It is Easter morning and light filters through a gauzy layer of clouds. No spectacular sunrise. No basking in the warmth of spring. Just filtered light suspended above the cool, rain-soaked ground.
Perhaps this is how resurrection comes to us. Filtered. Subtle. With no bells and whistles. A gradual unfolding of light.
Last Thursday, Kim and I got out of our cars beneath a bridge south of downtown. Kim is one of our street chaplaincy interns and we were checking on some of the people we came to know and care for this winter. Clouds shifted overhead and a gentle drizzle fell across the city.
“Knock, knock.” I said as we walked up the mulched footpath to Jim’s camp. “Is anyone home?” Ever since I met Jim, I’ve felt drawn to him. There is something in him that is so alive, so free, so lit.
The front door of Jim’s tent was propped open and Jim beckoned us in. He had been sick and took the food and water we offered.
Jim is a musician who looks like a 50-something gutter punk Mick Jagger. He is tall and thin with longish hair that he pushes back over his head with his hands. He ties a black bandana around his neck, dresses in all black, and paints his nails. As of Thursday, they were silver with glitter.
But Jim’s hardcore shell holds a lighter, gentler spirit. He decorates his camp with Halloween skeletons and reclaimed lawn ornaments. An old road-sign that reads “Sidewalk Closed” sits at the top of his footpath. He has always been kind and respectful to me and all the volunteers I’ve brought to the camp. And Jim’s campmates are all people he met on the streets who had nowhere to go. “I told them I had a place they could stay until they got back on their feet,” he said. And he welcomed them into his home.
Kim and I sat in Jim’s tent and started talking about Good Friday and theology (as street chaplains are prone to do). But this conversation was led by Jim.
Jim told us that he left the Church of Christ when he was 13 because they unjustly fired his youth minister. After that, he began to “get into some stuff” and “made some bad decisions.” Every now and then, he would get locked up for a couple days or a week, but as an adult, he “did something worse” and was locked up for three years.
“I was like, well, here I am,” said Jim. “I knew I had some time to think about things and I was damn sure I didn’t want to be the same person I was coming into jail when it was time to leave. So I sat down with my Bible and said, ‘Fuck you God. Fuck all the things I have been told about the Bible. Fuck all the things I’ve been told about you by the church.’ I said, ‘God, I want you to reveal yourself to me through this book.’”
It took Jim nine months to make it through the King James Version. Then he read the NIV in six months and then the Modern English translation. “The Modern English version was all cleaned up and didn’t have enough poetry or grit, so I threw that one out. But I’ll tell you this,” he continued. “I learned to live with myself while I was in prison reading that book.”
“What do you mean?” Kim and I asked.
“I learned that I couldn’t earn heaven. I was set free from the messages of bondage and shame and earning my way. God loved me exactly how I was. No ifs, ands, or buts. And that set me free.”
“Free from the chains the church had put on you?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he said. “I’m done with that kind of bullshit. And I’m free… I love life now.”
Jim, a man that most people would dismiss or judge, was resurrected in a prison cell and is now more at peace with himself and more free than almost anyone I know. How can this be?
Once, Jim was on the sidewalk outside a church service and a group of women in their Sunday best were walking by. He was playing music and asking for money and one of the ladies came over to him, clutching her Bible to her chest. “Are you saved? Do you even know God?” she asked.
“I am and I do,” he responded.
“You know,” the lady said loudly in front of her friends, “I know God better that you do.” Some of the other ladies laughed.
“If you do, then answer me this,” said Jim. “What do I have to do to be loved by God?”
The lady started rattling off things: “Go to church,” she said.
“Wrong!” Jim said.
“Get baptized.” she tried.
“Wrong!” Jim countered.
“Do the right things,” she said, now reddening in the face.
“Wrong,” Jim said, “I don’t have to do anything. God loves me just the way I am.” Without saying anything else, the church ladies brushed him off and held their noses up as they walked into church.
Jim, Kim, and I talked for a while about our struggles to find God within the walls of church buildings, within the confines of Religion. As a self-proclaimed “contrarian,” Jim didn’t fit into the rigid structure of the Church of Christ where he grew up. Kim and I confessed that we were also both still “in recovery” from some of our own experiences with church. As a female member of the Church of Christ, I was told from an early age that God doesn’t speak through women like me. Kim was excommunicated from her evangelical church for being gay and struggled to find a church community that would welcome her and her partner with open arms.
“I want to show you something,” said Jim. He dug around in his tent and unfolded small, damp sheets of lined paper until he found the right one.
“Not too long ago,” he said, “I was playing my new $300 guitar right in front of the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was crowded and their were people everywhere. All the sudden, someone came up and pushed me. I wiped out across the sidewalk and landed on the neck of my new guitar. It shattered. Everyone around me started laughing.” He paused holding the folded piece of paper. “The next week, I went to Downtown Presbyterian Church for their breakfast. One of the women came up to me and she said, ‘Jim, I have something for you so don’t you leave without seeing me.’ This lady didn’t know me, she didn’t know my story. You guys know more about me than she did. But she saw what happened to me with my guitar that day. So I went up to her after the lunch and she handed me this.” He unfolded the paper and read the letter aloud:
Jesus keeps talking to me about you and this is what he is saying:
You were born with a fire inside you, a flame imprinted on your heart. Even when you were a child, people would misinterpret that fire and say things like, “that boy is a hot mess.” They would say about you, “he is rebellious” because you refused to conform to control. But they didn’t see and you didn’t see that you were born to Rebel. Rebel not against God but against the enemy! Rebel against a religious system that looks nothing like God!
I keep hearing Him say to you, I’m not in a building called a church, I’m not in an organized system called religion. I am in humanity! I keep hearing Him say “we are so much alike, Jim. I was born to Rebel against religion, too! When I walked on the earth, my best friends were sinners and my biggest enemies were the religious leaders of my day. They called me a drunk and often times found me hanging out in bars. I called them snakes, vipers, and tombs because they had a reputation of being alive but they were in fact dead. I called them snakes because they were dishing out poison instead of bread.
I put on flesh and blood to dwell with humanity. I was homeless, I was rejected, I was spit on, and I was misunderstood… sound familiar? I love you Jim. I died for you, not so that you could go to church, but so you could ditch all your shame and all the lies that you believe about yourself and be my friend, be my Rebel.
Rebel against hatred with kindness,
Rebel against offense with forgiveness,
Rebel against chaos with peace,
Rebel against religion with True Love,
Rebel against lies with Truth!”
David was just a shepherd boy who played a harp and made the demons flee at the sound of his instrument. You are a skilled guitar player. Use that skill to drive away the demons. I know that you feel like I’m far away, but I’m closer than your very own breath. Turn your face to me, not to church, not to religion, but your Spirit to my Spirit. I’m not asking you to change, I’m asking you to trust. I’m not asking you to give, I’m asking you to receive.
How can this be?
Jim held the letter carefully, in awe. “After she gave me this letter, she handed me that guitar.” He pointed to the case sitting behind him. “I don’t even know her name, but God spoke to her about me and she listened.”
Yes. Perhaps this is how resurrection comes to us. A gradual unfolding of light. Words fading on damp paper. Small acts of kindness. A gutter punk Mick Jagger in a campsite who is teaching us how to be free.
So let us pay attention to the suffering around us. Let us swap out our poison for bread. Let us rebel against everything that keeps us from being free. And let us practice resurrection.