Dyk-otomy

 

For as long as I can remember I’d wanted a little brother. For reasons that elude my memory now, I had decided as a preschooler that his name would be “Tony”. My mother had already defied Nature and the doctor’s proclamation that she couldn’t bear anymore children after her miscarriage when she went ahead and delivered me. But I slammed the womb shut and in hindsight I’m sure for good reasons. Mom could conceive no more children naturally, despite her deep maternal longing for a little girl. Any objective outside observer would have agreed that my parents needed another child in their charge like they needed another hole in their heads for ventilation. But again my parents defied Nature. Driven by my mother’s desire, they began the long process of adopting a baby. Nearly two years later when I had virtually lost my 5-year olds’ hope of having a little brother the agency contacted my parents with the news that they had a brand new baby for us: a baby girl. My parents were ecstatic. Their waiting was over. Their prayers had been answered. All I could offer was dissent.

“It’s the wrong one,” I said, “It’s suppose to be my little brother.”

I felt tricked and betrayed. “You’ll love her just the same. You’ll see,” my satisfied mother tried to reassure me. Of course she was right. On the day we picked up the baby girl that was supposed to be my little brother mom insisted I pull in my pouting lip and hold my new little sister. She placed the quiet infant gingerly in my arms and I looked down into this tiny, sweet face whose big blue eyes looked back up at me as if to say, “I’m here and I’m yours.” I heard her eyes’ message and I felt the kind of button-popping pride usually reserved for new parents and looked back up at my parents, our parents, and declared, “She’s mine!” “I’m glad you’ve changed your mind,” my mother said, “but she’s ours, all of ours. Our little girl, your little sister.” “Right,” I thought to myself, like anything else too pretty, precious, or delicate brought into the house that I claimed as my own because I thought these two hicks that were our parents couldn’t possibly appreciate or care for properly, this little girl would also be mine. I knew then, at five years old, that I’d have to more than just a brother. I’d have to do my big brother best to be her protector and sometimes mother, as we all tried to survive my father.

As I grew older the pure blonde hair I had been born with darkened. The coal black hair my sister had at birth continued to grow more and more blonde. As if this were an ominous foreboding we would continue, propelled from the same trajectory, along very different paths. The feast or famine cycles of our parents’ finances had already seeped into my psyche, making me into a live action version of the greedy Daffy Duck cartoon: “Its’ mine, mine, mine! Mine, I tell ya’, all mine!” My sister seemed unaffected by our parents alternating ability to provide. Her heart remained as open as my grasping hands. During particularly dire times when our father was laid off from work, mom would be unable to hide her despair as she tried to put together enough change to buy milk or eggs. My sister would have already returned to offer to our mother the coins she had shook loose from her piggy bank, while I would still be grilling the poor woman, now in tears, as to exactly when she might be able to pay back if I did loan her my change.

Based on the boys’ behavior I had witnessed at school and reinforced by my fathers’ hard work smells and violence, I decided by the second grade that I didn’t like boys and didn’t care to be one of them. They were dull, stupid, dirty creatures who seemed to only excel at breaking things and hurting people. Sadly, my perception of men from my adult vantage point has been altered very little. My sister, on the other hand, must have somehow perceived their brutish, volatile nature as powerful. To our parents’ horror, as soon as she was old enough to discern the difference between boys and girls she began announcing to anyone who would listen that she wanted to be a boy. In holiday pictures there she’d be posing for the camera proudly with her cowboy hat at an angle, her thumbs hooked in her pants pockets below her brown western pleather vest, while in the background I could be seen accessorizing one of her dolls for all I was worth. I would spend untold hours locked in the bathroom trying to arch my eyebrows with my dad’s disposable Shick razor and putting baby powder on my face in an attempt to look like my newly discovered movie idol, Bette Davis. I would be spanked soundly and sent back to the bathroom to wash my face. “Do you want people to think you look like a girl?”, my parents would ask, thinking they were shaming me. And on some level it did shame me since clearly I as trying to look like a woman. My sister, in sharp contrast, would be under the family station wagon helping dad change the oil or something. Under a car? The only way I ever imagined myself under a car was if my father accidentally backed up over me while I was doing cartwheels in the driveway. Under a car. Jesus. She would get bruises and develop callouses. My hands would remain as soft as a cloistered maiden’s. She could throw a ball, I could throw attitude. None of this is to say we didn’t play together as children, we just brought different abilities to our shared play time. She would build a fort. I would hang drapes and put in track lighting.

Each Christmas we’d hide our dismay at our parents complete denial of our requests, as well as our envy of each other’s gifts and simply correct their mistakes during heated bartering sessions. My G.I. Joe would be swapped for her Barbie. The huge, yellow Tonka dump truck I found useless was traded for enough tiny, tight, teen doll ensembles to keep Barbie in the dressing room well into middle age. The Easy-Bake Oven, though, was the prize. “I will GIVE you Johnny West, his horse, the Lone Ranger. . . mmm, okay, not the Lone Ranger. . .” C’mon village people, the masked crusader with the behind you could bounce a quarter on and the broad chest in the tight powder blue western get up was too hot to handle and too hot to let go of. “You can have Tonto and his horse, all for the Easy-Bake Oven.” She counter offered with the Barbie Dream Camper. “C’mon,” I’d reply indignantly, “what kind of supermodel really goes camping? I want the oven. “Alright then,” she bargained, “I want my Wonder Woman back and the oven is yours.” Years of practice with me had made my sister a nearly worthy opponent. “No way.” I stood firm. Nothing would wrestle Diana Prince out of my hands. My sister seemed to have an evolving and inexplicable interest in Lynda Carter and her island of origin sisters, but I didn’t care. When I practiced my amazing Wonder Woman high jumps off the back porch, the doll was going with me. “Look,” I’d say exasperated, “will you not be eating the lovely cakes I bake with butter cream chocolate frosting?” “You won’t share them?”, she’d ask, sounding hurt and bewildered. “Of course I will, IF you take the old, dusty pioneers, their horses, the sidekick Indian and give me that oven.” Of course she caved in and the pioneers, the supermodels and the two of us wore satisfied, chocolate frosted grins sitting around the make believe campfire my sister had built herself.

As a result of navigating the minefield of our parent’s house for the first decade of my life I was becoming a silent, nervous child who systematically picked my lips and tore off my fingernails until both bled. Defending myself on the school yard playground was not in my nature; defending my sister, however, was my very nature. One Summer our parents sent us to vacation Bible school at the local chapter of The Salvation Army. At the Salvation Army my sister and I were separated throughout the day with the exception of chapel and lunch time in the gymnasium. During chapel we were seated by age groups, again putting my sister out of arm’s length, but within sight. In what would ultimately be our last chapel service the somber chaplain spoke of other children in bondage; children called Israelites, not “young-in’s “. I felt sorry for these children and wondered if their parents had Appalachian roots like mine. As the chaplain droned on the younger kids grew uncontrollably restless. When one of the lower ranking officers moved in, singled out and removed my six-year old sister to the hall, I got up and prepared to follow them. I was quickly and sharply rebuked, ordered to remain in my seat. I clenched my jaw and descended back into the crushed red velvet padded pew, forcing my gaze straight ahead to the lectern while straining to hear what was happening beyond the hallway door. Moments later when I clearly heard my little sister’s crying and pleading, “I want my brother. I want my brother”, I defied the guard’s order and darted from my numbered seat and into the hallway. I couldn’t rescue my sister from much back at home, frequently, being the first born decoy was enough there. Sometimes, despite my horror and protests, she was still the victim of the violent switchings that were our parent’s spare the rod-style of aerobic exercise. I was willing to be damned though if anyone else was going to lay a hand on my sister. So when the God-loving, man-hating bull dyke of a “Captain” snatched my sister away from my immediate grasp with enough force to make her squeal and renew her tears, I kicked the bitch with enough velocity to make her swear and release my sister. I grabbed my sister’s little hand, told her everything would be alright, and commanded her to run with me. We raced down the hall for the door off of the crafts room that spilled into the alley behind the army compound. We bolted past activities coordinators still cleaning glue and glitter off of the tables who stopped us and asked what had happened. These kind, young, civilian volunteers called our parents and we were never made to return to The Salvation Army vacation Bible school. We would receive our instruction and our abuse at home as God had intended.

As we grew up our experience was similar, but our individual responses to our experience were vastly different. In our home that was dangerous and our world that was small and unjust I would escape to the safe, spacious vistas of my own imagination and my own despair. My sister somehow managed to retain both, her quick, joyous laughter and her quick, violent temper. I would internalize things, cry and wish I were dead. She would simply kick your ass and be done with it. By the time I was fifteen years old I had no reason to believe I’d have a future outside of an Institution for the Very Nervous and the Perpetually Afraid. But with the frequent support of Gloria, the chain-smoking matriarch of our next door neighbors, and a Family Services counselor, I developed the determination to not be, as Gloria put it, “my father’s whipping post” anymore. This was apparently a non-negotiable contract I had entered with him at birth and when I broke the contract I was sent away. I was packed up and driven to an orphanage four hours away. My sister cried hysterically, her ten year old heart breaking, as she struggled to free herself from our aunt that held her as our father physically pulled me out the front door. My little sister had worshipped the ground I sashayed on and now I was being taken away. It was like the white trash version of that scene in The Color Purple, as Nettie is literally ripped away from the grief stricken Celie. When my sister reached fifteen, and also broke the contract with our father that she so clearly adored, she too was sent to the children’s home. We stayed in contact frequently back then by writing letters to each other; postcards from siblings trapped in the two separate civil wars of our lives. Soon our individual struggles demanded our undivided attention and we lost touch. Our mother’s death in 1991 brought us back together briefly, but that was the last time I’ve seen my sister.

While I’ve busied myself over the years apparently attempting to lose my gag reflex with men whose sheer emotional unavailability should have choked me, my sister has fought more noble battles. When a local judge refused to allow she and her female partner of more than a dozen years to legally change and share their last name based on no precedent more substantial than his own prejudice, they would not be denied. The couple acquired an attorney and mounted a lengthy, arduous legal battle that, much to our father’s consternation, frequently made headlines state wide and beyond. “I don’t know why they couldn’t just change their names one at a time and not make a big circus about it all over the papers”, he would complain to me during one of our phone conversations. “Dad,” I’d say, purposely irritating him by responding to his presumably rhetorical question, “after mom died and you married her sister, wasn’t there a wedding announcement in the papers?” “That’s different,” he’d replied indignantly. “You’re right, dad. That’s very different, since your daughter and her mate weren’t related prior to their union.” As is his custom he would assure me that he would be praying for me and quickly end our phone call.

As a child I was so certain of my own future fatherhood that by age nine or ten I’d had a short list of possible names picked out for my future offspring. Now, at midlife, the role of being a father seems better left to those better financially heeled, more paternal and less self-indulgent than myself. No one expected my sister, the little girl who wanted to be a boy, to be a mother. A Phys. Ed. teacher? Sure. An auto mechanic? Of course. A mother? No. Well, yes. As it turns out, where there’s a will, there’s a turkey baster. My sister is now one of two proud mothers of two little girls. I’ve been made an uncle by nieces I’ve never seen.

In recent years through an act of my will I’ve forgiven our now stroke-addled and rather feeble father his many mistakes and abuses. My sister, understandably, has no more use for him than she would for any other dick. My own forgiveness for the man remains an act of faith, a work in progress. I completely respect her need to avoid any contact with him, just as I did for many years. It is our separation, the lack of contact or response from my sister that turns my mind back on itself and mars my heart with hair line cracks. Perhaps it is with us as it is with the survivors of any tragedy: plane crashes or war. To look in each others’ face is to necessarily remember, re-live, re-hurt. It’s been thirty-some years now since our parents imposed the end of our decade together as children daily surviving their own special brand of Bible-based terrorism. It’s too far back to reach. If we could, if we tried, would something in us snap like a rubber band extended beyond it’s capacity and we’d lose today; the today that we’ve run so far to find, the today we thought we’d never see? It seems that is an impossible, even an unnecessary risk for the adult stranger that is my sister to take. That’s alright. Alright, cause it has to be.

I can’t see the future any better now than I could imagine what lay beyond I-75 looking out by bedroom window as a child. But now enough wreckage of the past has been cleared that if I look back over my shoulder, open my heart, and squint my eyes, on the distant horizon of memory I can see a proud little three-foot version of me holding this deliciously brand new baby girl with coal black hair and a face that shined with all the innocence of Eden. I can smell the wet, wormy aroma of our mud pies baking in the sun. Most of all, though, I remember that little girl’s laughter; so joyous, so infectious, so original, that it was clearly on loan from the land of stars. I couldn’t save that little girl, but I can set that little girl free. Ultimately, the setting free is, perhaps, the most important part of any parent’s or little surrogate parent’s job. The real dyk-otomy remains that in letting her go I can still proudly exclaim, as I did when I was five, “She’s mine!”

– PreetamDas Kirtana

*this essay originally appeared on http://www.semantikon.com via the generous and talented Lance Oditt and was later featured as a special cover edition of The Dayton City Paper, where some of my earlier essays appeared monthly and that cover is also the source of the accompanying pictures here.

** this particular publishing/posting of this older piece is dedicated to Erin, Sarah, Chase, Zachary, Jerry, Nora, Rebecca, Rick, and all of us who continue to try and heal and reclaim our souls, even as we learn to walk, even with our limp, even with broken hearts, but, incrementally and with each other’s support, Not with broken spirits.

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Sitting Shiva for Lent: Through a Glass Darkly

Sitting Shiva for Lent: Through a Glass Darkly

I believe in the possibility of reconciliation under any circumstance, and yet there are things that we say to each other sometimes that may not be beyond the reach of forgiveness but remain beyond forgetting.

I was a skinny kid that grew up in a family of fat relatives. In an extended family where being overweight was the norm, I stuck out like a sore thumb; a thumb made more sore by frequently being made fun of and enduring nicknames mocking my body size. It was 1976. I was ten years old. Even an adult cousin that I adored would announce, “Jimmy, you’re so skinny, you look funny cuz your bones stick out.” Of course the bones she was referring to were elbows and knees. Given that kind of public derogatory announement today after years of building a fine defense and a quick, bitter tongue, I’d probably snap back that it was her that looked funny because when I stood next to her, we looked like the number 10. But, then, to suggest that visible elbows and knees were normal would have been risking switch-welted legs or a bloodied mouth. I was outweighed and outnumbered.

I was a skinny kid with a gap between my two front teeth. Braces would correct my teeth when I was older, but no stage of growth changed my underdog size. My slight size combined with my fastidiousness and what my birth mother called being “tender-hearted” got me called a “fag” by kids at school long before I knew what the intended insult meant. I only felt the way the kids said it and I felt dirty, dirty and outcast without knowing why; dirty, even before they spit on me on the crowded school bus.

When I was a kid, adults said that I’d “fill out” when I grew up. They lied about that, too. Ten years later, other gay men started dying. No one understood anything about H.I.V. then. Everyone was afraid. The government, at best, didn’t care. The church told us that we had it coming. They told us that we were being punished and we were, but not by God. We were being punished by the fear and hatred of people who left us to fight and die alone. I remember being so young and so afraid. I remember at one gathering, a young man, Jeff, carried his own drinking glass so as to not risk contagion. Jeff and countless other guys in the bars would speculate and sometimes outright accuse me of having A.I.D.S. Does anyone get “accused” of having cancer or heart disease? It was never a good time to be a skinny kid. It’s never been a good time to be a skinny gay man, even among other gay men. It was shaping up to just not be a good time to ever be me. Jeff’s personal drinking glass didn’t save him.

At middle-age now, it remains an elusive goal to hit a hundred and fifty pounds. No, ladies, it is not an enviable thing. Please stop saying that. Yes, I can “eat whatever I want”, as you so often say, “without gaining a pound”. It’s also true that if it’s not eighty in the shade, I’m cold and it hurts to sit. I’m getting closer to looking into finding an ass prosthetic; either that or I’ll be that guy that carries a pillow with him everywhere to sit on. As a rule, stress seems to effect our eating habits in one of two ways. Under stress some of us will eat everything and some of us will eat nothing. I tend toward the latter group. During a period of hardship and predictable weight loss for me five or six years ago, I was at dinner with my friend Suzanne, when she took my breath away when, while encouraging me to eat, she told me that I looked like “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”.

I’m not often speechless.

I didn’t much want to go outside for awhile after that.

Sometimes we say things that are not beyond forgiveness, but remain beyond forgetting.

I ache when I consider the times that I know I’ve been guilty of this.

Three years or so ago I was as physically present as I’ve ever been weighing in at an astonishing personal best of a hundred and sixty-five pounds. Since our car accident last year and the head injury I suffered I struggle to hit a hundred and thirty-five pounds. As a result of that space between my two front teeth when I was a kid and the braces and the slightly off-color cap on one of those two front teeth, I’ve always been a little o.c.d. about my dental hygiene. It hasn’t paid off. None of my enthusiastic flossing or gargling with hydrogen peroxide a half dozen times a day has made any difference in the tremendous bone loss that continues to happen. Dec. 30th, tooth number fifteen, the upper back left, was extracted. Not five weeks later, number three, the back upper right had to be extracted. I now have no upper back teeth to chew with. Pending insurance approval, a partial is hopefully on the way. In the meantime, I eat soft foods and boy, do I have cheekbones. I look like I’m doing an impression of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” now, even when I’m actually not . . . or “a poster boy for A.I.D.S.”

Those words said to us that remain beyond forgetting don’t live in our minds in a moment-to-moment or even in a daily way. They’re not predators so much as scavengers. They wait until we’re vulnerable, exhausted, and just about to give up and it’s then that the jackals of some one’s words return from the nowhere of the past in hope of feeding on what’s left of us.

I was washing my face one morning a few days ago and when I saw my face in the mirror, it broke my heart. I saw hollowed spaces and shadows and weariness and I cried looking at my own reflection. Over the course of my lifetime I’ve become rather obsessed about my appearance; not in the way that beautiful people do, but in the way that only the deeply wounded do. I’ve been grieving my teeth and terrified of getting “A.I.D.S. face”, daunted by the prospect of one more obstacle to self-acceptance and crumbling at the idea of one more reason for public rejection. Now, I was losing my hope to the sallow reflection in my bathroom mirror. When it happened again, when I washed my face and cried again at the rather Nosfertu reflection looking back at me, I decided that I couldn’t do this anymore.

I remembered that in a recent issue of AARP magazine that Cher had been quoted as saying that she had “given up mirrors”, that she “hadn’t looked in a mirror in years.” Of course she’s lying, but the idea of not looking in a mirror at all was nearly as compelling as it was frightening. You have to understand how vital, how strangely addictive mirrors are for someone like me: always one more glance, one more snip at a hair, one more disapproving look and then one more. No, you wouldn’t want to live with me and ever want to be anywhere on time, ever. I guess mirrors and cigarettes are to the life of my ego what humility and love are meant to be to my walk of faith. But now I couldn’t see past my own fear and grief, so I made a decision.

I took down the obsessively checked mirror to the right of my office door. I put the eye-level framed pictures on my desk on top of the bookshelf where I can see them but they can’t reflect my image back to me in their glass. I covered my bathroom mirror save for an eye-level strip opening about an inch and a half long by an eighth of an inch high. I can see just my eyes, just my nose, or just my mouth at one time. Mind you, I’m not throwing vanity completely out the window. I will know if that blueberry or spinach is visibly stuck in my teeth, but I won’t face self-rejection with my every reflection.

This is how I’ve come to begin this Lenten season by sitting shiva. The Jewish custom surrounding the ritual of grief dictates that mirrors be covered because mourners need not be concerned about their personal appearance, that mourners should be aware that their normal priorities have changed, and that mirrors should not be present in rooms where we pray as we are to direct our focus on God, not ourselves. I’ve been in mourning in many ways no more so than now as the shallow sand-built defenses I’ve invested a lifetime of energy in are incrementally and systematically stripped away. I mourn not only for myself, but for the suffering all around me that I feel so acutely so often. I grieve for living in a world so abrasive that I frequently feel sanded raw.

This Ash Wednesday is only the third day of no mirrors, but I feel drawn to continue the sacrifice of my painful vanity for the entire Lenten season, not just because of the hurt reflected back at me right now, but also because it might help. Already, without my physical image constantly reflected back at me, from time to time I can forget what I look like and just remember that I might Feel good in any given moment. Maybe without my appearance being my constant priority my focus will begin to shift, even a little. Maybe I’ll come closer to understanding that my reflection in a thing isn’t necessary for a thing to be beautiful. How much more beauty there must be to see in the world when our identification with something or someone isn’t required for them to be seen as beautiful and worthy.

Maybe, right now, while it’s so hard to see myself through my own eyes, let alone through God’s eyes, maybe it’s best if I only see myself through your eyes and only see what you show me.

If this life is about union and communion, and I believe that it is, then our self-rejection keeps us only ever halfway to the table and nearly all of us are too malnourished to not pull all the way up to the banquet table of our Father’s love and full acceptance.

Maybe, in covering some mirrors, maybe in borrowing each other’s eyes, we might get closer to pulling up a chair to the Table together.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 3/4/15

“Hide & Seek: 5-10-15-20-Reach (out)”

My current health challenges and life stressors bring me again to the Root and roots of my faith and baby steps of progress toward improved health and more strength and energy as I continue to hope, pray, and believe that being pain-free again can be a reality. My regular doctor is a constant source of gratitude, while it will be impossible to not write about her at some point, there aren’t really words enough to say how incredible her skills AND heart are and how my life is better because of Miriam. But a couple of days ago I saw a different doctor other than my own and didn’t get what I needed. Why is it so confounding for some folks when you’re clear about what you need? Anyway, on the train home I came up with this, maybe it could be helpful for someone else when “baby steps” are again needed or maybe one or two a y’all might wanna join with me for the next 21 days. If you’re up to some baby steps with this 2 Great Commandment Preschooler, I’d love to hear your comments and experiences as we stumble along, and try to remember what immense pleasure it brings our Father, as it would any loving father, to see us learning to walk:

My own Rx:

5 – Five minutes of Affirmative Breathing
Full inhalations & exhalations. On the exhale mentally affirm what you need affirmed. This could be a literal affirmation i.e. “I’m.
safe, loved, home, forgiven, etc. Could be a portion of a Scripture. I’m fond of “blue and green”, shorthand for the still blue waters.
and green pastures of 23rd Psalm I learned from a character in a work of fiction by John D. Base. One need not be a Christian to find.
the image calming. The affirmation on the exhale is key, as without the already disciplined mind that we lack yet, silence alone can
be an entry point for negative voices and thoughts.

10 – Ten full minutes (as only a minimum, but at least 10) of singing Out Loud.
Obviously, something positive would be ideal, but with this one, the songs selected are not as important as simply doing it. If you’re
feeling low, like a motherless child, then sing that, but sing it Out Loud, don’t just feel it in silence. I’m convinced this is the other
reason God made showers. You can do it. It’s not public, not a performance.

15 – Write for a full fifteen minutes.
If you find yourself resistant or staring out the window for more than a minute, begin your time again. As with the singing aloud,
what you write is not even your concern, it could be anything from why you’re grateful to why you’re pretty certain that the world/
God/your spouse/ ex/ or mother is out to get you. “I’m feeling _______” is often a good entry point.

20 – Ideally, simply walk for a full twenty minutes.
This is the goal: walking. When weather makes this impossible, a Very distant next best would be on the floor or mat gentle.
stretching i.e. slow neck rolls, shoulder lifts & drops, gentle twisting from the waist while seated, etc.

Reach (out) – As a routine, and at a minimum, make the phone call.
Yes, even this Everyday. For those of us more comfortable and with time, the “Reach” could be sharing coffee or a meal
or much more like some form of community/church/social involvement, but again the key is that daily, so making that phone call
is basic, if not easy. Serving at the shelter or attending a meeting, etc. do fill the ask but these are rarely everyday. Bottom line:
you really will need to use the phone. No requirement on content or time, only you need to connect Live, even if only briefly. No,
leaving a voice mail isn’t enough or rather leave the voice mail, then dial again till the Live connection happens.

These are challenging for many of us, but also do-able for all of us.

What’s the goal? What do we win, earn, or accomplish? I’d suggest that those are ego-based questions, so the only answer I’d suggest is that we’ll find out, the old “more will be revealed”. Then why would we do something, anything without a goal? Ya’ gotta love our ego’s persistence (or not). The only answer is that where we are isn’t working for us so well and maybe, since it takes (depending on your phone time) only about an hour, maybe we could commit to trying a different way, this routine for 21 days and just see what happens.

Prayer? (Shhhhh, don’t let it get out, but these are all forms of prayer. Add as much and as many kinds of prayers, as often as you’d like)

PreetamDas Kirtana
3/5/15

Cocoon

Cocoon

When I was a kid, I not only imagined that my bedroom was its’ own world, I also worked to make sure that it was. Surviving the red-velvet clutter and “Chuck Wagon Gang” gospel music that assaulted you at the front door and making it to my bedroom was, in my mind, akin to surviving Mordor on your return to the Shire, or making it through the rest of *Texas to get to Austin. Even at a young age I was deeply embarrassed by my simple, unrefined parents and, much to their frustration, I took every opportunity to accentuate our differences. In fact, I thought we were so different from each other that we couldn’t really be related at all. I was filled with new hope as an adolescent at the idea that I must have been adopted. My determination culminated in an exhaustive, but futile secret search through my parent’s boxes and drawers, looking for papers that would prove my adoption. Years later, at my high school graduation, I would take great satisfaction when adult friends would comment to me that they couldn’t believe Mom and Dad were my parents. Now, other people; adults, suggested that perhaps I was adopted and I couldn’t have felt more . . . proud. In a room full of people, a stranger wouldn’t connect me with my parents; not by looks, or speech, or demeanor. My determination to be as different from them as I could be, had paid off.

Of course, my adult perspective of my parents is more seasoned; they’re not complete scapegoats to be sure. While I don’t remember an exact moment of such a decision, I think that maybe, at some point early on, I made up my mind even as a child, that I didn’t want a relationship with them. Some of my embarrassment was certainly typical of most all of us growing up: floundering for independence and embarrassed by our dependence. Like every child and adolescent, like every teen, like every human, I wanted to be and to belong. But there were other factors that grew the need in me to retreat to my imagination; to cocoon in my room. When my refuge was ruined, when my retreat was destroyed, I would eventually rebel. But, before there were clearly drawn enemy lines, before I defected, it’s true, I fought for the cause.

If Mom and Dad had a “cause”, or purpose, or a life at all it was the country church we drove forty-some miles to attend. Every Sunday morning and every Sunday night; every Wednesday night, and at frequent week long revivals, the piano and tambourines were banged, people “spoke in tongues”, desperate altar calls were given, and “sinner’s prayers” were repeated. Best of all, my Sunday school teacher, Sister Opal, would routinely amuse and frighten me by “shouting” the vast number of bobby pins out of her carefully constructed, pinned, and sprayed hair. If the old joke about Pentecostals, “the higher the hair, the closer to God”, is true, Sister Opal surely must have touched the nail prints in His hands. At home, Dad didn’t allow a television in the house for years. No secular music was allowed in the house at all, none; not jazz, not country; only gospel. This was, for the first part of my life, the only world I knew. I knew nothing else, so I emulated what I knew, certain that it would please Mom and Dad; and ‘pleasing Mom and Dad’ if nothing else, had to hurt less.

An aunt of mine is still fond of recalling how at five-years-old, I would take my little wooden chair and stool that Dad had varnished and painted with my name, “Jimmy” and turn that little chair into a pulpit for some of the fieriest sermons stuffed animals never heard.

"You MUST be born again! Huh!," I shouted at Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and my sister's harlot Barbies, who always sat in the back pews. I pumped my fist and pounded the Bible and worked myself right into a little five-year-old-holy-roller-frenzy. I was  determined  that my polyurethane-stuffed congregation would REPENT! and be spared hellfire.  Now, what I knew, at five-years-old, that you had to have for a good sermon were three things:  a sturdy Bible, a glass of cool water,  and a handkerchief, or a "hanky" where we were from."
“You MUST be born again! Huh!,” I shouted at Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and my sister’s harlot Barbies, who always sat in the back pews.
I pumped my fist and pounded the Bible and worked myself right into a little five-year-old-holy-roller-frenzy. I was determined that my polyurethane-stuffed congregation would REPENT! and be spared hellfire. Now, what I knew, at five-years-old, that you had to have for a good sermon were three things: a sturdy Bible, a glass of cool water, and a handkerchief, or a “hanky” where we were from.”
The “prayer hanky” came from my favorite family friend at church, Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams was round and happy and chocolate brown and had the very best laugh and I loved her. I reckon I believe that if anybody ever did know anything at all for certain (and most of us don’t), Mrs. Williams knew something for certain and from the very first time that I had special permission to sit with her in church, I just wanted to be like Mrs. Williams. So it was only natural that I had to have a prayer hanky in my belt, just like Mrs. Williams kept in the belt of her dresses to dab her eyes or mop her brow, but it wasn’t the female accessories, it wasn’t the belt or the hankies that was alluring. “Pentecostal drag” is frequently gender-neutral: soaked hanky, dry hanky, Bible, and lotsa perspiration. What I wanted to be near; what was magnetic, what I wanted to be like was what folks like Mrs. Williams were like. I wanted what they had, or what “had them”, to know what they knew that made ’em move like they did -real sure and real humble; to know why Mrs. Williams always did seem like a calm sky and a solid place, no matter what, when everybody else felt like hard rain.

Deepest the deepest convictions of my pre-Evangelist trail-five-year-old-self, I was still only five, so even I eventually grew impatient and restless in church services. As a result of my talking and squirming, I became so accustomed to being taken out of church and into the Ladies Room to get switched, that one Sunday on the way into the church I simply looked up at Mom and said, “We might as well go in now and get it over with before church starts.” Now, I imagine the resignation that must have been in my little boy voice, knowing that this, violence, was just a fact of my day, and it makes me sad for a moment, to know that at five, I felt beaten. I felt so beaten in fact, that I soon gave up the continually prophesied big calling on my little life to be a preacher. Soon, I hardly spoke at all. Ever. People began to inquire aloud as to if I was mute. “Can’t your little boy speak?”, people would ask my Mom, their voices offering pity even before she could answer.

Now, I was born in 1966 and unfortunately for me, any changing with the times my parents might have done stopped a decade before my arrival. Looking like an extra from “Peggy Sue Got Married” surprised by the 1970’s, even Mom’s best Sunday dresses were worn with the ever-present white bobby socks. Our modest home felt like a time warp. Mom alternated between secret shopping trips and illness. Dad always stank of the burning rubber he molded into tires at Cooper Tire and Rubber. When he wasn’t breaking his back at work, Dad would sometimes sit and read his Bible and write early in the morning and sometimes late at night. Sometimes he would lose himself in the garage, which was so full of stuff, that getting lost was actually possible. And sometimes to break up that routine up, he’d beat the daylights out of me. As I grew older I became more ashamed of my parent’s simple, poor, country folk ways and “old time religion” fervor. In a world in which I increasingly felt I didn’t belong, these two characters were apparently sent the long trip down Walton’s mountain to be certain that I never would. In our family’s defense, it should be noted, that there was not a velvet oil painting of Elvis over our couch. Appropriately enough, the velvet oil painting over our couch was of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a kind of a morbid marquee:

“Now Playing, In It’s Record Breaking Twelfth Year: “SUFFERING.”

In the picture, Christ is kneeling at an altar of rock, arms outstretched, hands clasped together in prayer, His face pained and pleading, as He and I ask that this bitter cup pass from us.

My bitter cup, as I saw it, was to survive, not only my father’s welts and blows, but also the crushing embarrassment of my Mom’s elastic-waisted polyester pants and incessantly cheery habit of answering the phone, “Hello! God loves you!” I imagine myself as Carrie White in the Brian De Palma directed movie and Stephen King story, “Carrie”. I can see the scene now; although, unlike Carrie, returning home from gym class where she was terrorized by her first period and tormented by the other girls, I am returning home from a church youth group gathering where the very people that I saw in church each Sunday played records that, to my serious horror, were not (gulp), gospel!

Imagine, me, twelve and Piper Laurie as my mother:

“I can see your dirty little Top 40 music, Carrie.”

“It’s not dirty, Mama. It’s just pop music. It’s just Anne Murray. Even the folks at church like her, Mama.”

“Heathens and Hypocrites. First sin was secular music. Say it.”

“No, Mama. Why didn’t you tell me? They all laughed at me ’cause I was so surprised they weren’t afraid of going to hell for listening to “Daydream Believer”. You shoulda told me Mama.”

“First sin was secular music. Say it child!”

“No, Mama!”

“Go to your closet!”

And so, I did go to my closet. I could be found, but it bought me time. Sometimes just a few minutes could give mom enough time to calm Dad down a little. So, in the cramped, smothering hiding place in my bedroom closet I continued to learn the value of retreat; the safety of invisibility. If my bedroom was going to be my safe haven to retreat to it must be guarded and insulate me from all that was frightening, painful, and tacky just across the its’ threshold. However things might be outside the four walls of my bedroom, they would be as opposite of that as I could make them within.

Since the rest of the house was unkempt and cluttered, my room would be immaculate: no clutter, no dust, no wrinkles in my bedspread. In my room I countered the harsh light the living room picture window cast on my reality by creating indirect lighting with night lights and desk lamps hidden behind the removable speakers of my 8-track stereo. Since the only music in the rest of the house was country gospel, there would be classical music in my bedroom. I won the battle to play classical music as an exception by emphasizing its’ lack of lyrics and syncopated beats. Just by being thought about in my room, the lowly fiddle became a violin. There was a cork board that hung over my desk that I decorated to celebrate each season and holiday. My “desk” was actually a carpenter’s workbench. Of course, I had stored away all of the ridiculous carpenters’ tools and now imagined it to be a roll top desk.

Perhaps the most stark cultural contrast between the world inside my room and the “outside world” of the rest of the house was during the Christmas holiday. One of my more vivid childhood memories is of the annual Christmas conflict over whether or not we could have a Christmas tree. Dad saw it as an unwieldy arm of evil meant to replace Christ with commercialism. Mind you, I didn’t necessarily disagree with him, it was just confusing and embarrassing when he threw the Christmas tree into the front yard. If there would be no Christmas or only Christmas conflict outside my room, then it would be a Christmas-effin’ wonderland in my room. It began at Thanksgiving with a huge roll of colored paper from school on which I would create a Christmas mural. By the time the holiday arrived I would have a wall-size chalk depiction of the nativity. Garland and evergreen lined my dresser, bookshelf, and windowsill. Scented candles burned while Christmas carols played softly on an 8-track loop. From the ceiling I painstakingly hung hundreds of individual icicles, for what I saw as a tremendous effect. By just the streetlight from my bedroom window, when the furnace kicked on blowing warm air through the floor vent, all I saw were dancing flashes of silver light; stars in the low-slung heavens of my very own room. Here, it was a little easier to believe that I was somewhere else. Here, maybe I could find that hope again, that hope I use to have when I was sure I must have been adopted. Here, maybe I’ll find hope while I ponder the question posed by the quietly playing carol, “What Child is This?” What child is This, indeed.

In the end, I retreated to my room so frequently that my dad, the enemy, began to infiltrate my camp, even in the daylight. It became a rule that my bedroom door had to be left, not only unlocked, but open all the time. I broke no rule more consistently. As a result, my bedroom door was unhinged and removed by my Dad, as I would be very soon. It was sort of a cocoon C-section, and yet there would be wings; tattered and atrophied, but still, wings – wings that I could flex and extend, strengthen and bend – wings that could heal and mend and, for now, wings that would keep me warm while I learned to walk.

– PreetamDas Kirtana 2004/20014

*sorry, Texans, but well, you’re in Texas, you’d better have a sense of humor.

**a slightly different version of this story first appeared in the chapbook, “Growing Up Jimmy: Tales of Bible Belt Survival on the Yellow Brick Road”, at http://www.sematikon.com, and in “Dayton City Paper”.

“One Size, One Way, One Love”

One Size, One Way, One Love

There’s a lot of conversation lately about “third ways”, “middle ways” and new ways. There’s a good deal of energy being spent to “discern” what our approach should be to God’s children who don’t affirm our sense of “normal”, who are outside of our self-blown bubble. So far I’m convinced that most of these efforts are just more gently worded barriers to inclusion. A wall painted with a beautiful mural remains a wall. Most of what is manufactured and passed around as new angles and perspectives are actually “subways”, that is “sub-way”, not The Way, less than The Way. They allow those in power to feel better about themselves while those that they hold power over and who they are making decisions about remain “sub”; a little less, sub-“real” Christian, sub-“real” man or woman, sub-“real” human. It seems that our constant push back against the fact there’s been no revision to “love one another” is to do a little, or a Lot less than what was asked, by which I mean commanded , or we actually don’t do it at all, but instead do something maybe related, but still altogether different than what we were told to do. This reaction reminds me of my sophisticated tactics from childhood when I would do anything else, any other chore to try and appease my parents to make up for the fact that I had not done the chore they had actually requested done.

Picture it: Findlay, Ohio, 1978 (spoiler alert: more than just about anything, I hated doing
the dishes when I was a kid.)

Findlay, Ohio, 1978, and my parents return home, having told me to do the dishes when they left.

Mom: “Did you do the dishes like I asked?”

Me: “I took out the trash.”

Dad: “​Son, I think it was the dishes your mom was asking
about. Did you do the dishes like your mother asked?”

Me: “Well, I think I ran outta time because, Look! I
dusted Everything!”

Now picture it: Your church, my church, The Church, Judgement Day (which by the way, is
everyday; every day ​we’re judged to be living love or loving our life.)

The Church Judgement Day (tomorrow, for instance)

God: “Did you love women?”

Us: “We did Lord. They’re fine Sunday School teachers, just fine. Don’t have to tell you how
much we love’em at the church potlucks! Oh, and in the choir;like angels in the choir.”

God: “And did you love your brothers and sisters of color? Did you love black folks?”

Us: “Lord, we do. We love what they’ve done with their church on the other side of town.
Oh, and you know, the three that do go to our church have voices that are just such a
blessing in the choir.”

God: (inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly)
“I see. And my gay children? Did you love them?”

Us: “Well, Lord, we do love them . . . and we’re talking a lot, still, still meeting a lot
about how best to, You know, do that, but You know, there are a couple of very well-
behaved ones that have been attending,and You know where they really shine,
of course, is…”

God: (interrupting)
“I’m gonna just go ahead and guess, the choir?”

Why do we remain unconvinced that the same essentials that nurture and sustain us, nurture and sustain everyone. Too often in government, education, in The Church, our signifying differences and individual and cultural qualities are seen as “issues to deal with” or “problems to be addressed” and then we end up with serious seminars promoting serious new books that wrestle with proposed serious questions like:

“How do we minister to people of color? or single people?”
“How do we reach young people?
“How can we honor And define women’s role?”
and, of course,
“What is our new plan on how to deal with the ‘issue of the
gays’ in The Church?”

When we’ve chipped away enough of their humanity we create a new label for another category of “other”, of “subs”, and we comfort ourselves that they are not really like us. And, sometimes, you know, through terrific sacrifice and several years of listening committees and assembly debates and synod councils and after much division, we have finally “wrestled with the Scriptures” enough now to decide that God’s love does, after all, even include them, too. And then, sometimes we really “hear the message” and we “pick up our cross” and (deep sigh) deign to “love” those people. Some of us do this by ministering to them in their own special group. “Them”. “Would you look at them? Aren’t they something?” “God sure is good,” we crow, pretty pleased with our new “missions”, our “project” that we’re pretty passionate about now that we understand that God, in His grace, even loves them too, even though they’re not white, or male, or heterosexual, or coupled, or monied, or even Christian. Yes, God is good and now that we’ve decided that God loves Even them, we’d better let them know, too! (Imagine, right now if you will, Everyone who’s Ever been a “them” collectively doing the Most Epic eye roll EVER. Thank you.)

Our obsession with “us” and “them” confirms my often repeated suspicion that most of us, like myself, are on the spiritual path and most of us, like myself, are also on the short bus on the spiritual path. We’re slow learners, to put it mildly, repeating Love Class over and over again.

Not a “fresh approach”, but still the ancient words stand:

“Love one another.”

God, neighbor, and enemies, the unlikely “one-cruciform-size-fits-all” proposition, commandment actually, is to love them all.

But how do we really understand this beyond just an undeniably noble sounding idea? There’s none of us unwounded or learned in how to actually trust and how to be free, free indeed; free, even to be vulnerable. We’re all learning, all struggling until loving one another becomes so natural that it’s just how we live with each other. A vital part of our witness is helping each other understand that we’re not the lowest or the worst or broken beyond repair. It’s a vital part of our witness to distribute hope and relay the Truth that, contrary to echos from childhood playgrounds or the constant media assault of advertising, we are, Still and Always, loved and lovable. We need reminders from each other that our outstretched hands and open arms are not a siphon, but a bridge; a bridge somehow strengthened by the shared weaknesses of its’ frail and burdened crossing pilgrims.

When my spouse, Kevin, and I first attended the church that would become our home church, I noticed him right away across the sanctuary. First, of course, I noticed his outrageous full head of dark, curly hair. I say, “of course” because even though I’m not even fifty yet, I haven’t needed a barber in a few decades, just lotsa hats, and his hair is great. If a man can have beautiful hair, Rocky does. What? Does admiring another man’s hair sound gay? Really? Well, I promise that I am not saying that any man, straight or gay, with thinning hair or a bald head that says that they don’t notice other men’s hair is homophobic. I am Not saying that. What I am saying is that they’re lying. All of them. They’re liars. Their pants are on fire. We do notice. Rocky’s hair is pretty cool, pretty unforgettable. And then, of course, there’s his name, “Rocky Banks”, with its’ comic potential forever seared in my memory. I decided immediately upon meeting him that with a name like “Rocky Banks”, he’d better be a boxer or a patched-eye blues singer. But beneath the great hair and in addition to the great blues singer sounding name, there is in Rocky such a solidity and a tenderness that somehow coexist in him simultaneously that you feel welcomed. His integrity invites trust and a sense of safety. As Rocky and I have shared some responsibilities at church and a few lunches we’ve gotten to know each other better and discovered, among other things, that we have an Evangelical upbringing in common. Rocky shares custody of his daughter with his ex-wife, Sandy. Yes, that’s right, her married name was Sandy Banks. Personally, I’d like to think that if I was Rocky that I would have considered our first names and my family name and would have considered that a foreboding enough of a warning that this union canNot be a good idea. Recently, I aimed directly out of my comfort zone and asked Rocky if I could crash at his place in the city so that I could make it to an early morning meeting at church the next day. I stayed over, keenly aware of the new territories of trust that I was exploring for myself.

Then, Rocky called just the other morning. Another dating situation ended recently and he is, in the plainest terms, lonely; an intelligent, handsome, compassionate, tender-hearted and lonely man. My heart aches for his. I want so badly to somehow lift his heaviness, to help him know that his loneliness right now isn’t a price he’s paying for something in the past, but is instead, maybe, the cost he’s paying now for something beautiful still to come, and I want to dry his tears or know that he’s held while he cries them. Rocky had called to talk about how we experience God’s presence and those dark, quiet, desperate times when we simply don’t feel God’s presence at all; when the ether’s that previously seemed to spirit our prayer and longing to the ear and heart of God have suddenly become an echo chamber mocking our every plea.

“Hello? God? It’s me,” we speak again into the ridicule of the resounding silence and when the inevitable echo of our own voice returns,

“Hello, God. Its Me,” we are too easily fooled by the Holy inhabiting our voice. We don’t recognize the inflection and authority in the returned words and fail to credit the affirmation to God. We miss the lack of question in our echoed words. Where there was fearful, doubting desperation in our asking, “Hello? God?”, the same words returned are now, not a question, but a statement of recognition. God recognizes God seeded within us. Our prayer, it turns, might be like a two-way mirror that God passes. Looking out from our non-reflective side, we see everything or nothing depending on what appears on the side of our window. But God, drawn by our prayer, passes the mirror and whether it’s me avoiding vulnerability, or Rocky speaking his loneliness into the shadows, or you on the other side of the mirror, God, forever and always, sees only God – the image and likeness and spark of God, Herself.

We look out in fear of strangers.

God looks in and sees only family.

I imagine angels cooing and fawning over tiny, ethereal soul bassinets. One, shaking his head, warns, “He’s got a heart of flesh. That’ll be trouble for sure.” The other angel, though, looks more closely and says, “Yes, but he’s got his Father’s eyes.”

The family resemblance is always what God notices first, no matter how many other lovers or tribes we’ve tried to belong to.

He sees us.

He sees His own.

He sees His children, God’s co-creators created to look like and behave like their Savior. Designed to imitate God’s qualities and reflect the character of the Creator, we, too, are called to see the family resemblance in each other first. We were made to see each other and be fulfilled in each other’s vision. It is by design that we live the truth of St. Augustine’s words, “In loving me, you made me lovable.” (“Quia amasti me, fecist me amabilem”) It is on purpose that we were made to rightly feel like something is missing if we don’t know the regular blessing and balm and refuge provided by a firm handshake, a close, tight hug, or simply that look that assures us that we are each other’s own. We belong to each other and this, too, is the liberating work of the Spirit. Our broken places are mended and old wounds are healed as we practice the agape love that knows that the first healing is in being heard and in hearing and hearing comes by the Word of God and the Word of God is this:

“You belong. I belong. We belong.
We are reconciled and one day all of creation will be reconciled, but it begins now.
We rehearse,
with each breath.”

Rocky and I talked for awhile. I hope I said anything at all that was helpful. I hope I made any sense, but mostly, I hope I listened. Our conversation was ending as both of us needed to get the day started and just as I was about to say that I’d talk to him later in the week, Rocky said, “Thanks, I love you, man.” Half a beat later I responded, “You know I love you back,” trying to sound confident not startled, which is kind of what I was. I mean who knew? How long are you friends with a straight man before somebody uses the “L-word”? Who knew they even said that to each other?! But here, is such a man; a man whose priority is love; a man who offers hope through his humanity and points to God. I’d like to be that kind of man.

Our hearts and lives, communities and even our world depend on our answer to our call to care for each other and tend to each other: women and sisters and mothers, brother-to-other, and brother-to-brother living in the simplest acts of devotion like just hearing each other, like reminding each other that there’s Nothing we could do to be “trespassed out” of each other’s heart, and there is Nothing that can taper or tame God’s ferocious love for us. So many simple acts heal us, like extending trust, like risking intimacy, like surprising your friend by saying, “I love you, man.” These are witnesses to an outrageously subversive hope! These are words of Life speaking words of Life from the Source of Life and spoken by another living reflection of that Source right in front of us! If the light was less dynamic, if the hope was less radiant, unbelief might be a choice, but there wasn’t a moment of choice. There was only a moment with no hope and the next moment seeming to matter as if the next moment after that could somehow be different now.

Brennan Manning tells the story that “in 1980, the day before Christmas, Richard Ballenger’s mother in Anderson, South Carolina was busy wrapping packages and asked her young son to shine her shoes. Soon, with proud smile that only a seven-year-old can muster, he presented the shoes for inspection. His mother was so pleased, she gave him a quarter. On Christmas morning as she put on her shoes to go to church, she noticed a lump in one shoe. She took it off and found a quarter wrapped in paper. Written on the paper in a child’s scrawl were the words,
“I done it for love.”

Like Richard’s returned quarter, wrapped and placed in his mother’s shoe, inside our reaching out and back to each other is wrapped a bridge; a bridge that somehow grows more durable with use, a bridge made of and sustained by the One who “done it for love” and who guards our heart, sets its direction toward our Source and destination, wraps it, and places it, not in a shoe, but in the middle of our bridge and requires two sets of hands to lift it.

It may seem a simple thing to go on about: a man said, “I love you,” but in my life and in our world That IS cause for notice and celebration. Three or four days after Rocky’s phone call, one morning just before I was really awake, I smiled and relaxed more deeply for just a few seconds before I could even realize why. Because of Rocky’s call I remember some essentials, and when I do wake up, I feel lighter. Slowly, I realize that something is missing – the low-grade ache and the echos – they’re not here. Maybe this is when we really wake up: when we realize that our glorious differences are not obstacles and don’t require an approach fresher or a campaign newer than, “Love one another”, when we realize finally that our shared humanity makes the divine prescription always the same: Love, of course, but not love as a concept from a distance, but love that holds us close till we exhale; love that draws us home to roam in the vast hills and valleys of the heart space between outstretched arms; love that is, as that old chorus said, “deep and wide”: deeper than any hurt, wider than all our fears; love that plants hope with a phone call, love that waters that hope with tender truths and a gentle witness like, “I love you, man.”

– PreetamDas Kirtana
11/11/14

“Moving from Job to Jesus (The Importance of Lament in Our Suffering)” Sunday morning message 7/20/14

​”The Importance of Lament in our Suffering
(Moving from Job to Jesus)
7/20/14

As we conclude our study of lament this morning, I found that I could not have the privilige of sharing with you without addressing what I find to be perhaps one of the most damaging
misunderstandings that we have internalized. For just a moment I’d like us to go back to those first few words that God speaks to Adam in Genesis 3:11. I continue to find this verse an invaluable barometor in my own life for discernment. At this point in the story of the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve have turned their attention from God and listened to the serpent, they’ve made themselves an audience for the Accuser, and, as is always the case when we listen to the Accuser, they found themselves ashamed. Adam is hiding in his shame and God’s first question to Adam hiding in his nakedness, which, of course, he always was, in Genesis 3:11 is “Who told you that…?” It is an valuable question. Who told you that you should be ashamed? Who told you that you were not God’s beloved? Who told you that you didn’t belong at God’s table? Who told you that you couldn’t because you just don’t have the education, because you’re too young, too old, because you are a woman, because you were divorced, because you are gay, because you’re theology is just not right? As you can see, contemplating this question and it’s implications can be another message in itself, but what we can be sure of is that “who ever told you that”, it was not God. And I think it can again be a valid way of addressing this tragic misunderstanding of scripture that has so permeated our consciousness and culture that folks who have never steped foot inside a church and who have never cracked open a Bible can frequently quote and find themselves believing Job 1:21:

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”

And we ask the question that God presented Adam in Genesis 3:11, “Who told us that?” Who is speaking here in Job 1:21? ___, that’s right, Job. These are not the words, message, or truth of God. This is Job speaking. I’d suggest that this is Job speaking at his worst, from his worst, Not his faith. I know that, like most of us, when we’re really honest about it, that when I’ve been depressed, oppressed, traumatized by loss, and grief, and illness, that I have said some things about how I felt about my trials and life in general, and even some choice words for God, that I don’t even want remembered or repeated, let alone taken as Truth, because I, like Job in this verse, was speaking from my experience. I was not speaking the Truth of God or about God. This is where Job is at. This is where Job was speaking from. Yet this Untruth about God has saturated our hearts, minds, and culture at large. I’ve found in my studies that this Untruth about God has been propagated by some of the greatest, though fallible, theological minds of our time, including R.C. Sproul and yet I’m suggesting that no matter how deeply it has become ingrained in us and in our world that remains Untrue.

The Lord does Not take away.

When we deeply internalize this misunderstanding of Scripture, it leads us to refusing to take our rightful place as heirs of God’s Kingdom, because with this belief, you just never know what God is going to do. I mean how many times would you continue to trust me to pull out a chair for you to sit in if I routinely pull it away as you sit and you end up on the floor? This belief turns us into the consistently fooled and foiled Charlie Brown and turns God into the consistently pranking Lucy who routinely pulls away the football just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it! When we believe this lie, we mistake the lies of the Accuser for a Truth about God. When our subconscious default is to blame God for our suffering, we end up, like Charlie Brown, flat on our backs, finally looking up, and feeling like a blockhead, which, of course was always the plan of the Accuser. One of just a few things that I want most for us to leave here with today is this: we do Not serve a “Gotcha!-God”.

God is certainly mysterious. I’d suggest that God is mysterious mostly because of Her unyielding and offensive grace, because most of us, in our humanity remain so deeply rooted in the idea of retribution rather than reconciliation. The foundation our God offers us of lives of unconditional love and radical forgiveness is inviting and compelling and completely mysterious and offensive because, as we’re reminded repeatedly in the Scriptures that this love, forgiveness, and grace includes absolutely EVERY and All parts of ourselves And absolutely EVERYONE and ALL of those around us in our world – which is, of course, Outrageous and why we’re all here at all.

So, yes, of course, God is mysterious, for as the Scriptures say, “His ways are not our ways”, and yet God is also predictable and knowable. When we want to know what God is like, we look, Not to Job, but to Jesus, the Only begotten Son of God, in the flesh. The Scriptures and God evidenced in our own lives give us clear descriptions, examples, mandates, and promises for just what God is like and what God will do.

I believe it was a character in the movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” that was out a few years ago whose go-to, lean-on truth was, “If it’s not a happy ending, it can’t be the end of the story.” Isn’t that great? In the same way, you and I can be sure that if it’s not good, it’s Not God. We can pull out our Genesis 3:11 tool of discernment and ask, “Who told us that?” Let’s look quickly at just a few verses out of the countless verses that we could look at describing God’s character and interactions with us. The book of James, chapter 1, verse 5 describes our “God, who gives generously without finding fault…” James 1:13 tells us that “When tempted no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, NOR does God tempt anyone.” And in James 1:17 we are assured that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights who does Not change like shifting shadows.” The Message Bible’s version says simply, “He is not fickle.” We will never have peace, let alone victory if we believe that God is behind our suffering. If we think God is robbing us we won’t even resist. Again, this is why we look to Jesus whom Job forshadows prophetically, but we do not look to Job, a drowning man for our Lifeline.

If I can get even just a couple “Amens”, I’ll consider it permission to move on. Thank you. Thank God.

We find in our Scriptures a rich history full of examples and complete permission and role modeling of lament. Jesus wept. Job wept. Jeremiah wept. And the least of what David did was weep. The “imprecatory psalms” or curses of David are riddled with anger and rage and had they been spoken in today’s vocabulary, I’m convinced that they would have been dotted with expletives that would offend the ears of some of us and have us showing David the door. And David was, “a man after God’s own heart.” The very same mouth that spoke, “The Lord is my shepherd…” also spat out curses like, “Break their teeth! Make their wives widows! Make their children beggars on the street!” Here is a man after God’s own heart Not because of the sweetness of his poetry, but because he voiced absolutely everything to God – the fear, the grief, the doubt, the anger, and fury, and rage. (And yes, when we see David stumble and fall in such grand fashion, it is always preceded by not having done this.)

Eugene Peterson, the man who gave us versions of the Scriptures in The Message Bible, that many of us are fond of, says this: “At least one reason why people are uncomfortable with tears and the sight of suffering is that it is a blasphamous assault on our precariously maintained American spirituality of the pursuit of happiness. It is a lot easier to keep the American faith if we don’t have to look into the face of suffering, if we don’t have to listen to laments, if we don’t have to deal with tears. They, and most often we, want to avoid evidence that things are not right with the world as it is – without Jesus, without love, without faith, without sacrifice.” We’ll note Peterson’s distinction here: “the American spirituality of the pursuit of happiness.” As Christians, as Anabaptists, as followers of Jesus, we are not called to happiness, but to joy. We are not called to success, but to victory. We are not called to ” 5 easy spiritual steps to prosperity”, but to faithfulness even through our suffering. This is, of course, the very antithesis of empire, the American empire or any other, that depends on our silence, depends on our withholding our lament for the empire to survive at all.

People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that our prayers of complaint, and protest, and sorrow, and doubt ARE prayers of faith! These prayers represent the last refusal to let go of God. This being true, Voicing our lament expresses one of the most intimate moments of faith, NOT a lack of it or a denial of it. Only lament uncovers this kind of faith.

In Job 7:11, Job boldly says, “I will Not keep silent. I will Not speak with restraint. I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. I will give VOICE to the anguish of my soul.” And this, too, is worship, it is WORTH-Ship, because in speaking our lament before God, we affirm that God is Worthy enough, Big enough for everything we could ever bring.

I’d suggest that the most important reason to Voice our lament is because without lament, you and I are robbed of our true identity before God. Our best hope of finding our way back to true worship is through lament. Theologian Walter Bruggeman explains, “that nothing is out of bounds, nothing is precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. Everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God.”

Everything belongs, everything brought to speech, everything addressed to God.

When we understand and practice this, it brings us into a deeper presence of Christ that we can discover no other way. Job’s already close relationship with God is stretched and becomes even deeper and more personal through the process of wrestling with God through his lament. In fact, it seems, in the lament born of Job’s suffering, things get more personal than they’ve been since the garden of Eden. One of the many resources and authors I’ve studied in preparing this message, Michael Card, made what I thought was an absolutely outrageous statement. He said, “In the desperate intimacy that can only be articulated through lament, Job addresses God by an incredible New name, “You”. Now, if you’re like me or I’m guessing maybe Glenn (a congregation member), those kind of nuggets are just really exciting. I couldn’t believe it just because this wonderful songwriter and author said it of course, so I pulled out my old Strong’s Concordance. I consulted another concordance online and yes, I went through every single line of the Old Testament prior to Job with the word “you” in it and you know what? The man is right! Not Moses or Abraham or Elijah, no one until Job gets So personal with the Almighty God to dane to use a simple very personal pronoun like “You”. So through our voicing lament it gets personal like no other time. It brings us to a deeper intimacy with God. In contrast, to deny our lament is to isolate ourselves and deny that intimacy with God.

Lament keeps the door open.

Secondly, expressing and giving voice to our lament in our suffering is vital because it brings us together as the community and the body of Christ that we are called to be. When we fail to voice our lament we cut ourselves off from each other. If you and I are to know each other in a deep way, we must not only share our hurts, anger, and disappointments with each other, we must also lament them TOGETHER BEFORE OUR GOD who is moved by our tears. *ONLY then does our sharing become truly Redemptive in character.

The degree to which we are willing to enter into the suffering of another person reveals the level of our commitment and love for them. If we are not interested in another person’s hurts, we’re not really interested in them, and we’re not willing to suffer to know them or to be known by them.

As Christians, as Anabaptists, as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we care deeply about our calling to care for the least and last, but our failure to lament also hampers us in being able to fully know and reach out to the poor, whom Jesus told us were to be our central concern. After all, how did Jesus come to know us except by entering into the poverty of our world as a “Man of Sorrows”?

How can we speak to the suffering and the poor if we do not learn the language of lament? Until we learn to honestly embrace our hopelessness and theirs, * there will be no true gospel to be heard. **Until we learn to lament, we really have nothing to say to most of the world. If we are to authentically connect with our own heart and soul; if we are to connect with each other, and to know true intimacy with God, we Must come to understand that our worship is Not only about good feelings, joy, and prosperity, though they are at the heart of it. If that were true, then according to our modern American understanding of worship, the poor have nothing to say, nothing of value to bring to God. While we see Jesus consistently pronouncing blessings on the poor and those who mourn, we far too often pronounce the curse of making our own lament and the lament of others unwelcome. Those who “labor and are heavy laden” too often can find no place in our too comfortable, too programed church services to lay their burdens down.

But Job clings desperatly to God, who encourages us to offer Him everything, to give voice to every joy and sorrow, every protest, doubt and complaint.

All our broken hearts; all our contrite spirits.

I think that maybe we’ve confused lament with despair. I’d suggest that lament and despair are polar opposites.

*Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of our belief in God.

*Despair is the ultimate and total denial that God can even help, that God even exists.

Lament is our means of crossing over from sorrow and the anger of retributive justice to the mercy of God’s loving-kindness. If we are Ever to move away from hating our enemies toward eventually loving them, as Jesus commands, we Must cross this bridge. We must submit to this process until God is finished with the process of perfecting our hearts. Until then, it’s useless to stand in God’s Presence and each other’s company and mouth pretended words of forgiveness and love.

In essence, voicing lament is crucial in our suffering because it allows and grows in us authentic intimacy in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with each other.

In every example of lament in the Scriptures, in the laments of Job, David, Jeremiah, and even in Jesus, we witness a transition from despair to hope, from complaint to praise. Somewhere, somehow an invisible line is crossed and the focus of the lament is turned from self to God. In the course of the lament, frequently in our exhausting ourselves against God, something shifts, our memory is jogged and we call to mind, as did Job and David and Jesus, the faithfulness of God and we cross the line from sorrowful self-centered “I”, “me”, and “mine” to praise.

This morning we’d like to create together the space and opportunity to share this process. As Tony and the musicians come forward, I invite you to bring to mind whatEver sorrows, doubts, grief, complaint, and even anger that may be on your heart this morning. After Tony shares a song with us and the musicians continue to play quietly, we will have an opportunity to voice with a sound (sometimes all I can say is “mmm,mmmm,mmmm” or maybe “my God”) or only a word or two naming the laments that we want to bring before the Lord, and not take back home with us, that way we may have arrived here with this morning. And then, following that biblical example of crossing the line from sorrowful self-centered lament to remembering the faithfulness of our God, Tony will repeat some of our laments back to us and as a congregation bound together by our common experience of suffering and our common hope found in Jesus, we will affirm that God IS faithful, that God IS still our answer as we sing back, after each lament, the old “Amen” chorus that I think many of grew up with. Do y’all remember that? Just 5 enthusiastic “A-mens” in a row. “A-men, A-men, a-men, a-men, a-men”. Lemme give us an example just so we’re real clear before we move into this time. So, if during our time of voicing our lament, one of our members offers up, “Israel and Palestine conflict”. During our time of affirmation and praise, Tony will offer back, “Israel and Palestine conflict” and we, the congregation will affirm in enthusiastic song together, “A-men, a-men, a-men, a-men, a-men” and we’ll continue in that fashion till we get a little bit clearer, a little bit lighter, a bit more assured that God remains faithful, despite what we see with our physical eyes.

Tony…..

(**This message and my life are deeply indebted to the heart, wisdom,
and teaching of Sue Boykin, Charlette Franklin, Rebecca Trotter (you should totally check out her blog at “The Upside Down World”),
Brennan Manning, and especially Michael Card’s excellent writing on the subject.**)

*Just a note to readers of the blog, I’ve posted this as a few have requested me to; but typically, especially with classes beginning in just a matter of weeks and my own experience as a blog reader sometimes feeling overwhelmed by voluminous posts, I will only be posting once weekly, probably on Mondays. As always thanks by stopping by. I so appreciate it.