This past week, Missy, Silas, and I rented an apartment in the East Village in NYC. On Saturday we walked by a church that caught my attention for no particular reason. I always pay close attention when God does that to me. On Sunday we attended this church. The congregation was comprised of many minorities in every sense of the word. Many were openly gay. Some gay couples had adopted children. Many couples were interracial, including the pastor and her husband. The mentally ill and physically handicapped were there greeting and serving. And, though a stranger, I felt as at home as I ever have anywhere. In fact, I experienced the Kingdom in a way that I never have before. But I recognized it. It is what God has always called me to and still calls me to.
The children’s choir took the stage. Children of every stripe sang a medley. These well-rehearsed children wholeheartedly and soulfully sang Bob Marley· “Could you be loved and be love?” They sang Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?’ with some John Mayer and Tracy Chapman thrown in. And they did it very well.
It was “Children’s Week’ and there was a special presentation for the children that helped them to identify family in their lives, not just relatives, but family. You know, who is really with you and for you?
The sermon was given by the lead pastor who is an African American female. The message was “We are family.” I was struck to hear teaching that resonated so fully with me. God was speaking to me. I fought tears until the time I left. Tears of joy, tears of gratitude, and unreleased tears of grief. Surely the presence of God was in this place.
There were two men who had been greeting that I had trouble feeling open to embracing when I first arrived. These men were quite obviously actively dying from AIDS. As a former hospice-at-home social worker who has shared time, space, and the final closing of eyes with someone dying from AIDS, I recognized “· I confess that I felt very uncomfortable and afraid in relation to these men. These just happened to be the two particular men that had volunteered to come up and read the Bible verses during the sermon, Mark 3:31-35.
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.
32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’
33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Now I am fully aware that I projected onto these men, created narratives about them in my head, but there was an essence about them that led me to believe that they were very wounded and had maybe in some ways participated in their own destruction. They were half dead and headed for full death, at least physically. But they were here, serving, volunteering, greeting, smiling, loving, giving, with hearts that still beat, with tear ducts that still work, bodies that still need affection, and a child inside that still needs embracing. And then I recognized what I was uncomfortable with, resistant to, not open to, afraid of. Myself. My lack of capacity to love self, other, and God. I am those men. What I imagine them to be, I am. I am wounded. I have at times participated in my own destruction. I have been half dead and I am headed towards physical death. But I show up, serve, volunteer, greet, smile, love, give. And I have a heart that still beats, tear ducts that still work, a body that still needs affection, and a child inside that still needs embracing. I am ‘1hem.• I have always been “them.” I will never not be “them.” And for the first time in my life I don’t wish I wasn’t ‘1hem.” Because “they” are God’s people. “They” are citizens of the Kingdom, the one I recognized. This is what God brought me here to show me. The Kingdom is offensive because it lets people like them, people like me, in. I am used to being in circles where the dirtiest thing around me is probably me. I was the unchurched 15 year old kid with bad hair and a Metallica t-shirt that was asked to leave when I came to play basketball at the church. I am the person who has worn his flaws, mistakes, and brokenness like a scarlet letter for all to see. I know what it’s like to be on display like a spiritual circus specimen. I know the palpable feeling of “not good enough, not clean enough, too tainted. I know the feeling of being a “2nd class citizen” or “special consideration.” Maybe what I experienced in relation to these men was the human heart which, of course, is a broken one. But I for sure experienced camaraderie. I am “the other.” As long as there is an “other,” i too will be the other. As long as there are those who are unwelcome, i am the unwelcomed. As long as there are those who are lost, a part of me will be lost with them. As long as there are the hurting, i will hurt with them. As long as there are the lonely, i will be lonely too. As long as there are the feared, i will among be the feared. As long as there are the unworthy, I will be among the unworthy. As long as there are the unacceptable, I will be unacceptable. As long as there are the unwell, I will be unwell.
These are the people of God.
God raised me in the trenches. God has trained me, prepared me, educated me in the trenches. And He still calls me to the trenches today. Not just socioeconomic, but the dark corners of the human experience, inner and outer. I cannot be chosen if there are the unchosen. I cannot take part in erecting barriers I have experienced. I cannot promote the notion of special categories of sin. I cannot submit to leadership or groupthink that opposes anyone. That is not a choice that i can make and honestly say that it is well with my soul. I cannot participate in an unspoken caste system where the “bad” know their place and their limits when I have lived most of my life as an Untouchable. Where on the path of transformation if you don’t hit a wall of own design one will be erected for you. No, not after experiencing the Kingdom. Where people were living and dying, laughing and crying, hugging, clapping, dancing, holding hands, wiping tears. Where Christ was embodied· in the meeting of the sacred and profane, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the unholy, but all was holy and all was sacred and ij was confessed. The children of God were called by their real names. Brokenness was floating in the presence of the Divine. Glorious. No doctrine is higher than the embodiment of Christ’s Jove, where embracing other and self is ultimately embracing and being embraced by Jesus Himself.
If I had it to do over, I would hug those greeters that read from Mark. Not for them, but for me.