Sometimes love breaks rules

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My mom didn’t talk to me for forty days after I came out to her as gay. I’d revealed that the friend I kept bringing when I visited family was actually my boyfriend of two years. She was shocked.

Because my mom believes in a sanctified numerology, forty days was the time she needed to sort through her hurt and disappointment with God. At the end of the forty days, she concluded that I had a clean conscience, and she couldn’t argue with that. But in spite of her tolerance of me, her theology remained unchanged.

She’d once told me that gay people were “spiritually lower than animals,” so perhaps this was a progressive position for her.

What followed, though, was silence.

We talked some on the phone but never about anything important. She’d update me on family gossip and I’d tell her I was busy but doing well. I kept things brief and vague. I couldn’t talk about my favorite person with her. I’d tell her about trips, outings, concerts, all sorts of events and occasions, but I’d always leave out that I went with my boyfriend.

Before she knew he was my boyfriend, she used to ask about him all the time, how he was doing, what he was up to. She would often remind me to be more like him – a good boy. This was also her way of saying that I should go back to school. That was before she knew we were together. She didn’t bring him up after she found out. I lived across the country, so this arrangement of silence felt doable. It didn’t feel good, but it was something I could live with.

A year later I moved back east, staying with my sister and her husband. Then, six months later, my parents decided to move in as well, to help with my newborn nephew.

Things were strained and surface-level. I was hiding my life, barely explaining why I was flying to Texas every other month or why I wasn’t doing Thanksgiving with the family. My family is good at denial. Things too confusing, too difficult, too awkward, just get put away where we don’t have to look at them. This was just like all the other things we never deal with.

But then my boyfriend broke up with me. And all I could do was cry. The tears would well up without warning. I’d run to my bedroom or the backyard or go on a walk. I felt like a teenager again, hiding things from my parents. Smoking out of my windowsill became sobbing into my pillow. I’d practice looking happy in front of the mirror after hours of crying like I used to practice looking sober during parties.

But even without seeing the tears, my mom knew something was wrong. She could see the way I dragged my body. Concerned, she approached my sister. And my sister told her everything. She told her about the boy, about the breakup, about how my mom had proven she wasn’t a person I could share my life with.

My mom climbed the stairs to my room. She knocked on my door. I answered, and there she was, her eyes filled with tears. She wrapped her arms around me, held me tight, said again and again and again how sorry she was for the pain she put me through, for the pain I was living in. She promised I’d find somebody better for me, that I would be happy again, that I deserve that much.

That night my mom slept in my bed, holding me, wiping down my wet face. Only a few weeks before the break-up, she’d switched my glass of wine with Martinelli’s at dinner, thinking she was sneaky and that somehow I wouldn’t notice, but this night she kept asking if I needed a beer, if I needed to smoke. She was willing to break her rules for me. She was willing to go against her church. For me.

Sometimes love does that, at least the good kind of love. It breaks the rules – especially the religious ones – in order to embrace people in pain and to reassure them. You don’t have to be alone. Because I’m here with you. And I love you.

Seeking a People

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I used to call myself a Quaker. I never joined a meeting, and honestly, I had suspicions from the beginning that it just wasn’t going to work. But I was desperate for people, and I really wanted the Quakerism I’d read about.

I couldn’t find it, though, and now I’m not sure it exists.

In the meantime, I’ve been talking, and writing, and a number of Friends say my critical observations about Quaker institutions and culture are illegitimate, either because of my lack of membership or because of my newness. I don’t have a right to point out classism and white supremacy, they say.

It’s been hard finding my place and voice in the Religious Society of Friends. And honestly, I’ve given up. I don’t see the point.

When I read what early Friends wrote, I’m drawn to their vision. Friends lived out of step with the world. Their yielding to Christ demanded deep listening, joy in suffering for the truth, abandonment to the movement of Love. They declared the end of days and rejected the idolatry of nationalism. They were living into a new Society of Friends.

George Fox wrote about the Kingdom of God breaking into this world – and it came from within – this was the gospel I knew, the gospel I needed. Quakers were holy fools, apocalyptic evangelists, soldiers of prophecy. They were about liberation and creating the age-to-come. That was the Spirit I knew. This was the church I longed for.

Then I found Quakers. They weren’t exactly what I’d read about, and it was kind of confusing. But I decided to stick around for a while. After all, maybe God could use existing Quaker institutions to renew the Society of Friends. I believed and hoped that some of these institutions might lead Friends of all branches into convergence, and then that the Spirit might dissolve our dependence on institutions. I thought that as we yielded to the Spirit, she would return us to that apostolic and anarchic ecclesiology of early Friends.

What I’ve found, instead, is that Friends have converged on a shared history and a handful of practices.

But if the Society of Friends is to ever again carry the anointing of early Quakers, if it is to ever embody the vision of Margaret Fell, going “hand in hand in the unity and fellowship of this eternal Spirit,” it must do more than embrace a convoluted historical connection and some shared practices.

If we are converging on history and practice, we are missing the point. If we are depending on institutions to create a new society or usher in the Kingdom, then we are deceived. These will not bring the radically egalitarian and Spirit-filled communities that God fostered among early Friends. These are forms, and Friends must follow the Spirit.

I’ve met others who need a Spirit-led Society. We share this vision, and we share the disappointment of being drowned out in meeting by classism, ageism, and racism. Some of us wonder if Quakerism isn’t all that different from the rest of liberal religion. From what we’ve seen, it isn’t apocalyptic. It isn’t radical. It doesn’t sound like Fox or look like Jesus. It works at incremental transformation while simultaneously shushing those who need the system overthrown.

I’ve moved on.

But even as I’ve stopped attending meeting – even as institutional Quakerism has, for the most part, become irrelevant to me – I cannot deny that I am a Friend. Quaker conceptions of Christ’s gospel have led me closer to Jesus and it’s integral to what I believe and how I live. At the end of the day, though, if tables aren’t being turned, if people aren’t being healed and set free, if the prophets aren’t marching naked, I’ll have to follow Jesus elsewhere.

I hear early Friend Sarah Blackwell’s words ringing in my heart: “Christ is trying to make a dwelling place within you but he is left rejected and homeless.”

Jesus is still seeking his people, people who see the Spirit of God in the suffering and offer refuge. I’m seeking those people, too.

I believe in the Resurrection

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Somewhere near Bergamo

I never got to know my brother Kento. He was already dying and in a hospital when we first met in person. Just a few days later, he died. He was unable to speak or move, but he was there. I got to touch him. To see him. Finally.

Before that, there had been too much distance. I remember when I first learned of his existence. Then I found him on Facebook, and when he accepted my friend request, it felt like a miracle. I could see pictures of him, read his statuses, see all the people who loved him. I wanted to be able to love him, too.

I only ever knew Kento’s hesitance behind a keyboard. I only ever knew his inability to deal with me.

I hoped he might make peace with us, his birth family, that he might decide to meet us. I told myself to not be anxious, that life would inevitably bring us together. And it did. In a hospital in Italy. In a bed in that hospital. Surrounded by machines.

Then he was gone.

His childhood pastor eulogized Kento’s desire to meet us and know us. Said that he was finally ready. That he wanted to know his brothers and sisters, his nephews. It’s a mythology I want to believe. Even while I know it could be little more than a cleverly revised report of what was actually the case, which breaks my heart. And just for a moment I’m entertaining the idea that this pastor made the whole thing up. To console us. And I know that’s a fucked up idea of consolation. But also, even if it’s true, I could never be mad at Kento. He could have lived a full life, and in that life he might still not have chosen to know us, and I would get that.

But I need to believe.

Or maybe I have to believe. Because I can’t live with the possibility that Kento didn’t want to know me, and I feel pathetic and stupid for how much I’ve longed to know him, and maybe I simply can’t face the fact that I never got to. I’m mourning Kento, the brother I never had.

But I feel him. I hate to spiritualize these sorts of things where complete devastation feels like the only way to honor the tragedy of a person dying. But I feel Kento in my mind, his essence – a burst of warmth, a glimpse of hope.

Here’s what I know: Kento was an anarchist.

We both grew up in the Unification Church, a fringe cult that created our complex family dynamic, but we were different. We were both second generation Moonies. Workshops were the rhythm of our lives.

That was where our lives made sense. Except Kento was considered a bad kid.

Flirting was deemed a serious offense. Our whole theology was built upon properly performing while simultaneously resisting sex. Avoidance of the opposite sex was not just seen as noble, it was required.

Kento didn’t care. He talked to girls, he kissed girls, and worst of all, according to workshop leaders, was how Kento could be such a good friend, even to girls, while being so obviously a bad kid.

He was designated a bad kid even before they had some religious reason to call him a bad kid. Because he saw through our religious leaders, and he knew they had no real authority.

I like to think his anti-authoritarianism was rooted in him being a good friend. The best kind of friend.

The present, goofy, do whatever it takes to make you feel good, alive kind of friend.

I met his friends. They talked about how different he was, both separate and warm, tender. They talked a lot about his tenderness, about his heart for people and for life. He was fearless. He was so alive.

That’s how I want to live. In this world, but not of it. Refusing and resisting illegitimate, oppressive authority. Defined by love. Full of joy in the midst of chaos.

I say all this, but I never really knew Kento. He was barely alive when we got there. There were moments where he seemed to be getting better, and we hoped for a miracle. Toward the end, especially, he was fighting so hard, trying to hold onto life. His heartbeat was fast, his body was swollen. He was sweating and unable to keep his eyes still. Then, just hours later, he was gone.

I was with him at his weakest. But I felt his power bursting through in those last moments. I felt him fighting.

I’m not going to act like Kento was perfect. I know his life wasn’t easy. I also know, so thoroughly, that there was something profoundly and exceptionally good about Kento. I want that. I think of him often, I sense his closeness, maybe even his aid, as I try to live a holy life.

I don’t know exactly how the afterlife works. But my brother lived into a peculiar pattern shaped by an open heart, and I believe he continues. As a result, I find myself believing in the resurrection in a way I never have before. And I think this is why. In resurrection, Kento finally gets his way. Full emancipation.

Freedom. Even from death.

The Kingdom is Waiting

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Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter

I remember falling in love with Jesus my junior year of high school. God received me, embraced me, didn’t ask questions. God loved me.

And then I started getting to know Christians.

I went to an end-times Bible study most Saturday mornings my senior year of high school. We listened to recordings of teachings from Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer – Kansas City, a charismatic ministry with a mission of praying and worshiping 24/7.

It was a small Bible study. Usually there were just three or four of us. We ate bagels, sat in fold-out chairs in a circle, often huddled around a space heater. We listened to Bickle describe the dreadful days that were coming, and every so often one of us would exclaim “Wow!” or “Amen!”

But there was this one moment. I looked around the room. Nobody had their eyes open. They were concentrating on Bickle, trying to soak up every word. It dawned on me that they really believed the end times were approaching, that the day was near. I didn’t know if I believed that.

I felt bad.

Bickle talked about riots, literal battles between the righteous and unrighteous. It didn’t remind me of Jesus.

That’s how it’s been for me. I want to be orthodox, to be right, to fit in. More than anything, I want to be in a community of people who know the God I know, who know what it is to be loved with abandon. But this weird thing happens where for some reason I have to choose between Christ and community. And every time I’ve conformed myself to the expectations of a faith community, I’ve had to resist the love I first met in Jesus.

I think that’s toxic. I think it’s abuse. It took me a long time to see that.

Much of what we know as Evangelicalism doesn’t look or sound like Jesus.

But there’s another side to the story. Sitting in that circle, realizing that maybe I didn’t belong, I noticed a change in the words we were hearing. Bickle began talking about the Church being used to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth by embodying the Sermon on the Mount, by trusting Jesus.

And I knew.

That’s why I’m here. That’s a message I can believe in. But what is it exactly? Bickle’s eschatological narrative calls for us to convert people, pointing to a kingdom that is somewhere else and for another time.

But in Jesus, that kingdom is already here, among us, waiting for us to notice. Waiting for us with love.

On Speaking in Tongues

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I stumbled into speaking in tongues. At the time, it wasn’t what I wanted.

I was sixteen. I’d only been “born again” for about six months, and I knew I could experience God the same way people in the New Testament did. Paul talked about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians – healing, prophecy – and I believed.

I wanted Jesus to fill me with the Holy Spirit, the same way he did for believers in Acts.

I tend to get loud when I pray, and I needed to pray. I didn’t want to freak out my parents, so I decided to pray at a park near my house. At night. I wanted power. Power to do miracles. Power to heal the sick. Power to raise the dead. I’d wait in silence, but eventually, the prayers came out. I cried out to God, even argued with God. And every time, I felt something: warm waves of love crashed into my chest. I physically trembled. I shook.

I kept it up for over a month. Nightly trips to the park, rain or snow. The good feelings kept coming, but I wasn’t experiencing the power I wanted. I wanted more than a feeling. So I decided to chill out on begging God to Spirit-baptize me. Every once in awhile, I’d mention it in my prayers, but disappointment restrained my expectations.

And then I was troubled. I’d stopped actively seeking my own personal Pentecost, and one night, as I prayed, my words were dry, inauthentic. It annoyed me. I remember pacing through the second floor of our house, ticked off at God, and as I stepped into the bathroom, some words fell out of my mouth. But they weren’t in English. I didn’t recognize them.

Was I speaking in tongues?

I was scared. This wasn’t the gift I wanted. It didn’t make sense. But it felt – good. So good!

I ran to my room and prayed in the most pious position I could think of, with my hands folded on the corner of my bed, back straight, knees bent on the floor. I asked God for wisdom in regard to whatever had just occurred. As a precaution, I cast out any pesky demons trying to deceive me, and I asked God, yet again, to fill me with the Spirit. I felt an urge to open my mouth and there they were, those same mysterious words.

They kept coming. And somehow these words that I didn’t understand felt truer than anything else I’d prayed that night. Somehow the barriers I’d been running up against in prayer were gone.

I was skeptical of this new thing. But I was open to God, to whatever God wanted to do, and the result was that God gave me the goofiest and least powerful of the charismatic gifts: the gift of tongues.

The night I first spoke in tongues, I felt those feelings again – the ones that made me quake. The love rushing over me. Like I was cocooned in the Holy Spirit. After I stopped praying, and as I laid in my bed, the warmth and energy remained hovering over me, covering me; and I was at peace. I felt safe. I felt known.

I was humbled, too.

So many times, the Spirit had crept up on me, and I’d dismissed her. The feelings hadn’t seemed valid because they were just feelings. I’d wanted power. Somehow, God knew I needed comfort. That night, I praised God until I fell asleep. I slept well.

Looking back on that night, I recognize that God welcomed me into what N.T. Wright calls a “private language of love.” It felt intimate and holy. The Bible doesn’t say much about what tongues are or how the gift works (let alone what it’s for), but Paul uses the word “edifying.” Some talk about tongues as a way to receive power, like you’re building up Holy Spirit power in order to shoot out miracles. But that’s not what this gift does for me. It helps me tap into the indwelling presence of God. It’s a way of being, of cooperating, of resting with God. Speaking in tongues is about abiding in Christ.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with prayer. Praying has been awkward and unnatural for me the past few months. I don’t know what to say to God. I’m fighting doubt as I pray, and I get overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness. I’ve been repeating the Lord’s Prayer a lot, and I’ve been praying in tongues. Most of the time, I just don’t know what to pray, and words fail to carry what God is stirring within me, so I lean on the Spirit and let her pray for me. In that place, I find rest. The syllables and noises can be clumsy and strange, but as they roll out (or burst out) I feel my spirit breathing, I feel life pouring in.

This act of holy-foolishness grounds me in Christ’s faithfulness, gives me a way to yield and be faithful in the face of my own confusion. The truth is, I still want power. But God knows what I really need.

Uncovering Hope

 

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Not long before Donald Trump announced victory, early on the morning of Wednesday, November 9, my brother Kento died.

I was in Italy, meeting him for the first time just days before he passed. There in the hospital, he was unable to speak or move much at all. But he squeezed my hand. And it meant the world to me.

Our hands touched.

And then he died.

It’s been a hard month. Hard to know what’s real. Some days, I find myself curled up on the floor, crying, not always sure about what. Other days, most days, I’m numb. Tired. I’ve been struggling to pray, talk, write. It’s hard to make sense of these things. Of anything.

A few days after Kento died, my family flew back to Trump’s America. Nothing makes sense.

On the other hand, it feels familiar.

I remember sitting on floors in New York, in Brazil, in South Korea. Always, my legs were crossed, as I listened to our self-proclaimed savior, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church and revered Second Coming of Christ. He talked for hours about how we should live, about the people we should avoid, about his own perfection. Hours and hours and hours. Of talk.

Much of it was hate – for gay people (“dung-eating dogs”), for women (American women were sluts), for black people (“little by little the color of black people will gradually become lighter”) – in the name of “peace.” His message took root in people like my parents, discontented idealists whose hurts and hopes he used to his own advantage.

People gave their lives and all they owned to serve Moon and his church.

Moon’s evangelistic successes made him feel powerful. Entitled. There were affairs. Sexual abuse and assault. Human trafficking. He arranged a marriage between two of his own children – half-siblings. In Moon’s mind, people were objects to be manipulated and used for his own purposes. His own successes. His own pleasure.

He was a deeply selfish man. And we worshiped him.

When I see Donald Trump or read his words, I think of Moon. The language he uses, his posture, his tone, the way his face moves. Trump thinks he’s better than other people. Trump believes he is our savior. Only he knows best. Only he counts. He is impulsive, controlling, demeaning. He takes advantage of people’s hurts and hopes in order to radicalize them, in order to get what he wants.

I know what one man can do with a religion. I don’t yet know what one similar man can do with a country.

And yet, somewhere deep in me, there’s hope.

My brother, Kento, was surrounded each day in that hospital by people who knew him and loved him – people who were also strangers to me. His kindness drew people in – they all had stories.

He squeezed my hand, and I am reminded of all the ways I’ve been held together by those who love me. I’ve felt God’s hands. God’s arms. I know what it is to be held by love.

Our hands touched, and then he was gone. But the rest of us. We’re still here.

Nothing makes sense right now. Except this.

We’re still here.

I’m still here.

And I need you. To help uncover the hope in me while I help uncover the hope in you.

Maybe that feels like drinking beer, watching as much Gilmore Girls as possible before the new mini-series is released, praying even though we’re not sure how or what for. Maybe it feels like church. A community of wounded healers.

Because strong men can’t take everybody captive. And others – once used up and thrown away – will need us more than ever. Maybe this is why I still believe in church, even though I’m disappointed by so much of it. We need each other. And as we show up for each other – even as we ache, even as we feel destroyed – we testify that love is worth it. We are worth it.

I can’t promise everything will be OK or that justice will prevail. We can already see that things are going to get a lot worse before they can get better. But I can promise you this: you don’t have to be alone. Come, sit down next to me, and I’ll hold your hand.

“Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future.”Junot Diaz

People of Presence

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J. Doyle Penrose’s “Presence in the Midst”

I was alone in my bedroom the night I decided to follow Jesus. I was sixteen years old, and I was done with religion. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Jesus.

I’d grown up in the Unification Church, and Jesus was barely a part of the cosmic narrative there. Actually, what I knew about Jesus was that – among our very ecumenical pantheon of sages and saints – he was a failure. But there was something about Jesus. His grace. His forgiveness. His sacrifice. Something about Jesus that spoke to my  condition. He was absurd. And beautiful.

Jesus had shaken my faith before that night. In my sophomore year of high school, I attended a Mormon ward for six months, hoping that I might meet Jesus there. But I never received the promised “burning ofthe bosom,” so I gave up.

Later, as I tried to detox from religion and keep my distance from anything “spiritual,” my desire to know Christ kept coming back. I didn’t want to be a Christian. I didn’t want to have to listen to shitty Christian rock music or vote Republican or reject evolution. And more than anything, I didn’t want to be seen as a nutty born-again. But I wanted Jesus.

I needed Jesus.

I paced the floor of my bedroom that night, and I thought about what coming to Jesus might mean. I knew I didn’t get all the implications. I knew it wouldn’t help my relationship with my parents. I suspected the Holy Spirit would push me to do hard things. I was scared. But Jesus seemed worth it.

And then I was on my knees. I didn’t know what to say. I just needed to talk. And as I talked, I felt God’s ear inclined to me, listening, hearing me. I’d been praying my whole life. But this was the first time I’d ever felt as if God heard me. As if God cared.

It was a kind of presence that I now think of as the Spirit. I felt loved, known, adored. I felt hope. Like I could do anything. Like Love herself was in me. I met Jesus that night.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think this kind of encounter is supposed to be rare. I think this is what church was intended to be. The gathering of Christians is more than space for moral encouragement or corporate mindfulness or even religious education. If it’s not first a space where real people come in contact with power, with wisdom, with Love herself, then we fail to be the Body of Christ, and the world stays the same.

God grants us rest, fullness of joy, power – always surrounds us, always with us, present within us. So why don’t we notice? Where is our power? Why is it so hard to believe? Corporate worship should nurture our ability to rest into this presence, to yield together to Love. Wherever hearts are open and pursuing the light of God’s love, whenever we come together.

I’ve experienced such spaces of worship. Places where the presence of God released fresh air of faith, hope, love. We breathed it in. God’s hand was upon us, molding our desire for justice and mercy. There was also honesty – authenticity – that I rarely encounter in any other place. People spoke about their addictions, their shame, their fear, and there was no judgment. We looked into one another’s eyes. There was understanding. There was love.

In college, I used to run a prayer meeting in my dorm room. I was a lot bolder back then, and I’d invite people off the street to come. There was a 30-something single mom who I kept bumping into, at parties, at stores and once at a Christian Reformed church. I invited her to my prayer meeting. One time, she broke down weeping, opening up about her fears and shames, and she begged us for prayer. None of us had seen someone so desperate for prayer, and honestly, several folks were deeply uncomfortable. This was not normal behavior. But it was good, beautiful, and needed. As we prayed and prophesied over her, there was peace, and we couldn’t deny that her honesty, her vulnerability, was a catalyst for the Spirit moving among us.

We learn from the early Church that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit changes everything. This encounter with the living God transformed the 
first Christian community and resulted in the working of miracles, shared meals, communal prayer, radical hospitality. I’m convinced that our inheritance as children of God is so much deeper than sweet sentiments and moral support. We need the very presence and life of God.

This Spirit-led discipleship is what I hoped to find among Friends, but to be honest, I don’t see much of it here. Sometimes I wonder if modern Quaker culture leaves much room for the Holy Spirit, in her sloppiness, in her risk-taking, in her boldness, in her power, in her love. To be fair, this isn’t just a Quaker problem. It’s everywhere in the American church.

We need something new. We need each other. We need to be a people who, though done with religion, just can’t stop thinking about Jesus.

I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

—St. Paul