A Language Lost

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Last year at the University of Minnesota, PBS hosted a conversation between David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch.

Rauch and Blankenhorn are friends and nobody is sure why.

Rauch has long been a major player in the fight for marriage equality and Blankenhorn has been the thorn in his side, advocating for the traditional family and the mother-father parental model.

For years, these two have traversed the country while tearing into one another over their opposing beliefs. Rauch has called Blankenhorn a bigot.  Blankenhorn has called Rauch a radical.  The two were camped in polarizing places, maintaining a gridlock that would make congress blush.

 

But then something happened.

 

They grabbed coffee.

 

Through the honest hours of humanity that they spent together, a friendship was born.  Shortly after, Rauch wrote the preface for Blankenhorn’s book- a book against gay marriage. Rauch called it the best argument he’s heard yet.

The bond that blossomed between these two didn’t derive out of a change in belief (although, Blankenhorn eventually did). It came from changing the language. At the height of their mutual hostility, they experienced a crinkle of the conscience, one that begged them to be better. This epiphany awoke a newfound desire to disagree with dignity again. They had grown tired of demonizing one another, so they started an organization and co-wrote literature and connected over the ordinary in their lives.

Looking through the lens of how the real world works, this relationship is rare, if not impossible. But have we ever truly tried? Have we ever wondered whether we were simply situating ourselves in the tribes society told us to?

Let’s imagine for a second that there’s this Church function.

In attendance is George and Evelyn, an elderly couple from the rural parts of Pennsylvania. With a little grit and grace, they raised eight children on a paycheck-to-paycheck budget. They also happen to be Franklin Graham diehards and down ballot Republicans.

Across at their table sits a newlywed lesbian couple, just on the cusp of parenthood.

Through a little nudge and a proper introduction, a lay out of lives begins. The two catch a glimpse of anxiety and fret filling the young ladies faces- looks they know all too well.. And like the proud parents they are, they lean in and offer a few tricks up their sleeve. But then things get a little of hand. An hour passes and coffee is spat out of mouths during another hilarious trip down memory lane. Exhausting the stories the couples somberly reflect on how life is never what we expect it to be.

Is it possible that inside those intimate exchanges, nostalgia and naive dreams could collide and cross over… into closeness?

Call me an idealist or a dreamer, but I don’t think this is farfetched for us. Rauch and Blankenhorn did it because they reclaimed that redemptive lost language. The one that speaks to the soul, not the soldier.

The lost language beneath the wreckage of wrong worldview and cultural caricature is found in our shared humanity. Too often, instead of excavating what bonds us, what truly matters, our sharp tongues reflexively strike, injecting toxic turns that wither away whatever was growing.

But our stories disarm. In our familiarities we find ourselves unfilled and wanting more. Our differences don’t dissolve, but they become quieter and petty, unwanted interruptions of something valuable we have stumbled upon. Empathy is found in people we do not expect to find it from. Through stories of different characters, but similar sentiments a brave bond can be formed.  This is the language of lives lived.

Somewhere between Stonewall and Proposition Eight we lost sight of the stories beneath the banners. It was all about winning for us. We stroked our pride by pledging allegiance to the propaganda of our cause. Crimes were committed, to be sure, but the brush we painted the other with was too broad, too simple and completely dehumanizing. And as a consequence, we buried the language that bonds us.

If we could resurrect those refrains of common courage and struggle and hope and faith, maybe we could unearth what has been lost. Maybe we would hang on tighter to the words of Mother Teresa who said

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

Could what divides be overcome with what bonds us?

The Kingdom tells us yes.

RR

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Back Roads to Bethlehem

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It’s the pilgrimage for the proud.

For those with halos screwed on too tight.

 

In every precipice that we slip down

And in all our detours into darkness

We are taken aback by our own depravity

Our worthiness in our unworthiness

 

You may start from the north

And I may from the south

But we both see the same star

We seek the same savior

Before I even saw it shining off in the distance, I was told it wasn’t really for me. I was told if I wanted to find it, I had to start where they were. I had to be one of them. I had to match them step for step. From on top of a peak, they peered down upon me. Asking to come, they said I could not; unless… I severed my scarlet letter. It would repulse the King, they said.

I refused and they called me a contradiction. I told them I tried and they said my faith was too small. Either way, that star was not speaking to me.

So I ran on alone.

Down back roads to Bethlehem, driven by nothing more than a hunger for hope in something I did not, do not, will not and cannot understand. I ran and I ran and I ran. Through thickets and thorns, over daisy dressed mountains, into towns of the gutter, I ran. Until the gravel turned to grass and stones became fertile, with my eye on the star and hand over my heart, I ran and I ran and I ran.

Down back roads to Bethlehem I found a burrow of new faces. Everything was so different there. Saints spoke of scripture in words I had never heard; yet their language felt so familiar.

Clothing me in a love I thought to be legendary, I was drawn in to the hearth of their fires. It was there that stories were swapped and songs were sung and laughs were loud and tears were sent trickling, as we uncovered each layer of the other. For a moment I thought I was already there.

Leaving I turned as I heard one say, “I’ll see you… I’ll see you at the star.”

Faster I flew down back roads to Bethlehem. With each place I met more living in love than not.

And shedding my shame came all the easier.

Soon enough the star hung not twenty yards away. Below it sat the saints of the burrow and the soldiers of the peak. All of them waving me to a spot they had saved.

And stories were swapped. Songs were sung. Laughs were loud. Tears were sent trickling and love, oh love, burned again.

Beneath the umbrella of the star, we experienced our own rescue. None of us deserved it. None of us could earn it. None of us could pay it back.

It just was.

He was.

Down back roads to Bethlehem, saints and soldiers and even runaways like me reached our redemption. Along fault lines of faith, regardless of the rules, we all found the prodigal’s father. We were made new and perfect. We were celebrated as sons and daughters. We were loved as we were.

And we rolled up our sleeves and traded tales of our bruises… denying the lie that we were ever really alone.

 

RR

Unsung Heroes: Mary and Her Sorrow

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The water from her eyes met the blood in his palms, as she waited with her first born for the end. The cross was a cruel end to an ugly beginning. These two had traveled many miles together- their bond so much stronger than blood.

Before he was born- when she was just a kid herself, God chose her to be the one to watch over him. To keep him fed in an age of poverty and teach him the Word in an age of the Pharisee. To direct him on the path he was destined to tread and, with every step, remind him he was loved.

Weaving their way to Bethlehem, she had a close call with death. Her baby was coming. The water had broken (I’m assuming) and if she held him in any longer, complications were sure to arise.

Going door to door in a town bankrupt of benevolence, they finally found a space set aside by a farmer. I have no idea if they wound up in a cave or a barn (doesn’t matter), all I know is that it was the absolute worst. I once heard a pastor compare it to the bathroom at the back of a filthy gas station. The kind with a flickering light bulb hanging down from a chain and a ground covered in feces and urine. The nativity was nauseating.

And even still.

Mary had many more miles to go.

Her days consisted of ducking arrows at every turn. When Herod wanted them dead, they had to run. Tucked at her chest was her son as they rode off into the night. Escaping everything but the moaning of mothers echoing off in the distance. Grief and guilt became familiar ghosts for Mary.

Yet she knew this was coming. In her memory stayed the prophecy from Simeon who said, “a sword will pierce your very soul.”

As Jesus grew into a young man, Mary had to manage the demands of his mission with her vocation as a parent. There was one time when Jesus, unexpectedly, strolled away to the temple, and wasn’t found until two days later. When she walked in and found him with the Rabbis, she scolded him through tears. He worried her sick, and she asked him how he could put his parents through such hell. Puzzled and looking her over, he asked why he wouldn’t be in “his father’s house”? A wistful reminder that he was never really hers.

Years later, in a classic moment of a hovering parent, she approached her adult son at a wedding reception. Smiling and with a tone of suggestion, she said, “they’re running out of wine…” To which he responded (my translation, total speculation), “Would you leave me be ma!?! I’m not ready yet.” That didn’t stop her. She knew her son too well. So she turned and marched on over to his friends and said, “do whatever he asks”. In effect, She set the scene for Christ’s first miracle.

And on Good Friday, not mentioned in scriptures, but worthy of note as it is appears in works of art, is the two meeting at Via Dolorosa. This place was a point on the road Jesus walked as he carried the cross to Skull Hill. The body she had cared for, nourished, protected, watched over, was of no resemblance to the carnage coming down the path. Their eyes must have met in the most heartbreaking of goodbyes. The sword started to chip through her chest.

A small group of women trailed Jesus as he walked up to Calvary. He heard their weeping in anguish, and in an emotional moment, he responded to them.

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’”

This is a reference to the approaching destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman Empire. But what’s important to soak in here is that he is referencing the heartbreak of being a mom. Having children was a mark of honor among women, being barren was a curse. Yet Jesus turns the meaning of motherhood on its head. Mary knew this all too well.

Beneath the shower of blood, sweat and tears, the stench of unending suffering, and the hours of agony that went unanswered from on high, all she could do was lay below her boy. Her heart shredding as she heard Him whisper to John, “this is your mother now.” He was always thinking of her first like that.

Wanting nothing more than for it to be done, for mercy to melt their hatred, she stayed silent and wept below the dripping tree. Startled, again she lifted her head to hear her boy try to speak. In a great feat of strength he raised his voice and cried, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” His grace knew no limits. He didn’t get that from her. She knew who that was from.

Frog in her throat, hands shaking, breath shortening, tears streaming, she endured hours of her son’s slaughter amongst a crowd of scoffers. Insult after insult, signs saying “King of the Jews”, rocks thrown at his open wounds. To them, his death was vindication for their judgment. They knew he could not be who he said he was. “Save yourself King!” they taunted. He’s saving you, she must’ve thought.

The hours continued and his breathing became more and more labored. Clearing his dry throat as wet tears ran down his face, again he whispered, “I’m thirsty.” At this moment flashbacks must have come rushing back of her teenage years, how helpless she felt. But no longer could she save him. She couldn’t protect him from this. She would take the nails if she could, but she couldn’t.

Then at last, “Father, I commit my hands into your spirit.”  Exhaling, he sighed, “it is finished.” Her soul was pierced.

It is said that Mary played one of the pivotal positions of the early church. After the collapse of her world, as the public put together a kill list with her name at the top, she worked relentlessly for the dream of her son. For the kingdom building he had started. After the ascension of Christ she is the only women mentioned in the upper room with the eleven other disciples, and many have speculated that she was the “woman elect” amongst the disciples.

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Now of course Mary isn’t among the forgotten people of the Bible. Every person that knows who Jesus is, knows who Mary is. Having said that, sometimes I wonder to what extent people understand the brutal sacrifice of this woman. What she endured, what her life means today, what she represents and the injustice of how she is presented.

The Church (at least protestants) has always had a wary relationship with Mary. Loving her, of course, but keeping her a bit at bay. In Church teaching, there has always been a fear of Mary becoming some sort of Goddess. A higher being that required us to kneel before in worship. This is actually a legitimate concern to be had, as Christ is the only one deserving of our praise. But in our disassociation with Marian worship, I think we started to strip away the importance of her own story.

The Mary I grew up learning about was the beautiful glowing pregnant woman wrapped in a shawl. Cartoon images come to mind of her flight to Egypt as a ride off into the sunset with her boo. It was romantic and enchanting. She was always a virgin (not true) and she became more or less commentary after Jesus’ childhood. A blurb in the background. A mission accomplished.

My adult eyes don’t see it the same way now. I see the preteen girl asked to carry out a death sentence. I see a saint that suffered for the sake of the Kingdom. I see a woman who’s very survival meant the world’s salvation. I see there is so much more beyond her giving birth. She gave her son. She gave her heart. She gave it all up for the sake of kingdom.

And now, I start to see a pervasive sexism in interpretations of the scriptures.  Paul is ordained a suffering servant who ensured the survival of the faith (which he did). Abraham is seen as the father of Israel who had a faith that was fiercer than blood (which he did). Moses is the orphan who liberated the Jewish nation (which he did.) David was the guy after God’s own heart (which he was).

When it comes to Mary, why don’t we revere her life with the same platitudes as we do with so many of the men of the faith? We never consider the fact that while carrying God’s son was big honor, it was also a horrifying request. The gravity of her response should not get lost on us. We assume this cheerful giver mentality when she may have been scared to death.

Also, why does her story seem to come to a climax at the birth and then not given much consideration thereafter? What about her role in Jesus learning the scriptures, developing mentally and socially, what about the fact that she nudged him into his first miracle, effectively kicking off his ministry? What about the guilt she endured over Herod’s massacre? What about the sword piercing prophecy? The nauseating nativity scene? Watching her son suffer a slow and painful death?

She is much more than that quiet girl who gave birth to God beside some sheep. She is a saint, a servant and one that deserves to have the whole of her story told.

There are a couple reasons the story of Mary has been on my mind. One, obviously, Christmas is just around the corner and I’ve been seeing her face in every nativity scene and hearing it whenever “Mary did you know?” is played. Second, the mothers of Newtown. Just the terrifying notion of being a parent, and the hard truth that whether they are newborns or ninety, you can’t protect them from everything.

Maybe looking to the strength of Mary, her resolve, her conviction, her love and perseverance, can give heart to the parents who lost their babies last week.

RR

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

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

Walking like a Runaway

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As a Christian sexual minority, I have found that the most powerful way to move forward in life is to share myself with others. Sharing all of my past, especially the painful parts. When the road I was traveling was nothing more than a treadmill. When I didn’t feel safe until I heard the close of the bedroom door and felt the covering of blankets. When the journey took me to the heart of the junkyard.

Making these moments transparent is how we truly find liberation. Liberation from shame and self-neglect and liberation from the lies that pursue us on a daily basis. In the weeks following my coming out, my Aunt and Uncle asked me out for appetizers and beer. They wanted to hear my story. They wanted to be let in. The testimony I gave them was the authentic product of my acrimony. Simply put: fate cheated me of life. My white picket fence future was disappearing in the distance. The God that made (or allowed) me to be gay was asking much more than he should. And when the shit inevitably hit the fan, my world would descend into a catwalk through gossiping circles. My friends would be long gone and I would be forgotten.

They didn’t take the bait to break apart my hypothetical future with happy verses nor did they offer their condolences or call me courageous. They just sat with me and appreciated my vulnerability. Refusing to interject their own personal feelings was their way of honoring my story. And I felt honored.

On the ride back, my Aunt, for the first time ever, let me in on her own adventure as an outcast. I remember her, continually clearing her throat and reining in tears. Here’s a paraphrase of what she told me:

“You know, I don’t in any way try to compare my story with yours. They are vastly different and come with their own set of complications. But I have felt the burn of the scarlet letter on my chest and heard voices hush when I entered a room. I’ve been there, maybe not where you are, but I’ve been there.

When we roll up our sleeves and trade tales of our bruises, we deny the lie that we’re alone. My Aunt’s life has not been a cake walk, but she has found the clearing in the woods. Thing is, she chose to not emphasize that part, and I think it is because she understood that I didn’t need to see the photo finish. She saw it is better to pass peace through the touching of scars than flashing the before and after shots.

Sometimes, its just enough to know that our fellow runaways have already trampled before us. It’s enough to know that the thorns in their soles cleared the way for thin-skinned soldiers like me.

Walking till the gravel turns to grass,

RR