To Church Refugees and Religious Orphans on Easter

Dear Church Refugees and Religious Orphans,

Sometimes people leave organized religion and sometimes organized religion abandons them.

I don’t know which is true for you.

You may have been so wounded and disillusioned by the Church, you felt you had no choice but to walk away; out of grief or self-preservation to declare yourself a prodigal from the faith.

You may have found yourself through coldness or cruelty or explicit words from within, pushed to the periphery and eventually out the door.

You might see yourself as a conscientious objector whose exodus was voluntary or as a relational leper branded as unwelcome by professed religious people. Either way you are outside now and it is painful.

I’m not sure of the circumstances surrounding your current estrangement, but I know that whatever the reasons, there are times that magnify grief for the once-churched—and that Easter is likely one of them. When much of the world is acknowledging something that was once such a part of the rhythm of your life, you feel the distance and the loss more acutely. The calendar reminds you of that separation and the disconnection all over again.

This weekend may trigger spiritual muscle memory for you, reminding you of rituals that were at one time so meaningful, of buildings you once found affinity in, of songs you once sang in the company of people you loved and felt loved by, maybe even of things you used to believe but no longer do. It may stir up in you emotions that you thought you’d long since moved beyond. You may find that a Sunday commemorating resurrection, ironically feels like a day of mourning: for your old church or your younger optimism or your former faith. I’ve heard from many people for whom this Easter will be the first one as Church Refugees or Religious Orphans and they will be deeply grieving with along you.

I’ve known the two extremes of these Spring Sundays. I’ve spent Easters fully secured in the blessed assurance of God’s love for me, of my place in the community of God’s people, and in the redemptive reality of the resurrected Jesus—and felt sweet comfort in that place.

I’ve spent Easters when I’ve been certain of none of those things—and been at times quite fine and other times rightly terrified by that fact.

And this weekend, whether you’re mourning someone you used to be, somewhere you used to feel at home, or a faith you once knew—or whether you’re feeling a rekindled anger at damage that’s been done to you in the name of Jesus, I want to remind you that Jesus is not okay with any of it; your pain, your grief, your injury, your isolation.

I wanted to let you know that whatever God is made of it—it isn’t this. God isn’t the bitterness and judgment and shame you’ve endured. God is not steel and concrete and wood with doors you can be expelled from. God is not something you need anyones’ permission for proximity too, either. Whatever God is, is as close as this breath—so breathe slowly and deeply.

The story of Easter is one of hope that cannot be defeated, of joy that will not be denied, of peace that overcomes. It is celebration that dances in the face of death when it realizes that love always has the last and loudest word. Regardless of whether you find yourself inside or outside a church this weekend, you can claim this very good news as your own. It is not bound to any building, it is not the property of anyone to withhold from you or bestow upon you—and it is not contingent on where you find yourself this Sunday.

So this Easter, if you end up in a familiar place, singing those songs, and feeling fully welcomed with those gathered, give thanks. But if you don’t; if you spend this Easter regretfully, defiantly, or joyfully on the outside, be grateful for that too, because the truth is, you aren’t any further than you’ve ever been from a Love that holds you.

You may be a Church Refugee or a Religious Orphan, but you are not alone and you are not abandoned.

Happy Easter.

 

 

An Encouragement to Compassionate People

Some measure of compassion is universal.

Every one of us cares deeply about some people; our families, those we feel an affinity for—certainly our own well-being. We all understand selective empathy rooted in self-preservation. It makes perfect sense to be burdened for the safety and happiness of our children, our spouses, the people we live and work closely alongside. This all feels quite normal and it is difficult enough; to experience the pain of others we are emotionally invested in.

But not everyone naturally feels deeply for things and people beyond this close proximity; for humanity as a whole, for the planet, for the welfare of strangers, for the suffering they know exists that they aren’t even aware of. Not everyone is acutely burdened with other people’s pain in such a way that each day brings a fresh wounding. Not all of us spend their lives regularly bleeding for the hurt around them.

And yet if you are such a person, these are incredibly treacherous times because there is so very much to be grieved by. It is a perilous act, simply waking and reaching for your phone and wading into the relentless flood of things capable of breaking a heart. The steady stream of bad news can easily overwhelm those who suffer vicariously. And while others seems quite capable of shutting it all out and resuming normal life, you aren’t—because this is your normal. It is your default setting to give a damn, and for you to try and stifle this guttural impulse is to be less than the truest true of who you are. To do so would be an act of personal treason.

And the problem, is that people who don’t normally feel deeply in this way aren’t equipped to understand the toll these days take on you. They aren’t capable of comprehending the despair that accompanies daily life; the compounding heaviness that builds with each bold-typed headline, with every breaking story, with each bit of graphic video.

I get it. I see you. I understand. I know the invisible weight you’re hauling around lately. And it may not help, but I want you to know you’re in very good company. There is an army of such similarly wounded souls walking the planet right now; people who are equally overwhelmed.

Many people might advise you not to care as much as you do, but I won’t. I know the impossibility of the ask. I know that this is simply who you are, it’s how your heart works. More than that, I know that this is a treasure—this incredible, counterintuitive ability to feel. It is an invaluable gift to the world and it is more precious now than ever. When so many are pushed past the threshold of their compassion by the circumstances, we need resilient hearts that can continue to open themselves to wounding on behalf of others.

And as with all treasures it is costly. This deep empathy comes with sacrifice and sorrow and that’s something you’re going to have to live with, the same way someone oversensitive to ultraviolet rays needs to account for twelve or so hours of sunlight each day. Yes, you need to guard yourself from too much exposure, to shield yourself at times; you need to step away often so that you are not irreparably damaged. That is perhaps the greatest danger for those of us who feel deeply: not becoming compassionate martyrs, not being destroyed by our own hearts, not becoming so consumed by suffering that we succumb to it. Your expiring is not the goal or the desired outcome here, friend, so save some of that compassion for yourself.

But in these days when it is tempting to be apathetic and to turn inward and to say “to hell with it all,” the world needs people who refuse to surrender to the bad news and become calloused and hardened. It needs people who still run headlong into the fray, bleeding hearts affixed to their sleeves; those with just enough hope to believe others are worth sacrificing for, crying for, fighting for, bleeding for.

It needs compassion more than it ever has.

It needs people like you.

Be encouraged today.

  

 

 

 

 

Crocodile Trumper Tears and Dead Syrian Children

Photo originally from TheWire as printed by the Atlantic.

Why are you crying, Trump supporter?

I mean, I know why I’m crying, but I’m just a bit confused. You seem genuinely shocked by the brutality in Syria, truly surprised by the unthinkable horror of it all. You shouldn’t be. You should have seen it coming.

This is merely a few God-awful miles down the track of the “Trump Train.”
It is the cancerous growth of Make America Great Again,

of Muslim Travel Bans,
of “bomb the sh*t out of them” tough guy talk,
of religious stereotypes created to rally your base,
of building walls and closing borders,
of “get out of my country,”

of perpetuating the fear of brown people.

This is the human collateral damage of what Donald Trump’s been selling for 16 months now. It is the cost in actual vibrant, beautiful lives, of the kind of incendiary rhetoric and alternative facts and FoxNews truths that you’ve been fine with up until now. This is what you bought and paid for. Maybe not something this sadistic or explicitly grotesque, but the heart is the same: contempt for life that looks different and a desire to rid yourself of it.

I want to believe that you’re truly outraged, but honestly your resume is less than convincing.

Honestly, you didn’t seem all that broken up when Muslim families were handcuffed in airports a couple of months ago, or when mosques were being defaced, or when many of us were pleading the case for families fleeing exactly the kind of monstrous atrocities you were apparently so moved by this week—and getting told to eat our bleeding hearts out by MAGA hat-wearing trolls. You weren’t all that concerned when your President told terrified, exhausted refugees to leave and go home—twice.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t kiss the ring of a bad guy and then get to be the hero by feeling sorry about what other worse guys do. You don’t get to tell people to “go back where they came from,” and then beat your breasts like tortured martyrs when they get poisoned to death back where they came from.  

Your tears may as well be candy bars to these dead children. They’re that useful to them now and they’re that helpful to any of us who’ve been fighting for months to have good people in Syria and Iran and Turkey and here in America to be treated like human beings; whether they’re Muslim or gay or Transgender or poor or sick.

You want to be outraged in a way that matters, in a way that sticks, in a way that saves other children, in a way that is redemptive?

Be outraged at a President who plays patty-cake with malevolent dictators,
who says whatever hateful nonsense comes into his head,
who daily murders the truth to justify his misdeeds.
Be outraged at partisan media that insists on manufacturing Muslin monsters for the good Christian folks here to fear and feel righteous in turning away.
Be outraged at the bullies wielding their pulpits and their majority votes like sledgehammers against people of color both here and abroad.
Be outraged at your own laziness and apathy when it comes to looking for the truth and ferreting out what is real and what isn’t.
Be outraged that Donald Trump is lamenting the “poor dead babies,” he once said he would look in the face and tell to go home.
Be outraged that America is becoming as intolerant of diversity as any country on the planet.

Maybe this is a turning point for you. Maybe it is a revelation. Maybe seeing video of quivering, dying toddlers is what it will take to finally make you see that this is what hatred does. Every. Single. Time. This is the only inevitable outcome of people like Donald Trump and his cadre of fear-peddlers, pretending to save the world from the monsters they’ve created just to slay. A unilateral, hastily planned, ill-conceived, and transparently political military strike won’t cover this truth: we’re acting in supposed defense of children we refused sanctuary on our shores, after they were subjected to unspeakable violation in the place we sent them back to. 

The violence in Syria is heartbreaking and inhumane and clearly a blatant act of aggression against humanity—but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it isn’t an isolated event. It is cultivated in a million smaller, quieter, less visible ways, and its impact is equally brutal, whether it happens thousands of miles away with chemical weapons or whether it’s wrapped in red, white, and blue and called a Travel Ban. It’s all the same horrible, vicious poison that destroys people by making them into a threat. 

I’m not interested in your tears unless those tears move you to pushback forcefully against the violence happening in Syria and in Chicago, against terrorists and dictators and religious extremists wherever they do what they do and whatever faith tradition they claim. Yes Assad and Putin are the worst kind of horrible inhumanity and they should be condemned and opposed, but let’s stop pretending we don’t see the similarities here at home—if not in severity, then in spirit.

Be equally outraged at all the horrors human beings inflict upon each other, and then we’ll be grieving over the same tragedy and fighting the same fight.

 

The Shape of A Life

There is a shape to every life—a specific, precise, never to be repeated space that it occupies for as long as it is here. From the very moment that life arrives, it begins altering the planet, renovating it by its unique presence.  

And when a life leaves this place, whether quietly or with great fanfare, that shape becomes a negative space; an unprecedented void that cannot be fully occupied again by another. It will remain forever unfilled, this extraordinary space in the shape of a life. 

But each life’s shape is not defined only by the life itself, but by every soul it comes into contact with while here. As that life is welcomed, loved, nurtured, cared for—it expands and contracts, it grows and stretches to find its beautiful definition, and likewise so does everything else around it:

A mother is herself reshaped as she raises her son.
A man is reshaped by a lifelong friendship.
Spouses are reshaped daily over the course of a marriage.
We are reshaped as we live alongside people we love,
and by strangers we view from a distance.

Like pieces to a puzzle, we are fit into one another; those we know and those we are connected to only as part of the same whole. We are being added to and subtracted from as our lives rub up against one another.

What this means, is that we should grieve the loss of every life, whether we believe it to be close to us or not, because we know that someone, somewhere is mourning over the space its absence has created. The shape of that life matters to them and it should matter to us because we will feel that subtraction even if we are unaware.

And it means we should celebrate every life with equal fervor:
A 9-month old in Syria has a sacred shape.
An elderly man in West Africa does.
A teenager in Chicago.
A father in Mexico.

The woman sitting across from you in traffic.
The toddler in your living room.

And remembering the shape of a life should also mean that regardless of how inconsequential or meaningless you may feel at times, you should treasure your own life far more than you usually do. You should have reverence for yourself because you are consequential and you are meaningful, and because the shape of your life is a singular miracle in the history of the planet. And whether or not you believe it, when you depart this place, you will leave a space that will never again be filled. The face staring back at you in the mirror is so very uniquely shaped.

My childhood friend Terry left the world when he was 23. For whatever reason he believed he could no longer stay here or that he was no longer needed. I wish he would have realized, that more than three decades later the space he left in the shape of his life would still be a hollow in the hearts of so many people, including me. It may not have made a difference, but I like to think so.

Lives are specifically miraculous things, and if we truly recognized that we’d probably live differently. We might have more compassion for people, we might be more burdened with other’s pain, we might find more gratitude for ourselves, we might experience joy in simply living as we are shaped. These would all be worthy endeavors.

So look around you today, friend. See the strangers you pass by, look at the pictures of children a half a world away, stare into the eyes of your daughter, and yes take a long, careful look in the mirror.

Take a moment to see, to mourn, to treasure, and to celebrate—the shape of a life.