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At my mom’s memorial service, four days after she passed, I spoke about a few things but failed to write any of it down. The following is my attempt to do that (with a few additional thoughts).

Throughout my mom’s final two years, it seemed like her life (and thus our lives) consisted of phases. Somehow, the situation would take a turn and whether we liked it or not, we would be forced into a new phase. Toward the end, the phases grew increasingly dire. It seemed they were spaced together much more closely. I remember when we (she) decided that, based on the lack of progress with all of the treatments; the next phase was going to be one of pain management. Nothing more—it was a decision to submit to the inevitable and make her as comfortable as possible in the process.

Every phase that followed seems like a blur. The doctors implanted an internal pump that would send painkillers directly to her spinal cord. This was to accompany the external pump that was providing her medication. Her painkillers were consistently increased—every increase led to (what felt like) a new phase, but it was more cyclical than anything. The painkillers would work, then she’d build a tolerance, the pain would become unbearable and she’d get an increase in dosage. Repeat.

Throughout this, her leg became more and more swollen (and more unusable) due to the lymphedema. This created phases—she was somewhat mobile, sitting or lying for most of the day and able to walk for short bits with a cane. She was able to go to the restroom herself with almost no help from us. The cane turned into a walker. A motorized lift chair was purchased to assist her in getting up and down. Then she needed a wheelchair full-time as the leg became impossible to walk on. She could still get up out of the wheelchair to go to the restroom, but with more help.  Next, a hospital bed was rented that would angle and lift in the right way. The next phase was a portable toilet that stayed right next to the bed. Not long after, the leg became almost useless and diapers (we called them panties in front of her so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed) were necessary. The diaper phase was a difficult one—not for us as much as her. The whole process caused her a lot of pain—and with her confusion from the painkillers that were at near-lethal doses, she couldn’t understand why we would have to roll her on her side, which was very painful.

In the midst of these last few phases, she saw a pain specialist who recommended a concoction of medication that proved to be the painkilling answer we were looking for. The downside—she became nearly entirely sedated. She slept for twenty-three hours most days, with short wake-ups for pills and water and some attempt at sustenance.

About two weeks before she passed, in the middle of this phase, my dad asked me to write her obituary.

When he first mentioned it, I shut it down in my head. I thought I would have another month or two to figure it out. Several more weeks, at least. She had so much fight in her the last two years, I had no idea we had a week or so left.

I told him I would. But I was petrified to even begin thinking about it.

Throughout the last months of her life, whenever we’d talk about her death, I had an emotional ritual. She was still alive, we could still talk to her and see her and hug her. So when things came up about her dying, I would think about it for a little and then retreat back to the reality in which she was still very much alive. Her death was a future thing that I couldn’t spend too much time dwelling on. The thought was a radiation that I couldn’t expose myself to for very long before returning to the safe zone where she was alive and we were taking care of her.

When my dad asked me to write the obit, I got over my fear and said yes.

And then I retreated, like a tortoise tucking itself into the safety of its shell, back to the reality where she was alive and her death was very, very far off.

I stayed in my protective shell for a week before I ventured out again. Four days before she died, I sat down at my computer and tried to write. I stewed in the world outside my shell, where her death was an inevitable reality, and sobbed. A few hours later, with nothing on the page, only one thing came to mind to describe my beautiful mother.

Growing up, I was hardly a “mama’s boy.” I’ve always been foolishly independent, never wanting to appear overtly sentimental or childish, even at a young age. But she always wanted us to call her “mama.” She called her own mother that and it was something we did when we were younger. It reminded her of when we were young enough to let her tuck us in. Jerod and I, as teenagers, thought it sounded childish and just stuck with “mom.”

She was always incredibly affectionate. I remember when I was twelve or thirteen and, up until that point, my parents would come tell me goodnight, tuck me in, and pray with me. My mom in particular would give me a hug and a kiss every night. One particular night in my budding adolescence, as she was leaning in to give me my kiss on the cheek, I turned away and told her that I was too old for that. I told her that I would no longer need her to tuck me in, kiss me, or hug me before bedtime.

Years later, mom told me that she went downstairs that night and cried and cried.

When I was sitting down to write the obituary, a single phrase continued to permeate my thoughts. In thinking about her, and what she made our family to be, I could not stop thinking about how she was the “best of us.” I kept thinking it over and over.

The next day, three days before she passed, I had the last conversation with her where she was lucid and responsive. It was my scheduled day to be at the house, at her bedside, while dad was at work. I had a closing shift that evening so I spent all day at the house. For a brief few, precious moments, she woke up from her intense sedation. In that time, she barely moved her mouth when she spoke. And after I gave her the medication, which was a process in itself, I held her chapped hand and she looked at me, saying nothing. Her lids were half opened and I said, with the phrase still lodged into my brain, “Mom, you’re the best of us.”

She just looked at me, not saying anything. She was often quiet during these short periods of lucidity. Occasionally, she would repeat a phrase that we said to her, parroting it back over and over as the words sifted their way through the sedatives and into her brain.

I repeated it: “Mom, you’re the best of us.” She just looked at me and squeezed a bit with her hand as she parroted back, “You’re the best.”

Tears formed in my eyes as she spoke, and I just repeated, “You’re the best of us. You don’t deserve this.”

She responded, “You’re the best.”

Back and forth we went for several moments, just repeating each other, her eyes somehow locked into mine.

“I love you, mom. I love you so much.”

She responded, quietly, “I love you.”

Back and forth we went.

“I love you, mom. You don’t deserve this. I love you.”

She repeated back, “I love you.”

“I love you mom. None of this is fair. You don’t deserve this.”

“I love you.” I was trying not to cry, but tears streamed down my face uncontrollably.

And then, out of nowhere, she repeated our line from before, “You’re the best.” And then she closed her already-half-shut eyes and went back to sleep, still holding my hand, as I sobbed.

Over the course of the next three days, she was asleep every time I saw her.

I remember how pale she looked when I walked into the room that early morning of March 1st. I remember walking up to her, sobbing, and grabbing her hand.

I’ve always seen, in deaths on TV shows and movies, where the family hugs and embraces the body of their loved one. They kiss them and hold them and cry—and every time, I’ve thought to myself, “That’s disgusting. That’s a dead body. They’re kissing a dead body.”

But when I saw her lying in that bed, pale and still a little warm, I remember wanting nothing more than to hug her and hold her and kiss her cheek and feel the small bit of warmth she had left. I asked everyone for some time alone in the room with her and when the door shut, I cried as I hugged her and kissed her and told her that I was sorry for not wanting her to hug me goodnight when I was thirteen. I grabbed her hand and held it and kissed her cheek and prayed that it wasn’t actually happening. That she would wake up to give me one more hug.

Since she passed, I can’t stop looking at pictures of us, as a family, when we were younger—before I was too cool to turn down her hugs, before I was too cool to call her “mama.”

It’s been two full months since she passed. Two months that, before I know it, will multiply themselves enough times to become a year.

And then two years. And then ten.

But every day that she has been gone, I haven’t felt like I’m twenty-four. I haven’t even felt like I’m thirteen again, and too cool for her goodnight hugs. I think I keep looking at those pictures because every time I think about her, I feel like I’m a little kid again.

I feel like I’m a little boy—and all I want is a hug from my mama.Image

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Author’s Note: I wrote this piece originally on July 21st, 2012 in response to the Aurora, Colorado shooting at the screening on The Dark Knight Rises. It has since been updated to reflect the horrific actions in Newtown, Connecticut.

I feel an innate responsibility to comment on the shooting yesterday. Some people are going to say that now is not the time to talk about gun control. But when would be a good time? People are shot and killed every day in this country. To say that “now is not the time” is just as “political” as to begin talking about gun control–only, as Ezra Klein put it in his blog yesterday, it is to argue for the politics of the status quo. So let’s start talking. As this year (2012) comes to a close, it marks the worst year in mass shootings in modern United States history.

There were actually two horrific acts of violence at two different schools on December 14th, 2012. In one, a crazed gunman in Connecticut opened fire at an elementary school, killing twenty children and six adults before turning the weapon on himself. In the other, a man wielding a knife in a school in China stabbed 22 children.

People who defend unfettered gun rights in this country will talk about how violent people will use violence, regardless of the weapon. They will talk of how a man with no access to guns will still find weapons–in the case of the Chinese man, a knife–to commit their sick acts of violence.

To put it bluntly, this is sheer idiocy. The death toll in the Connecticut shooting? Twenty-eight. The death toll in the Chinese knifing? Between zero and three, as reports are conflicting. People who say that guns don’t kill people need to pull their heads out of the sand. People kill people when they use guns. People mostly injure people when they use alternative weapons. There is data to back this up, too: According to a study that was featured in the Journal of the American College of Surgery on “penetrating cardiac injuries,” someone who is shot in the heart has a 16% chance of surviving. If someone is stabbed in the heart, they have a 70% chance of living. If every person who used a gun to kill someone traded their weapon for a knife, the survival rates would quadruple immediately. As a side note: knives, ironically, are regulated. Switchblades remain illegal, while extended clips, armor piercing rounds, and semi-automatic and automatic firearms all remain legal.

Now on to the Aurora shooting, which had fewer deaths but far more injuries than the Newtown massacre. With over 70 people shot and twelve dead in the community of Aurora, Colorado, it marks one of the more violent attacks by a lone shooter in recent memory. Among the casualties: a pregnant mother and a six-month old child.

The gunman reportedly used extended clips—more bullets, more death, before he had to reload. Among the weapons he used: an assault style rifle with high-capacity magazines.

Imagine being in the theater, wondering when the shooting was going to stop, wondering when he’d run out of ammunition, only to hear him continue to pepper the crowd with death and pain.

The fact that he used the guns is due to some problem within his twisted mind. The fact that he bought the guns legally? Well that’s due to a different problem entirely—one that’s ours—and it’s one that needs to be reexamined before something like this can happen again.

According to a United Nations Report in the early 2000s, gun related deaths are EIGHT times higher in the United States than in countries that are economically and politically similar.

I understand the arguments that are bubbling up within some of you: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s the age-old argument from the NRA and gun-toters everywhere. In some ways, I agree with the argument. There needs to be stricter background checks, monitors, and safeguards to make sure that guns don’t get into the hands of the wrong person. But in a lot of ways, the argument is a load of crap. Here’s why:

The gunman easily passed any background test to get his weapons. His only run-in with the law was a speeding ticket. He had no criminal history and was a very smart med studenImaget. The gunman in Norway from Norway a while back, who murdered 77 people and injured another 319? He passed every background check and obtained his weapons legally even though he had been planning the attack for nearly a decade. Lesson? Background checks are hardly enough.

The second reason it’s a load of crap: Guns DO kill people. I agree that people kill people. It happens every day in this country. But people with guns kill others way more efficiently than people with other handheld weapons. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that guns can be used from great distances and that no one can stab or otherwise physically harm as quickly as certain legal semi-automatic weapons.

To turn defend semi-automatic weapons, extended clips, and even handguns using the Second Amendment is absurd. It was written by a group of people who used muskets and muzzle-loaders. The same people who wrote that into our constitution had no knowledge of the level of devastation that could be caused in a crowd by a single person and a single weapon. They did, however, create a system by which we could change the Constitution as times changed—they had the foresight to acknowledge that problems would arise that they had no ability to account for—and they saw that the Constitution was not timeless. Nor is it Gospel.

And if this is about “freedom,” please tell me how someone’s freedom to own a weapon is more important than the freedom of a six-month-old to not get shot. Please explain to the loved ones of the dead in this most recent tragedy how their fallen family members’ freedom to live is not worth more than a freedom to purchase a semi-automatic weapon.

Some argue that people who are hell-bent on creating disaster will do so anyway—ban guns and they will still find ways to get them.

But, the UK did just that—as a nation, they have some of the most restrictive gun policies on the planet. They have even banned handguns entirely. In the United States in 2009, the United Nations statistics record 3 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The figure for the United Kingdom was 0.07—about 40 times lower.

I know that there are other factors to gun violence. I understand that murders would still occur, that people would still somehow get their hands on guns, and that people would still die. But it is entirely unacceptable that the United States would have a gun death rate as high as it is. In every major UN study since the 80s, The United States has had the highest amount of gun-related injuries than any industrialized nation. This will never be okay.

David Hemenway is the Health Policy Director at the Harvard School of Public Health and has studied violence prevention for over forty years. He writes that every nation that has stricter gun laws than the United States ultimately has lower homicide rates and lower gun deaths overall. In fact, “as a benchmark, in 2003, the United States homicide rate was seven times higher than that of these countries, largely because our firearm homicide rate was 20 times higher.”

He writes of a beautiful example in Australia: “Following the 1996 Port Arthur, Tasmania, massacre of 35 people, Australia acted quickly to effectively ban assault weapons. A mandatory buyback obtained more than 650,000 of these guns from existing owners. Australia also tightened requirements for licensing, registration, and safe gun storage of firearms. The result? In the 18 years before the intervention, Australia had 13 mass shootings. In the dozen years since, there has not been a single one. The laws also helped reduce firearm suicide and non-mass shooting firearm homicide.” (emphasis mine)

David Hemenway wrote about this in an Op-Ed piece for the Arizona Daily Star in 2011 following the shopping center shooting that killed six people and injured former U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others.

And here we are, a year and a half later, with more mass shootings. How many times will we, as a nation, need to learn these lessons?

Enacting stricter laws would undoubtedly lower the death rates dramatically, just as it has in every other country that has stricter gun laws than the US. But even if we lowered the statistics a tiny bit, wouldn’t it be worth it to save a few lives?

Isn’t it worth it to even save one life? If you answer with a “no,” try explaining your reasoning to the crying parents and families of the victims of gun violence.

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Homosexuality is one of the most hotly contested issues in America today. Between marriage rights to theological debates to scientific analysis, this issue doesn’t look to resolve itself anytime soon. And typically, when there are these types of issues that find a familiar set of (different) demographics on each side of the issue, there are going to be factions that form outside of the realm of debate. One of the most obvious examples is the role of mainstream Christianity in the debate.

Christians have traditionally held the view that homosexuality goes against God’s intention for humanity. I say this not to validate the viewpoint—rather, it’s an important acknowledgement to understand the historical context. I also would hesitate to use the fact that it’s “always been this way” as a validation in itself. Christianity has a history marred with historical precedent that eventually gives way to progressive societal norms. Incest (Abraham), polygamy (too many biblical characters to name here), slavery (an overwhelming majority of pro-slavery arguments made during the Civil War era used Scripture as a divinely-inspired defense), Holy wars (too many instances to name here, from the Old Testament to Bible verses engraved on guns during the United States involvement in Iraq)—all of these prove that historical precedent of mainstream JudeoChristian thought/practice is hardly a reason to continue other antiquated practices.

However, what if there is an angle to the whole debate that both sides seem to be missing?

There are 5-6 passages in Scripture that seem to address homosexuality (or, at least, some realm of homosexual behavior). The interpretation of these verses is under debate, with most Christian Biblical scholars falling on one side and most secular Biblical scholars falling on the other.

But what if, in this modern era, the interpretation doesn’t matter? (Disclaimer: I think it does matter, not necessarily for the cause of homosexuality but for the overarching theme of Scripture misuse/mis-scholarship.)

What if everyone is getting the foundation of this debate entirely wrong?

Anti-homosexuality advocates frame the debate utilizing specific gender assignments. For them, men are to be with women and women are to be with men. By this uniformly understood view, everyone on our planet—and everyone ever created—is either a man or a woman. Every human ever created falls into either the category of “man” or “woman.” It has to be this way, right? Because “male and female (God) created them.”

The whole premise rests on this—philosophically, it has to. For a philosophical idea to maintain its soundness, it has to be followed to the infinite implications. And to define marriage, or love, as something that can only exist between a man and a woman, we have to have clear, unequivocal definitions of what “male” and “female” are that applies to every human being. If the definitions break down at all, then the argument is not sound. The totality of the anti-homosexual stance rides on the unequivocal belief that there is a clear distinction between the two genders. Gender itself has to be defined by two clear, separate groups. A human being is either one or the other.

However, this is most definitely not the reality.

 Gender, despite the primitive definition of the word, is not a dualistic lens through which every human being can be clearly designated. In fact, as we are learning more and more about the intricacy of the human body and its development, there is becoming an increasing understanding amongst the medical world that gender, instead of being a situation of being “one or the other,” is actually a scale of extremes. In this scale of extremes, “male” is a designation of one side and “female” is a designation of the other. Humanity, however, cannot be so neatly categorized—every individual falls somewhere on the scale between male and female. A growing number of studies have identified a human biology that doesn’t follow the precedent of the male/female dichotomy. The term for this gray area is “intersex,” and it is being widely recognized as a key factor in the gender stereotype debate. In short, intersex is the area on the scale between “male” and “female” that doesn’t neatly fit either category—and a significant portion of the human population is born in this gender gray area, where phenotypically understood definitions do not apply.

Intersex can occur in a number of different ways that are typically classified as disorders. These disorders occur in a number of ways and can be a result of genetics, hormones, and others. Allow me to give a rundown of the biology.

Humans are given a chromosomal designation. Women are (typically) created from two ‘X’ chromosomes, while men are (typically) created from and ‘X’ and a ‘Y’ chromosome. The mother always provides the first ‘X,’ while each of the father’s sperm carries either an ‘X’ or a ‘Y.’ The embryo, after the fertilization of the egg creates a zygote, is phenotypically asexual until roughly seven weeks after fertilization. Hormones begin taking over, and in typical biological processes, the physical distinction between male and female becomes more divergent up until birth.

Essentially, there are two basic ways to determine the gender of a human. You can look at the chromosomal nature: is the person XX or XY? You can also look at the physical evidence (genitalia, gonads) and phenotypically determine if the person is male or female.

However, this is not always the case—and the combinations of biological variance are all important. There are cases where human can be born with an incorrect designation of chromosomes—instead of XX or XY, the individual may be born XXY—or a person can be born with physical evidence of both male and female gonads/genitalia. There are many combinations thereof and I won’t go into all of them.

Anne Fausto-Sterling is one of the premier chroniclers of gender ambiguity today. In her book Sexing the Body, she writes that “While male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum, there are many bodies […] that evidently mix together anatomical components conventionally attributed to both males and females. The implications of my argument for a sexual continuum are profound. If nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits. […] Modern surgical techniques help maintain the two-sex system. Today children who are born ‘either/or-neither/both’ — a fairly common phenomenon — usually disappear from view because doctors ‘correct’ them right away with surgery.”

This is the kicker though—according to the Intersex Society of North America, between 1% and 1.7% of live births exhibits some degree of sexual (gender) ambiguity. Between 0.1% and 0.2% exhibit enough ambiguity to become the subject of specialist medical attention.

So what does all this mean? What does intersex and sexual ambiguity have to do with the homosexuality debate that is currently going on in Christianity?

The entire framework of the debate rests on a clear distinction between male and female. The whole framework for calling homosexuality “sinful” means that a line has to be drawn, somewhere, between males and females. And yet, for up to 6.8 million Americans who are born with some level of gender ambiguity, there is no line. For the 400,000-800,000 people in America who were born with enough ambiguity that required surgery or gender assignment, it means that the line was drawn by doctors or parents, not God.

So, for an argument to be philosophically sound, it must follow its own implications infinitely. It must always be true or it is not considered sound. If a definitive distinction cannot be made between “male” and “female” that holds true for every human, then how can it hold true for anyone? Is someone male if they are genetically male, yet have female gonads and genitalia? If someone born this way is attracted to men, is it considered heterosexual or homosexual?

What about the small population who are born in a way that essentially makes the doctors and parents the determiners of the gender? If the parents determine to raise their child as a girl because she has female genitalia, yet is chromosomally XY (male), who should the child, according to Christianity, marry? Which option would be sinful, according to anti-homosexuality advocates? Or does the individual have the option?

The problem with the homosexuality debate is clear. It assumes that all people are created as either male or female. The Bible doesn’t really seem to address intersex humans. Yet, even as God created Adam and Eve male and female, doesn’t He also create intersex humans as both male and female? Or part male, part female? Isn’t it true that God doesn’t create mistakes?

The truth is, it is not a cut-and-dry situation. If homosexuality was so sinful, why would God create people who do not even know what gender they are? Are they simply supposed to guess which group they are supposed to be attracted to? If God’s law for love is based on classic gender definitions, then why would He allow people to be born who could potentially not fall into the classic definitions? Is God really that petty and confusing?

It hardly matters what is “normal” or “typical” when it comes to this debate—if God were to have only created ONE person that didn’t fit inside of classic gender definitions, then the entire debate would be rendered meaningless. And yet He has created millions.

Perhaps we can lose this talk of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality” altogether. Wouldn’t the terms “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” be somewhat obsolete, based on their linguistic limitations to accurately describe humanity?

 If all people, genetically and physically, actually fall on a gender scale that includes various shades of gray, can’t we just let love be love, no matter who is involved?

If God is the author of Love, even defined and described as Love, can we stop determining who gets to love and who doesn’t?

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Our dashing hero, Austin, was painfully ponderous of his peasant past. As he slept, his subconscious plagued his head with doubt. How can they make it to the Cupcake Castle with the devious Dairy Dragon attempting to steal the Golden Spoon at any cost? Austin was only a peasant, after all, not a Candy Knight or Waffle-Cone Warrior. What if they make it, only to find that the Princess will not see them? How can they achieve their goal? He slept fitfully.
Meanwhile, miles away, the Dairy Dragon had lost the scent of Austin and his Pegasus companion, Jerod. Fantastically frustrated, he furiously flapped his ferocious wings as he flew back to Old Man Alex’s humble abode in the Mudslide Hills.
“If anyone knows where they’re headed, it’s that stupid old man,” the dastardly dragon thought to himself.
Filled with a newfound sense of rage at losing our daring hero’s trail, the dragon arrived at Old Man Alex’s house with a heavy thump. He grabbed the front door and ripped away the door and part of the wall as he lumbered in. His tail swung back and forth, sending furniture through walls.
“Alex! Come out before I turn your house into graham cracker crumbs!” screamed the dragon.
Alex calmly walked into the scene of destruction, looking at the rotten dragon in the eye. The dragon stared back—and the staring contest began.
Seconds passed, and both of them began to feel the pain. Alex squinted, trying to provide moisture to his eyeballs. The dragons’s eyelids quivered and shook. Tears began streaming down each of their faces. Alex’s tears left clear streams down his face. The dragon’s dairy tears created chunky, cottage cheese clumps down his scaly face. Finally, the impasse broke as Alex’s eyes couldn’t take the pain and shut, providing instant relief to his dehydrated eyes.
“Ha!” blurted the dragon. “I win. Now tell me where that paltry peasant and his poopy Pegasus are headed!” (We can all recognize that the use of “poopy” as an adjective is, at best, a weak attempt on the part of the writer as an alliterative word. However, the writer would counter that the dragon has an uneven, if not entirely limited vocabulary due to the nature of dragon education. We all know that the level of dragon education in the land of ICK is in need of a major upheaval. Lack of funding and limited resources have created an unfortunate situation in which dragons lack the basic education pillars of math, reading, and writing. The previous king’s initiative, dubbed “No Dragon Left Behind,” flopped because dragon teachers began artificially inflating the grades of their students. For more information on this subject and many others, check out the site www.dragoneducation.com. Now, back to our story. )
Alex opened his eyes and looked at the dragon.
“I wouldn’t tell you, even if you won a thousand staring contests!!” Alex shouted. It is difficult to know if Alex was really mad, however, because he often shouted things for no reason as a way of pretending he was mad. Some would call this type of exaggeration a type of “shock value” humor. Others find it simply “annoying.”
The dragon, in a single leap, screamed and lunged at Alex.
“Clearly I have wasted my time!!” he shouted as he landed on Alex’s head, instantly killing the old man. And with that, Alex’s appearance in this story came to an end.
The dragon then began investigating the rest of the house for clues—and it didn’t take him long to find something useful. In fact, in mere seconds, he found a notebook on (the now deceased) Alex’s table that was labeled, “Journal.” In the journal, he had detailed, repetitive thoughts concerning the adventure that Austin was on. It included possible routes and reasons for each route—but all of them had a single destination: the Cupcake Castle!
“I have it, at last!” thought the dragon. “I am going to fly to the Cupcake Castle and hide in wait for the stupid peasant and his rapping, flying horse! That way, I can remove myself from this story until they make it to the castle!”
He took flight, taking the shortest, quickest route to the castle, just as the Starburst sun was rising in the land of ICK.
The sun rose on Austin as he woke up from his fitful sleep. He was nervous for the adventure that he had placed himself in. He looked over at Jerod, who was munching some gumdrop grass.
“Can we really accomplish this?” he asked, his eyes tired and his voice strained.
“I dunno, man, but listen here. If we don’t do this, who else will, ya dig?” replied the Pegasus in his odd vernacular that sounded like a young middle class kid who listened to too much rap.
“You know what, you’re right! If we don’t return this spoon to the princess, then no one will and the balance of power in ICK will be…well…um…imbalanced.”
After cooking a small breakfast of marshmallow peep eggs and some wild chocolate rabbit, he strapped his gear onto his back and climbed onto Jerod’s back, eager to begin the day’s journey toward the Cupcake Castle.
Neither was aware of the trouble that was brewing at the castle, for dragons can fly much faster than Pegasusses (I mean..Pegasus’..um, I mean, Pegasi. What is the plural of Pegasus again?) and the Rotten Dairy Dragon had almost arrived. As he was flying, a new plot was marinating in his milky brain: to kidnap the princess upon arriving at the castle! Our hero’s hellish, hurtful hike just horrifically became heinously more harrowing!

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A narrative has been percolating in my mind for several months now. I have spoken bits and pieces of it in random conversations and in various group settings, but I believe that it’s not going to feel complete unless I write it down. Hopefully, however, through the writing of this I can allow my thoughts to more neatly organize themselves in a way that is neither caustic nor judgmental—rather, I hope to bring to light a fresh view of something that is, well, really not so fresh.

This narrative begins several months ago on a Monday night.

I am a part of a young adult Bible study group that meets Monday nights. On this particular night, we were wrapping up the book of Ezra. I am not going to take the time or space right now for a background on the book (but I encourage you to read it and draw your own conclusions). At the end of the book, beginning in Chapter 9, an interesting theme arises: intermarriage.

The Israelites, led by the leaders and the priests, had entangled themselves with surrounding tribes and had not been faithful to the law that was set by God that strictly called them to not marry or make covenants with a long list of people groups (Exodus 34; Deuteronomy 7, 23). Ezra, being the spiritual leader of the people, was confronted by the leadership of the Israelites about this. They admitted that the people have been making covenants and engaging in the practices with these surrounding tribes.

Ezra was chagrined. The rest of chapter 9 is devoted to a mournful, apologetic prayer to God concerning the terrible transgressions of the people. Surely God was enraged at these practices, especially since He had finally allowed the people to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. He publicly wept and prayed until a crowd gathered around him, also crying out with guilty tears. One man, Shecaniah, stepped up with a seemingly perfect solution: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”

So they followed through with these plans. They kicked out all non-Jews. Mothers and wives and children were suddenly banished, homeless and destined for poverty. They dealt with the unclean men who were willing to engage in the intermarriage with discipline as well (but not banishment).

As we began to discuss this story that Monday night, the initial consensus was that the right steps toward purity had been taken. God had given them some fairly clear laws and the people had disobeyed. They remedied the situation by amputating the reason for the problem, right? In fact, they had very religious and Godly reasons for ostracizing the group of foreigners and half-breeds (which is what they called them)! God had called them to purity, and they were standing up for truth, for the law, for God. They were standing up for what was right.

In fact, it’s pretty straightforward. If you don’t fit within the confines of the law (and the half-breeds didn’t) then you were religiously ostracized. After all, it’s what God commanded. Sometimes standing up for truth is ugly, right? When people don’t fit within the plan, God’s people have to stand up and do something!

Flash-forward several hundred years.

One of these ostracized half-breed groups, the Samaritans, had long-since settled in the northern part of what is now the West Bank. They were, in fact, descendents of the intermarriage discussed in Ezra: modern day Y-chromosome studies and mitochondrial DNA analysis has shown that they descended from both Israelites (including priestly lines) and mostly Assyrian women.

And they were religiously hated. The full-blooded Israelite populations referred to them in derogatory terms and were not to speak to them. The Samaritans could not worship at the Jewish holy sites (though they considered themselves mostly Jewish). Centuries later, the Jewish community was still standing up for the purity and righteousness God had called them to—and they were good at it.

That’s what it takes to follow God’s law, right? An unwavering commitment to the truth that God had laid out for them—the impure be damned (literally).

It is in this context that a man who had been listening to Jesus preach asks him a question. It should be noted that this is no ordinary man—this is a man who Luke calls an “expert in the law.” This is a man who was very familiar with the story in Ezra–a man whose disgust with the Samaritan people ran deep. This is a religious man who had very religious and even godly reasons for believing what he did. In fact, being an expert, he could probably name the very spots in Deuteronomy in which God forbade marriage and covenants with the Assyrians, the very ancestors of the Samaritan people.
And this expert has one question for Jesus: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” It almost seems like he’s asking the man, “You are an expert—but let’s see if you really understand the ideas behind the laws.”

The man answers by quoting parts of the Law from Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus responds positively: “Good answer, do that and you’ll live.”

It’s at that point that the man seems to notice his hypocrisy. He looks for a loophole, a way out—it’s almost as if it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t been living this way. You can almost imagine him going through the people in his life, gauging whether or not he has loved them, and hoping the people he hasn’t loved weren’t his “neighbors.” He responds with, “And who is my neighbor?”

You can see him trying to justify his way of life. This devoutly religious man, who has undoubtedly spent his life trying to understand and study the law of God, has had religious reason to follow through with his marginalization of others (read: Samaritans). He has been standing up for God’s law, right? He has been standing up for truth, for purity! He is an “expert” on what it means to follow God’s law!

And Jesus responds with one of the most well known stories in the Scriptures.

He begins the now familiar story with a man who is walking on a road and then getting robbed, beaten within inches of his life, and stripped naked. He is left for dead. A priest sees the man and passes by, unwilling to help. In fact, he doesn’t just pass by; he walks to the other side of the road, perhaps so that he didn’t have to be bothered by having the man in his sightline. (I’d imagine that puzzled looks would be exchanged from the people listening to this story—was Jesus calling out a religious leader? Can you imagine the modern day equivalent to a priest? A mega-church pastor, maybe? Or another kind of Christian leader—an evangelist, maybe, or an author?)
Then a Levite does the same thing. A Levite was someone who worked in the temple. Again, people would have been shocked and even angry. Was he just going down the hierarchy of the religious elite, calling them all out as being someone who doesn’t love their neighbor (which, you remember, he said was how someone gains eternal life)?

But then, truly the most shocking aspect of the story is spoken. Let’s be honest, Jesus could have picked anyone to be the hero of his story. He could have picked a Jewish man. He was, after all, talking to an expert in the law. Why not make him the hero of the story? Instead, he does something far more controversial—and I hope you can grasp just how controversial it is, given the preceding two pages of context I have given. In fact, what Jesus says is nothing short of game-changing.

The third man to pass by helps the beaten, bloody man. The third man is the hero. He is the one who exhibits the love that neither church leader was willing to. He is the man who, according to Jesus, is going to inherit eternal life by loving his neighbor. Who is this third man?

A Samaritan. Jesus, speaking to a Jewish expert of the law, picks a Samaritan man to be the hero.

A half-breed. A man who has been ostracized and condemned the church in the name of truth and purity—yet will inherit Eternal Life ahead of the church leaders.

And why? Because he loved his neighbor.

He may not have belonged in the church, but he loved like Jesus calls all of us to.

This story prompts two questions. Primarily—what people groups today do we (as the religious folk) ostracize/marginalize/criticize/hate in the name of truth and purity? Muslims? Gays? Liberals? Evolutionists? Democrats? Postmoderns? Younger generations? Atheists? Would Jesus, if he was telling the story today, pick someone from one of these groups to be the hero? Who have we decided to separate ourselves from for the sake of being godly—only to miss out on the true message of Jesus?

Second—what can we do about it? How can we begin looking less like the church leaders of Jesus time and more like Jesus?

I think the first step is this: we need to begin making these people the heroes of our stories. Like the church leaders, we may have had some very “godly” and religious reasons for marginalizing some people. But like Jesus, we need to stop marginalizing and start interacting. Stop hating those that are different and begin loving them as people who, like the Samaritan, are just as capable of loving God and people.

We need to begin thinking less about who is “out” and who is “in” and more about what we can do to make sure that all people are viewed as “neighbors.”
The truth is that Jesus preached a message of love, not religion. We are all connected as neighbors in humanity.

I hope we can begin tearing down the walls of injustice and intolerance so that people can see Jesus’ love, not the stale religion of exclusion.

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I am sitting at a computer and realizing the inevitable truth that the internet is far more entertaining when I have things to do than when I’m bored.

I am wondering why it is always easier to point out others’ selfishness at the times when I am being selfish.

I am dwelling on what it means to truly stand up for the oppressed when the oppressors are not people, but ideas and maxims.

I am trying to understand the tension between two uncertain truths…and yes, I realize the impossibility of what I just typed.

I am curious as to why it’s far simpler to view the world as black and white–especially since the people who view things as black and white tend to make problems more complex.

I am curious as to why those that read the Bible are quick to point out certain Scriptures as true for today, like Leviticus 19:28 (Do not…put tattoo marks on yourselves) but disregard other verses, like the verse before it (Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.)

I am trying to figure people out. I’ll get back to you on that.

I am tired of the vitriol between political parties. What’s the point of “democracy” if everyone hates each other?

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The other day, a friend and I were texting. It was a simple conversation—simple topics that spawned simple questions which beget simple answers. And then, quite randomly, she asked me a question that was very…well…not-so-simple.

She texted, “What is the purpose of art?”

I was thrown off guard. My mind spun for a second, trying to come up with grandiose language to describe something that people have spent entire histories trying to explain. I thought about all of the cliché answers, things like “art allows people to express themselves” and “art is something that creates honest dialogue” and “art is a manifestation of the creative spirit.” These answers are good, don’t get me wrong. But I felt like they were somewhat incomplete.

I don’t fully understand why humanity creates/produces/needs art. For that matter, I don’t even think I know a good, all-encompassing definition for what art is. In fact, the reason I don’t like trying to answer such a giant question with the cliché responses above is because the term “art” is so inherently nebulous to begin with.

I visited the Seattle Art Museum a couple days ago. It was my first visit, despite having lived in Puget Sound for nearly eight years. I found myself unsure of the proper etiquette of an art museum. There were elementary school kids on field trips and hipster twenty-somethings and older couples and people who seemed like serious art connoisseurs and people who never stopped texting long enough to pay attention to anything. There were people who stood closely to examine brush strokes and pointillism and people who stood far away to better grasp an entire piece.

There were beautiful, giant paintings and haunting, dark paintings. There were pieces of Florentine religious art and Greco-Roman pieces filled with nudity and awkwardness. There were giant metal sculptures that hung from the ceiling and looked like nothing more than glorified wind-chimes. There was a room sparsely filled with junk—old tennis balls and dirty cardboard boxes and notebook paper with scribbles. (It was called modern art or something.) There were photographs and screen prints and blown glass and African masks.

And I found myself again thinking…what is the purpose of this stuff? Why do we do art? And why don’t the cliché answers seem to embody the full experience of artistry?

When my friend asked me that question, I thought about all of those well-worn explanations for the role that art plays in the narrative of humanity. But then one answer seemed to emerge into my consciousness: that a painting isn’t art simply because it’s a painting. And a photograph or a sculpture or a musical piece or a dance—those things are not “art” simply because they fall under categories of more recognized artistic mediums.

And, to take that logic further: things that don’t seem like “art” can be done in an “artistic” way, can’t they? I mean, when we see an amazing feat of athleticism, don’t we use the phrase “poetry in motion?” Isn’t there an “art” to relationships? An “art” to conversing? An “art” to cooking or speaking or understanding or reading or running or discovering? Isn’t everything that we do in life open to being called “art?”

Can’t we pursue beauty, wholeness, expression, artistry, and creativity in all that we do?

I have a theory. We are all born—and in that sense, we are alive. I’m alive, and if you’re reading this, you are too. But part of what it means to be human is to pursue life—a second birth, so to speak. We are alive, but we seek real, honest Life. We may have life, in the sense that our organs are functioning properly to keep us breathing, but we pursue Life—an ever-changing idea of what it means to feel truly alive. And yet, as I write this, I realize that there have been times in my life in which I am physically alive, but I have felt dead. I haven’t been able to reach this thing I’m calling Life.  And so I do things to try to feel alive. In a way, I spend my entire life trying to bring myself back to Life.

Isn’t art really just our attempt to bring ourselves back to life? We navigate pain, joy, peace, and discomfort in all that we do. But when it comes down to it, aren’t we all just trying to Live?

One person tries to resuscitate himself by playing basketball. Another tries to bring herself back to life by singing. Yet another pursues Life by engaging in many meaningful relationships, while someone else might pursue Life in just one relationship. And isn’t all of this “art?” In a way, isn’t art the fabric of the human experience?

Not long before he died, Jesus made a pretty bold claim. He claimed that his path (which was about to lead to death!) is a path of Life. Not being alive (the people he was talking to were already alive) but rather, the Life I mentioned earlier. He said “I am the way, the truth, the life.” Those words are often used to defend an exclusive view of who gets into Heaven or out of hell or whatever, but Jesus is making no such claim! What he’s saying is, “my path, my reality, is one that will bring you back to Life.” He’s not talking about heaven or salvation in the afterlife—he’s making a claim on how we can, even now, have Life—we can live lives that are artistic, lives that are creatively seeking Life.

And how do we do that? By living like Jesus. By providing life to others, even to the point of giving up our own life for such a cause. The best kind of art, after all, is the kind that resonates with others.

Not long before those words came out of his mouth, Jesus knelt down and washed his friends’ feet. And, in a way, I think that was pretty artistic.

For a full discussion on John 14:6, and a beautiful analysis of this idea of Life that is being discussed, visit http://www.brianmclaren.net/emc/archives/McLaren%20-%20John%2014.6.pdf

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