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.

This Has Always Been the Cost

We’re only 12 days in. Not even two weeks. And this presidency is already devastating.

Donald Trump is waging war against the American people.

Six journalists were charged with felony rioting for covering protests at the presidential inauguration. It’s now illegal to protest on the floor of Congress, or to live-stream a protest on the House floor. Resisting arrest is now considered a hate crime in Louisiana. A new bill was introduced in North Dakota that allowed motorists to “unintentionally” run over any protestors obstructing a highway.

History has a name for what America is becoming. And it’s not “representative democracy.”

Opposition is illegal. Yet we must oppose. Every vile thing coming out of this White House must be opposed.

A mark of Christian discipleship is a willingness to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Jesus invites his followers to take up their own crosses, to be willing to let Love lead us into dangerous, painful, even life-threatening territory. Jesus teaches us that “there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Do we taste that love among us? In our fellowship? In our worship? Are we willing to die for one another? For the liberation of the oppressed? For Jesus? Are we willing to be tortured because of our deepest convictions? Are we willing to face unjust imprisonment?

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Convicted of blasphemy, James Nayler was branded with a “B” on his forehead and his tongue was pierced with a hot iron

Which reminds me. It was once illegal for Quakers to gather. For 25 years in Britain, the mere act of worshipping together landed thousands of Friends in jail. Whole meetings were sent to prison. And yet Friends kept meeting. They also stirred up trouble. They did prophetic acts, such as “going naked as a sign” or wearing sackcloth and ashes. They publicly argued with priests and condemned the established church. They refused to tithe and pay taxes that fed the violence of empire.

Friends did not avoid trouble. They ran toward it.

British prisons were filled with Friends. Within a year of the passing of the 1664 Conventicle Act – an act created to stamp out independent, nonconformist religious groups – 2,100 Friends from five London meetings were arrested. It has been estimated that 1 in 3 Quakers experienced state-sanctioned persecution in the first 35 years or so of the Religious Society’s founding.

Friends were holy trouble-makers.

This was their battle: the Lamb’s War. Being meek did not require subservience. Nothing about Quakers was passive or defensive. They created trouble. They were willing to deal with the repercussions of revealing the way of the Kingdom, of establishing a truer Society, even if it meant they might be publicly shamed, tortured, and imprisoned.

Today, as news keeps rolling in of injustices committed by our own government, I find myself wondering whether I might be willing – truly willing – to follow Christ anywhere. Even into prison. Even unto death. It seems that this has always been the cost of being a Friend of Jesus, a disciple of Christ.

Tomorrow is Day 13. I don’t know what it will bring. But I think I’m ready.

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

Friends Need to Tell the Truth

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Too often too silent

Truth-telling. It’s hard to say for Quakers today if it matters the way it once did.

That first generation of Friends were honest. Brutally honest. About the crookedness of Church-as-Empire, about the empty strength of the empire itself. Those Quakers were shameless. They preached a God of justice and peace. A God who didn’t. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t tolerate a religion for show nor the vanity of power-schemers. They surrendered their lives to God, and in sweet surrender found themselves dynamically demonstrating the power of God’s Kingdom. On earth as it is in heaven. The early Friends prophesied, subverted society. Convicted by Love, they followed in her footsteps. She shook them, made them quake. And sometimes they danced. Polite society couldn’t understand and didn’t approve. That’s why so many Quakers ended up imprisoned, tortured – or dead.

I want to be that kind of truth-teller.

I want to welcome Light into the world, to expose, to transform, no matter the cost. Those fearless Friends walked in reconciliation. They showed the world Jesus. And the world despised them for it.

I am no prophet. Not many of us Friends are. At least not yet. But I must speak the truth. People are dying, murdered in the streets. This. Is. Not. Right.

Here’s what I know: my fellow citizens are being murdered by the police – those same men and women sworn to serve and protect. Many of the dead are people of color. Here is my reality. I am an Asian-American. Able-bodied. Cis-gender. Man. And I enjoy all the privilege that comes with these realities.

Systemic racism just isn’t blatant in my daily life. I don’t experience the pain. I don’t experience the loss of friends and family. I don’t feel the fear. It’s numbing. I’m numb. It is hard for me to empathize, hard for me to be angry.

But I can see the reality of white supremacy, and I can see the bodies of those who’ve been slain.

Do you see them?

So I call out and come out against the powers and principalities. I name the violence that haunts us because this is not right.

But what can I do?

I seek not to be conformed to the pattern of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of my mind because the truth is that racism has distorted how I think and act. Without meaning to, I have given myself up to the ways of the world. I have accepted the god of this age, who blinds humanity to the Light of the Gospel. I am guilty, too.

We all are.

I have safely ignored others’ pain. I have been irresponsible, unthinking, callous. I have been an active participant in white supremacy. I have benefited from it. And I am absolutely disgusted with myself.

Maybe what we need is repentance. At least as a first step.

It’s what I need. I also need to learn to see, to understand, and to appreciate the constant struggle of others’ daily experience. I need humility and compassion. I need to embrace rage. I need to remember – over and over again – that this person shot, dead, is not a statistic.

This person is a friend, a child, a partner. A person who bears the image of God. A human being with a name.

Eric Garner. John Crawford III. Dontre Hamilton. Michael Brown Jr. Ezell Ford. Dante Parker. Tanisha Anderson. Akai Gurley. Tamir Rice. Rumain Brisbon. Jerame Reid. Tony Robinson. Phillip White. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Terence Crutcher. Keith Lamont Scott.

And so on and so on and so on.

It has always been this way, and we can’t let it remain this way.

I will admit that I am resistant because it hurts. And then I remember that it’s supposed to hurt. That I’m not the only one hurting and in fact, my hurt is small.

I live in and live off a system that steals lives, the same lives that built and continue to build our country.

I need to remind myself of this truth. I need to remind you of this truth.

I have sinned against my sisters and brothers by giving into fear, laziness, and privilege, by remaining silent in the face of suffering. I have been afraid, unloving, indifferent. I have yielded to racism.

I cannot remain complicit. We cannot remain complicit.

I must not. We must not.

Friends, if our Quakerism is not prophetic, if it fails to speak truth to power, then what’s the use of it? If it is not grounded in an apocalyptic vision, a conviction that the Kingdom is at hand, then what do we have to offer the world?

Do we even matter?

Quakerism – just like white supremacy – is in slavery to itself.

Somehow, that band of primitive prophets and preachers is now a polite group of politically sensitive and mostly silent worshipers. People wonder why we aren’t growing. Is it because Quakers are slowly going extinct? Yes, that’s probably true. A lot of people do know about Quakers, though. They know we are the “good kind of religious people.”

That can feel pretty good. But that’s not what Christ called us to be and do in the world.

Good religious people don’t revolt against the system and liberate the oppressed. Good religious people may quietly resist what they see as unfair treatment, but they are too pragmatic to work for real change.

So what about us? Do we have the spiritual and emotional resources to be more than just good? Can we be prophets once again? Are we willing to see what is real and to talk about it and then to do something? Can we proclaim that Black Lives Matter? Can we tell the truth?

Because if we can’t, then we’re no longer good for anything. Those people are right. The Quakers are already extinct.