Signs of Hope in Lent: The Power of Telling Our Story, Part 2

I remember the day Pete (one of the eldest gang leaders, not his real name) sat on top of me, pinned my arms with his knees, the crotch of his nylon basketball shorts within inches of my face. He shouted out to the other gang members loitering in the living room, “Should I rip one?!?,” meaning let gas fly in my face. Everyone immediately burst out laughing. Pete was a huge man, not cuddly or cute, but a generally mean person who probably weighed over 300 lbs at about 6 feet 5 inches tall. He had a sick sense of humor. We understood him sort of like a “shot caller” for us young gang recruits. We all looked up to him and, between each other, vied for his approval. But when I found myself beneath him, laying powerless on the floor, I just wanted to go back to my privileged cocoon in White suburbia.

I told myself to look serious and unfazed coming into his apartment that day, “Don’t say anything stupid. Just be quiet. Look people in the eye and laugh at what Pete says.” But all this surface-level self-talk was a complete facade. I almost immediately felt panic begin to rise in me. On entering his sparse apartment, Pete first wanted us to see his thick wad of $100s bills, probably from casino tips and drugs he sold. He then brandished a semi-automatic assault rifle. In spite of my best attempts to project a fearless persona, I probably could have jumped out of my shoes if anyone poked me. I could feel the stress chemicals coming out of my skin like little air bubbles exhaling the message to others: here’s a weak person to toss around and entertain yourself with.

I now know this is what fear looks like. It’s like a Big Man passing gas in my face. It’s me struggling to get up, but having no strength compared to this giant on top of me. It’s like having guys who I call friends revel and laugh at my weakness and humiliation.

Fear seems to have two biologically imbedded responses: fight or flight. Despite my attempts to look tough, I mostly tried to retreat inside, to not let the emotions show. Instead, I silently imagined my growing anger giving me super powers to fight like Jet Lee or the meanest version of Tony Montana. But, when it came to the gang, I never managed to challenge my bullies. I was happy that my old friends outside of the gang now saw me as powerful just because I hung out with them, so I told myself maybe it would get better over time if I laid low and held on. Of course it didn’t get any better, but much, much worse.

The truth is, I love Pete. He is a wounded man. I can feel that today more than ever. He did things to me and other victims that were just messed up. Even now my anger can well up. But I also see him as he is, the waywardness and all. I look into his life and somehow find a humble man. Whether it is truly Pete or not, I don’t know for sure. And yet I want my victims to see me that way too, to show me the same mercy. In fact, isn’t this reversal how the rulers are brought down low? Isn’t this hand of grace how the rich get sent away empty? Isn’t this complete release of vengeance how the hungry are fed?

Ironically, my secret fault was that I needed a friend. I was too afraid to admit that to myself, much less to Pete and a half dozen other gangster youth. Perhaps I wouldn’t have known what to do if I had actually found someone I could lean on. But it strikes me as a worthy secret to tell everyone now, something I would have never thought of back then.     

Each person’s story has the power to offer liberation for someone else: Mary’s song, Jesus’ lament, Burley’s vision of community, even my own retelling of life beyond my bullies. These stories speak about God’s strong arm reaching into the world and turning things upside down. By telling the public what happened—in real honesty with hope—the Spirit gently aims us all back to God, the only One whose “judgments…are true and righteous altogether.” Yes, we know that some may try to discredit our hope, but others will finally imagine it for themselves: if it can happen for her, it can happen for me. Those who resist the call to bear witness and repent very often have no idea who will save them. They feel a deep alienation from the King whose ear is curved to answer the cries of the poor, the afflicted, the insignificant, the excluded and left out.    

What secret faults do you want cleansed? What stories do you need to tell? What can make a person truly happy even if the world is falling apart?


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Signs of Hope in Lent: The Power of Telling Our Story, Part 1


Luke 13:34-35

Psalm 19:7-14


“We Fall Down”
By Donnie McClurkin

“This is what it means to be penitent: to face ourselves honestly and with hope. Truth — the kind of truth that sets us free — is hopeful honesty. It makes change possible. There is, of course, a way of being honest that is less than truthful, an honesty that is lacking in hope.”

Tim Keel

By a lot of accounts, this is an embarrassing time to be associated with Jesus. Many of our worst ideas and fears about God are pegged on Jesus. A quick glance through church history seems to reveal that most denominations have accepted, in one variation or another, that Jesus will someday come back to account for all the wayward things people have said and done. For some, this teaching may evoke the image of an exacting, unforgiving, even bloodthirsty Judge who desires vengeance. Not surprisingly, it’s easy for me to reject this kind of “savior” who is so unlike Jesus!

But I feel doubly troubled by the absence of justice in a world where death-dealing powers are ostensibly in charge. I feel frustrated with stock phrases like, “God is love” or “Be the change you want to see.” Although this language is intended to focus on inclusivity and personal agency, it often results in the preacher taking a nap. Spirituality of this kind seems to unwittingly pacify the vulnerable and grieving with promises of unity based on self-sacrifice and unreality. Rather than inviting us to a radical call of nonviolent liberation and holy disruption, this form of inclusivity seems focused on avoiding conflicts and, strikingly, still leaves the work of righting wrongs in human hands. Indeed, no one from the Christian left seems to know how God himself will accomplish justice or end evil in the human story. Yet Mary, our matron, saw this narrative burst wide open as she experienced justice from God’s own powerful hand:

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

    and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53).

She indeed rejoiced because of this “good news.” I also joyfully welcome a strong God who makes good on his promises. Of course, I’d be lying to myself (and you my friends) if I just left it like that, as if faith in those promises were as simple as believing certain things. So let me complicate my longing for God’s powerful intervention by admitting to some real doubt—not theoretical doubt—but doubt that began in my own weaknesses, in particular times and places.

In the season of Lent we try to make space to single-mindedly focus on God. It is a needed moment in our yearly rhythm to clear away the dusty and cluttered grip we often can’t seem to loosen so that God’s Spirit begins to possess us in a new way. I’ve chosen to focus on the role of honesty on this second Sunday of Lent, which seems fitting because so much of what needs to be cleared out and swept away are the lies we tell ourselves. The second half of Psalm 19 points us truth-seekers precisely on that path:

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.

The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.

12 Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.

13 Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

In a world of “alternative facts” and governmental secrecy, combined with those of us who live in quiet desperation, we must not allow ourselves to compartmentalize the truth. We must see ourselves as members, one to another. We must see ourselves in a coherence with the world, which includes all the good and all the ugly. No separation.

Burley Coulter, an iconic character in Wendell Berry’s fictional Port William membership, says to a world he knows is coming to an end:

“What is done is done forever. I know that. I’m saying that the ones who have been here have been the way they were, and the ones of us who are here now are the way we are and to know that is the only chance we’ve got, dead and living, to be here together. I ain’t saying we don’t have to know what we ought to have been and ought to be, but we oughtn’t to let that stand between us. That ain’t the way we are. The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t. What has been here, not what ought to have been, is what I have to claim. I have to be what I’ve been and own up to it, no secret faults. Because before long I’m going to have to look the Old Marster in the face, and when He says, ‘Burley Coulter?’ I hope to say ‘Yes, Sir. Such as I am, that’s me.’” (p. 136-137)

Or perhaps Jesus puts it better,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

“See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Luke 13:34-35)


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Bethel AME Choir

Wow. This choir. This song. Pretty amazing.

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On November 9th, 2016

I needed these reminders today:

  1. I’m reminded to look outside of (white) evangelical Christianity for a truthful witness about the USA.
  2. I’m reminded that loving my neighbor often requires a broken heart.
  3. I’m reminded that none of America’s electoral accomplishments satisfy deep justice.
  4. Most importantly, I’m reminded that the time of fulfillment has come (Luke 4:16-21).

What has helped you make sense of this election?

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An Open Letter to (White) Evangelicals on Voting

Dear sisters and brothers,

Although it’s sometimes difficult for me to know where I belong these days, I thank you for always including me and being such warm mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in the faith. We have shared one another’s tables and sat in each other’s living rooms. We’ve had unforgettable times of worship and communion over the years. So many embraces of joy, laughter, and healing. I treasure your wisdom and feel pride for all of the gifts I’ve received from so many of you who would drop everything to help a friend. And yet today I have something kind of challenging to communicate–it’s about your support for Donald Trump.

Just to be clear, I’m not going to suggest that you vote for Hillary Clinton or that anyone should act against their conscience. In fact, that’s my main objection to folks like us participating in this circus. Yes, a vote for Trump (or your favorite candidate) may offer certain Christians some political power. But God hasn’t called us to rule the United States or any other form of government. Frankly, my wish for us Christians is that we would abstain from the polls altogether. How cool would it be if we expressed our allegiance to God’s kingdom alone rather than leading others to vote for someone who is personally indefensible.

I’ve chosen to focus on Donald Trump’s candidacy since many leaders in the white Evangelical family have gone public with their support (Wayne Grudem, Dutch Sheets, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell Jr., etc.), not to mention recent data indicating that “nearly seven in ten (69%) white evangelical Protestant likely voters” express support for Donald Trump. I suppose many of my arguments could also apply in a broad way to progressive-leaning Christians who will vote for Hillary Clinton, but that’s for another time and a different audience. Here I have chosen to write about what is familiar to me in my personal upbringing and church tradition.

One of the most annoying things about this whole election is the friction it causes between personal relationships we treasure. As I read comments and have had conversations about highly politicized positions (more than I can remember), I’m struck by the difficulty of moving beyond our own perceptions. Someone who I disagree with may write about God or their favorite candidate with amazing gusto and patriotism, meanwhile I only tend to hear their ideas as suspect. Likewise, I may share some of my sincere convictions about God or peacemaking only to find that these same words unwittingly shut down our conversation. So it seems, during this election especially, we have turned away from Christ and “put our trust in princes” to persuade those we oppose (Psalm 146:3). It really should not be this way for Christians who follow a crucified messiah.

Jesus could have done many things to alter the course of Jewish or Roman politics, but to the surprise of almost everyone he allowed himself to be executed as a criminal. He refused the people’s call to be their King and taught his disciples to serve instead of rule over one another. Ultimately, he gave up popular opinion for a path toward forgiveness that was almost universally rejected. His was a “kingdom of nobodies”. The scary part is that Jesus began calling regular folks like you and me to a similar cross-shaped future. Nobody then (or now) votes for a national leader like him.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not advocating passivity. Silence does not equal peace. Neither do polite words. Each one of us are called by faith to comfort and accompany our travailing world through its birth pains. So I continue to resist the society that causes God’s beloved creation to groan (which is another way of being political). And yet I still worry about how things will turn out. It’s hard not to feel confused and sad for our loss of witness and integrity.

Contrary to campaign slogans, these political movements have no time for our stories. They simply want our votes. Indeed, each party promises security and prosperity in exchange for my vote. And every candidate claims their messiah-like plan is the best one around. Yet wishing for some powerful leader to “make us great again” is in direct conflict with the peace of God. The scriptures call it idolatry. Governments obviously matter and their decisions will affect you and me. Yet our votes do not somehow increase God’s willingness to protect and care for those who are most vulnerable among us. His kindness and upside-down justice have already “brought down the powerful from their thrones” and “filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53). Instead of paying my tribute to a wrathful executive office, I pray we honor the Human One who handed over his power to forgive both the terrorist and imperial soldier without condition. No election is necessary to begin this work. And no election is worth giving up such an amazing story.

I’ll admit that sometimes it’s hard to be honest with you. And it’s clear we have a tendency to fight about politics. So I really didn’t want to spoil the mood by commenting too much on your candidate. But then I reconsidered my reluctance because Donald Trump has insulted my friends and family members. I cannot ignore, for example, his scapegoating of “illegals” or his contempt for women and still be a Christian. Is it naïve to think that we might have this conversation in a peaceful way? Either way, please take this letter as my invitation to discuss things out in the open. I leave you with my sadness and grief, but also my joy and these reflections on how we can be in step with God’s kingdom.

May our lives continue to bless all our neighbors, both enemies and friends, in Jesus’ name.

Jason Winton

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“This is the way they will survive”

Another great quote from Jayber Crow:

“As the [Branch] boys grew older, they made do with old cars and old farm equipment as they earlier had made do with old bicycles and outboard motors. This is the way they will survive–by being marginal, using what nobody else wants, doing well the work that nobody else will do. If they aren’t destroyed by some scientific solution to all our problems, they will go on though dynasties pass.” (p. 313)


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An invitation to the “third way”

When I gathered people last year to have a conversation with Tim Otto about his book (Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Gay Relationships), I was a little shocked with how distressing his approach would seem to both the affirming and traditional folks involved. The gathering went well in the end, but that was after a lot of tilling (and anxiety) on my part. Throughout the whole process Tim encouraged me to simply persevere and stay centered. He is a great pastor and writer for folks like me who doubt the messaging of exclusion or false unity.

Most conservative churches seem to cloak their exclusionary policies with a welcoming message up front, only later to make it clear that same sex partners will not be allowed to do x, y, or z. In most liberal churches where the institutional exclusions have been removed, the general message is about a blanket affirmation based on the assumption that giving one’s approval will heal and restore the wounded LGBT community. To my mind, this often seems a bit too one dimensional. What it doesn’t take into account is that many folks feel more than one way about themselves and their relationships, especially when it comes to Christianity. While organizational policies aimed at stigmatizing and excluding sexual minorities smacks of the worst things in Christianity, communion that rests on getting one another’s approval (or affirmation) seems to lead to a false sense of “us.” By contrast, offering Jesus’ acceptance (not contingent on anyone’s approval) and a real embrace takes a much greater measure of empathy and courage.

This acceptance must have a finite manifestation for sure, but the internal markers are best known and appreciated within free relationships of mutuality and honesty and trust. And it cannot be manufactured by a doctrinal or position statement.

I highly recommend Tim’s response to this last weekend’s Orlando massacre that took place on “Latin Night” in a gay nightclub: An Invitation to Empathy.

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What to do with anger?

From our Tues. night bible studies…

Mark chapters 1-3 seem especially important (and timely) as we approach the November elections with all the hostility and scapegoating rhetoric that is taking place even now. Anyway, here are my reflections:

1) The Synagogue: The synagogue Jesus first entered in Mark 1–casting out an unclean spirit–appears to be the same one from Mark 3. Imagine the conflict that took place in that first interaction: there’s someone–perhaps even a person of authority–who is speaking from an unclean spirit. That might be a little surprising, right? The synagogue was a communal place to gather and, among other things, read torah. Yet how long had this man suffered? How long had he been speaking accusations to others like he did to Jesus? Wouldn’t it be strange for a newcomer like Jesus to be the one who suddenly calls him out and gives him his freedom? In any case, Mark tells us that the people who saw this liberation thought Jesus embodied real authority in sharp contrast to the non-authority of their teachers.

2) The Trap: Then, in Mark 3, as Jesus returns a second time to that synagogue, he finds that some folks were anticipating his arrival and sought to trap him. Imagine the energy in the air as Jesus walked through the door. It must have been hard for people not to look at him. Maybe he even made eye contact with his accusers. In any case, no one could be sure what he would do next. It’s no wonder that they saw him as a controversial misguided dangerous teacher. Perhaps they hoped he would simply fail the test (by healing on the sabbath) and then go away. Perhaps they saw themselves as responsible to “restore order.” But what about the man with withered hand? Ironically, the suffering person right in front of them had somehow become a weapon to solidify the crowd against Jesus and scare his brand new followers into submission.

3) Healing Anger: But their fear tactics backfired as Jesus simply gets fed up: “And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (3:5a). Those who were supposed to lead the synagogue had become a force of oppression, both for themselves and others. What’s striking to me now is that Jesus’ negative feelings actually opened a way for a beautiful healing on behalf of this disabled man: “and [Jesus] said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (3:5b). So I’m left wondering: what does anger and grief have to do with God’s power to heal? I suppose if we’re honest, a lot of us feel numb or overwhelmed when it comes to our world’s suffering and the death-dealing powers at work. We might actually need strong feelings like anger and grief to wake us up! Of course, I know folks who probably have enough sadness or anger or grief in their lives (because of trauma or ongoing crises). But Jesus wasn’t angry all the time either. And this isn’t a moralistic story about Jesus trying to get everyone upset and pissed off in a distant way. In fact, he lived a very joyous life. Some of his opponents apparently considered him a wild partier. However, in this instance, Mark’s gospel shows us how he responds in a situation where the suffering man has been forgotten. Jesus felt this man’s pain. He even called him forward so that everyone could see his face and not turn away from his disability. Jesus became vulnerable with him. Jesus healed this man not in a peaceful environment where it would be welcomed and celebrated but in the midst of a trap.

4) Apocalypse of Love: In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis wrote that we are in a real battle with a Dark Power who occupies our world: “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” So do not be surprised or intimidated when Jesus’ opponents still want to silence you. We may not have a powerful leader or even a great politician to support our message, but the rightful king is coming and will always give us the love we need to survive:

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” Revelation 21:4

Knowing this we can be strengthened with God’s willingness to shake up all the false kingdoms that rule this world, especially when we have faith for healing someone in pain. Yes, God will bring a defiant healing. This is our hope, despite what happens around us. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

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Iraqi Priest says, “We are never giving a blessing to war”

Iraqi priest, Father Douglas Bazi, has been kidnapped and tortured by anti-Christian elements in Iraq, runs a refugee shelter out of his parish for Christians fleeing ISIS, hosts a church that welcomes Christians from several denominations to worship together, refuses to take up arms against his enemies…

Why does this Iraqi Christian sound so much more like Jesus than most of the popular Christian leaders in the US? I feel stirred up and challenged by the Christianity Fr. Douglas is putting to the test as he cares for some of the most vulnerable people in Iraq. He makes those convictions seem normal for a person of faith. May God give us all courage to step forward into the radical surrender of Jesus and pray for our brother, Father Douglas Bazi. And may there be peacemakers who proclaim Jesus as Lord here and all over the world. May we too be willing to say no to war.

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An excerpt: “almost like he knew my fears without me saying anything”

Check out my essay “How the Gang Life and LGBT Inclusion Actually Have a Lot in Common”, published over at Hello Horatio:

The most personal and vicious verbal attacks happened in the boy’s bathroom. Any vulnerability or apparent weakness could be preyed upon with almost no consequence. I recall once deciding to use the large stall for students with disabilities instead of the open urinals, just to avoid onlookers and jokes about the size of my you-know-what. But even that resulted in a boy telling me and everyone within earshot that I must be “handicapped.”

Perhaps, then, it isn’t too surprising that in high school I started hanging out with gang youth who had themselves faced bullies and somehow still seemed strong. I wanted to be a somebody in the face of my “nobody” status. I respected their ability to overcome. They faced bullies at home (with alcoholic step-fathers), in the community (with police and other gangs), even at school (from administrators and rich white kids). As a new disciple of these “nobodies” who fought back, I learned I could threaten or intimidate a person into submission, which seemed, for a while at least, to wipe away my anxious life.

…About a year ago I had a dream about an old friend (I’ll call him Rudy) who was a gang leader. In this dream, my large and tattooed friend came walking into one of the old apartments where we used to hang out. Typically, Native American and Asian families resided in this neighborhood due to cheap rent and extended family ties along the street’s corridor. Their apartments were neat, with wall-to-wall carpeting. You would find a dozen or so modest one-story structures close to each other, embedded alongside small parking spaces and half-planted beds of dirt and shrubbery. In my dream, I sat down alone inside a home that might have been anyone’s from back then. Rudy sat down next to me on a small couch that defined the hallway close to the front door and asked how I was doing. I noticed he seemed calm and focused on me in a compassionate way, almost like he knew my fears without me saying anything and would gladly just sit there with me. Then he told me something I didn’t expect. I heard him say, “I’m trans.” No qualifications or further explanation, she just exhaled her short-and-sweet confession without any stress.

(continue reading here)

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