Runaway George

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Among many things that have captivated my attention in this book is it’s handling of Christian theology in relation to slavery.

Here we find George, a runaway slave. In this scene, his former employer, Mr. Wilson, recognized George inside a hotel lobby and promptly approached him, asking if he would accompany him to his room to have a little chat. Mr. Wilson is a good man, but he fears that George is going against God and country, and thus requires his guidance.

First he tries logic.

Then he tries scripture.

“But you know how the angel commanded Hagar to return to her mistress, and submit herself under her hand; and the apostle sent back Onesimus to his master.”

“Don’t quote Bible at me that way Mr. Wilson,” said George, with a flashing eye, “don’t! for my wife is A Christian and I mean to be, if ever I get to where I can; but to quote Bible to a fellow in my circumstances, is enough to make him give it up altogether. I appeal to God Almighty- I’m willing to go with the case to Him, and ask Him if I do wrong to seek my freedom.”

“These feelings are quite natural George,” said the good-natured man, blowing his nose. “Yes, they’re natural, but it is my duty not to encourage ‘em in you. Yes, my boy, I’m sorry for you, now; it’s a bad case-very bad; but the apostle says, ‘Let every one abide in the condition in which he is called.’ We must all submit to the indications of Providence, George,- don’t you see?”

 

George stood with his head drawn back, his arms folded tightly over his broad breast, and a bitter smile curling his lips.

 

“I wonder, Mr. Wilson, if the Indians should come and take you a prisoner away from your wife and children, and want to keep you all your life hoeing corn for, if you’d think it your duty to abide in the condition in which you were called. I rather think that you’d think the first stray horse you could find an indication of Providence- shouldn’t you?”

 

I resonate with George’s story.

That’s not to say that I think slavery and homosexuality are parallel tales of misunderstood scripture.

But I’ve got my fair share of Bible burns.

They tell me, “but both the New Testament and the Old Testament speak against homosexuality”

I say, “I understand, but there are others who view-“

“1st Corinthians 6:9-10, 1st Timothy 1:9-10, have you not read this?”

I’ve been reading and rereading these since I was in the sixth grade.

“It sucks, but you know what? It’s God’s word, and Christ calls us all to sacrifice in one form another.”

Usually my thoughts echo George’s response to Mr. Wilson.

The detachment from empathy is so palpable in today’s Christian culture when it comes to homosexuality.

In these rock and hard place moments, I just want to pull out every Bible verse that should convict them of the same charge.

Perhaps what Jesus said about the wealthy, or the proud or the judgmental.

But by now, I’m burnt out.

So I bite my tongue.

Beyond George, there are countless runaways out there, carrying the card of some form of Christian contradiction. Divorce is one. Just the other day, I heard one coworker open up about his sisters painful divorce. The listening, coworker, my sister in Christ, said something akin to, “A vow is a vow. It seems they didn’t try hard enough.” Unwed mothers are another. I’ve heard people say about a friend of mine, “I wonder how many baby daddy’s she has? So sad.” Or the poor, “Why should my dollars go to their drug habits?”

Our Christian culture has become a bag of wonder bread, and if you’re made of a different morsel, you’ve been misplaced. I know better than to generalize about a whole group of people, and I fully believe that there are those quietly keeping their cupboards locked tight.

But the trouble with tribes like ours is that we thwart any attempt at transparency. Tears belong behind closed doors. Support calls for a certified shrink. The Bible is a bludgeon, not a buoy. Dialogue destroys doctrine, leading us down that oh so slippery slope towards hell. Raise your hands high and give us that sweet smile.

A couple months ago I had the opportunity to attend one of the Marin Foundation’s “Living in the Tension” gatherings. There I was, surrounded by fellow travelers on a similar journey of my own. All of us came for the same thing, reconciliation between the scriptures and our sexuality. All of us, looking around, greeted each other’s eyes with an “I get it.” When the meeting came to a close, I was embraced, told I was loved and encouraged to keep searching and questioning. It was a transformative night for all of us. My mom, who went with me, said later on, “that’s what the Kingdom looks like.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Runaway George had a similar experience. Having reached refuge outside the grasp of slave catchers, and finding his son and wife there as well, he reclaimed his faith in the father. Looking around the dinner table at the Christians that saved his life, he reflected:

“This, indeed, was a home,-home, –a word that George had never yet known a meaning for; and a belief in God, and trust in his providence, began to encircle his heart, as, with a golden cloud of protection and confidence, dark, misanthropic, pining, atheistic doubts, and fierce despair, melted away before the living Gospel, breathed in living faces, preached by a thousand unconscious acts of love and good will, which, like the cup of cold water given in the name of a disciple, shall never lose their reward.”

When we roll up our sleeves and trade tales of our bruises, we deny the lie that we’re alone.

May our community become that “golden cloud of protection”.

RR

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Context is not a Paper Trail

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The work day begins and I’m already exhausted. A good night’s sleep just doesn’t cut it anymore. They file in, take their seats, trade complaints over the homework they never did, and I just sit and stare in amazement. Maybe it has something to do with being removed from the identity of a student or perhaps this is a view of life post-coming of age. But from my vantage point, it is hard to watch young men and women throw their lives away on a daily basis.

With one hand I cup my mug of coffee, with the other I squeeze the stress ball.

Most mornings, these two are all that keep me going.

I work with teenagers cut from the coarsest cloth. They are stubborn, hard-hearted and all around pain in the ass two-year olds. Everyday, it seems, I watch them approach the schoolhouse door, laughing in their little cohorts, innocently roughhousing, only to transform into something sinister as they part from the outside world.

But what they lack in manners they make up for in shields. Through their eyes- teachers are out to get their students and their friends have their best interests at heart. There is more than a poverty of income in today’s low-income kids. There is a poverty of trust.

The other day one of our worst was well, at his worst. He was pulling kids out of class, shouting slurs into his cell phone, and came close to damaging school property. After each incident I would ask him what made him tick, or more specifically, what the hell did the world owe him? He would respond, every time, with a smirk and an, “everyone here knows I’m a pain in the ass, get used it.”

Sip the coffee.

Squeeze the ball.

Try again.

I pursued him, peppering him with questions, but trying not to be interrogatory. That didn’t work so I presented the problem to members of the staff. I wanted to know why he wasn’t in some form of therapy to harness in his bad behavior and why the teachers were letting him act like an animal rather than demand a little discipline. What they went on to tell me made my jaw drop.

A few weeks ago, this kid had gotten arrested, not sure what for exactly, but something happened in the trailer park where he lives to land him in jail for the night. The community expressed their concern in one of the cruelest ways possible. They told his family that they had to choose whether to pick up and leave together or kick their son to the curb. And what should have been an easy answer ended up being the cause of this kid’s spiral into desperation. His own folks threw him out.

It wasn’t easy to digest this. I guess it never should be. But suddenly, this kid was not a pain in the ass, the world was.

The following morning I returned with a resolve to pay more attention to his needs and to what he wasn’t saying. Standing in the hallway, sipping on my coffee, squeezing my stress ball, I waited for the teens to come piling through the door in no more than 5 minutes. These five minutes were mine to muster up motivation. Mine to remember why I was doing what I was doing.

Hearing the handle turn, I looked up, and instead of a storm of students, I saw a little woman shuffling towards me . She was carrying a large number of envelopes.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“I’m ______’s mom, here’s his mail. Um, I was also wondering how he’s doing. Do you know?”

I cringed as I told her how he had been acting up and seemed distracted from his studies. She then asked where he was living. I told her that as far as I knew he was staying in his car. She left. I cried.

What I really wanted to ask her was- how dare you? Who the hell told you that you would be a good parent? By my definition you are negligent and an abuser of one of the finest privileges mankind has- tell me, how do you sleep at night?

This mother intentionally drove to her son’s school to arrive early enough where she wouldn’t have to see him to drop off his mail and make a brief inquiry into what his homeless life looked like. I don’t know if she was more ashamed of herself or her son.

What I have been trying to do on this page is elevate the importance of stories. Of people’s histories. Of life behind the facebook feed, drug habits and criminal records. The experiences of  roofless nights and ruthless days, of heartbreaking betrayals and brutal beat downs. What I call the complex context. The parts that aren’t put down in paper. Those throbbing places in between the lines that we never see until we ask.

Our records, failures, and achievements reflect a fun house image of our real lives. She may have been a mother on paper, but she was no mother. He may have been a criminal and rebel-rouser, but that didn’t mean he lacked a conscience. His story, her story, are both ones of free will, but also cause and effect. I once mistook him for a troll, but now knowing his complex context- I can’t see anything but a kid who got a dealt a shitty hand of cards.

I wonder what I would see if I saw her hand?

More than anything what the past several days have shown me is my continual need for perspective. The outlook of others makes me remember my blessings, and also the tendency of my fists to close at begging hands. Catching a glimpse of life through another’s eyes reminds me of the importance of storytelling. Why we all need it. Why we need the mess and complexity to understand empathy. Why empathy is Kingdom Come. Why when I cried for the kid I felt more human than I have in a long time. Those tears were a way to worship. But after worship comes the word, and after the word comes the work. And the work may be the trickiest task of all.

Here’s to seeing.

Here’s to hearing.

Here’s to trying.

RR

Photo Credit

“I thought I walked”

SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU ARE PLANNING ON SEEING THE FILM, LAWLESS, DON’T READ.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

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“Jack, we’re survivors, we control the fear, without the fear, we are as good as dead.”

Of all the Wild West films I have seen in my life, the latest flick by the Weinstein brothers, Lawless, may have just made it to the top of my list. It follows the real life story of the three Bondurant brothers, famous moonshiners in the period of prohibition. In all of their dangerous exploits with the shadiest of characters, they always survive unscathed. Their hometown held the eldest of the brothers, Forrest, to be someone or something… different. Only in whispers would they confess their belief in his God-like indestructibility. And it’s not surprising! Forrest is played by Tom Hardy (remember Bane), a man built like an ox with fast reflexes and a deep deep voice. Brave men trembled when they crossed his path.

But one day he meets his match, in the slim and decked out, chilling Charley Rakes, special agent from Chicago.

Rakes had heard of the Bondurant brothers’ success and demanded a cut in their earnings. If they didn’t, then they would pay dearly.

Standing outside his bar, Forrest stood inches away from Rakes, stared deep into his beady little eyes, and whispered low,

 “We don’t lay down for nobody.”

And so starts the incredible, and unnecessarily gruesome, war between Rakes and the Bondurants.

In the most dire moment of the movie, I watched, through the slits between my fingers, Forrest stepping out of his bar into the cold dark night. Things had been violent between the two camps lately; Rakes had killed many of the Bondurants allies and the Bondurants still resolved to stand their ground. Walking towards his vehicle, he suddenly stops in his tracks. Out of the hood of his car, he sees a few stray wires hanging out on the side. Naively, he bends down and drums his finger on his chin. At this point I am whisper-screaming “ruunnnn Forrrressst ruuuunnnnn!” Then in a flash, he is jumped by two of Charley’s men. One stands him up, grips his hair to hold back his head, as the other brandishes a knife and begins to saw open a huge gaping holein Forrest’s neck. He falls to ground, hands clenched on the severed skin as blood gushes out (too much? I thought so too.)

As if this scene isn’t enough to turn over your stomach, his girlfriend Maggie, arrives at the bar a bit later looking for him. Not noticing his writhing body beside his car, she enters the dim saloon and calls out his name. She thinks she sees him as a figure emerges from the shadows. She smiles. Until he is actually they and a hand extends out holding bloody knife. As they grab her the scene fades to black, and we are led to believe she is raped. (Thankfully, they do not show this part.)

Well, wouldn’t you know it, Forrest survives. In the following scenes, he lies in a hospital bed with a stitched up neck resembling a choker necklace and we hear the doctor say, “he just walked in!”. The hospital was 20 miles away from the bar. As expected, folks in Franklin no longer whispered about his invincibility, they had their proof.

As the movie comes to a close, we find Forrest in his bedroom, frantically suiting up for one final showdown with Rakes. Maggie rushes into the room, crying, pleading for Forrest to stay with her. She tells him that she cannot watch him die. Not again.

Forrest’s ears prick up.

Not again?

 

Yes, not again. It was Maggie who found him outside, after she was raped by the two men, and it was Maggie who held her hand over his throat while she drove him to the hospital.

Taken aback, Forrest utters:

“I thought I walked.”

What the Bondurant brothers expose in this film is our absurd belief in our independence and invincibility. We have all these titles we take upon ourselves. Surnames like survivor, superman, and success story. But the reality is that behind these names is a community that gave us the boost. The God that gave us the boost.

And when we choose to move into our own islands, believing that we built this and that, we neglect Christ’s call to carry one another’s burdens. Our independence is completely antithetical to the gospel story. It actively stunts Kingdom Come. Today, It is so paradoxical, yet so prevalent, for Christians to boast in their own accomplishments as they look back at “how far they’ve come”. When they reread their personal history, they remember the things they learned, but they forget those that taught them. The pain that was felt clouds out the cushion that was provided. In essence, because of our worst days, we feel entitled to a title. We believe that we are the sole survivors.

But the fact remains, your success story, my journey, your climb, might be nothing more than imaginary.

If you really look back, thoroughly, you may be surprised to see the loved ones that prayed for you in secret, cried for you behind closed doors, supported you, loved you, and drove twenty miles with one hand on your artery and the other on the wheel.

When I saw this movie, it became clear that Maggie was the unsung hero of story. The Christ-figure if you will. She set aside her life, her rape, her pain in order to care for her love on life support. Even when Forrest was in the middle of his miraculous recovery, she didn’t say a word about what happened, her focus was Forrest.

Thinking about your own rise out of the rubble, do you often forget those that threw you the rope? The unsung heroes that patiently put off homework, their job, dinner, down time, so they could be a rock you could rely on, a provider of perspective, the holder of the Kleenex, the back rubber?

What I hope to grasp, and I hope all of you will grasp, is that we are here because of those between the lines. Those that placed all their bets on us even after we folded.

We are not the survivors

We are the rescued

The Maggie in my life (not in a romantic sense mind you) is my very best friend.

Every time I hit rock bottom she dried my tears with her encouraging words. Even though she was in the midst of her own dilemmas, she chose to bring all of herself- all of her energy, grace, know how, and love- and pull me out of my spiral. Even though she couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to be gay and Christian, she still showed me how hard she was trying. One time, she even said:

“Every time I leave our conversations, I pray for God to give me your pain. To let me feel what you feel.”

That is the definition of empathy folks. That is carrying one another’s burdens. That is walking two miles when you’re asked to walk one.

This one is for the unsung heroes.

Recognize your rescuers today.

RR

 

*Photo Credit

Runaway Ragamuffin

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“If we maintain the open-mindedness of children, we challenge fixed ideas and established structures, including our own. We listen to people in other denominations and religions. We don’t find demons in those with whom we disagree. We don’t cozy up to people who mouth our jargon. If we are open, we rarely resort to either-or: either creation or evolution, liberty or law, sacred or secular, Beethoven or Madonna. We focus on both-and, fully aware that God’s truth cannot be imprisoned in a small definition. ”
― Brennan Manning

Happy Birthday Mother Teresa!

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“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

If Mother Teresa were still with us today, she would be a 102, and I think we all know, she wouldn’t waste time with birthday wishes. A piece of the pride that I have in our God is in his selection of saints. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, which means “rosebud”, was a small soft spoken woman that could easily be cast as a foil to King David. At the age of 18, Christ called after her and opened her eyes to the brokenness of his creation. She abandoned the life she knew, including her mother and sister, in order to be, as she once said, a “pencil” in the hand of God. She shed light in the shadowlands, breaking hearts for what broke Abba’s.

RR

Runaways to Rally Around: Three Non-Profits cut from Kingdom cloth (more to come!)

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The Marin Foundation

Based on the award winning book, Love is an Orientation, this organization works to build bridges (and maybe even friendships) between conservative Christians, and the LGBT population. Standing in the gap between two behemoths that see venom as a means to victory, has pushed them to nationwide prominence, but has also denied them dimes from the Church coffers and the gay community. Neither side wants to give an inch.

Contribute to a ceasefire here: http://www.themarinfoundation.org/giving/

To Write Love On Her Arms

Started in 2006 after a friend of the founder attempted suicide, this nonprofit seeks to inform those struggling with addiction, depression, self-mutilation and suicide, of helpful treatment outlets. Additionally, they invest resources into rehab and recovery. In 2009, 36,909 people died senseless deaths in the US because they didn’t take the first step towards healing.

Jam the gun by giving here:  http://www.twloha.com/move/

TreeHouse

This faith-based group gives runaways something to hope for. Investing in youth and adults alike, Treehouse has made it its mission to heal those hurting in today’s society. Their work ranges from suicide prevention to assisting individuals in abusive homes. Many criminal courts in Minnesota, where the organization is based, will allow adolescents involved in crimes go to Treehouse instead of the pen. As testimonies will tell you, this organization knows what its doing and is successfully saving lives.

Keep open this option by donating here: http://www.treehouseyouth.org/page.aspx?pid=464

RR

Hester the Whore

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There is perhaps no better character, fictional or non, that better exemplifies the life of a social pariah than Ms. Hester Prynne. In Nathanial Hawthorne’s classic tale, The Scarlet Letter, Hester has a baby out of wedlock, and is thus forced to wear a scarlet “A” (for Adulterer) and stand on a scaffold in the middle of town for 3 hours, once every year. The complete humiliation and vulnerability that Hester feels as she stands above her scoffers is best described when Hawthorne writes:

Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter, and even touched it with her finger, to assure herself that the infant and the shame were real. Yes!—these were her realities,—all else had vanished!

Having been caught in the mother of all scandals (pun intended), Hester retreats to the countryside, only to return once a year for her public roasting. There would be no future romances or even friendships for Hester Prynne. Her penance required of her to no longer contaminate the community with her shabby self. She was better for it, she believed, to be alone was safe. It freed her from fear. The world she now lived in revolved around the letter stitched upon her gown and the eyes of indignity that looked up at her face every morning. It was safe here, they could no longer reach her.

After seven long years in her sectioned of Siberia, Hester re-engages with the people that once disowned her. Having been thrown into the Puritan penalty box for nearly a decade, she saw the world she once lived in with a dramatically different perspective. It occurred to her that she could be much more than a church cautionary tale. While her skeletons were hung high above the town, there was an invisible cohort of fellow runaways struggling to keep the lock secure on their own cupboards. Her eyes were opened to the sick, hungry and shamed that had long lived in the shadows of her hometown. Instead of trying to disguise the mark that made her untouchable, she brandished it as a red badge of courage. And instead of trying to become popular with the Puritans, she dressed the leper’s wounds and gave dignity to their divorcees.

Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Abel; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.

Death by a thousand condemnations can spare us of being who they want us to be. Our fullness will never be found on the Christian bestseller list or the church confessional. It’s found when we strip away the expectations of every circle we have a foot in. It’s found when we rest and realize that the only expectations we are required to meet are His. And his yoke is light. That’s when thirsts are quenched. That’s when the frostbitten toes we try to cover become marks of empathy, attracting those with still soft feet.

There are a number of paths that Hester could have taken with her shame, be it living as a hermit or trying to blend back in with the world. Instead she retained the mutilated mark of her disgrace. She resolved to show her former friends how much she still cared for them despite their hatred. She put her pride down and lifted her love up. In this fictional community, Hester was the hero.

Are we not called to do the same? Those who have been slighted by the Christian community may be tempted to slip away from the world they once knew or try to fit into the outfit of a wonder bread believer. But what if we went the way of Hester? What if we made it our mission to show them how much God cared about us and thus, we care about them?

Is it possible for the Scarlet Letter on our chest, to incarnate the red ones in the Gospels?

RR