Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Crash of '05

This weekend, our computer crashed.

Not just a have-the-IT-guy-tweek-it-a-bit kind of crash, but a full-blown you've-lost-everything-in-computerland-that-was-ever-important-to-you kind of crash. Needless to say, I may be absent a bit.

See you soon. I hope.


MAY BOOK REVIEW: Brennan Manning's "The Ragamuffin Gospel"

When I was in boot camp, our Drill Instructors would play demonic, breathing smoke and belching fire. They would belittle and demean us, extolling our worthlessness and ineptitude. Unable to do even the simplest task well enough for them, they would punish us by pushing our bodies and our emotions to the brink of unraveling. The concept is well-tested and time-honored. Before being able to mold a recruit into something even remotely resembling the elegance, crispness and precision of a military fighting man or woman, the recruit must first be stripped of those things in his or her life that weigh down their momentum. The future finely-tuned soldier, sailor, or Marine must be broken down in order to then be rebuilt according to the specifications of the new culture in which they are about to join.

Brennan Manning is well acquainted with being broken down. His now-classic meditation on grace, "The Ragamuffin Gospel" suspects you and I are as well. He is not interested in breaking his reader down in order to show them their need for Christ's redemptive dynamism in their life. He works from the premise that life, Satan, and our own idiotic choices have done that for us already. The inception point for his conversation with his readers is one of common brokenness.

Brennan Manning has lived a kaleidoscopic life. He's been a U.S. Marine, a seminary instructor, a Franciscan priest, a monk who lived in nearly total isolation for two years, a minster to the poor and destitute, a prolific author, a prodigious lecturer...and an alcoholic. Coming face to face with his own need and depravity forced Manning to abandon himself to God's grace. The ex-priest's life is a living example of St. Paul's words in Romans, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God." And it is his own brokenness and cracked humanity that led him to write a book about others like him...about the ragamuffins...about you and I.

"The Ragamuffin Gospel" is a thing of staggering and stark beauty in a world of putrid "God-wants-you-wealthy" and "seven-guaranteed-ways-to-be-more-like-God" books. Its pages release air so fresh and invigorating that one's literary lungs shock at the sudden change. Manning is unquestionably one of the most eloquent writers in Christendom and one of its most vigorous on the subject of grace. His words carry disproportionate weight not only because of their beauty but because he openly shares his own pain and struggles in order to help us deal with our failures and inadequacies.

"The Ragamuffin Gospel" is not written for the Christians who feel that they have everything together; who see Jesus as a sort of spiritualized John Wayne; who think a true believer never doubts or questions their faith. It is not for the legalist or the complacent or the zealot; not for the fearless or the tearless; not for those who pretend each day is a mountaintop experience and deny the existence of a valley of despair all-together. It is written for those who feel bedraggled, bruised, beat-up and burned out; who feel burdened beyond that which they can bear; who feel they cannot take another step; who are inconsistent, unsteady disciples; who fail more than they succeed; who feel their faults far outweigh their meager talents; who just don't seem get it; who can look in a mirror and honestly see a cretin looking back at them; who feel their lives are disappointments to themselves, those around them, and especially to God.

"Sooner or later," Manning writes, "we are confronted with the painful truth of our inadequacy and insufficiency. Our security is shattered and our bootstraps are cut. Once the fervor has passed, weakness and infidelity appear. We discover our inability to add even a single inch to our spiritual stature."

Manning adores truth. Not the kind with a capital "T" that so many like to use as a means of conversion by concussion, but the kind that cares more about one's own personal authenticity. For Manning, the ability to take stock of our own lives and honestly give the soot and grime and detritus a name--sin--is one of the most important things we'll ever do in our lives. Far from arguing for humanity's innate or basic goodness, Manning knows that honest introspection always leads to revulsion. He knows this because he has looked into his own abyss and found a monster staring back at him. But, instead of this realization leading to anguish, Manning saw it as a means to freedom.

"Jesus spent a disproportionate amount of time with people described in the gospels as: the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the hungry, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, the persecuted, the downtrodden, the captives, those possessed by unclean spirits, all who labor and are heavy burdened, the rabble who know nothing of the law, the crowds, the little ones, the least, the last, and the lost... In short, Jesus hung out with ragamuffins."

It is in our darkest hours that the light is the brightest, illuminates the best, and warms the most. When we are at our lowest, we can truly, without pretense, posturing or pride (unintentional alliteration) reach for the only hand that can save us from drowning. There is only so long that we can resist the God Who loves us with magnificent monotony and Who has laid waste to our hearts with His passion.

"Getting honest with ourselves does not make us unacceptable to God. It does not distance us from God, but draws us to Him--as nothing else can--and opens us anew to the flow of grace. While Jesus calls each of us to a more perfect life, we cannot achieve it on our own. To be alive is to be broken; to be broken is to stand in need of grace. It is only through grace that any of us could dare to hope that we could become more like Christ. Are you afraid that your weakness could separate you from the love of Christ? It can't. Are you afraid that your inadequacies could separate you from the love of Christ? They can't. Are you afraid that your inner poverty could separate you from the love of Christ? It can't. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God."

The staggering truth is that God not only adores us in spite of our most heinous sin but even in the midst of it. God does not want us to clean up our lives before coming to Him. Such inner remodeling is impossible. A ragamuffin is aware of their lack of wholeness, their brokenness, the simple fact that they don't have it all together. While in no way excusing their sin or using God's bountiful grace as an excuse to sin further, they realize that sin is precisely the thing that caused them to throw themselves at God's feet in the first place. Their darkness is the very thing that drove them to God. They do not try to pretend that God's redemption was because of anything other than God's love and grace for them. Nothing they did warranted such a gift.

One of the keys to living like Christ is to never forget where we came from. Having made peace with our ragamuffin identity and our own flawed humanity, we are then able to tolerate in others what was once unacceptable in ourselves. The danger is that we might draw pride and self-righteousness from our newfound forgiveness and empowerment. Manning argues that we must always keep that past in our present conciseness; to never forget who we once were and where we were rescued from. Once this connection is made, we must show the same sort of respect, love, grace and mercy to our neighbor.

"Compassionate love is the axis of the Christian moral revolution and the only sign ever given by Jesus by which a disciple would be recognized," Manning writes. "The way we are with each other is the truest test of our faith. How I treat a brother or sister from day to day, how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street, how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike, how I deal with normal people in their normal confusion on a normal day may be a better indication of my reverence for life than the anti-abortion sticker on the bumper of my car. We are not pro-life simply because we are warding off death. We are pro-life to the extent that we are men and woman for others, all others; to the extent that no human flesh is a stranger to us; to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love; to the extent that for us there are no 'others.'"

These concepts are hardly new, but in Manning's pen the old becomes fresh, the simple becomes profound and the cliche becomes a treasure trove of riches.

But Manning goes beyond the point where many writers would have long since stopped. He does not rest with salvation but presses on toward sanctification. Aware that the Scriptures discuss regeneration as a process and not an event, Manning, using his own failings and demons as examples, shows us how we must always keep that same sense of humility and brokenness before God.

"The Christian with depth," Manning writes, "is the person who has failed and who has learned to live with it. Do you live each day in the blessed assurance that you have been saved by the unique grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? After falling flat on your face, are you still firmly convinced that the fundamental structure of reality is not works but grace? Are you moody and melancholy because you are still striving for the perfection that comes from your own efforts and not from faith in Jesus Christ? Are you really aware that you don't have to change, grow, or be good to be loved?"

Manning is not suggesting that a Christian's life should not be a changed life, but simply that we all are in the midst of transformation, at various stages and speeds of becoming more like Christ. Temptations do not end. Sin does not end. Christ-like-ness is not instantaneous. It is imperative that we are patient with ourselves and with others in the midst of the process. Just as we were granted salvation through no action of our own, we must also recognize that we cannot dazzle God with our post-conversion accomplishments and spirituality. "Grace means that God is on our side," Manning encourages, "and thus we are victors regardless of how well we have played the game." The church must never, ever forget that it is composed of sinners and exists for sinners. We are all equally, privileged but unentitled beggars at the door of God's mercy.

"Any church that will not accept that it consists of sinful men and women, and exists for them, implicitly rejects the gospel of grace. As Hans Kung says, 'The church must constantly be aware that its faith is weak, its knowledge dim, its profession of faith halting, that there is not a single sin or failing which it has not in one way or another been guilty of. And though it is true that the church must always dissociate itself from sin, it can never have any excuse for keeping any sinners at a distance. If the church remains self-righteously aloof from failures, irreligious and immoral people, it cannot enter justified into God's kingdom. But if it is constantly aware of its guilt and sin, it can live in joyous awareness of forgiveness.'"

Manning points out that many in the modern church have "twisted the gospel of grace into religious bondage and distorted the image of God into an eternal, small-minded bookkeeper." Reality, he argues, is that God offers us utterly immeasurable grace, and He gently encourages us to embrace that grace in the face of our greatest needs and trauma. Church-goers tend to swear unyielding allegiance to a rigid position, confusing such actions with an authentic connection to God. What they miss is the gospel itself--that although the utterly holy and all-powerful God knows we are dust, He still stoops down to breathe into us the breath of life, to bind our wounds, and bring us to a place of such acceptance and love that we cannot help but pass it on to others. "We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt."

Brennan Manning's watershed book is a life changing reminder that God loves us for what we are, not what we do. It can be shocking when we discover how very little we have to do in order to deserve and receive the love of God. Even more shocking when we truly begin to comprehend just how much of that love there is. You are loved. God wants you just as you are. Suddenly instead of fearing and denying all of our real or imagined shortcomings, we can embrace our humanness and see God pursuing us in spite of it. No book I know, outside of the Bible itself, has more simply or beautifully articulated this, the purest picture of God's relentless pursuit of His gnarled creation.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

With this ring...

For those of you who know my family, I have some fantastic news.

Stephanie and I just returned from Portland, Oregon where, this past weekend, my mother, Charey, was married. Her husband, Harold Neal, a construction foreman, has known her since they were children and even saw her off on more than one occasion as my grandparents embarked for the African mission field.

They could not be more different. She is vivacious and outgoing; he, reserved and quiet. She laughs often and boisterously; he does not even crack a smile at his own, quite funny, jokes. She is all dynamism and energy; he is serenity and calm. She risks a ticket every time she slides behind the wheel; he frequently drives below the speed limit.

They are perfect for one another.

It is odd to see your mother so in love when you cannot really remember anything other than her singleness. It is weird to hear her say, "honey" or "sweetheart" and to answer "yes?" simultaneously alongside a man you are only beginning to know. It is disconcerting to see your mother passionately kiss when, for decades, her lips have only been used on your cheeks.

And it is wonderful, too.

Though planned as a simple ceremony, the wedding, in typical mom fashion, was a massive, elaborate and very pink affair with well over 400 people in attendance. Stephanie and I fled to the coast afterwards and gorged ourselves on crab-meat to recover. The happy couple is now honeymooning in Bend, Oregon.

Welcome to the family, Harold. (And you too, my new sisters!)

Thought you all might like to know.

-- A Proud Son

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Click on the title above for the first sneek peek at C.S. Lewis' beloved masterpiece.

I was so inspired by this teaser that I went home last night after work, pulled the book off my shelf, and read the entire thing for the first time since I was a child. Charming. And powerful.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

In the event of a CRASH...

When we're moving at the speed of life, we are bound to collide with each other.

Crash is the first true cinematic masterpiece of the year. It is a film that speaks with a staggering prophetic voice. It is a film of devastating lyricism and haunting power. It is a film of hushed impact and explosive subtlety. It is a film of breathtaking intelligence--hyper-articulate and throbbing with sumptuous compassion. It is, easily, the strongest American film in years. When it was over, I sat in my chair, shell-shocked in stunned silence, trying to sort out my tangled emotions.

It is a film, I cannot stress enough, that you must see.

Written and directed by Paul Haggis, the Academy-Award winning screenwriter of last year's Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby, Crash is a story of lives running parallel, losing control, colliding, and careening away from one another again. The film is an intimate tapestry of interweaving lives defined, one way or another, by racism. Whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Iranians, cops and criminals, the wealthy and the poor, the powerful and powerless—all are victims of racism; all are guilty of it. No one is safe. Races skewer each other and then themselves. None are wholly good; none are wholly bad.

One day we are heroes and the next we are villains—perhaps we are both in the very same day.

And yet, Crash refuses to deal in stereotypes. Even as it sets up its characters and we quickly understand them and their places in this world, the film shatters those pre-conceived notions with a startling degree of cinematic autonomy and free-will. One character tells another, “You think you know who you are. You have no idea.” Neither does the audience. Neither do the characters themselves, because so much of the trajectory of this movie is dependent on the chance accidents that bring these people into one another's lives.

Using coincidence, serendipity, and even luck, Crash presents stories showing the ways in which all of us—all of us—leap to conclusions based simply on race, presuming that even the best of us, at the worst of times, feel prejudice and resentment toward members of other groups. Sometimes, racism is just a mask, worn as an excuse for anger or a shield for pain. The movie examines those feelings and starkly presents their consequences. Sometimes those presuppositions lead to bloodshed. Sometimes they lead to enlightenment and epiphany. They always lead to a changed life.

The one thing that occurs consistently in every encounter the film presents is that peoples' assumptions prevent them from seeing the actual person standing before them. They take moments at face value, forgetting that all incidents have steps that led the person there—steps which they may not have ordered or steps that represent a transitory and atypical stumble. No one knows the whole story. All have fallen short and are in desperate need of lavish grace.

The ensemble cast is extraordinary. The actors deftly sidestep clichés and give their character’s authentic individuality. These are people who say exactly what they are thinking. Without the filters of political correctness, the audience is able to peel back the layers of a life, and thanks to the omniscience of film, discover that things—and people—are rarely what they seem.

I once read an account of a nun who lived a simple philosophy: be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a tremendous and unseen battle. The characters in Crash are all fighting tremendous battles and all are so caught up in their own pain that they cannot see that they are all, each of them, walking wounded. Instead of drawing closer to each other in their moments of greatest need, they lash out and inflict even greater agony.

Haggis has made a film that has less in common with modern storytelling and more in common with ancient parables. Crash is an allegory, trading a certain amount of believable realism for a greater share of wisdom and insight. Is that not, after all, the greater reality?

“It's the sense of touch,” Don Cheadle's Det. Graham muses in the opening seconds of the film. “In any real city, you walk, you brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. It's the sense of touch. I think we miss that sense of touch so much we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”

In a twisted sort of morbidity, the film seems to suggest that we are so hungry for human contact, so yearning to feel the touch of another human being, so split and broken from the rest of our world, that we are willing to get that contact any way possible, even violently.

If hope resides in this film—and it does—it lies in the changed lives of the characters. The characters learn the lessons they have earned by their behavior. They learn about their world; they learn far more about themselves. They are better people for the lessons, and, having watched them, so are we. Anyone seeing Crash is likely to be moved to have a little more empathy and compassion for those not like themselves. If not, they need to make a u-turn, return to the theater, and prepare for impact.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Several months ago, my beautiful and compassionate wife heard about an organization called Locks of Love (http://www.locksoflove.org) that provides hairpieces to kids suffering from long-term medical hair loss. She had a couple friends who had donated their hair to the organization, and she began seriously considering it herself. A few days ago she decided it was time and "went under the scissors." She donated 11 inches of her hair.

She looks phenomenal, as I'm sure you'll agree. I absolutely love her new look and so does she, despite the fact that she's never had hair this short. She and I both keep doing double takes--me every time I look at her and she every time she walks past some sort of reflective surface. Somewhere out there soon, there will be a child who will be doing the same thing, astonished that she has hair at all.

Stephanie Before...

Stephanie During...

Stephanie After...

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Thy Kingdom Come... A Review of "Kingdom of Heaven"

Yes, Kingdom of Heaven shows the brutal clashings of great armies. Yes, bloodied blades hack mercilessly at any limbs within their arc, showering the screen with crimson. Yes, massive fireballs rain down on besieged cities. And yes, the desert undulates with men and horses like a colony of ravenous ants across a leaf blade.

Make no mistake, this film is an epic from a director who is its modern day master, Ridley Scott (Gladiator). It has all the staples of the genre that have so entranced my class at the University of Colorado where I have been lecturing on the Epic Film all semester.

And yet, there is something so much more to it.

That the film has monolithic battles, larger-than-life characters, and breathtaking special effects is hardly the point. As great as those elements are, they are not what sticks with the viewer long after the house lights have been raised and the delighted audience has trudged back to their cars.

Kingdom of Heaven pulses with a greater message. It is concerned less with action (though it has plenty) and more with human motivations. It is more interested in honor, justice, and personal righteousness, especially in the face of overwhelming odds.

Our first clue that this is a very different sort of epic comes in the first few minutes when we meet Balian (Orlando Bloom in a role that, while not earth-shattering, will nonetheless obliterate the beloved stereotypes of him we all hold). In his blacksmith shop, etched into a beam above his head, is a phrase in Latin. When asked what it means, he replies, "What is it that makes a man if not that he makes the world a better place."

This better world, this "new Jerusalem" is the primary theme in the film, resonating through each and every frame. But this new and better world is not the stuff of earth. It is a metaphysical world, one composed entirely of will, heart, integrity and truth.

When Balian's father (Liam Neeson) describes the holy land's capitol as a "new world, a better world than has ever been seen," we quickly realize that he is referring to something far more personal than stone and mortar. "There you are not what you are born but what you have it in yourself to be. A kingdom of conscience--peace instead of war, love instead of hate." This idea of a kingdom within one's self is reinforced by the Hospitaler Knight, played by David Thewlis. What God wants, he tells Balian, is his mind and his heart, not his sword or the sinews that power it.

But Balian does not feel God. Indeed, he came to Jerusalem to find God and that God's absolution, but hears only his own voice echoing back at him from the void. He cannot discern God's voice, God's will, or even God Himself.

And yet he is faithful. If he cannot hear God's voice, he will continue do God's will. He has taken an oath and to that oath he will hold.

"Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath."

If Balian cannot discover God's will, he is surrounded by men who think they can. The film is populated by characters who claim the cross of Christ but obviously do so because it is a means to personal power and advancement. When Balian comments that some rogue knights are simply doing "what the pope would tell them to do," the Hospitaller replies, "Yes, but not Christ, I think." In this film, those who shout God's name the loudest, love Him the least. At best, hypocrisy and at worst, spiritual treason is the rule of the day. "You have taught me much about religion, your Grace," Balian says to Jerusalem's bishop. It is not offered as a compliment.

This treacherous hypocrisy is not the sole domain of Christendom. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, where the Muslim army waits, equally extreme voices vie for the ear of the historically just and benevolent Saracen ruler, Saladin. The film is not interested in sainting Christians nor in demonizing Muslims. Both sides have heroes. Both sides have monsters. Extremists always think they hear God's voice and channel his will.

With the exception of the Thewlis character, a sort of knight/priest, we have almost no positive portrayals of Christianity. Still, among even the non-believers, Scott finds men of daunting moral stature. Baldwin, the King of Jerusalem (Edward Norton in a fascinatingly deprecating role--his entire part is played from behind a silver mask to conceal his character's debilitating leprosy) is a sort of Middle Ages Martin Luther King, Jr. He has a dream--peace instead of war, love instead of hate--and though it may last for only the briefest of moments, the fact that it existed at all is a triumph. At the conclusion of the film, when Balian surrenders Jerusalem to Saladin, he tells Queen Sibylla that surrendering a city means nothing so long as the ideal still stirs within the human breast.

The film postures a world in which most Christians and Muslims might be able to peacefully coexist were it not for the extremists on both sides. This moderation has upset some Muslims and Christians viewers. The film leaves no doubt as to which side of the camp they fall into.

Developed before the "war on terror" began, Kingdom of Heaven is profoundly relevant for our troubled times. In this era of intense religious and political fervor, Scott aims to understand both the Christian and the Muslim side of history and show that co-existence is possible if the voices championing jingoism, intolerance, xenophobia and religious war rhetoric are ignored. Some will see the film as a politically correct take on our post 9/11 world. Others will see it as a template for future harmony and racial concord.

The movie is, above all, about the personal codes of its heroes, both Christian and Muslim, and how those codes translate into everyday life and living. They are not practical, after all, if they cannot speak to our lives in both times of serenity and times of trial. There can be no compromise, no concession. Virtue must always trump vice. Mercy must always supersede justice. And honor must always be victor over iniquity. "Honor," to quote another superlative Liam Neeson film (Rob Roy), "is the gift a man gives himself."

"It is a kingdom of conscience or nothing," Balian says.

These are men of honor--on both sides. This is a unique world in which a beautiful, if tenuous, balance reigns. For every corrupt man there is man of righteousness and integrity, intent on making his life a noble service to others and to God.

"Who do you think you are," a character demands incredulously of Balian near the film's climax. "Will you alter the world?"

Yes, perhaps he will. When the kingdom of heaven is born within us, can we do any less?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Lord, When You Said, “Love Your Enemies,” You Weren’t Speaking Literally Were You?

Life is composed of jarring juxtapositions. Moments that seems vulgar and surreal when placed beside each other. Moments that split our worlds into a sort of ghastly ying-yang paradox. Moments that, in an instant, serve to crystallize what we believe in and what we find utterly reprehensible—who we are, who we’re not, and who we hope to be.

I few minutes ago, I stepped out of the gothic comforts of Grace Episcopal Church into the brisk cold of a Colorado spring that is really doing its best to mimic winter. I had just experienced one of the most moving and articulate interpretations of the Eucharist I have ever heard. Part of a confirmation class in Anglicanism, we were studying the liturgy of the church, and more specifically the role of communion both in the worship service and in our daily lives. “The mysterious question,” Father Theron had said, “should not be how Christ gets into the bread and wine, but rather how Christ gets into you and I.”

Profoundly moved and with tears still brimming in my eyes, I opened a door to the outside and emerged to face a sign that read, “God Hates Fags!” Scattered in front of the church were a half dozen or so protestors, shouting something about “feces” and “hell” at the congregation as we exited the building.

Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas—composed almost entirely of his own extended family—does not, by nearly anyone’s standards, represent Christianity or anything even remotely resembling it. No one I know—not the most conservative or fundamentalist among them—would consider this group legitimate. They take it upon themselves to travel the nation in what they ironically dub, Love Crusades, picketing various organizations, churches, and groups who they feel have strayed from the true gospel. Their website has virtual memorials to homosexual victims of hate-crimes in which they gleefully proclaim the number of days which the “offender” has been roasting in hell. Touting signs that depict stick-figures in homosexuals acts and emblazoned with such slogans as, “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates You,” “Thank God for 9/11,” and “God Blew Up The Space Shuttle,” they’ve condemned everyone from the Far Left to the most virulent of the Religious Right as homosexual enablers.

Which is why they are in Colorado Springs—for the third time in as many months. Tomorrow they bring their protest to James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” headquarters. He is, in their eyes, too liberal toward the gay community. For anyone familiar with Focus’ right-wing rhetoric, God knows where they got that idea. In a bit of supreme irony, “Soulforce,” an organization whose purpose is to change the hearts and minds of religious leaders who engage in anti-homosexual campaigns will also be protesting at “Focus” that day, decrying the organization as too conservative in its agenda.

It’ll make for great news tomorrow night.

But here’s where things get sticky. Downright impossible actually.

I don’t hate homosexuals. I love homosexuals. Some of my wife, Stephanie, and my dearest friends here in Colorado Springs are gay. They are not my enemies. They are my friends. Misguided? Yes. Sinners? Yes. But then, so am I. My sins simply have other stripes, inhabit other camps. If there is to be real change in their lives (and mine) and if they are to see that their sin separates them from the freedom and reckless love of their Savior (as do mine), then they must be shown that Savior’s love. I am commanded, by my Savior, to be His love here on earth.

Oddly, I do not find that difficult. Perhaps it is God working within me, birthing His compassion in my heart, forming His thoughts in my mind, making me more of a reflection of Him—a dramatically flawed, cracked, and blurred reflection, there is little doubt—but, perhaps, a little clearer today than I was yesterday.

No, it is not the proverbial sinner, the tax-collector, or the prostitute that I find difficult to love. It is the person who preaches hate from the same Bible I love. It is the person who twists the words of my Lord into devices to judge, wound and maim others. It is the person who claims to speak from the same source of authority upon which I have built my own life, and then turns that Gospel, that story of out-of-control love and compassion for broken, hurting people into a cultish freak show.

The simple truth is, I don’t want to love them.

I want to hate them.

I want to join arms with those they rail against and rail back. I want to scoop up the dozens of darling children they bring with them and take them to a place where love, not hate is their spiritual nourishment so that their spirits will not grow up to resemble the twisted, gnarled, misshapen, malformed shadows of souls that fester inside their parents. I want to shout them down, tear their First Amendment protected signs from their hands and split their heads with them.

But that is not what I am called to do. I am called to love my enemies. To add insult to injury, I am called to pray for their well-being.

I did not reflect Christ a few minutes ago. Oh, I didn’t do anything so harsh as beat the shit out of them. Although I wanted to. I didn’t even cuss them out. I ignored them. I rolled my eyes, groaned, and walked past them to my apartment. I was not Jesus. Jesus would have loved them. He would have approached them with the sort of barrier melting adoration and laser accurate insight that would have sealed their mouths and split their hearts.

What I would want to see Him do is throw them from the grounds and into the street as He did when overturning the money changer’s tables at the temple in Jerusalem. And who knows, He may have done just that. My Bible—the same one Phelps and family claim to read—is stuffed to the seams with incidents in which Christ condemns the pompous self-righteousness of the religious community, calling them “vipers” and “villains” and instead chooses to spend his time with those the “church” of the day deemed untouchable, reprobate sinners.

Last Tuesday night, Stephanie and I attended a dialogue at a local church here in town. As a response to the joint “God Hates Fags” and “Soulforce” protest of “Focus on the Family,” a number of pastors got together to try to imagine a way in which the community could come together in respect and love of one another and dialogue in such a way that the dignity of both sides of the argument could be reflected. The idea behind “A Community Discussion on Homosexuality” was to remove the firebrand homosexual issue from politics where it has been co-opted and return it where it belongs—a conversation among those in a community.

Two panels, both “conservative” and “liberal” were allowed to present their views and take questions from an audience of a thousand or so intermingled hetro and homosexual participants. It was not an evening in which anyone attempted or expected to change another’s mind. It was not about changing viewpoints—it was about changing approaches. And it was beautiful.

“We must love as Christ loved,” one of the panel members stated near the end of the evening, “without fear of defilement.”

And here’s where things get sticky. Downright impossible actually.

So long as I try to love in my own sinful, prideful, and selfish power, such love is unattainable. But not once “Christ gets into me.” Once Christ’s love gets into me, I begin to see each and every human being the way in which God sees them—innumerably precious, valuable and unique. Even those…especially those who have blinded themselves to that worth in others. Genuine, authentic love cannot be manifested in how I treat my friends. It is shown in how I treat my enemies, how I show care and compassion for those who hate me.

If God can unreservedly adore those who so blatantly and maliciously misrepresent Him, can I do any less?

I failed today.

I will start again tomorrow.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus