Category Archives: Reflections

Why I Stand with T.C. Morrow

Tara “T.C.” Morrow is a Certified Candidate for Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and for the last two annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, our clergy session has considered her candidacy. In 2016, T.C. did not receive the required vote majority of our clergy session to be elected into provisional membership as a Provisional Deacon. This year, our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry did not forward her candidacy to our clergy session for consideration. Still, her candidacy was a central topic of discussion, even with no formal vote taken.

Why all the fuss? What’s so terribly wrong with T.C. Morrow?

In the past, I served on our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I considered many candidates for ministry. T.C. stands out as a uniquely qualified, exemplary candidate for Deacon. She has demonstrated outstanding Christian character. She is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and his church. T. C. is already a model of what Deacon ministry is all about while serving as a leader in her local church and working for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington, D.C. T.C. graduated from seminary and passed through the rigorous District and Conference candidacy process with flying colors. As a Deacon, she would continue in the call God has already given her.

Ordinarily, T.C. Morrow would be a person any Annual Conference would enthusiastically commission and ordain into ministry.

But there’s just one thing…

T.C. is a woman married to another woman. And in our Book of Discipline, recently clarified by Judicial Council decisions, this one thing disqualifies her from candidacy, commissioning, or ordination as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. This one thing. If we were to put aside T.C.’s sexual orientation for just a moment, I would be writing about the Rev. T.C. Morrow. Yet church law has made this impossible. To quote the former Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman, it’s “bad church law.”

Our inability and unwillingness to commission and ordain someone like T.C. Morrow is a glaring example of an entrenched injustice propped up by poor biblical theology.

Now before I go on to explain my claim, let me say that I have traditionally stood right of center on the issues surrounding gay and lesbian people. This is for no other reason than the fact that I take the Bible– the whole Bible– seriously. I do not dismiss scriptures that make me uneasy or challenge my assumptions. It’s all God’s inspired Word to be read, believed, and lived out. That said, the few times that the Bible does mention homosexuality, it’s always a condemnation. Meanwhile, the Bible consistently lifts up heterosexuality as the established norm.

I have spent countless hours reading and rereading the Bible to understand what it has to say about homosexuality. I have spent many hours in dialogue with others whose views are different from my own. I have spent time getting to know people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians. The overwhelming conclusion I come to is that the kind of sexual deviancy the Bible describes and at times calls homosexuality does not reflect the character and life of people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians.

Case in point: let’s take another look at one of the strongest biblical condemnations of homosexual sex in the Bible.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Romans‬ ‭1:18-32‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Writing to the church in Rome, Paul was describing the full impact of turning away from God to engage in idol worship. God’s wrath against idolaters is to “give them over” to the worst aspects of human depravity. Among the worst examples of human depravity was men and women, inflamed with lust, who exchanged natural sexual relations with one another to engage in “shameful acts” of orgiastic sex with people of the same gender. Most likely, Paul was referencing Greek and Roman temple prostitution in which it was not uncommon for visitors to engage in cultic sexual acts. It was another form of leisurely entertainment.

Then Paul lists off a whole litany of acts resulting from a depraved mind void of “the knowledge of God.”

I fully agree with Paul’s assessment. Any people or society who abandons God and God’s ways devolves into the worst of sexual and moral depravity. They are allowed to ruin themselves, and we see clear examples of that all around us.

Back to T.C. Morrow and other lesbian and gay Christians. Only the worst of biblical hermeneutics would suggest that somehow they fit the mold of human depravity Paul was describing in Romans 1. T.C. is a worshipper and servant of God, a baptized member of the United Methodist Church and a disciple of Jesus Christ whose life emulates the best of Christ-like character. In terms of her sexual orientation, she is legally married. She and her wife foster children who otherwise would not have a home. In the midst of the controversy surrounding her candidacy, T.C. has carried herself with a gracious courage embodying the very character of Jesus when he faced opposition and persecution.

Still, let’s say that the Bible does not outright condemn T.C.’s marriage, does it make room for gay and lesbian marriages, especially since the commended, normative form of human sexuality is heterosexual? My short answer is yes. First, there are many things we do and believe that the Bible does not specifically commend. Most Christians hold to creeds and traditions that are not commended in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not mention Lent, and yet most Christians adhere to that tradition. The Bible never mentions or spells out the Trinity, and yet where would our theology be today without the classic Christian doctrine of the Triune God?

Yet the Bible does commend faithfulness, loyalty, purity, and covenant- qualities which so many married gay and lesbian Christians uphold and model.

Furthermore, the overall trajectory of the Bible is towards an inclusive community, a community in which those who were previously denounced as unclean or unworthy are brought into the community of God’s people as valued equals. Jesus shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The Apostle Paul asks his friend Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). In a beautiful passage from Isaiah,

Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

‭Isaiah‬ ‭56:3-7‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

For someone like T.C., a woman in a married relationship with another woman, a disciple of Jesus who exudes Christ-like qualities, gifts, and graces, how could God not embrace her as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s church? Whether we acknowledge it or not, God already has.

And if God has accepted T.C. as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s body, then let’s be done with bad church law and commission her as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Until that day, I stand with T.C. Morrow and others like her who are being unjustly barred from God’s call to a life of ordained ministry in Christ’s church.

 

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A Gentile Goes to a Passover Seder

For almost two years now, I have spent my Thursday mornings at a local synagogue, joining them for Torah study. It’s been a wonderfully rich experience for me to study the Bible with my Jewish older cousins of the faith. Their wisdom steeped in centuries of ancient tradition has given me a whole other perspective from which to understand scriptures our two religions both revere as God’s Word to be read, trusted, and lived out. Just as important to me have been the new friendships I’ve made with my Jewish neighbors. I’ve come to admire their dedication to be faithful Jews within the framework of a religion that contains so much beauty, mystery, and meaning.

So a few weeks ago as I was walking out of Torah study, one of my classmates asked, “Chris, do you have someplace to go for the holidays?” He was asking about Passover. I loved the way he asked that. I’m a non-Jew– a Christian, a Gentile. Of course I’m homeless for the holidays! When I replied that I had no plans, he and his wife invited me to their Seder. I happily agreed.

IMG_0189

The Seder plate, place settings, and the cup of Elijah

As a Christian, I have been somewhat familiar with the Passover Seder. After all, our sacrament of Eucharist (The Lord’s Table), derives from the Seder celebrated by Jesus and his disciples. There are the scriptures from Exodus which lay out the requirement for Israel to observe the Festival of Passover with unleavened bread, bitter herbs, lamb, and a recollection of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. Several years ago at a previous church, we put together and held a Seder meal, based on a Haggadah (the Seder ritual book) and experiences of members who have Jewish family members.

But I knew this would be different. This was the real deal- the Seder meal of a Jewish family, something which they have inherited and practiced over their lifetimes down through the lifetimes of countless generations. I was really looking forward to a treat like this.

My son Jacob and I ended up going together. I wasn’t sure how Jacob would do. He’s 8-years-old and has Down syndrome. There would be a lot of people, commotion, and food and rituals he didn’t know over a long, late night. For my son, that could very well have been a recipe for disaster.

The evening came and we arrived at my friends’ home to the rich smells of food cooking and the mirth of a house full of family and guests. Hor d’oeuvres, drinks, and conversation filled our first hour. Lots of last-minute cooking preparations were brewing in the kitchen with women rushing here and there to take food out of the oven and fill platters. Kids were hanging out together munching on vegetables, matzo, and various dips.

About an hour later, folks started to gather around several tables pushed together to accommodate about 25 people for the Seder. Plates, silverware, napkins, glasses, platters and bowls with matzo, maror, charoset, and salt water were all meticulously arranged and set. Copies of the Haggadah were stacked on each end of the tables. Like typical families, there were intense negotiations around who would sit where and who was serving what. Once settled, the Passover candles were lit, and we began reading through the Haggadah.

Reading through the Seder Haggadah was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a Christian. It was highly scripted. Certain things are done and said at prescripted times. And yet, as with any family gathering, the kids got the giggles, sometimes we got confused about who was reading what, and the occasional, “Hey, you’re not supposed to drink your wine right then!” Yet the whole thing rolled along with a force and intentionality that had the weight of centuries behind us. It was the perfect blend of unmovable tradition with family dynamic eccentricities.

IMG_0187

Jacob at the Seder

It took about an hour to work our way through the Haggadah leading up to the meal. Jacob was doing amazingly well. Other than a soda, he hadn’t had a bite to eat. I couldn’t convince him to try any matza, and I didn’t even bother getting him to try bitter herbs or charoset! By this point we were well beyond our regular dinner time and even creeping past his bed time. I felt a melt-down on its way when finally we were served a very traditional hard-boiled egg which we were encouraged to eat with salt water. Jacob ate some of that. Then came the matzo ball soup. I wasn’t sure Jacob would eat it, and he wasn’t either, but by this time, rubbing his belly and beginning to cry, I think he would have tried just about anything. Jacob devoured the soup!

Then the meal proper was served. It was the largest family meal I have ever seen. Like any traditional family meal, every dish was a revered family recipe highly anticipated for Passover. There were four different meats, several traditional Jewish vegetable dishes, salads, plenty of wine, and deserts.

Following the meal there are traditionally many other prayers, including two more cups of wine, but this family typically doesn’t get around to that. No matter. Their obligation to keep the Passover- eating matza, maror, and offering the pesach- were kept and fulfilled. We remembered God’s faithfulness and God’s power to save his people time and again.

It was very late when Jacob I left. My friends’ house was still filled with family and guests eating desert and enjoying each others’ company. But the feelings from the deep impression that Seder made on my mind and heart still linger. It was a rich evening in every respect, and long into the night I kept thinking about how my son and I were swept up into a tradition that dates back to Moses and the Israelites in Egypt.

Much has changed with the Seder through the centuries, especially after the destruction of the Temple right before the turn of the first century C.E. Even as I try to imagine Jesus and his disciples having their Seder the night before he was crucified, I know that the ritual Jews follow today is substantially different from what first century Jews practiced. Some of the prayers and practices, the liturgy, and even the foods are different. One major difference is that Jews today rarely if ever use lamb for their Seder, even though the Bible commands it. With the exception of a roasted shank bone on the Seder plate, the absence of lamb is out of respect for the absence of the pascal sacrifices which discontinued after the destruction of the Temple.

Still, I sensed the emergence of a long, long tradition of prayer, questions, telling the story, eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs, psalms and songs, the strains of which stretch back through the millennia. The effort alone, based on the biblical obligation to keep the Passover festival and to keep it holy, which has been kept sacred through Israel’s long, long history, carried through times of peace, persecution, homecoming and exile, even the horrific devastation of the Holocaust- the holy commitment to keep the Passover has remained unchanged. The power of it surged to yet another incarnation with an annual Seder meal within one more Jewish home, a perpetual meal in which Jacob and I shared a taste, on that first night of Passover.

One last thought: at the great banquet table of God at the end of time, I would like to think that in addition to our celebration and singing, there would be plenty of wine, charoset, potato kugel, brisket, and my friend Joyce’s sweet potato tzimmes on the table. Short of that, their Seder was most definitely a slice of heaven.

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Life in the New World, 20 Years after a Death

img_205020 years ago on this day, February 8, 1997, my fiancée Diane Michelle Thompson died in a car accident while driving to work. It was in the early morning, and the roads were icy. Diane lost control of her car when she slipped on a patch of black ice. Her car crossed the road and slammed into a telephone pole killing her instantly. She was just 22-years-old. I was a month away from my 23rd birthday.

Diane and I had been engaged for almost 2 years and were 4 months away from our wedding day. In fact, we were just about to start addressing our wedding invitations when she died. We had already purchased our wedding rings.

I distinctly remember that morning. At around 8 AM, Diane’s work called to see if I knew where she was. (She sometimes went to work from my house, and I was an emergency contact for her.) That call concerned me a little, but then again, Diane was never known for her promptness to much of anything. Still that was late, even for her. I told them I hadn’t heard from Diane, but to please have her check in with me when she got there.

A little while later, the phone rang again. It was Diane’s father.

“Chris,” he said. “It’s Mike. Listen, I’ve got some really bad news.”

“Really? What’s wrong?” I asked. Mike had a stoic, matter-of-fact way of talking about most things, but I could sense tension in his voice. This call was for something quite different.

“Chris, listen… Diane was on her way to work. Her car slipped on the ice and she got into an accident. She didn’t make it,” he said.

I paused a moment, not sure how to gauge what he just said. “Didn’t make it? Well, what do you mean? Is she alright?”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” he said. “She. Didn’t. Make it.” Suddenly the ominous weight of what Mike just said sunk right into my skull.

“You mean… She’s dead?” I asked. Those words fell out of my mouth lingering there in a vacuum of disembodied space.

“Yeah…” he mumbled. I closed my eyes. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.

The life I had known up until that moment quickly vanished. When I opened my eyes again, it was like I found myself vaulted into an alternate universe. I had no idea where I was or what to do. The same people and surroundings were still there, but with Diane suddenly gone, it was all a mere shell of what used to be. I was scared, paralyzed, lost. Before me was a dark, murky future I didn’t know and didn’t want. I was taken captive into a whole New World, and at first, I did all I could to break free from it. It was a world without Diane, without all my hopes, dreams, and plans. It felt like a barren wasteland of vague memories and shattered expectations.

I wanted to wake up and go home.

†††††††

20 years later, I find myself in this same New World. I have since learned to embrace it and thrive in it, and I’ve received the unique gifts it has offered me, most especially its lessons about life and death. This New World reminds me how fragile our existence is and how uncertain our tomorrow is, if it even exists at all. This New World insists on doing whatever is most important Today, while it is still Today.

And like the cherubim who guard the way into Eden with flaming swords, my New World doesn’t let me enter the Old World gardens of What If, Should Have Been, and Could Have Been. Once in a while I find myself wandering over to see if I can catch a glimpse into those Old World gardens. I think about where Diane and I would be if she were still alive. What would she look like now? What would our children be like? What memories would we have made together?

But then the phone rings. I get a text. My wife or one of my children calls my name, and just as quickly, I find myself back in the New World where I belong. It’s certainly not perfect or ideal. (Then again, taking off my rosy lenses of reminiscence, the Old World with Diane wasn’t exactly perfection, either- far from it.) 20 years ago, I wanted nothing to do with this New World, but now, I can’t fathom my life without all that God has given me since. I have a beautiful wife, companion and partner named Blairlee. I have three beautiful children- Kathryn, Grace Elizabeth and Jacob, all gifts from God in this world into which God had a hand in bringing me.

With that said, I have a strange confession: in a way, I will always love and miss Diane. At first glance, that may seem scandalous, even pathetic. How could I love and miss a person who is dead while being a happily married husband and father?

The most powerful lesson this New World has graciously taught me is this: love, true love, never ends. Love adapts and changes, as it should. Love brings about different ties and obligations over time. For example, I will always love my children, and I’m imagining that I will miss them when they venture out on their own to begin their adult lives. Yet my love for them, properly evolved, cannot keep them from living as full-fledged adults. In a similar vein, that’s where I find myself with Diane. I still love her for the woman she was and for the enormous impact she has had on my life, before and after her death. I miss that she’s still not here among us, most especially with her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. And while not teetering too far into Old World longing, I recognize the truth that if Diane were still alive, we would be married, our lives looking quite differently than they do today.

But that’s where New World love and grief meet a healthy conclusion. I do not long for a ghost to jettison me from the life I have inherited as a result of her tragic death 20 years ago. (She wouldn’t tolerate that foolishness anyway.) As we say, “Life goes on.”  At times, it is a stoic determination to keep one foot in front of the other, and at best, a grand celebration that death has been swallowed up in the victory of life. Either way, as Peter Gabriel once wisely sang, “life carries on, and on, and on.” Indeed it does.

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After The Election, Will You Be a Divider or a Healer?

Barring an election night dispute, on Wednesday morning we will wake up to a world in which the 45th President of the United States will be President-elect Donald John Trump or President-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton. When we head out for the day, almost every person we meet will feel elated and optimistic or scared and angry. The rest will have slumped into an apathetic “whatever”.

We can also expect that the President-elect will have to work with a divided Congress, nation, and world.

The Senate will most likely revert to Democratic control while the House remains under Republican control, meaning that whoever is elected President will face the same potential for gridlock and who-will-blink-first-showdowns we’ve seen for the past six years.

Outside of the Washington, the President-elect will face an American population more bitterly divided than at any time in our history, second only to the tumult leading up to our Civil War.

Beyond our shores, he or she will face a Middle East on the brink of region-wide war and nuclear proliferation, a crumbling European Union, the continuing rise of China, a North Korea with expanding nuclear weaponry, and a growing Russian geopolitical domination that has been decisively anti-western.

During times of such peril and division, we look to our leaders to be the great problem solvers and peacemakers. Yet how many presidential and congressional candidates have we elected to “fix the mess in Washington” and provide leadership to the free world, only to find them mired and absorbed into the same messes? It proves that our leaders are a reflection of We the People, and if we are divided and unable to resolve our own conflicts, how can we reasonably expect the politicians we elect to do any better?

img_1030So no matter who becomes the next President-elect this week, you and I will have an equally critical choice to make. Will we be a divider or a healer? Will the things we say, the attitudes we harbor, and the way we treat our neighbors and our leaders stir up further division or offer a balm of healing? While our choice of the next President will be highly consequential to our country and world, the way you and I choose to carry on in the wake of this election will be even more consequential. It’s a choice each of us will make, intentionally or unintentionally, and our choices will reverberate for years to come.

I think we all know what divisive behavior and attitudes look like. So let me offer some ideas on what a healer looks like.

  • Healers carefully measure how they talk about leaders with whom they disagree and the folks who vote for them. Instead of launching ad hominem attacks, resorting to shrill cries that the sky is falling and the antichrist has arrived, or parading around unchecked, unsubstantiated statements about the other side, healers listen and then calmly share their views with the intention of establishing common ground.
  • Instead of looking at the other side with incredulity and spite, healers try very hard to understand what others are saying and what drives them to say those things. Healers empathize with what’s at stake within opposition voices, even when they disagree with how opposing voices see the challenges in our world and their proposed remedies.
  • Rather than taking to social media to spout off their political and social views, which really takes no discipline or real courage to do, healers think twice about what they post. Healers aim to share things that move their social network to think deeply and join in respectful conversation.
  • Instead of attacking the character, intelligence, and perceived motivations of leaders they disagree with, healers respect the office of that leader and offer alternative ideas, even passionately, with the motivation of reaching consensus, not victory over the opposition.
  • Rather than mocking and vilifying opposition voices, healers make every opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation based on respect for the other.

All of this points to a critical question: after this election, will you be a healer or a divider? If you say “neither” while complaining about our divisiveness, your abstention vote goes right to the dividers. Those who sit in apathy and quiet cynicism are just as deadly to our communal health as the ones who are actively dividing us. They simply add to the negativity.

So… in the post-election season, I’ve got several ideas for you to try.

First, if you can’t control your propensity to gloat or rant on social media, do the rest of a favor and go read a book, take a long walk, or sign out for a few weeks or months. Please.

Second, find someone who voted differently than you and have lunch. Make it your goal to learn more about their desires, fears, hopes and dreams. Then establish some places for you both to come together. Short of that, just listen to understand. It will be worth it.

Third, trust that no matter what happens, people are people, and so are you. If you can’t identify with other people- the “them” people- on some basic level, then make that a worthwhile goal. Listen and identify with people on their terms. Sure, if you do, the partisan dividers will call you weak-spined, unprincipled, a sell out, etc. Whatever. Any effort you make will bring healing to our nation and world.

And remember, anything we do to bring healing to our nation and our world, no matter how small or quiet, will indeed make a huge difference, mostly because there are so few healers out there. But you and I can be one of them, if we dare to have the love, courage, and grace to do it.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:9‬

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Trying to Be Reasonable in an Age of Hotheaded Sloganeering

Facebook is a funny place to be sometimes. That’s funny as in weird, conducive to eye-rolling, and even downright frustrating. All you have to do is dropkick any public issue into the fray and watch what happens. Every issue becomes hot-button. People post and repost memes and videos to spout off their views. If you have a view, you probably have a hashtag. (Hashtags are the new bumper sticker.)

DebateAll of this is symptomatic of folks talking at each other and past each other without truly listening to each other. Many of us don’t seem to have the time or the interest to have open, respectful conversations anymore. Or perhaps our cynical natures have written that off as a worthless endeavor. Some tip their hat to it and dabble in a meaningful conversation here and there, but then go right back to ranting out their viewpoints.

This is an angry, fearful, sardonic, pessimistic era in which we live. We question and make assumptions about everyone’s motives. If you voice an opinion, prepare yourself for the backlash. Everyone wants to be heard, but few choose to listen. Compromise is a pathetic word for sellouts and the noodle-spined. Humor and sarcasm are barely distinguishable. And any attempt to be a calm voice of reason in this climate requires an endless supply of patience and persistence. I’m finding that out for myself.

Now I don’t want to saint myself as the wise, reasonable one among a crowd of sinful loudmouth partisans. I don’t want to be the curmudgeonly hermit who holes himself away as the virtuous remnant of reason. In other words, I don’t want my contributions to unwittingly add to the swarm of negativity I think I perceive in others.

But if we’re all going to behave differently, we have to diagnose the problem and give it a name. The name I give it is Hotheaded Sloganeering.

  • Hotheaded– easily angered, easily offended, quick to jump to conclusions about the opposition
  • Sloganeering– the repeated use of soundbite-sized arguments and statements to solidify support for a view or a cause

For example, last week I wrote a piece about Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. I offered what I thought was a reasonable approach by saying that Kaepernick is well within his rights to free speech, and that what he did represents the very best of our American liberties for which many have fought hard to protect. Note: I did not evaluate the merits of Kaepernick’s actions or the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of what he did. I simply hopped off the bandwagon of criticizing Kaepernick’s fundamental rights as an American to not honor his country’s flag or anthem in the name of protesting the injustice of racism.

However, I’ve since then heard a lot of the following: “Sure, he has the right to do that, but he shouldn’t have. If he’s a real American, a grateful American, then he should be standing for the country who lets him do that. He should be barred for doing that. He’s totally out of line. If he doesn’t like this country, then he should leave it.”

And then I heard others say, “All you flag wavers are always telling black people to protest peacefully. Kaepernick does, and you demonize him, too. You just want black people to sit down and shut up, or in this case, stand up and shut up. That’s because you feel threatened if black people should rise up and become equals to you.”

[Sigh…]

While we’re busy shouting at each other we’ve failed to see that we are all trying to figure out the same thing- what it means for America to be America and for all of us to be Americans with dignity. Racial equality and patriotism. Two aspects of this same issue. Yet people take their aspect of choice, hold it up high as the sole battleground of the American struggle, and charge full steam ahead.

Meanwhile we find ourselves caught in a web of cognitive dissonance, character assassinations, and competing angles of the same issue.

The only way to break this logjam of unreason and disrespect is to make a concerted effort to experiment with another tactic. Humility.

Humility is tough to pin down because the moment we think we have it, we’ve probably lost it. That results in a self-assuring pride parading itself as humility. There’s a lot of this false humility out there, and I have to admit I’ve been found guilty of possession, too. Yet despite the lesser angels of our nature, I have discovered that the test for genuine humility is the ability to listen with the purpose of understanding.

Let the guard down. Put aside fear and suspicion. Bring a curious mind and heart. Look for reasons to respect different voices. Be open to the possibility that our ingrained presumptions are incomplete and inaccurate. Let others be themselves and show grace towards the unintentional things they do or say that cause us pain. At the same time, learn where others’ wounds are and the unintentional things we say and do that throw salt into those wounds. Respect that those wounds are real. Expect that the way forward will take some time to discern and that it will be a lot more complex than we think. Hang in there, anticipating that there will be some bumps and bruises along the way. But if we can do all this, the way forward will be life-giving and will bring more of us onboard together.

It’s tough to be reasonable in this age. Peacemaking is not for wimps. Sometimes it seems like an elusive quest to find people who will partner with us and stay in it for the long run. However, I’m convinced that no matter the issue or challenge we face, our work will stand the test of time. It will certainly long surpass the shallow notions and futile efforts of all the hotheaded sloganeering we hear around us… especially on Facebook.

 

 

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The Treasure of a Human Life: Lessons (Re)learned

As a pastor, I have conducted so many funerals for both older people and younger people. I’ve lost count of how many. People ask me how I manage to do that, especially for someone I don’t know. The answer to that is another story. But the one thing that continually compels me when I memorialize someone is the effort to capture the existential substance of their being, the worth and reason of their life. I look at each life as a stained glass window through which God can shine. The questions: how did God shine through this person? Who benefited from that light? How does this person reflect who I know God to be? The answer to those questions become the substance of what I share at a funeral.

Justin Kurlychek

Justin Kurlychek

Admittedly, all this can come to be routine until I’m smacked in the face with the death of a friend like Justin Kurlychek. Justin died early Tuesday morning. We were just 7 months apart in age. We graduated from high school together. We sang and acted together. We shared a wild and crazy senior beach week together. (Tales untold!) We spent many hours on the phone together in recent years. He left behind two beautiful daughters. As I mentioned in a tribute I wrote, he was a beautiful, creative soul, even with all his troubles and demons.

As many times as I’ve gone through grief like this- I’ve lost several good friends to death including a fiancée almost 20 years ago- I’m always awed at how one person deeply affects the world around them. My tribute for Justin went viral in a matter of hours by hundreds and hundreds of people who were grieving Justin’s death. On top of my own grief, I felt both honored and inundated by the number of people who reached out to me in the last couple of days. But the sheer magnitude of the response to Justin’s death was something I had not anticipated. It has affirmed how many people loved Justin, how many people he loved, and the ways he sincerely impacted us all with his presence and his gifts.

I only wish Justin knew how valuable his life was and how people would respond to his untimely death. That’s the value and power of one life. Just one.

During times like these, it’s only natural and necessary to mourn our loss. It is a horribly painful thing to lose a person like Justin Kurlychek. Many have said that he is finally at peace. That may be so, but I mourn the fact that he knew so little of it while he was alive. I mourn the terrible time Justin had valuing himself for the beautiful gift he was. And I mourn the unfulfilled wish of having spent more time with him in the last few years of his life.

But if there is a gift to pick up from the ashes of our grief and regrets, it’s the reaffirmation that each of our lives is a sacred gift to be lived, treasured, and shared. Since that is true, what will we do in the aftermath of Justin’s memorials and tributes? Will we return to life as usual? Or will we make more of a concerted effort to value each life in our network, love them, spend time with them, and at the same time, give away the best of what God has made us to be as a blessing to them?

How many times have we said, “Yeah, we need to get together and hang out!” only to find that months later, nothing has happened? Or how many times have we held back from giving our very best to the ones we love out of fear, pride, misplaced priorities, or even shame? For me, Justin’s death has brought those questions into a much brighter spotlight.

I think that it’s a wonderfully divine irony that the shadow of death can invite us into the endless treasure of life. I hope you and I can discover and claim this treasure for ourselves.

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My Tribute to Justin: a Beautiful, Troubled Life

Justin Kurlychek (10/15/74-8/23/16)

When I was in high school, there was this guy, Justin, who always seemed larger than life to me. He was incredibly creative, offbeat, funny, musical, dramatic. He was not a part of the super “in” crowd, but nevertheless, everyone- and I mean everyone!-  liked and appreciated Justin. And I’ll never forget the moment I realized that Justin liked me, too, and considered me a friend. I was very humbled by that, and I still am today.

I met Justin Kurlychek in South River High School’s drama club. For two years I played in the spring musical pit band, supporting people like Justin up on the stage, but then encouraged on by some friends I auditioned and got parts in the fall play and spring musical right alongside Justin. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He could act, sing, and dance. And no matter what he did, he knew how to own an audience’s attention. Justin took the stage and kept it. All eyes were on him.

Justin also played in bands and was a natural front man singer and guitarist. He wrote and performed his own music. After high school, I participated in a local battle of the bands. The band I was in lost to his band by a landslide. I wouldn’t say they were more talented than we were, but Justin was the magic ingredient. He could gather and keep a crowd on their feet. That alone won the day.

In our senior year of high school, I began to get to know Justin better. I began to see that underneath all of his wacky charisma and charm were troubled waters. I never knew how troubled or the causes of his turmoil, but something always haunted him and never stopped. This darker part of Justin gave him the capacity to love anyone, to be compassionate, and to remain completely non-judgmental. I had just hoped that somehow he would extend this troubled beauty to himself, but I don’t think he ever did.

After high school, decades went by and I had always wondered what happened to Justin. No one seemed to know. And then Facebook came along. A few years after that, there was Justin on Facebook. Precious little about him had changed. He was still the same Justin I knew in high school. Life, however, had taken its toll on him.

Justin became a father, married, divorced, and also suffered a few strokes that debilitated him. Even with all of that, his same humor, passion, love, and crazy creative talent were still there. And so were his demons. I spent hours talking to Justin, especially during his times of crisis. My heart would break at the depth of his pain and his inability to forgive himself, love himself and to think that God could do anything else than torture him.

Eventually though, through time, the love of others, and yes, the love of God who loved him more than Justin would ever know, he was able to get his strength back, get back to playing music, and have meaningful relationships. Things were always tipsy turvy for Justin, but I could see that he was getting better, and above all, becoming more happy with himself.

And then this morning, I heard the devastating news that Justin had died from a heroin overdose. I had no idea that Justin had a drug problem. If he had, he seemed to be getting stronger. It was the end of a beautiful, tumultuous life that ended much too soon leaving wonderful memories and tragedy in its wake.

It’s far too easy to look at Justin Kurlychek’s life and make our judgments. “If only he had done [this], he would be happy and alive.” “If he had not done [that], he could have had a better life. What a screw up.”

When I reflect on my friend Justin’s life, I’m reminded again that life is hard. Life is hard for everyone. For reasons I don’t understand, some people have it a lot harder than others and suffer through a lot more. Whether that’s due to things that have happened beyond a person’s control, decisions a person has made, or both, I’ve come to see that it doesn’t really matter as much as we think it does. What matters is doing the most good and being the greatest blessing to others with the gifts and opportunities we’ve been given. In that respect, each of us are both accomplished and guilty, productive and wasteful.

So who are we to be the ultimate arbiters of another person’s life? Each of us has our own to life to live with our share of victories, defeats, broken relationships, bridges burned, moments of grace, gifts of magnificence and decisions for good or ill that will determine how each of us will die one day. Ultimately we will all stand before God our creator and redeemer, and he will make the final evaluation. And God has far more capacity for mercy, justice, and truth than you or I have.

My friend Justin blessed my life with his love, his respect, and his loyalty. I’m a better person and a happier person for having loved and been loved by Justin. Many of us could say the same. I am devastated that this blessing has died far too soon. But I cherish the times I did have with Justin, and I pray for God’s peace and healing to embrace Justin’s loved ones, his children, his family and each of us.

Justin used to say to me, “Owens, I love you buddy.” So I say to my friend and brother, “Kurlychek, I love you back and always.”

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