy reigns, unending love, amazing grace. 

When Evangelicals Turn Against Children to Spite Me

world_vision

 

 

On the Moberg couch this evening, my mom was scrolling through her news app and saw the announcement that World Vision was now hiring gay married people.

 

“That’s so great!” She said.

 

“Pretty brave,” my dad added.

 

And for a moment, I thought, I should write a piece defending the decision, because they might get backlash… but wait, no, evangelicals wouldn’t go there. How could they?

 

And perhaps it was this assumption that left me blindsided by the likes of the Gospel Coalition, Franklin Graham, John Piper, and Russell Moore.

 

This isn’t a carefully edited a post, nor a pretty one. It is a stream of consciousness. My feelings that are erupting out of my heart right now.

 

I’ve been sitting in a swell of sad for a couple hours, because this is what I’m hearing: No, you aren’t even worthy to serve hungry children. You are so deeply unwanted that I will let a child die if it keeps you away from me. From us. From the body of Christ. I will spare no life if it keeps you far away.

 

I don’t know how to explain how crushing and infuriating this is. Could words describe this night of speaking the truth over myself: God is love, Jesus is love, This I know is true. Can I even express what it feels like to know that my existence is the reason children are losing their livelihoods? Possibly dying? Falling from protection and into the hands of trafficking?

 

No and I shouldn’t have to.

 

I am tired, friends, so tired of being hit. I am tired of being the most galvanizing symbol for evangelical Christians. It is awaking a lot of old demons in me and the stab feels so much deeper when it’s your own faith attacking you. But who am I kidding? It is usually my own faith attacking me. And I am now at a breaking point, as I am sure is true for many others.

 

I’m done with evangelicalism.

 

I am done being patient with Piper.

I am done pretending I can engage with the SBC.

I am done hoping Franklin ends up more like his dad.

I am done listening to Denny Burk and his blowhards at the Gospel Coalition.

I am done with each and every one of the tweeters out there bragging about dropping their sponsorship of a child in need, just because they hate me.

 

I am done fleeing from and returning to this perpetually abusive house of faith. I am stopping the cycle. I am empty of strength.

 

And I am clinging closer to Jesus than ever before.

 

Thank God our God is our God.

 

Often when I am blindsided by blog posts and vicious tweets, a part of me starts to mistake it all for the voice of God. I start panicking, start clutching my heart, and the old lies of you’re a mistake and ya, God hates you come crawling up from their graves. But then the guard of grace wakes up and bats the monsters away. That guard, of course, is Jesus.

 

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” John 15:9

 

I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” John 16:33 (MSG)

 

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” Matthew 5:3-12 (MSG)

 

And now Paul comes in like a brother:

 

“None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.” Romans 8:38-39 (MSG)

 

And why not, my favorite passage of scripture:

 

My beloved spoke and said to me,
    “Arise, my darling,
    my beautiful one, come with me.

11 

See! The winter is past;
    the rains are over and gone.

12 

Flowers appear on the earth;
    the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
    is heard in our land.

13 

The fig tree forms its early fruit;
    the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
    my beautiful one, come with me.” Song of Songs 2:10-13

 

And of course, let’s let Brennan Manning take the floor too:

 

My life is a witness to vulgar grace- a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten til five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck towards the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request- “Please, remember me”- and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.

 

And thank God for Richard Stearns, a man whose book, the Hole in Our Gospel, dramatically, beautifully, reassembled my faith. Thank God for this man who, when the gatekeepers deny, thrusts open the door and pulls up a chair. Who walks in the love of Jesus in all spheres of life.

 

Thank God. Thank God. Thank God.

 

Thank God for the constancy of the sun and the fleetingness of the storm.

 

Amen.

Stories Still Matter

classroom-70316_640

 

On Wednesday afternoons the teachers and I gather in the math room for a meeting. It’s a weekly checkup- planning for spring graduation, roll calling classroom budget requests, announcing directives from the district, and, at last, a fast undoing of our zip locked lips.

 

We vent. Like chimneys we vent hot and ugly.

 

We love these kids. We really really do, but sometimes, I will say, they are a bit much. We would speak sense into them all, but a quarter of them show up stoned. We would ask them to not cuss us out, but then they just claim the first amendment. We would write it out on a note, all of these things we wish they would change, but it would probably take too long for them to sound out the words and they’d get bored and go back to facebook.

 

Sometimes we’re angry, most of the time we’re sarcastic with impressions and always, we end up worried. Carefully we comb through the grades of each student, discuss what we’ve heard in the halls about home, sigh over the drugs and the pregnancies, struggle to inspire suggestions as to what we can do about any of it.

 

We are the verbally abused, broken-hearted, care-too-much crew that cannot understand why we try so hard.

 

Throughout the seven-hour day we will be called bitch and motherfucker and occasionally get hit with a threat or two. We will hold ourselves together as best as we can, pushing the pencil back across the desk, stomping down the hall to cool ourselves off, inserting cordial words when we want to flip the hell out.

 

And sometimes, this works.

 

They are disarmed by our charm and unflinching smiles, and they sink back into their desks. They fuss and fuss but in the end, they usually get a little bit done.

 

But when they don’t, when their fury becomes rock hard cone of silence, it usually means something happened. After a lot of patience and space and private sit-downs, it will emerge out of their dirty mouths. It will make us clench our teeth tight, snap pencils on accident.

 

She’s pregnant again. The gang’s got him cornered. Mom won’t get out bed. Dad was thrown back in jail. Nobody listens to me. Nobody loves me.

 

It’s when I’m knee deep in devastation like this that I finally understand the meaning of story.

 

In the blogging world we sometimes dismiss story and a lot of times, it is justified. Like today, a favorite blogger of mine, Danielle, who writes at From Two to One, has been frustrated by the corruptive use of story. You can read her brilliant post here. And I agree with her. “Story” can be a tool of emotional manipulation to sneak in some theological statements here and there. Many times I have found myself at the fighting end of someone else’s “story” because sometimes it’s only a safe, criticism-free way to advance misogyny or capitalism or anti-gay sentiment. And sometimes, I am just as guilty of it.

 

But story, if told truthfully, is the bedrock of community. It is relationships in their first dawn-of-creation form. We allow others to Know us, a risky move that can reward us with love like we’ve never seen. We liberate people from heavy shame when they find out that there are others out there. Story is gospel like Jesus is love. It is Good News to give empathy and encouragement. It brings people inside with no one outside, because the one thing we all have in common is history.

 

And that’s never been as clear to me than when I am standing at the center of teenage misfits.

 

A few weeks ago one of our teachers gave a poetry assignment to her class. For most of the quarter, these kids had done zero work and given her zero respect, and at this critical, but cynical stage, she just wanted them graduated and gone. She just wanted to do her job.

 

On the due date, to her surprise, they all filed in with loose-leaf paper clutched in their hands, taking their seats soberly because she had made some suggestion that they read them out loud and they all looked nervous about it. Halfway through the hour, from down the hall, I saw her step out. She was trying to clear here throat, fidgeting with her hair as she walked briskly to the teacher’s lounge. I sensed there was something off so I followed her in. I found her leaning against the bookshelf in back, choking down a cry. I asked if she was okay.

 

“I can’t- I can’t go back in there. These kids… their lives.”

 

And nothing more was said and nothing more needed to be.

 

She could’ve almost been expressing what one feels when their loved one is dying. It was all in that hopeless hunched over posture.

 

Another teacher sat in for her, and he, later on, also came completely undone.

 

In that hour one kid talked about his addiction to prescription painkillers. One girl talked about her attempted suicide. Another talked about a father that sexually abused her since she was in preschool, she had been cutting ever since. None of the students sat in shock, all them sat in the security that shared pain brings. Darkness can only exist in solitude. Shared in a small room, it is a mass emancipation.

 

Story enhances the picture. It fills in the space between the lines. It changes the way we look at letter grades and extended absences. It reshapes what their hallway fights are really about. It makes us less hurt by all the hate hurled at us. It reforms our relationships with them, allowing us to be our brother’s keeper. Allowing them to sit back and know they’re not alone. Allowing us to catch a glimpse of the responsibility we hold.

 

Story can be a cruel way to advance an argument, yes. It can be manipulative and offensive, true. But perhaps, story is not the problem, maybe it’s the foreign subtexts. The great leaps we take from personal phenomenon to universal truth, applicable in any and all situations. Has to be applicable and if you’re not applying it than your life is wrong.

 

Story is more about bringing out empathy and understanding in the diversity of our lives. Bringing us to a place where we can talk. Where we can vent. Where we can share in a conversation over the most controversial of things and still have the capacity to care about how the other feels. Because we know their agony and they know ours. We know how to boost them back to the surface and they know how to breathe life back to our lungs. I think we are all good people when we aren’t ignorant of our own abilities to drown or to deliver.

 

Story is holding up our scars, saying yes, I have come this far, respect me as equal, love me as your brother, let me Know you too. Story, in it’s truest form, is simple. It is getting to know one another beyond gossip, small talk, email, and blog comments.

 

We learn to love, we learn to live, by the stories we tell and the stories we hear.

We cannot stop speaking in stories.

 

We just need to learn how to recognize when one is selling us bullshit,

and when one is setting up shelter.

 

And to be perfectly honest, I’d rather have mountains of bullshit out there- mountains of bad theology and ugly words and hate! If it means a million small rooms where scars are touched, filled with exhales and tears and the beginning of collective healing. Because at the end of the day, Love and Worth win out anyway. 

 

RR

“Speaking Up With My Friends”- Emily Maynard [Love Letter Series]

leaf-66573_640

Great writers across the blogosphere are like a few bright stars shining in the inky black sky. Rare and powerful. One of them is Emily Maynard. When I started reading her blog, I simply could not stop. She is a source of inspiration for me. A must read for me. If you aren’t a regular reader yet, fix that Right Now by clicking here.

As I’ve told Emily already, her heart is gold. She genuinely wants the world to know the love of Jesus, especially the shoved out and shut down. I feel so honored to have her voice Speaking Up here on my blog.

Lastly, take in these words with a box of Kleenex nearby. You may need them.

~

Hi Friend,

 

Emily 1I feel compelled to start with an apology, because I know the power of someone taking on the words that I need to hear and writing them out for me. I have felt the whispers of grace that come in the form of someone seeing me and offering support. I know the energy that rises when someone standing next to me grabs my hand and says “I’m sorry,” even when it wasn’t their fault.

 

What happened to you may not be my fault directly, but it is corporately. It is my fault in part because I participate and benefit from the culture that has kept you down.

 

I’m sorry.

 

What happened to you was wrong and I’m sorry. I’m sorry you were told that something inherent in you was a dirty rotten choice and you knew it and you don’t deserve cosmic or human love. That’s so wrong.

 

I’m sorry people, even people in the church, said they were safe for you and then stared unflinchingly into your eyes as they led the angry mob forward.

 

I’m sorry for the things I said and did, the fear I let sink down in me, the “othering” I did to you and your life. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to publicly validate your love and worth. I was bullshitting around because I have the privilege to decide what I want to say about this “issue” and when, but it’s your life every day.

 

I’m sorry I treated you like an issue instead of a person.

 

If you need more apologies, if you want to trace your fingers over your past and name them for me, I will apologize for each one. Because you are not alone and the true words we speak together are part of the physical act of spiritual healing.

 

But if you are ready, I want to move past the apologies. Even those can set us apart, and I want to talk about the drawing together (which reminds me of my favorite cartoon).

 

You and I are gay and straight, but we also so much more than those attractions wired into us. We’re more than the shame piled on us when we step out of line.

 

You and I are gay and straight, but we’re so much more than those attractions we express. They are a part of our days, and some days they are ever so important, but other days they are the most minuscule, unimportant parts of our lives. We’re people: working, studying, crying, learning, praying, laughing, and being human. That’s what makes us people: the being, not the gay or the straight.

 

When we are being together, we are a community. We are common. Maybe we find that commonality because we’re both human, or both have crazy dreams about becoming BFF with Taylor Swift at a Rhianna show (oh, that’s just me?), or because we’re both trying to follow the same Jesus way.

 

I know that the church hasn’t been and still isn’t a safe place for you. It’s probably not the first place you think of when you think “community.” Some people there think the adjective “gay” negates the noun “Christian.” But I don’t think that. And I really don’t think Jesus thinks that, based on what is written about him.

 

It’s Jesus who shows me the power of taking on someone else’s burden and saying enough. I can’t carry you cosmically the way Jesus does, with the Spirit guiding and the Father pouring out love. But I can stand next to you. Together we can all echo the chant: this is finished.

 

This division has to stop. I hope the church, gay and straight, proclaims that Jesus alone takes the weight from us and we can stand as equals. We are equals together. I don’t think our biology or our behavior puts us outside the bounds of love.

 

Speaking of behavior, I want you to know that I don’t care who you like. I don’t expect you care who I like.

 

What matters most to me is Who loves you. (Pro Tip: it’s the Jesus God-Revelation I was talking about a few words ago.)

 

Second of most, I care about how you love and are loved. I care about whether your love is safe, growing, dedicated, fun, healthy, supportive, and chosen freely. I hope you care about those things for me, too, because that empathy is the foundation of community. It’s an action of friendship, and we both need friends.

 

I had a hard time writing this letter, Friend, because it seems to silly to have to say all this. I hesitate, as a straight and cisgender person, to tell you that you’re okay, because it could seem like I’m the one allowing you in. I’m not. It’s God who did that, who does that, by forming you and knowing you more than anyone ever could. That’s the God I worship and love, at least.

 

But I also know that I have privilege in society that you do not. I know that in some small way, my speaking up may invite others to let you in or encourage you to let yourself in. So I’m saying this: I’m handing you back your power and I will help break down the social and religious structures that say you’re not okay. There’s nothing silly about that. That is a serious, holy sort of work. It’s the work of redemption. It’s the action of friendship and community.

 

I think it’s better when we do it together.

 

Love,

Emily

 

~

Emily Maynard is an outgoing introvert from Portland, Oregon. She is a big picture thinker who gets excited about questioning, exploring, and watching people find their voices. She writes a column for Prodigal Magazine and blogs at Emily Is Speaking Up. She is not the Emily Maynard from The Bachelorette. You can follow her nonsense and truth on Twitter: @emelina and Instagram: @emelinapdx

Truth is a Trigger

6a0133f0b2fdc2970b01774292a70e970d

 

After reading through Jonah and the Whale, he closes the Bible and gets to the point. It’s about Truth and speaking it Gracefully. Truth in Grace. A subtle unacknowledged shift from Truth in Love and even though it was different, I saw right through it.

 

He’s smiling when he tells us that it’s not the message that must change, Truth can’t change, it’s the poor packaging. We need more bubble wrapped words around our doctrinal beliefs, patterns and bows of Grace.

 

Truth is a trigger word for me. I hear it and my ears fold in on themselves and my mind packs up and travels elsewhere. It isn’t because I love lies and it isn’t because I think truth is relative. I believe that Jesus died and rose again and in some cosmic explosion, obliterated the partition between us. And I don’t believe that there is your truth and my truth. Truth is a river with no offshoots.

 

But sometimes we say it like it’s obvious and within reach. We say it without wincing when we should, oblivious to its’ impact on the audience, pretending it isn’t sunk under heavy sheets of history and interpretation and Life. And, let’s be honest, it is usually said to buffer criticism about something someone has already chosen to believe. It’s God’s Truth but it’s really just what you believe to be God’s truth. Which is fine, as long as you say it like that.

 

He says Truth and then mumbles on about Culture, which to me, through my bruised and burnt out eyes, is like cutting a commercial for Focus on the Family. It’s not, let’s seek the truth together, it’s let’s spread the truth together. Let’s march the truth out there. Let’s try to say it nicely, but WITHOUT COMPROMISE.

 

And I withdraw quickly because Truth has been thrust like a shank in me before.

 

It’s the flag, grenade and mantra of the Christian culture warrior. It is the default delivery during every political season- “Defend the Truth. Speak the Truth. Vote the Truth” And the truth is not that Jesus is Lord and King, it is that God is appalled by Barack Obama, that gays are the end of civilization and liberals are godless atheists. If you unpack it all, that’s the Truth.

 

Turns out, truth is not that narrow of a river. It is not clear and in bullet point form. It is not an ideology or a worldview or one that commits fidelity to a subculture over the hands and feet of the savior.

 

Truth is out there, to be sure, but more often than not, we’re estimating it. We scratch away at it with every question pursued to its’ end. We are surprised by it with every stereotype turned on its head. We step away from what we thought it was when we see how others read the same identical text with such different conclusions.

 

With all these scattered hearts and minds arriving messy in the pews, how can we even begin to talk about pitching Truth to anyone?

 

This word Truth, can make me squirm inside. It implodes every sermon I hear, conversation I take part in and every book I read. When one claims Truth, they lose me instantly. And I know that it’s because of the connection to culture wars, which often, is not what they’re getting at. But still. I feel it every time.

 

And one day, hopefully, it will shed all it’s baggage. It will mean something to me. The sound of it won’t send me running and missing out on the goodness that can come from the other words of others. But, like all my trip ups, this one will probably take time to overcome. A lot of time.

 

So for now. Let’s talk more about seeking the truth. Let’s look at this as an excavation. Let’s leave no stone unturned, no bridge uncrossed and no religion ignored. Let’s inhale every perspective of scripture out there. Let’s remember our history, let’s look to our future, let’s recall how claims of Truth have hurt us before and let us be slower now. Gentler. Humble.

 

“Nobody ever sees truth except in fragments.”

– Henry Ward Beecher

 

RR