Bridge Builder on Strike

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Rant:

Sometimes, I am chastised for being uncharitable to conservatives, online and offline (and sometimes, I certainly can be.)

People will ask me out for coffee to debate sexual ethics. People will email me so we can officially have it out. Sometimes they even express a willingness to learn, a need for information that they do not have, some backstory to my theology and the theology of many affirming Christians, because all they’ve heard is all they know…. Leading me to engage eagerly. It fills me up with hope. Until suddenly I start getting syrupy notes, patronizing paragraphs about how it’s just so darn hard to put up with those God rules isn’t it? But the “offensiveness of the gospel” should serve as a warning to my “lifestyle.” I close my laptop instantly. I feel foolish.

Sometimes my scoffing, my silence, it’s seen as a kind of intransigence on my part. A stubborn refusal to dialog. Like I have an unwillingness to leave my echo chamber and enter into the uncomfortable places, the spaces where we grow through loving disagreement. And while I get that, I also know that when it comes to this voice, my voice, they simply cannot hear it. I might as well be mouthing random words.

Because I’m gay, they can’t hear me. Because I believe God loves me as I am, they can’t hear me.

Instead of listening to me as an equal, immediately I am judged as being “biased” by my allegedly “objective” Christian challengers, so no matter my depth of study, no matter my hours spent in prayer, no matter the wisdom I’ve gleaned from my deep-painful-soul-searching-journey, my witness is dismissed out of hand. And I’m left standing here hit. Insulted. Dehumanized.

I wrote a new article for Sojourners on the day of the Supreme Court marriage decision- a very gentle article, I might add, holding in my metaphorical hands both my own celebration along with the concerns of conservative Christians. I offered a possible way forward for all of us: bridging the gap of our disagreement with radical love in action. In kind, some commenters called me “smug” and “sinful”, one going so far as to issue an altar call for my repentance. I turned to facebook where my posts was shared and while there were many kind words to be read, my mind has a tendency to Xerox all the words of extreme dislike.

And unlike past cultural events that exploded on social media, but were largely absent in my real life, this decision spilled into all spheres. There were some unexpected betrayals within intimate circles. A cold afterwards I’m still working through. But calls were issued for my repentance from those that know my faith. Vocalized concern (all of a sudden!) was made known for my “lifestyle”. And it is all too much sometimes. It’s dark out here. And they can’t hear me.

Recently, my friend Julie Rodgers, a public Christian figure, published a blog post explaining her evolving views on same-sex relationships. Unsurprisingly, she was set fire on the internet’s stake. If you know Julie, you know how infuriating this is. Julie is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Even though she disagreed with my theology, you should’ve seen how she embraced me when we met in Chicago, how she wanted to be a safe person, how she wanted to simply get to know me, Ben. A devout Christian, Julie has been (and continues to be) faithful to God’s call in her life to celibacy, but she no longer believes that this is mandatory for all LGB people. She supports them now. She believes they are good.

And when she announced that, she was torn to shreds by the conservative Christian gatekeepers. Particularly by Denny Burk who wasted no time in penning a blog post calling her faith invalid, a false teacher, calling her a “blemish on our love feast.” He later stated in the comments section that her, along with Matthew Vines, were “willfully suppressing the Truth of scriptures,” assuming a motive that I don’t quite understand (they’re secretly anti-Christian?), except that it serves Denny’s purpose to vilify LGB people and our allies.

So I’m done, temporarily, with the bridge building. It’s not intransigence. It’s not simply snark. It is protection. It is practicing safety for my emotional, spiritual, and in some cases, physical, wellbeing.

I don’t particularly care for those hours following brief, infuriating conversations; the way the anger grabs hold of my heart and will not let go. I don’t like wasting time on people who don’t (and won’t) see me as anything but a deviant gone astray. It’s become a boundary issue for me. Unless I perceive that the person is willing to meet me as an equal, respect me as one just as faithful and honest as they are. That’s different. And it’s also rare.

There is little use, I’m realizing, in talking with these folks. They can’t hear us. They can’t see beyond their own bigotry. It’s going to have to be an internal realization for them, or a forever separation from us, I don’t know. All I do know is that I’m washing my hands clean of this bridge building. The burden is not on me. I never should’ve thought it was. My humanity is not an argument I should have to fight.

Rant over.

God and the 48%

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Once upon a time, I thought I was alone in the world. This world, the Christian one I grew up in, said that people like me didn’t exist. There is no such thing as a Gay Christian, they said. The two don’t mix. You can’t baptize sin. It’s sinful to say you can. So, for a long time, I didn’t really know where I stood. It felt like a shadow. It felt like loneliness.

 

After I came out and all the pieces fell into place, after the false image of a furious God washed away to reveal love,  I wrapped my cross in a rainbow and paraded it everywhere I went. In my mind, I was like a chosen missionary. I was a unicorn, heroically weird, and uniquely qualified to say to the queer community: Look at me! I love Jesus and I’m not straight! You can too! And to the Christian community: Look at me! My shirt is on! I don’t go clubbing! Have no fear, for I will not flaunt! I wanted to destroy the false dichotomy I once endured. I wanted my witness to end this war.

 

I’ve seen this awful axe fall down and split people and families apart. I’ve seen the choice laid bare in tears from those who don’t know how to stop being who they are and can’t accept that they’re already beautiful. I’ve had conversations with wonderful people living successful, well-adjusted lives, except that their parents and siblings won’t speak to them, won’t answer the phone or reply on email, and those tears fall heavy. I’ve seen lives shattered in a second, and recoveries that have lasted a lifetime. This false dichotomy, this topical war, it’s not an abstract thing. It is flesh and blood. It is hearts and souls. There is a real cost and it is being paid in pain and shame and so many years lost.

 

And often, it all feels hopeless to save.

 

It feels hopeless, because Church is a wind that keeps pushing us further and further out, to the outer ring of out. I had to swear off Facebook on Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day. I had to get talked down to a calm heart during #IStandWithPhil. On the day that Christians abandoned ten thousand children in the third world, because gay married people in Seattle could suddenly apply to World Vision, I felt gutted. When World Vision caved and reversed their policy, I felt done.

 

It gets abusive, being a gay person in here. It makes you wonder sometimes if you’re even doing the right thing by inviting others in. I often wonder how many of us will stick it out.

 

For the last few years, I’ve held that mindset. I’ve held that worry. So the other day my world pretty much flipped upside down. Actual goosebumps prickled my arms. My eyes pooled up with tears.

 

Pew Research released their much-anticipated Religious Landscape survey, an annual look at religiosity (or lack thereof) amongst Americans. Much of the conversation was fixated on the decline of faith amongst Americans, which I am skeptical about anyway, but beneath the shuffle, there was something surprising. Startling. I didn’t actually believe it when I read it.

 

As people have left the faith, LGBs have turned to it. A six-point jump to 48%. That’s half. That’s one in two. And that’s nothing short of shocking. 

 

Given all that’s happened, all the experience, all the heartache, all the shame, all the anger, all the scars- unless this is some remarkable moment of reverse psychology- something bizarre is happening. Something that neither reason nor emotion can explain. Something that can only make sense once you factor in God.

 

I realized my mistake when I read these numbers. I had wanted to pry open the doors so others could come in, could see that God is not like what they’ve heard. But I forgot that He was already here. He always has been. On the outer ring of out. This edge is where He goes when He thinks of home.

 

God dwells in the margins. Walter Brueggemann once said, “the arc of the gospel is bent toward inclusivity.” And you only need to read the same book that has been shot like a dagger at the queer community to see that this has been the liberating story all along. God always drops anchor with the exiles. God lifts up the voices of the outcast in defiance of those that would say God’s love only goes so far, that God’s image is only reflected in a favored few. And it seems, He is doing it again.

 

It seems to be the never-ending work of God, collapsing all these false idols. God made man in his image and man returned the favor, so the quote goes, and history bears witness to that. God has been the slave-driver. God has been the abusive husband. God has been the fat-cat exploiting the impoverished. The name of God has been slapped on to our sinful systems, systems of domination and exclusion, systems intended to thin out everyone that doesn’t look like the most powerful one in the room. There has been so much maliciousness masked in God that it should hardly surprise us when a whole generation decides to drop out. No one can see God past those profiteering off of her.

 

So in response, God always goes nuclear. He goes and does crazy things. He goes and touches lepers and dines with tax collectors, lets a prostitute pour the perfume she saved for her tricks on his feet and then calls them all saved. He shows up at the well in enemy territory, at the hour only the shamed show up, to talk with an adulteress. He sends Phillip on a mission to make the first person evangelized an Ethiopian Eunuch. He drops a sheet of unclean food before Peter and tells him to eat it, tells him then to take this lesson and understand that people, too, are beloved, not unclean. And now He’s at it again. He is going to the people that have been banned from him, unfastening centuries of condemnation, drowning out every screaming picketer, pastor, blog post, every single word that stands between Him and us and saying, yes. You. I’ve always been here for you.

 

Always, God goes to those who have been hit hardest in his name and tells them another story. Tells them he’s for them. Tells them he’s in love. No matter how high or thick the walls may be- nothing can separate Jesus from his people, for he is a part of his people. He stirs loudly in their hearts. He always has. Always will.

 

48%. Hallelujah.

When Words Fail

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Originally published in 2014, at Deeper Story

Across her lap was my notebook, college ruled and crinkled from use. I had been writing songs in it, per her suggestion that I channel my inner angst up and out of myself, into something creative.

I sat slack on the couch, eyes sagging low from last night’s insomnia and waited for her to finish. She turned the pages slowly, as if they were aged documents. A couple times she scratched her cheek. Looked up with a smile. Looked back down.

“You are, you say, “a thousand puzzle pieces with no one to put you back together”?” She asked, repeating a chorus line. I nodded. I explained, “Yes, yes, I am because I’m all broken up inside and no one knows how to fix me. I can’t figure out how to fix me. If you look at another poem, I note that God could fix me, but he doesn’t.” She flipped a couple pages ahead. “Ah.” She said. “He is watching you fall with, you say, ‘pitiless eyes’?”

After a couple weeks of me writing and her reading, we concluded that while writing was a tremendous tool for sorting out our stuff, gaining perspective and clearing a path toward healing, it wasn’t what I needed. It was actually awful for me.

At the time, my therapist didn’t know I was gay, but she knew that there was some deep sensitive secret thing in me, something I was not ready to share with her. I had told her there was a thing. I told her how this “thing” was keeping me up all night. How it hooked around my ankle like a weight and I was underwater. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t slow down on the smoking, I couldn’t sit still for five minutes with my friends. And we decided that writing was just keeping my mind flooded with this worry, this darkness. I was dwelling in it. Drawing sad circles in the muck of it.

She suggested biking, at first,and then fishing, and then yoga. She listed off a number of things that could make some space between my mind and me.

So I biked, but then I’d stop somewhere and smoke and write in my notebook. I ran, but kept it short and then spent long hours of sad scribbling. I had a secret that needed to be shared. Needed to be said. Needed to get out of me, but I was so deep in the closet that all I could do was write parallel metaphors. Verses about hiding. About fear. About the world that was brushing up hard and fast against me.

Truth is, there wasn’t a single word, sentence, poem, book that spoke to the indescribable experience within me. Every time I tried, I missed.

When the sketching came, it came out of nowhere. I came back to my parents’ place one afternoon and saw my older brother hunched over a pad, slowly working out a portrait, glancing to his right at a flopped open book called “How To Draw”. He did this often, finding new hobbies. He had mastered a hundred, most of which I had little interest in myself, but for whatever reason, this captivated me. I walked over and stood behind him, lingering silently over his shoulder.

I got my own sketchpad and artist pencils and I sat at the Caribou down the road for several hours, drawing total crap. The upside to depression is that you can fail like this and not drop further than where you are, which is bottom. And so I kept at it. Day after day. Hour after hour.

Before long, I learned the different purposes of pencils, the darker shades, the lighter ones, how to make shadows look natural and eyes really shine. I learned the standard length of noses, how sketches are best started by using circles, then finished by sanding out a face or a dog or a car.

And before long, I was actually pretty good.

I was taken by it, the Visual Arts. I took up painting and then sculpture. I switched my minor to Studio Art and my junior year of college, I was a finalist in the school-wide art competition, an achievement I never could have predicted.

In many ways, the Visual Arts saved my life. When words were too much or too scary, I found color, line, shape, shade. And I found I had heart bent toward beauty and creation and depth.

This therapy was actually quite scientific. Art drew the pool of my mental energy to one corner of my mind, the artsy part, and in that move, it left the anxious and depressed parts to starve in some dark corner. It was an escape from life because, yes, sometimes you just need to escape for a season.

And in that escape, in that wordless season, I unknowingly found God. I can only see him there in retrospect.

When I went into my little makeshift studios, I found sanctuary. I found myself sitting before a canvas as the clock wound all the way around and there was nothing I needed to say, no prayer I needed to offer, no reason I needed to find to justify myself. I was just there. I was present. I was joyful. I was alive. My hands were covered in paint and ink and graphite, coated completely over with so many chemicals and for some reason, that makes me think of grace.

I set out unawares on a mysterious canal, oaring the roundabout way until fear felt less real. Until my own voice began to slowly rise in my throat. Until that moment, that breathtaking moment, when I looked up and saw the shore. I was always going home.

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How Taylor Swift Helped In This Man’s Gay Liberation

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I have a framed memory in my mind of hearing “Tim McGraw” on the radio. I don’t know why. But I can close my eyes and still see myself at sixteen, driving down the boulevard, hearing the words of You said the way my blue eyes shine percolating into my pierced ears. The K102 host had introduced it by saying: “Taylor Swift recently said she is not a stalker”, defending herself against her own provocative title. I thought, Yes you kind of are and rolled my eyes. The memory ends. So random. So weird. But then again, that’s my brain, always collecting the mundane, useless moments for later review- however, a possible explanation for it’s resilience could be that I was hopelessly in love with Tim McGraw. In the music way, of course. But the gay way, too.

Overall, though, the song wasn’t really for me. It was so wildly romantic. So bubbly with love. And at sixteen, I was decidedly against romantic love. I was convincing myself that despite what the poets said, it was not magic. It was not happiness. It was not what life was about. It was conditional, for starters. Messy. Hard. And Real Life always shattered it. Wouldn’t it be far better to spend my life going it alone, unshackled and free in this big wild world? I had no choice but to believe it would.

The year her album came out, kids at school were buzzing about it. In the parking lot, her music was blasting out of cars Should’ve Said No, Picture To Burn, ear-budded girls sang Our Song as they strolled down the hallway. Her music found it’s way into the social fabric of my life, so I started listening to her too. I downloaded her first album, Taylor Swift, and ran it all the way through, quietly, as I cleaned my room. And that was when the song came on that made me fall for her.

 

You saw me there, but never knew
I would give it all up to be
A part of this, a part of you
And now it’s all too late so you see
You could’ve helped if you had wanted to
But no one notices until it’s too
Late to do anything

So how can I ever try to be better?
Nobody ever lets me in
I can still see you, this ain’t the best view
On the outside looking in
I’ve been a lot of lonely places
I’ve never been on the outside

 

This song, The Outside, was written about her life in school, her feelings of invisibility and the paralyzing anxiety of isolation. Asked to elaborate on the song, she said:

 

”I wrote that about the scariest feeling I’ve ever felt: going to school, walking down the hall, looking at all those faces, and not knowing who you’re gonna talk to that day. People always ask, How did you have the courage to walk up to record labels when you were 12 or 13? It’s because I could never feel the kind of rejection in the music industry that I felt in middle school.”

On another occasion, she said: “I was a lot different than all the other kids, and I never really knew why. I was taller, and sang country music at karaoke bars and festivals on weekends while other girls went to sleepovers… It’s strange to think how different my life would be right now if I had been one of the cool kids.”

 

I had many friends in school, unlike Taylor. I had close friends that I went to movies with and had sleepovers with, played video games with and on the football team with. I had friends in many pockets, my hand in many cliques. I was well-rounded socially, never left out, never left alone.

But I wept a little when I heard The Outside. Then I played it again. And again. And again. The words falling into the blank space beside the long indescribable definition of my life. I was lonely. I was on the outside. I wanted to be in. At sixteen, I had spent much of my life striking the pose of a good christian boy, a popular peer, rooting myself to the center of both spheres- but always, always, always, I found myself staring through the glass at everyone else, locked out.

 

Of course, I never told anyone I was a fan. When asked about her music by people who adored her, I would typically sneer a little, do my best grunt: “Yeah, I don’t really get her…. but she’s pretty hot.” I put Swift beneath other rock and roll bands, the way I put harsh republican politics and harsh Christian theology over my slowly suffocating self. These were the days when I learned to also not talk with my hands and drop my voice one octave, spit into the sidewalk and talk nonstop about boobs. Being a fan of Taylor Swift would expose me.

 

But I kept secretly listening to her music as it has evolved. Throughout the span of her career, she has moved from country star to country-pop star to the world’s biggest star to now the Princess of Pop Star. From Taylor Swift to 1989, she has moved toward feminism, away from purity culture, and has even started speaking out for gay rights.

 

And as she moved, so did I. Our lives on something of a parallel track of evolution. When the adventurous album, Red, came out, I was in the midst of my own coming out, exploring the treacherous waters all around me, uncovering the scriptures, learning my God. At the very beginnings of owning my acceptance.

When the 1989 album came out, it was declarative, it was self-empowering. It was about shaking it off and learning that the people in our lives are a mix of good and bad, as are we. It poked fun at the public’s caricature, with Blank Space. It spoke powerfully about overcoming, resurrecting, returning to the essentials of who we are in Clean. And I was there, too. I still am. I’ve begun to feel my thickened skin around my tender heart, my ability to claim my acceptance without diminishing someone else’s. I’ve learned how to laugh at the haters. How to laugh at myself.

 

And I don’t pretend to hate her music anymore.

 

Obviously, if you follow me on twitter, you know this to be true. Friends have teased me for having a dog ears whenever her music comes on from some speaker. My first time dancing at gay bar, shake it off sirened me onto the floor. Lately, when I get mad, I put on Bad Blood.

And it’s less about the music than it is about my own self-acceptance. It’s a token. It’s a tribute. I don’t worry anymore about men calling me fem for crooning out her lyrics, the same way I don’t worry anymore about second glances from café dwellers seeing my rainbow stickered laptop. In listening to her music, I am reminded of my own freedom to like who I like, listen to who I want to listen to, to reject the standards of patriarchy.

 

Being a closeted gay, you don’t get little enjoyments like that. Being a closeted gay, you have to learn to like what others like, make yourself into their image, submit to straight pastimes. And then when you’re out and you see how incredibly blessed you are to be on the wrong side of normal, on the outside looking in, you begin to think silently to yourself how differently your life might be if you were one of the straight kids. And then you smile. Give thanks.

for the searchers (a review)

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I was very lucky this Spring, because I got an early copy of Rachel Held Evans’ latest book: Searching For Sunday.

 

Much of the criticism of this book, namely from those that accuse Rachel of slamming the door on the church, comes from the planet of the Things-That-Are-So-Untrue-It-Makes-You-Wonder-If-They-Really-Read-It-Or-If-They-Are-Worried-You-Will. When I read this book, I heard the heartbeat of it. A progression like an honest conversation between two people in love, Rachel and the Church. She is truthful in her struggles with it, frank in the ways she’s been wounded by it, but generously, generously, she gives it grace, love, acceptance, and wills herself to see it for it’s goodness, its’ core, its’ heart: the table where hungry souls gather.

 

Like many who will read this book, my “church story” runs parallel with Rachel’s. I was there for the Chubby Bunny games and I was there in the baptismal pool being in front of my church, declaring my fidelity to a crowd cheering. I was there when my brain swelled against many church teachings like bread in the oven against its’ twine. And I was there the day the Church hurt me, and countless others, in the most brutal of ways- World Vision, a dark moment that Rachel honors with an entire chapter.

 

And with maturity and wisdom and as I said above, grace, Rachel is intent on searching for the pinpricks of light. The bloodlines of church run through its’ seven sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Marriage. In these sacraments, Rachel divides her book, describing them with a poetic voice rooted in scripture, Church history and her own complex story, Rachel exposes the beauty of a church that has been shrouded in darkness for a long time, doing so in a way that draws in both the heart and mind.

 

What I’m trying to say here is that she holds both: the light and the dark of church, offering them up to us, the readers, the searchers, the doubters, the outsiders, as an image of God’s imperfect people. Reminding us that though it rubs up against our better instincts to go it alone, we cannot be Christians by ourselves.

~

 

I have to talk about the sentence that shook me awake to myself.

 

Rachel writes that after the World Vision calamity, she fell into “as deep a religious depression as I had ever known.” She began by shrugging off evangelicalism, sitting in her rage and sadness, taking a break. But she discovered, as she had in previous debacles with evangelicalism, that in her move out from this corner of Christianity, she was slowly stepping away from the faith altogether, one day, one decision, at a time.

 

She sorted through it all and in the end reached what I can only call the height of maturity, the great depth of her faithfulness.

 

“What I’m learning this time around, as I process my frustration and disappointment and as I catch those first ribbons of dawn’s light on the horizon, is that I can’t begin to heal until I’ve acknowledged my pain, and I can’t acknowledge my pain until I’ve kicked my dependence on cynicism.”

 

That sentence wrecked me. For many of us still nursing wounds, it should serve as a reminder that we are stronger than our cynicism. That we cannot heal until we learn to lift our lean on it.

~

 

A raised Baptist, I was a bit taken aback by how much the section on baptism affected me. Of all the seven, it was the one I thought I knew most about, having been dunked in our church pool at the age of eleven, having spent the eight weeks prior in classes preparing my soul for that very moment. (I wrote briefly about that when I participated in Addie Zierman’s synchroblog.) But maybe my memory is foggy and I just don’t remember learning this. Maybe I wasn’t told. Or maybe I simply hadn’t heard it told in such beautiful prose.

Rachel recounts a story of Martin Luther who, in his most grief stricken moments, would repeat to himself: “Martin, be calm, you are baptized.” If I had read this on my own, I would’ve thought it bizarre that he used that term, baptized, instead of, say, saved or Christian. Baptism feels so outward and ritualistic. But Rachel explains the significance of it, writing: “ultimately, baptism is a naming. When Jesus rose from the waters of the Jordan, a voice from Heaven declared, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well-pleased.” Jesus did not begin to be loved at the moment of his baptism; nor did he cease to be loved when his baptism became a memory. Baptism simply named the reality of his existing and unending belovedness.” And so it is with you, so it is with me. We are brought into this family not simply by a ceremonial ritual, but by a God who bore us into it. In baptism, we put on our name. In church, be it in a river or in a few drops on the forehead or on a stage before millions, we are baptized. That is something to hang on to.

~

 

This book is a must read. Especially given all we’ve gone through. It doesn’t dole out pretty lies about the church in order to puff up her image, there is not a broom to be found sweeping difficult history under the rug. It doesn’t strike against the church, again and again, joining an already loud chorus of writers.

 

 

Instead, it offers Hope. Rest. Compassion. Grace.

 

It is a story that will makes you feel heard and understood and then inspired. It is hilarious with her’ familiar stories of Chubby Bunny games and youth group nights of introvert hell; tender with her stories of her marriage to Dan; breathtakingly poetic in her plays on the Biblical stories, recasting them in a gripping, moving light.

 

 

Also, there’s Taylor Swift. And I have it on good authority that Rachel included T-Swiz as a tribute to me.

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To be completely honest, I have a sneaking suspicion that Rachel wrote this entire book for me. But maybe that’s just because she wrote it for all of us. The Searchers, the Dreamers, the Outcasts, the Alone. Those who long for a Sunday that smells like a feast, looks like a table with room enough for all.

 

This book is available today. Do yourself an enormous favor and order it here!

On “Persecution” and Indiana

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(above is the cover Time Magazine is running with. I want write all over it. Gays are Christians, too. Christians in America aren’t under attack. Also, check the facts. Correct the error.  LGBT people are attacked on a daily basis.)

The night after the video of the twenty-one Coptic Christians was released, I wanted to write a post. In the post, I wanted to talk about how when words like persecution are overused and broadly used, used to describe events in varying contexts with dramatically different degrees of severity, they become words that are banal, lost, stripped of their meaning. The accurate word to describe for that horrific night was, absolutely, persecution. This was the night the world saw the terrible truth of that word and it mattered that we called it exactly what it was. That we tagged these murders committed because of religious beliefs with the term. That we wrote down the word and saw the men on the beach, remembering their bravery, remembering they overcame, remembering they were persecuted. That we identified for the world, for each other, what persecution was. It mattered that we saw how dark and violent it is in that assembly of eleven letters that led to the deaths of twenty-one men. And then, in the post, I’d go into how often we say what happened to them is the same thing that happens to us when the store clerk smiles: Happy Holidays!

 

But, alas, I didn’t write that post, for good reasons. Though it wouldn’t be out of a desire to exploit a tragedy to prove a point, it might look that way and it might, reasonably, offend others. I didn’t write it because I hate when people do that, too.

 

But now it might be time.

 

The term is once again being grabbed at for reasons that have to do with people like me. Praise the Lord at least some improvements have been made in that Indiana discriminatory law, but even though the improvements are slim, evangelical Christians are not happy about it. They claim vulnerability. They claim the outrageous. If I had a dollar for every pastor I have seen on social media talk about their fears of being forced to marry same-sex couples, I would be rich enough to buy every single one of them a United States Constitution and an insightful book on the separation of Church and State.

 

It’s not new for Christians to claim persecution. Sadly, this important term has been a busy member of the Christian lexicon, being used to describe everything from liberal agenda-wielding college professors to insurance coverage of contraception. A laughable movie came out last year that was literally titled Persecution. It’s about a famous pastor with an unpopular opinion having to outrun the animal that is The Secular Liberal State which is trying to kill/coerce/brainwash him (I only watched the trailer, I don’t know what the State wants from him.)

 

I spent a semester in DC in a political program for Christian college students, a program in which we were all assigned an issue to investigate. Ours was energy policy and it rocked. At the end of the semester, our professors who were the united conservative academics of America and where limping towards the end by our surprise liberal politics, asked us, warily, if the next crop of students they had should study Religious Liberty, because it was becoming a bigger issue with same-sex marriage.

 

Most of us frowned and said no, because most of us in this generation, gay or straight, realize that LGBTQ, Muslim, Liberal, Atheist neighbors and friends were not threats to our religious liberty. We recognized it with that bullshit detector we’ve all grown, that beeping that goes off whenever we here a variation of that crank-filled-phrase: “well, back in my day…”

 

And what we know is that we are not persecuted. We live in a pluralistic world. We live in a faith that has a great diversity of beliefs. And as Christians, we do not fight for the power to discriminate against others, because the essence of Christianity is not about being right, it’s about being humble. It’s not about wielding our power to take away from others, but giving to others the fruit of our gifts. Everything we’ve got to give we give. Especially to the marginalized (amongst whom, you’ll find Jesus [Matt. 25:40].).

 

There’s something so parallel to the way many evangelical Christians claim persecution to the way they read scripture. Picking and Choosing. Building a religion within a religion. Narrowing the gates for only those they like or things that make them comfortable. Many of these bakers, florists, photographers have probably provided services for Barmitzvahs and secular weddings and unknowingly, wishy-washy Christians. Just today, CNN interviewed one such gay-offended individual, asking her if she would serve adulterers and those who’ve dishonored their parents, two big no-nos spelled out in the Ten Commandments. She said Yes. Why, the reporter wondered, was she willing to be a part of one kind of sinner’s celebration and not another’s.

 

She answered: It’s just a different kind of sin to me and I just don’t believe in it.

 

I could almost hear her saying in the same breath how the Bible is the literal bulletproof word of God, but the Levitical commandment to kill disobedient children is completely bound to context and culture.

 

The truth that I want to whisper into her ear is that people all of over the world are being killed for their faith and that is persecution. Our non-muslim brothers and sisters in Nairobi, just today, were ripped from their dormitories and slaughtered in the streets. 147 of them. Lives precious to God and to their grieving families. Do you dare use the same term, assign the same crime, to both your inability to deny service to others and their bodies lying bloodied all over campus? It’s a damn fair question.

 

Words matter. And to use a word that is dripping with so much pain and violence and tears and blood to describe your experience with a gay person wanting a pizza or a bouquet or a marriage license is not just insulting, it’s downright dangerous. It steals from the dignity of those who’ve paid the full price of their beliefs and only serves your own self-righteousness and prejudice.

 

You are not being persecuted. You are cloaking discrimination in the gospel. You are blinded by ideology and fear and might not even realize it. Please, wake up from this nightmare. The world needs to know what persecution really is.

 

Side note:  Some evangelical Christians are the worst. Not all. Also, I’m tired. Also, I want to say, I find so much peace with the fact that I no longer pledge loyalty to this culture. My fidelity is only to Jesus: Friend of Sinners.

Back to the Basics

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In his timeless book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes:

 

“Imagine that Jesus is calling you today. He extends a second invitation to accept His Father’s love. And maybe you answer, “Oh, I know that. It’s old hat.”

 

And God answers, ‘No, that’s what you don’t know. You don’t know how much I love you. The moment you think you understand is the moment you do not understand. I am God, not man. You tell others about Me – your words are glib. My words are written in the blood of My only Son. The next time you preach about My love with such obnoxious familiarity, I may come and blow your whole prayer meeting apart.

 

Did you know that every time you tell Me you love Me, I say thank you?”

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Often, I fall for the belief that I have somehow spiritually made it. That I’ve graduated the basics of faith, moved on to the more complicated and sophisticated work of figuring out my own theology, my own interpretations of scripture, applying the teachings of God to the issues of the day like a PhD solving elementary questions. I take stills of God in my mind and pick him apart. I strain myself to solve him out, because I believe God gave me a brain to better understand him. To learn him, inside and out, and seek the real Truth in all of these hypotheses.

 

After all my years of trying to fight my way into God’s good graces, and then finally finding I was there all along, I fall for the idea that I know who I am and whose I am and that my value is a kind of concrete floor I will be standing sure-footed on for the rest of my life. I won’t have doubts, because I’ve taken that journey. My feet are beautifully calloused by that walk and I shall forever live in the afterwards. I won’t have to bother, anymore, with the basics of faith, the overly simplistic questions, because they are part of me, like scar tissue. 

 

I am easily offended at this question: Do you know that God loves you? Uh-hu, I want to say. That’s kind of the point. That’s why I’m here. God is love and I love God, and we could talk about this all day but I think there are some bigger issues demanding our utmost attention. Let’s talk about how science informs our faith and vice versa. Let’s dive into the deep waters of soteriology and pneumology, creation myths and Divine grace. Let’s tackle this thing from all angles and figure out, grow in understanding, enter into enlightenment. We have no time to discuss the basics, we have the answers, move on.

 

Do you know that God loves you?

 

It’s a question that I so easily bat away, particularly from well meaning people trying to help me when I’m in my pain. During my depression days, I heard this over and over and over again: God loves you. He is here for you. You matter. And each and every time, I thought, this is not news to me. I know that. Things still hurt. It’s not the issue.

 

It’s a question that sometimes feels too reminiscent of the simplistic culture I’ve walked away from. The one with the literalists and the dopey-eyed jerks, vampire Christians who see Jesus as a means to a glorious afterlife end. It feels like: Jesus loves you, and that’s all there is to it! And I get that. I agree with that. But still. I don’t want to agree in the same vein that they do. To agree with them in that way would feel, strangely, like a capitulation. Like the next thing coming is a suspension of my brain with it’s wild curiosity, a resumption of chirpy worship ballads emotionally manipulating me and a weekly volunteer gig for Young Life.  And I want to know the God that loves me in total, as I am, not as I should be. I want the one with the big outstretched arms always open. And the kind of love being sold by this particular strain of Christianity is anything but unconditional.

 

It’s a question that I respond to with “that’s Old Hat”, that’s elementary, basic, and I am better than that question. Then I move about my day from one experience of self-doubt to another of shame to another of questioning whether or not I am enough. And suddenly, the concrete floor caves beneath me. And I feel the distance between a simple declaration and nourished belief.

 

Does God love me?

 

It’s a humbling question. You have to set down your pride to face it, stop your eye-rolling and look at it. Acknowledge that maybe those evangelicals are on to something and it’s okay if it feels like capitulation, like a confirmation that you don’t have it all figured out. Say those words, I am loved and I am accepted, and work them into your heart like thread through a needle.

 

There is nothing elementary about this question. The depths of it are endless, the implications are paramount. The response we have points to the belief we hold about ourselves, about our worth, about how we see ourselves in this great wild world.

 

At the end of the day, it is the most important question and I am never 100% sure about it. My ability to accept that I am accepted hinges on me, and my hands are broken. Cupping them open to receive is an act of faith. Believing I deserve it in the first place is a mountain, it is a reach, but it is there, in that journey, in that holding out, in that summons, that I find the rope of grace. I grab it and hang on. I say the words again. I am accepted. I am accepted. I am accepted. And I allow for the moment where, as Tillich says,: “reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.” I am back to the beautiful basics. Starting over. Feeling it for the first time, once again.

My Quarter Life Crisis

It always starts like this for me: the new year rises up on the horizon and tells me it’s time to Get Serious. It’s time to start worrying about the future of my life, that blank page stretching endlessly before me, all that white space that should be filled with five-year plans, with narrowed down career choices and grad school applications, with all the things that I should’ve begun by now… because by now, I should be an adult.

 

My initial efforts to stop the downward spiral, my self-care regimen of deep breaths and I’m thankful for lists, were quickly thwarted by the daily reminders of Success Elsewhere: An email from LinkedIn telling me who now I needed to congratulate. A Facebook feed full of engagements and new houses and babies on the way. An instagrammed Paris. A tweet of a Book Deal. A claim on happiness. A life that is better.

 

I’d drive to Caribou and settle into the corner to make a “Life Plan” (Fix-My-Life Plan) only to close my MacBook five minutes later because the Future is too overwhelming. It is an anything-is-possible place, and for me, that’s terrifying. My anxious mind graffitis over it with all my worst fears. My biggest doubts.

 

This worrying is so ridiculous. My life is very good: I have a job that pays well and good friends to spend weekends with. I have a warm family, the best people, and they know me inside and out. I pay my own rent, do my own laundry, buy my own groceries and set my own bedtime. All things considered, you might call me an adult.

 

But there are these things that can work their way through the seams of your life. Inadequacy and Expectations. Wildest dreams, still unfulfilled. Altogether, they make up what the scientists are calling the Quarter Life Crisis.

 

I turned twenty-five this past month. A quarter of a century old. It was the first time I wanted to lie about my age.

 

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In 2015, time suddenly became rare and valuable, and so I started scratching all the things that appeared extravagant like reading and exercise, blogging and writing, making even the smallest amount of time for others. Then I took that surplus time and spent most of it at Caribou, where I stared for many minutes at Grad School applications I never finished, skimming blogs about climbing out of the Quarter Life Crisis and Ten Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Teacher and trying to figure out a great pitch for a big magazine somewhere. I was thinking hard and dwelling deep and worrying myself to the bone.

 

I began to seriously question my own worth and abilities, and that’s when I knew something had gone terribly wrong.

 

I knew where I had to turn- but I really didn’t want to do that. It felt like failure. Like a confirmation of my collapse. To turn there, to go back there, would mean I had forgotten. And I hadn’t… had I?

 

With a desperate voice, I just said it anyway:

 

I am accepted.

I am loved.

I am enough.

 

And I stopped shaking.

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In a way, I was forced into these words. A friend had asked if I would speak at his church (which I have never done before) and I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about. My story: from self-loathing to self-love, my journey into the heart of the God That Sees Me.

 

In my circle here in Minnesota, I told only a few about this church thing. I was terrified about it. I am not a public speaker. That is not how I am built. So I told them I needed them their for moral support, and perhaps some kind reassuring words after I botched the whole thing.

 

They all came.

I sat on the stool beneath stage lights in front of a handful of people, and I saw every one of their grinning faces. For a half an hour, I got to watch my people show up for me.

 

Near the end of my talk, I said this:

I am accepted.

I am accepted.

I am accepted.

 

And it’s just three words, but they are my holy words. They are my song. The tied knot at the end of my story, the first words that started my ascent from the darkness, the words that found me.

I am accepted is such an easy thing to say, to yourself or to others… but believing it? That’s another conversation. That takes work. That takes a lifetime of learning and practicing and prayer. And if you’re here, in the Minnesota Winter of your Quarter Life Crisis, it can be impossible to hear it at all.

But in that moment, on that stage, my desperately hopeful theology was met with the proven witness gathered before me. The warm faces reminding me of the Success Here. The success in me. The success through me. The success to come. My words and my people, both pouring into one in my heart. I am accepted.

God is here, in the midst of my circle walking. In the coffee cups and the slouched sitting. In the panic and the fear and the rage, in the twenty-fifth year of my striving. He is here. And He is working something new in me. Something that cannot be rushed or scheduled or detailed down in a plan. God is saying to me, once again, for the millionth time: You Are Accepted. You are Loved. You are Enough.

It all adds up, even when it doesn’t appear to.

This is a weird winter and a weird season of life. I feel completely unprepared for it. But maybe it’s going to just be about those three words for now. That still small voice in my mind. That love, always there to catch me.

Grace for the Addict

Deeper Story is closing and to be honest, I’m torn up about it. Before I joined as a Storyteller, I was a regular reader, taken captive-as many were- by the blunt and beautiful truths that tumble out when you choose to tell your story authentically. When you stop editing it down into something palatable, something safe. When you just say it- out loud- the big questions and hurts and joys, just as they are on your heart.

That’s what Deeper Story has been.

When I was invited to join, I felt like I had been asked to the prom. In the email from Sarah, she offered me a significant amount of time to pray and think and consider if I really wanted to do this, and in an effort to appear nonchalant about it, I waited awhile- give or take an hour- before I couldn’t help myself and responded with: YUP. I’M IN. THANK YOU. :) (or some variation of that.)

I was only there for a short time, but it was a wonderful time. I’ve learned from some truly greater writers about things completely unrelated to writing. I’ve made new friendships that will continue into the future. I was challenged and forced to work harder on my writing than I ever have before (because how do you not stress over your words and your story when you have to stand there next to folks like John Blasé or Sarah Bessey or Addie Zierman or anyone else there.)

If I had to pick a favorite of my ten pieces, I would say the one below is it. It was my first piece. It was a post where I talked about something that I rarely do, a post in which I wanted to get raw and honest about my own fallen humanity and the beauty of God’s grace. My struggle with quitting smoking. (UPDATE: Not fully quit yet, but I have cut down significantly, to about two cigs a day, all of it due to a friendly modern invention called the E-Cigarette.)

Anyhow. Here’s my piece. Be sure, while it’s still open, to go check out all the different essays at the DS page!

Also- if you’re on the email list… I apologize in advance for the coming barrage. As I back up my essays onto this site, I don’t know how to do it without automatically sending out emails. I’m not techy enough.


Grace for the Addict

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In the seventh grade, I won the Ramsey County Police Department Poetry Contest after I penned a poem telling anyone addicted to nicotine to juststop 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.

With all the statistics and health facts we have today, the ads of women reduced to robotic voices and amputees and phantom old men trying to hug their grandchildren, with all this information and truth out there, only the insane could still be smoking. And maybe I am, because I still do.

 

I still smoke. I had a cigarette ten minutes ago.

 

And I don’t know how to write about it and turn it into something sympathetic, or deep, or on some level, okay. I worry that I am disqualifying myself as a disciple or a serious person. It is a problem, yes, I know that; it is an addiction.

“It is idolatry,” one Christian friend told me in college, in our very first vulnerable conversation.

“You won’t feel God’s love until you quit,” said another girl who claimed the power of prophecy, who added that that this was a directive from the Lord she received in just that moment.

And I suppose, some elements of truth can be found there. Much of this is about choice. I turn to an addiction instead of the Answer to handle my anxiety. A lot of this comes down to temptation, self-control, sin.

But it’s also an addiction. A bind. A battle I have waged with every weapon. Once, I promised a friend I’d quit cold turkey and she promised to hold me accountable. By the third night, I snapped. “I can’t do it!” I cried over the phone as I sat rocking on the dock, huffing and puffing like a little engine. Like the little addict I was.

But why? You still ask. Why did you start?

Because I wanted a redemption story. A before and an after. A transformation. Because I couldn’t quit being gay and at sixteen, I stopped believing God cared about changing me at all. And I became obsessed about change.

So, in high school, I started dragging my soul down to the swamp of Bad Things, soaking it in deep. One day, I thought, I could wring it out and scrub it clean. One day, I believed, after all that scrubbing, purging, cleaning, just maybe, I’d become enough.

It took years to knock this illusion out of my head. I tasted real redemption when I finally accepted that I am accepted and washed myself in the waters of grace, in the river of his love, when I found my healing in this sacred Truth: I am loved deeply, and always.

There is no good excuse for the smoking, but there is some context here. And I think that’s why story matters so much. Because in one quick glance, you might just see another sad addict, but when you watch the journey leading to this place, it’s clear that I was a kid, just desperately looking for a way out. Lost just like everyone else in the complicated reality of growing up. And grace covers all of that. Covers me still.

It is National Poetry Month and in this month, Easter, and I’m thinking about how fitting that is. We’re celebrating the single greatest triumph of the world, Jesus defeating death, and we’re celebrating the ancient craft that has breathed space into a world divided by black and white, good and bad, the sacred and the secular, and the possible and the impossible. We’re rejoicing in the grace that is filling every chasm. Filling every single one of us.

2014: A Rebuilding Year

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I’m not much of a sports guy, but many of my best friends are, so I spent a lot of 2014 watching Minnesota sports- the Timberwolves, the Twins, the Vikings, and the Wild. At bars, I sat there, mumbling into the ears of whoever was nearest, so, remind me… What is a balk? When watching hockey, I sometimes repeated an old question that I still don’t feel I’ve once received a satisfying answer to: is there any strategy here? It’s a fair question, I think.

In all my years of watching and not understanding professional sports, my absolute favorite question to ask during a game is: Are we any good? When I ask this, it’s because we are playing so obviously bad. Players are hiding their heads beneath towels and the scoreboard is awkwardly lopsided. But, like all sports nuts, my friends are resolute in their loyalty.

“It’s a rebuilding year.” They say.

C’mon now.

What they really mean when they say “rebuilding year” is that this year, we’re duds. It’s not pretty. And it’s not going to get any better. This year can only be considered practice for the next year, or perhaps two from now, when the team will be back on top, each player having reached their peak in development by then. But not this year. This year is for the dull work of development. Of losing and losing and learning through the loss.

2014 been a rebuilding year.

At the tail end of 2013, I was driving home from Washington, DC where I spent three confusing months aiming at “finding my purpose” and ending up empty handed, flooring it through Ohio in tears. This was merely the latest of my adventures. Exactly one year before I was flying over Europe, coming home after spending a very interesting yet also confusing three months in the tiny country of Kosovo.

I started this year with a job as a special-ed para and was eventually cut in April due to budgetary thing that I had not been made aware of- I was given two days notice. Then, I picked up a job as a barista and a personal care attendant for a young man my age with autism. Shortly after that, I was hired as a special ed para for the fall school year at my old high school, a position where I am constantly bumping into old teachers who faintly remember me. And yet again, I am confused. What am I doing here? Where am I headedWhat is next? Mind goes blank.

I decided to venture into the dating world this year by going on a short string of dates with one guy. Funny and kind as this boy was, he was also the first boy I ever dated, and that tectonic shift- from friendship with men to flings with them- threw me so far off balance that one day, I cut off communication in an abrupt and unforgivable way. A few months later, he let me back as a friend and was gracious with my fears- he had once had them too, and he admitted his own doubts about our compatibility. With him and another friend, I went to a couple gay bars. As they danced, drinks shaking in their hands, I stood in a far corner looking like Bambi in headlights. The slightest graze of an elbow made me jump out of my skin. I rarely went out with them again.

For the first time in two years I wasn’t in Washington D.C. or Pristina, Kosovo and I thrived within the Minnesota Fall. Until it fell away completely and the winter swept in, caging me in my house by the heavy darkness at four pm and the subzero temperatures all day long. For some odd reason, I thought this would be the perfect time to switch off my antidepressants and move towards something more exclusively antianxiety and I paid for this decision with all the withdrawal symptoms making me ache with utter intensity. Pinches felt like punches. A coworker’s throw-away comment felt like an assault The darkness drained me of life. And I was disappearing.

Or rebuilding.

The difficult decision to transition off of antidepressants painted Christmas in all new colors this year. With my feelings fully felt, I was able to really empathize with the pain in my relatives’ lives. I felt my heart rip open in the best way as my nephew Wyatt tore the wrapping off his new baby drum set. I wrote a post last month that really touched my grandpa and he placed his hands on my shoulders and told me so with a smile. When he asked my old pastor (the pastor of my childhood) if he would read it, the pastor surprised my grandpa by telling him he had been reading me all along! My antidepressants typically turned the volume on these moments way down. Now I hear them ringing loud, lingering inside my soul.

After a few rough experiences at the gay “bars” (okay let’s just call them “bars”) I went with my straight friend Micah and after explaining my own fear of dancing, anywhere, ever, at all- he hopped to his feet and told me to follow him out to the floor where I danced, and it was awkward. I was all elbows and clapping hands and one-two-steps. But I did it. And it was fun. And if you knew me, you’d remember this night as historic. 

 

The beginning of the end of my church cynicism came about this year when I was asked, perhaps by accident, to serve the elements. I spoke these words to hundreds of people: “The blood of Christ shed for you” and in that exchange something happened. As I lifted up and out the cup, my faith became embodied. My broken hands were giving people life. People that were broken were coming to me. And we were blessed by the moment of it. Consecrated as one body, as one people: the Blood of Christ shed for each and every one of us thirsty for it.

There’s no denying that my year has had its’ stretches of blandness, but even in them, I was learning vital lessons. I was learning to snap out of apathy and take better care of myself. I was learning to listen to the needs of others. I was learning to live loved and lived contentedly, to dance whenever the floor presented itself.

I was learning to rebuild, and it might be the greatest lesson of all.

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