“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done . . . The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the incarcerated, accused, and the condemned”-Bryan Stevenson. We are masterpieces, broken, cut up Like Rembrant’s The Night Watch, but worth restoring.
Last year I was shook when April and I read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. His memoir is a call for justice and mercy for all people, but especially black men, women, and children as they face prosecution under the law for simply being caught poor and black. Stevenson called me to start praying about how I treat people. I must treat people with justice and mercy because as Bryan Stevenson also says, “We all need mercy, we all need justice.” And I know I am more than the worst things I have done or the worst things that have been done to me. As a man, I look at my failings and I cry out for mercy.
I hunger to be a man who is empowered to empower others. Yet I know I struggle to be who I long to be because of societies pressures around me. In different situations I put on different masks. This last semester as I taught through Anne Frank’s Diary I was struck by her last passage where she wrote about wishing she didn’t have to wear a metaphorical mask while she was around people. That she could be who she wanted to be, but that she always felt so judged so she could never truly be herself, unless, as she says, “she was the only person in the world.” Anne understood the difficulties of our world and it saddens me that the hate she faced has not lessened and still makes so many people wish that they could wear a metaphorical mask or be the only person in the world.
My desire is to be a man who is the same in the valley as I am up on the mountain top, but I am just becoming. I am under construction so please excuse the mess I make. I am a man who sees the world around me through the eyes I was born with so my understanding is limited. I experience my world in a way that is different than you experience your world. Yet, I know my experiences do not negate yours. As I have grown up in a wold full of books, I have learned how to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
Over the last couple of months I feel like I’ve been putting on shoes that are too heavy for me and it is weighing down my soul. We have been stuck in a pandemic and now our cities are in chaos as our neighbors cry out for justice. I would rather be on an adventure that takes me to the top of a mountain, but we are in the valley. It might not feel like it, but God is here. He is down in the valley. Our God is the same down in the valley as He is up on the Mountain top.
In 1984 I was born several weeks premature with underdeveloped lungs. Unable to breathe I spent the first 13 days of my life stuck in an incubator. It was a terrifying fight for all involved and ever since then, I have been fighting to cherish each breath, especially when I nearly died of pneumonia almost five years ago. But this blog is more about the first time I really felt broken and struggled to breathe.
We moved from the beautiful mountains to Illinois and the country when I was six. Everyone burned their trash in our little town and my lungs didn’t like it. It sucked. Illinois sucked too. Fortunately our time in that valley didn’t last long as my dad was fired from his pastorate for reporting the affair his boss was having. But before we could leave, the people of the church took their anger out on me, shunning me because of who my dad was.
God did not shun me. However, as a kindergartener I figured God left each day because he had important things to do, just like my dad had to leave for work, he left my heart. So each night I prayed that he would come back. I din’t know it at the time, but he was always with me, even when I felt harmed and shunned. I had no friends at church and my one friend in my neighborhood wasn’t always a friend. Not wanting to be isolated, I let myself be caught up in odd activities I wasn’t comfortable with. When my friend asked me to practice sex and I didn’t know how to say no, I felt strangled with fear at being caught doing things I had no desire to do.
Did you know that many young boys experience some sort of sexual violation for the first time between the ages of two and four? I was in kindergarten when another neighbor showed me pornography in a movie. All of this was exciting, but I felt ashamed. And then many have come to expect masculinity to mean aggressive in every aspect of life, especially sexually. I did not want to be that man, so I shunned intimacy and yet I longed for it.
I was abused and felt broken. Distressed, anxious, and short of breath, as a seven year old boy back in Illinois I came to my dad and told him of my shame. He told me I was loved. He met me in my brokenness. Through that time, asking God to come back into my heart was a nightly activity. Each night he was telling me that he loved me and would restore me out of my brokenness. In that valley, he was there. I wanted relief from my insecurities, but God was planning my restoration.
He was in my dad’s words. When my dad showed me love, it was God saying, I love you despite your brokenness. In my weakness, He is strong. Our valleys are places of trauma but they are not places where God has abandoned us. We are all broken and I know, that in my brokenness I have struggled not to shun other people, knowing I was once shunned. Struggling with being abused grew in me a strong desire to remain pure and never mess up again. I have never abused anyone sexually or physically, but I grew misguided about being pure and so I shunned all love thinking I would mess up again. God broke in though, and well, April too, but that is another blog. Hurt people hurt people, but God intervened and answered my cry for a breath of fresh air. He told me that he loves me and that he wants to heal me.
As a people we abuse, oppress, shun, and shame, but God looks down at us and loves us where we are. In the midst of our brokenness he breathes life. He loves us despite the masks we wear and when we embrace him he takes off our masks and makes us the people he created us to be.
I was created in the image of God. I am God’s image bearer and so are you. When God created us he breathed into us and said we are very good. I am his son and we are all his children. So my allegiance does not lie in the color of my skin, but in the call to love all of my neighbors. Because of that, black lives matter, unborn lives matter, imprisioned lives matter, death row lives matter, dreamers lives matter, free lives matter, children’s lives matter, girls lives matter, boys lives matter, my life matters, and your life matters for God died for me and you.
Yet, I struggle to put you first and serve you as I am called to do. When life feels difficult I choose myself over others, but I know God is calling me to do better. I am selfish, but I am under construction and I hope the version of me that God is building is a better servant. I hope I love better and in that love I do not hold records of wrongs, but I act in peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and courage. Because when I place you ahead of me, and I live in an upside-down world, our world begins to heal. To quote one of my favorite Elevation Worship songs right now, He turns graves into gardens.
Right now as a society it feels like we are living in the graveyard waiting for the gardens to sprout. Many black men and women are being shunned and literally having their breath stolen from them. If anyone in society is being made to feel like they are worth less than what they are, a child of the King, then they are being abused. All it takes to change this is to be vulnerable and admit brokenness. Then reach out a hand and ask God for help. Serve your neighbor knowing he or she is a child of the king and as Jesus says, when you serve the lease of these, you are severing me. That is how we let God turn these gravestones into gardens. That is how God comes down into our valley, takes off our masks and gives us the opportunity to be who he created us to be.
In Galatians the Apostle Paul, a man who once stood by as he okayed the murder of his neighbors because he felt they didn’t deserve life but then was broken by the love of Christ, writes, “For you, brothers, were called to freedom; but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”a 15But if you keep on biting and devouring one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.
16So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For the flesh craves what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are opposed to each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; 20idolatry and sorcery; hatred, discord, jealousy, and rage; rivalries, divisions, factions, 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us walk in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying one another.”