God Won

it is salty

it tickles the fleshy underside of his foot a little

it is pooling in the hollows above his collarbone

warms him up

 

blood like a woman caressing the tendons in his back

blood behind his ears and in his eyes

and he can’t rub it out

blood won’t leave him alone

 

he has never noticed tiredness in his fingernails before

or in his skin

there is pain in his hair

that is new

 

someone in his skull is banging hard on the door

let me out

these gates are shut from the outside

you’re trapped in there for good

 

he wanted God

God wanted him

and God won

femininity (en)couraged: part 2

Last time, I wrote about our unfortunate tendency to discourage femininity, in both men and women, and to overvalue stereotypical masculine traits. This time, I want to investigate the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth exemplifies both masculinity and femininity in a striking balance. This balance is one toward which we all, male and female, ought to strive.

Jesus disdained vanity, whether vain displays of masculine “strength” or vain displays of feminine “beauty.” He redefined both strength and beauty in a way that undercuts our tired use of both for self-promotion. He told Peter to put down his sword:

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52

And he told us to stop worrying about our clothes:

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin… Matthew 6:28

His definition of both strength and beauty is summarized in the beatitudes: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance through persecution. Taken together, these are the antidotes to vanity in all its forms.

Jesus was gentle with women and men and abrasive with women and men, basing his responses to people not on their gender or status but on his discernment of their motives. He demanded the same things from women as from men, and from members of all classes without differentiation: repentance and faith. No difference existed between his level of engagement with the important male of high religious standing in John 3 and the uneducated, foreigner female in John 4. In both cases Jesus discusses theological controversy with an equal level of interest, revealing deep spiritual truth to each one. He called both women and men to discipleship, neither patronizing women nor hyper-focusing on men.

And Jesus said [to the woman caught in adultery], “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? …Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” John 8:10-11

Then Jesus answered [the Canaanite woman], “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:28

Jesus was equally “emotional” and “rational.” He wept openly, being “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” at the sight of his friend Mary’s grief (John 11:34-35). Yet he was never carried away by emotion, instead maintaining control even when provoked by unconscionable injustice:

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death… But Jesus remained silent. Matthew 26:59, 63

He valued “feminine” displays of tenderness above “masculine” competition. When a “sinful woman” barged in on a dinner party at which Jesus was a guest and began to anoint, kiss, and weep over his feet, he praised her as being more exemplary than his prestigious host. Her action had no economic, political, or public value of any kind, and was in that sense purely symbolic, yet Jesus treasured it.

Jesus blows apart our artificial binary between masculine and feminine virtues. For Christians, the only virtues are Christ-like ones. He is humanity at its best, for men and women alike. Thus, he exhibits the best of what we ignorantly consider “masculine” (e.g. strength, directness, courage, rationality) and “feminine” (e.g. gentleness, care, tenderness, emotionality), and he draws no line between them.

We ought to look to Jesus, studying his life and praying to him for help, as we seek to correct the imbalance between masculinity and femininity in our churches and in our lives.

a season of dying

I’ve been thinking a lot about death. That will happen, sometimes, in the midst of total normalcy and the endless forward march of time. Neither crisis nor an imminent sense of my own mortality brought about this reflection. It’s just part of being human, I guess.

Once the concept began moving to the forefront of my thought-life, it started arising in lots of contexts. Such as: driving on the freeway on a road trip, my only passenger asleep, and how utterly striking it suddenly became that one effortless flick of my wrist could end both our lives in an instant. And no one would ever know what happened. Or: if [that’s a significant “if”] we each get only one opportunity to exist, and for as short a time as the human lifespan, major decisions such as career choices and marriage partners are mindbogglingly weighty. If you pick a job or spouse that you end up hating, then you have to spend your life hating it–and then you never get to exist again. If you suffer from chronic pain or long-term depression and if this is your only shot at existence, then this is your only shot at existence. And: what if [x person in my life] died today? The world I inhabit would be fundamentally altered, and I’d have to keep living in it. But it would be a whole new world, forever. Etc.

Lent, the Christian season of fasting and repentance before Easter, is in some sense a season of dying. Fasting is the practice of “mortifying” one desire in order to enhance other ones (like when your sight is taken away so your hearing becomes acute). Repentance is a process whereby “you” die, and God remakes a new “you” in your place. This season of dying culminates in Good Friday, the remembrance of divine death itself.

And then Easter comes along. The resurrection of Jesus says a lot of things, if you’re willing to listen. Among them is the idea that there may in fact be more than one shot at existence. There is the idea that death may not be the end, but rather the entrance into a truer Truth, a truer Life. It is the shape of the Christian narrative and thus the Christian life: fasting and feasting, repentance and regeneration, humility and exaltation, death and resurrection.

I’ve banked my life on that narrative, not to escape the terror of life decisions and the fragility of existence–although one must wonder why it’s so universally disconcerting, if it really is the only option–but because a God who would die for me is not a God I can walk away from.

So, consider death. Consider how it ought to make us live. Consider the God who creates out of nothingness, resurrects from the tomb, and regenerates human persons so that we become, finally, alive.

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2

suffer like a Christian

        

Violent protests have broken out in many parts of the world–from Western Europe (France) to West Africa (Niger) to Central Asia (Pakistan)–as Muslims have reacted to the publication of a now infamous cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Yeah, Charlie Hebdo. You’ve heard of it. It got me thinking about what the difference is between the Christian and Muslim ethic for responding to blasphemy.

*For the non-religious, consider it a study in comparative religions.

For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:19-21

Non-religious or barely-religious people may have a hard time understanding how inflammatory something like a cartoon can be for a religious person. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons are doubly awful because not only do they portray the Prophet in a highly offensive way, but the portrayal itself is offensive. That is, it violates Islamic law which forbids the visual representation of God’s Messenger, lest the faithful be tempted to worship someone other than God. We in the West can all believe in free speech, but that doesn’t obligate anyone to suppress their other ideals in order to respond neutrally to us. Just like you might believe in non-violence, until someone tries to assault your child. We hold some of our loves more dearly than others.

What if the cartoon had been of Jesus instead of Muhammad? Well, of course, we all know how plentiful the blasphemous depictions of Christ are in our era. Mocking Christianity is fair game everywhere. I’ve noticed, as a college student, it actually seems to be the only religion that anyone can mock at any time without violating social sensitivities (on a university campus).

        

How ought a Christian deal with such mockery? Shut up and deal with it, you deserve it–so would say lots of folks I know. Well, something like that is actually the biblical perspective on the question.

Peter, one of Jesus’ best friends, said that it is a “gracious thing” to endure abuse and offensive remarks when you are mindful of God and the sufferings of Christ. Jesus himself said to rejoice when anyone mocks your love for God, since all saints in all ages have been mocked for the same thing. So the Christian ethic is: endure, rejoice, stay quiet, do not retaliate, respond only with kindness and humility. Don’t protest in the streets; don’t file lawsuits; don’t react in kind with sarcasm or insults. Imitate the silent suffering of Christ as he was led to the cross. It is not the Christian’s job to vindicate God. He will surely vindicate himself. Rather, it is the Christian’s job to funnel the Holy Spirit to the world by suffering abuse with love and patience.

So the Christian ethic is again supremely unique in a world where even the enlightened rationalists and the devoted faithful fail to see to the heart of the matter. The expectation for Christians is always modeled after Christ himself, which is what Peter says just after his exhortation:

He [Jesus] committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 1 Peter 2:22-23

Christian friends, may we live this out so that the beauty of Jesus may become clear to anyone paying attention.

I Remember You And Suddenly

Sometimes late at night my roommate goes to bed.
Still awake above her, I’m warm, safe, and well-fed;
But fears shimmy up me from my belly to my head.

They pause there long enough to make my eyes wet,
Pressing repeat on bad ideas I’d rather forget.
In the quiet dark my balancing act is quietly upset.

But I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to cry.

Sometimes in a room full of voices I cannot be heard.
Even with my organized thoughts, no one hears a word.
Everything I’m fearing, I guess, must be absurd.

Defeat shimmies down me from my chest to my pit.
In the middle of my body I can’t shake the weight of it,
But if it shoots out of my mouth, then I’m the hypocrite.

So I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to yell.

At times I’ve lost my cool and given up the ghost.
Grief like television keeps my mind engrossed
And blank to the world outside, to what I owe the most.

A whirlpool of introspection drags me down into
Vague trepidation towards what comes out of the blue.
Cowardly doubt rains on me and starts to soak me through.

Yet I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to drown.

The world outside threatens to kill, infect, or maim.
The world inside me is prone to more of the same.
My silent killers are tyrant gods like money, sex, fame.

Nothing cures what ails me like the memory of you.
“In remembrance of me” does what other gods don’t do:
Takes these dying insides and gives them life anew.

So I remember you and suddenly I’m less likely to die.
I remember you and suddenly I’m more alive.

Nazareth!

“…Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Luke 18:37

Nazareth! Little village on a hill.

Remember those games without toys, invented by dust-covered, poor boys?

All the water jugs filled and brought home, Mama cooking on a stove of hot stone,

Every child to his house, every father sitting down,

Some folks saying bad words loudly, drinking buddies getting rowdy.

A million years, the same things happening. A million souls, the same sins committing.

Nazareth! So much moving, so much staying still.

 

Nazareth! Did you always know it?

Remember when they first came in, young parents with a toddler babbling Egyptian?

Their generations had left markings here, a typical mix of blood, vomit, sweat, tears.

Refugees returning, newlyweds still learning,

Grandma just around the corner, grandpa sure is looking older.

For you nothing much had changed. For them nothing was the same.

Nazareth! Did you realize who’d shown up?

 

Nazareth! Podunk town where God grew up.

Remember how he played those games, knowing all those dirty boys’ names?

Bringing water jugs inside for Mama, mediating sinful family drama,

Helping siblings to behave, callusing, learning the trade.

Angry men discussing politics, angry kids discussing gossip,

And him right there, listening to everything. To man-made things, man’s Maker assimilating.

Nazareth! You taught God a lot about us.

 

Nazareth! A certain time and place.

Remember when you kicked him out? It stung because you could not doubt

That he had loved and known you, that even his true self he’d shown you:

Every alley memorized, every neighbor analyzed,

Favorite haunts with friends and brothers, fresh-baked bread from second mothers,

Particular faces in obscurity. You, not convinced? An absurdity.

Nazareth! You saw the very face of grace.

 

Nazareth! Foolish little plot on the ground.

Imagine! The Son of God’s hometown.

A world of work and food and friends and sleep:

Sweaty human life, the very thing he came to redeem.

.

A Moment Of Freedom

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For Kelvin

He comes in late. He comes in hungry.

The words on the screen flash by too fast, usually.

Fourteen years old. Learning to read.

He’s not one for raising his voice–not musically.

 

They say “stand up.” He gets up slowly.

Finally a song where he knows the words, mostly.

Comes here a lot. Feels pretty safe.

Some people who love him are praising God, vocally.

 

They say “mercy.” They say “forgiveness.”

Jesus does seem to be sane, in this craziness.

What of his sisters? What of his hunger?

This might be his first time believing in innocence.

 

He hums the tune. He looks to the sides.

Others are singing with raised hands and closed eyes.

Is Jesus here? Is Jesus hearing?

A lyric escapes him, he lets it, his voice climbs.

 

He is a boy. He lives like a man.

More years will pass before there’s no fist in his hand.

But here and now? A moment of freedom.

Thinking of Jesus, he sings out, loud as he can.

Amarga

She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi (pleasant); call me Mara (bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Ruth 1:20

You were born

because they put nothing on

when they tried to force their dolor into each other.

You grew up

because what else to do

when receiving just enough aceite to keep the cogs turning.

You laid down

because he made it happen

for himself even though it split you open like a coco.

You made eyes

because what else to offer

when that is all they’ve ever wanted and tienes hambre.

 

Amarga, bitter at the world, bitter at me,

bitter at the men, bitter at your mom.

Dulce, could you ever change your name?

Will my good Lord ever sweeten up your taste?

 

She’ll be born

because your flesh was naked

though you yourself were covered inches-thick by muros.

She’ll grow up

because what else to do

when you brought her into this relajo and can’t blame her for it.

She’ll lay down

because you will lay her down

so she sleeps in peace and bathes in prayers and knows amor.

She’ll make eyes

because she is a playful child

and knows nothing else but hugs and games and confianza.

 

Amarga, bitter at the world, bitter at me,

bitter at the men, bitter at your mom.

Dulce, could you try to change her name?

Will my good Lord sweeten you up, just for her sake?

And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name… Revelation 2:17

Reflections, Resolutions

LAST YEAR,
I gave thanks for teamwork and sharing,
neighborhood faces,
time-earned trust,
homes,
new starts,
the nearness of God,
and the closeness of the human family.

I loved the women and children
and the lessons they taught me
and the arms to come home to
and the people who loved me
and the God who was calling.
My Jesus I love thee.

THIS YEAR,
I want to be patient and watchful and ready and here.
The soul-searching companions – may they hear you explaining.
The teenager lowlifes – may they see you intervening.
I want a
lowered
life.

My family – served
My friendships – preserved
My ministry – working
My spirit-eyes – searching
My Jesus I love thee.

visiting a widow

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27

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I met her on Sunday. Mike, Ashley, and I were walking through the streets of La Fe, the village-community within La Ceiba, Honduras in which we work as missionaries. We took a picture of every family in front of their home, printed it, and gave the picture along with a Bible to each family as a Christmas gift. When we came to her house, she stood out to me because she was the oldest person I had yet seen in La Fe. She was seated in a plastic chair outside her home, slightly hunched with age, doing nothing but sitting and watching.

We took her picture and returned a few minutes later with the printed copy and the Bible. She admitted that she could not read, but assured me that she would give the Bible to one of her family members who would be able to use it. I encouraged her to do so, told her “God bless you,” and continued on to the next house.

On Tuesday, I looked for her again. At first, I found her house, but not her. Her son told me she was sick and in the house of his brother, a few streets over. When I found the house, I discovered her laying on a small couch, curled up, and clearly in pain. My heart felt heavy to see her suffering. I bid “good afternoon” to the house and gently explained to the young woman who came to greet me that I had met the “abuelita” two days earlier, had given her a Bible, had found out she could not read, and was wondering if perhaps she would like for me to read some scripture to her. They welcomed me inside and handed me a Bible.

I had not prepared a thing. I simply turned to some familiar passages and read them with reverence: Isaiah 25, John 10, Psalm 23, and Romans 5. A man and another woman soon came in from the back room and sat with us to listen in. The five of us listened to the beautiful words of God together and shared a few moments of peace in the midst of a crazy world. God blessed me with the words I needed to get the point across, in Spanish: God takes care of us when we feel helpless, like a shepherd guarding his sheep. Our hope in this life of suffering and death comes from knowing that Jesus suffered in our place on the cross. Without him, we have nothing at all. With him, we lack nothing at all.

The old woman said nothing during all of this, except to express her agreement when one of the other women stated her gratitude to me and to God for my unexpected arrival. I replied that God is a good Father, who gives good gifts at the very moment we think we cannot do any more. His word of promise is our hope in this life. After we prayed together, I offered to return in two days to read some more scripture aloud for them all, and they welcomed me back.

God’s mercy to us is profound. He came to us clothed in weakness: a child, a humble man. He spoke our language. He wore our clothes. He entered our homes. He visited us in the middle of our despair, called us back to the Father, and gave his body to us. The greatest gift he gave was his own self.

For us now, it is the same. God only approves of religion that is characterized by Christ-like mercy and Christ-like purity. When we enter one another’s homes, speak one another’s languages, and give ourselves to one another, with the Word of God, we find that making disciples is a reality within reach, as is joy. It is joy of which the principles and the gods of this world know nothing whatsoever.

There are many widows and orphans who need family, and many wandering souls who need to be called back to the Father. The best gift you can give them is yourself.

Receive from Jesus, give him away. Receive from Jesus, give him away. Receive from Jesus, give him away…

[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51

[Jesus said,] “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:36