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prayers for Baltimore

Lord God, your people call on you especially in times of chaos and suffering, and your Word and your promises never return void. We commune with you in prayer and meditation in these trying days, and ask that you orient our hearts and minds on all that you have taught us, on all that is good and true.

We pray for the safety of all people, in Baltimore and beyond. We ask that you protect protestors, police, public servants, homeowners, those without homes, families, clergy, volunteers, medics, teachers, students, soldiers, sinners and saints against all forms of death and destruction. We ask that you guard them from evil and all harm, not just from tear gas, tanks, rubber bullets, broken bottles, fists, flames, slings and stones, but from all forces of corruption, cosmic gloom, and spiritual wickedness at loose in this world.

We pray o Father of Lights, that you might make your Word known to us. We remember the words of your chosen prophet Jeremiah, who said: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” Asks Jeremiah: “Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No,” he reveals, “they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.” We remember that the sowers of a false peace are really advocating a return to violence, not preaching the liberative gospel that you taught us, o God.

We remember, too, your promises as told by your prophet Ezekiel: “Because they lead my people astray, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall…When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, ‘Where is the whitewash you covered it with?'” We remember that all who whitewash your truth, then and now, and all upholding the supremacy of white folks in America, are putting their faith not in your Word but in crumbling things.


Lord Jesus, we pray that your city Baltimore may deeply know you and the harmony and peace you have promised your disciples. Yet we pray not only for a superficial peace, but for justice, and ask that you reorient our minds around the truth that the status quo — law and order — is not “peaceful” in the Shalom way you have taught us to know peace, but that it is actually quite harmful for those who are suffering within rigged systems. We ask that you teach your people that while the privileged may pray for an end to protest and uprising, for those living in slums, for the poor, the dispossessed, the societally disenfranchised, a return to a status quo without hope is itself perpetuating violence.

Close, O Lord, the mouths of all who speak ill of their brothers and sisters at this time. Jam the keyboards and seal the throats of the wicked, that they might refrain from calling their brethren “animals” and “thugs.” Ensure their spiritual ignorance and their calls for dehumanization and further violence go unheeded. Please forgive their trespasses when we cannot muster the strength to do so ourselves. We ask also for an end to all misinformation at the hands of media and vigilantes, that all falsehoods be brought to light.

We know that vengeance is yours, o Lord, and that it is not ours to seize. We trust in your anger, which has surely been smoldering for centuries, your patience wearing thin, as you have long witnessed the wickedness in our land, the violence and the sinful stripes of oppression that stain our nation. We ask that you forgive those who have lashed out in anger and frustration, all who have injured others in recent hours. Please heal the pain of those misguided who are oriented towards destruction at this moment, who your prophet Martin reminded us were hurting, shouting in “the language of the unheard.”

Do not turn your face from us, o God. Do not forget our suffering, but impart in us your Holy Spirit, the breath of life that fills our lungs and drives us into homes, hospitals, houses of worship, into the streets. “I can’t breathe!” Cried one of your children, as Caesar’s soldiers snatched your sacred breath from his lungs. “We can’t breathe!” Cry your people, wounded by empires that print your name on their money but do not know your justice.

In the words of the Psalmist, “Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted…O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.”

You know your children’s pain. Gasping for air, you yourself cried out on the cross: “it is finished!” You, the crucified God, know above all what it is to suffer. You are the God of the poor, of the unheard, of the oppressed. You are the God who weeps with victims of starvation, torture, war, bombings, rape, lynching, crucifixion, depression, murder, incarceration. Your wrath is a righteous, frightening thing, and your justice means that the injured can turn to you for aid.

You are the God of Moses, who led Egypt’s slaves out of the grave, the God of Mary, who in Jesus slipped on skin and crushed the powers of Satan and death, the God of the American Negro, who gave your people comfort and strength in their fight for liberation. Though you offer your friendship and redemption to all, you are not on the side of the slaver, the slumlord, the slippery politician, but can always be found among the slaves, the starving, the suffering.

We ask this God for an end to the evil that grips Baltimore, which at its heart is not the actions of individual persons but, in the words of your apostle Paul, “powers and principalities.” We remember that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” which in our culture are surely illustrated by many evils, including the carefully calculated, undying bane of anti-black racism and white supremacy.

We pray for an end to the racist treatment of black Baltimoreans as we pray for the safety of elected officials and public servants. We pray for schools, industries, churches, and that this metropolis might be concretely healed from red-lining, white-washing, and racial segregation. We pray for the public officials, pastors, teachers, and local organizers who are working to accomplish these ends.

We pray for Freddie Gray’s family, and for the families of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, John Crawford, Oscar Ramos and Wenjian Liu, and all who have lost their lives in recent days.

Finally, we pray that your people would come to care far more about human life, about black lives, than the status of private property – that shattered spines and broken bodies might frustrate our consciences far more than shattered bottles and broken windows.

All these things we dare to ask in your name, Lord Christ, with confidence and faith in you our good God, who can do far more than we ever hope.

to the boy on the couch

Last year, my friend Zach invited me to do something really scary.  He asked if I would share some of my story as part of the Rainbow Letters, a project he created with his friend Julia to help the children of LGBTQ parents tell their stories through the art of letter writing.  Through our words and examples – letters of any kind written to anyone or anything in the world – the pair is hoping to create a collection of collaborative, community-generated prose that will help capture the often untold experiences of the children of LGBTQ parents, especially at this critical point in the movement’s history.  From their website:

Growing up as the children of LGBTQ parent(s), we often felt alone, isolated, and incapable of talking about our families.  As adults, we now know that we were not alone.  Our mission is to build a community of people who can draw strength, encouragement, and inspiration from each other by writing, reading, and sharing letters.

rainbow letters

I haven’t talked a lot about this part of my life, but it’s something I’m becoming more comfortable discussing with family, friends, and even strangers.  This was one of the more difficult, vulnerable things I’ve ever written.  I’m posting it below in case anyone would like to give it a read.  Please also make sure to spread the word about the Rainbow Letters project, and consider writing a letter or two if you are the child of an LGBTQ parent.

Here’s my first letter, to the boy on the couch:

You will always remember the day your mom sat you and your sisters down on the living room couch for a talk.  Looking back, you can replay the entire scene from an outsider’s perspective, like watching a movie director parsing out a careful script.  Here is how it all plays out: your dad steps into the foyer near the front door, tall and strong in his pressed slacks and khaki vest.  He shrugs his State Trooper hat low down his forehead.  Next: he pauses.  “I love you,” he says.  “See you later.”  He walks out the door.  Exit stage right.

Your mom is fighting back tears and she begins to tell the children sitting on the family couch, slowly, that mommy and daddy are getting a divorce.  The two girls, then eight and six, immediately start bawling, gushing hot tears that they don’t fully understand.  The little boy on the couch just sits there for a moment, and then he realizes that somehow, beyond hope, this all must be some kind of cruel joke.  He starts laughing uncontrollably, harder and harder.  His mother and siblings look on in shock.  He can’t stop screaming his laughter for the longest time afterwards.

After this, the memories flash by in a mélange of uncomfortable blurs.  There are more serious talks and fleshy couches – stiff-backed graying sofas in child counselors’ and seasoned therapists’ offices, itchy coral-blue surplus ones in school social worker waiting rooms.  Quickly arrive the vicious and expensive court proceedings, embattled custody agreements, well-meaning books and pamphlets on how to handle divorce.

There is lots of crying, and the scared boy flying from couch to couch knows in his heart that what is happening to him is uniquely unfair.  For all the people he talks to, no one understands.  The splashing vitriol and court-mediated divorce process tears his soft heart to shreds.  The boy runs away a couple of times, but always ends up in school the next day, pretending to be okay.  Everybody’s fingerprints are all over his profile and case files, and strangers are poking at the most vulnerable parts of his life.  He just wants to be forgotten.

Once, the kid is sent to visit a high-ranking judge or lawyer of some kind.  She hands him a pen and tells him to imagine it is a magic wand, to pretend that he can grant any three wishes he wants.  The boy sits there nervous and fidgety on a patchwork of unfamiliar fibers and plays along only because he had to.  He wishes for a million dollars, world peace, and for his parents to get back together.  End scene.

I know it is painful for you to recall these memories.  They are easier to abstract away, to bury them deep in your unconscious, and to think them nothing more than bad dreams.

You cry for hours the night before your first day of middle school.  You beg to be homeschooled, so you won’t have to be thrown into a new place with new people.  Your mother stills your sobs and firms your resolve: “people are like chess pieces, Ryan – conquer a new one every day and soon you will have plenty of friends, the whole board.”

The next day, you dress up nicely to make a good impression on your new friends.  You wake up early, shower, and pull on a button down shirt.  You quickly gel and comb your hair sideways, staring in the mirror and feeling like an adult.  Your dad tells you he loves you and plants a kiss on your shining forehead as you get out of the car and head down the hallway to find your locker.  Before anything else happens, a student two lockers away from you sizes you up and sneers: “you look like a faggot.”

A few months pass before your world collapses again: your mom sits you down on a sympathetic, light green couch in her new apartment and comes out to you.  She tells you, slowly, that she would be with women instead of men now, and that her partner would be a big part of your life now too.  You are wide-eyed, surprised and confused.

You are only eleven.  You don’t know what the acronym “LGBT” stands for, but you know that “lesbian” is what your friend called Jessica when she sat on another girl’s lap on the playground, and everybody laughed at her for days afterwards.

You begin to notice every time your classmates scowl and call your gym teacher a “dyke,” when they play “smear the queer” during recess, or wink and gossip about “not wanting to share a room with Michael” on the class trip to Washington D.C.  You begin to feel cold and squirmy inside when kids call things “gay,” like how it feels to pick up a wriggling insect.  A pit the size of an orange opens in your stomach every time the subject of homosexuality is broached.  You wonder how your friends would feel if they knew about your family.

One night, while walking down a winter road at a church retreat, a pimply cabinmate sidles up to you and begins fantasizing about lesbians making out in the snow.  His salacious tone confuses you.  Lesbians aren’t sexy, you think, they are my mom and her old friends.  You shrug off a chill.  He must have never met a real lesbian before.

In school and church services alike you hear a consistent message: gays and lesbians are not okay.  We are not like them and we do not like them.  You are hounded even in play, in your Boy Scout troop, where your mom serves as a respected and popular adult leader.  You know that banal snares and trivial arguments with other leaders in the troop always hold a potentially darker edge – if anyone reports your mom for being gay, pursuant to official Scouting policy, she would be removed from her position.  You double down and resolve to keep your secret all the more.

* * *

Little Ryan, if, beyond imagination, I somehow had you sitting on a couch right in front of me, plucking at stray cushion threads and looking up at me expectantly, I wouldn’t say anything.  Not at first.  I think I’d pick you up and just wrap you in a big hug.  I wouldn’t speak until both of our bodies started to rack with sobs.

I would tell you, slowly, through tears of my own, that your mommy loves you.  That your daddy loves you, and that I love you too.  That even though your parents don’t love each other anymore, they both love you and they will always do their best to honor and care for you and your sisters.  Your family, though culled and legally cauterized and publicly picked apart, is still a family.  I would smile and tell you that you are not alone, that as the child of a gay parent, you have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of.  There are actually millions of kids like you.  (You might not believe me at first.)

If I could manage it, here is what else I would say: you will face more pain, especially from religious friends.  They will heap shame and heavy burdens upon you like salt on a wound.  But for every community characterized by disdain and derision, there is one of acceptance and inclusion.  You will find these.  You couldn’t even dream about it then, but now more and more religious voices are speaking out from the pulpits and the pews, affirming and celebrating parents like yours.  The world as a whole is moving in a direction that will honor people like your mom and respect your family’s splintered, broken wholeness.

Yes, there will be more bullies, more heartbreak, and more rejection.

But in the end, you will not topple.  Rebirth is on the horizon.  Pawns will become kings.  You will breathe in peace.  Your torn heart will heal.

After telling you all of this, I would have to take a breath.  Then I would lift you high to sit on my shoulders, like how my dad used to carry me, and ask what you wanted to do next.  Maybe we would hold hands as we talked some more and got mint chocolate chip ice cream.  Mom’s favorite.


why seminary

As graduation approaches, the casual conversations about what I’ll be doing in the future seem to take on a sharper edge.  I know it’s not just me.  The innocent questions about next fall make plenty of my friends nervous as well.  The real world, our elders warn, is about to begin, and we’d better be ready.

So what am I doing next year?  Well, this winter I applied to a number of seminaries in the Chicago area and beyond – as far away as Southern California.  I began to think about seminary a couple of years ago, as I stumbled, mortally wounded, out of a morally untenable religious tradition that I participated in for most of my life.  As I began to question every scrap of my faith in search of more meaningful, wholesome ways to talk about God, I felt a deep desire to study these issues in intentional community with other people of faith.

When I was trying to figure out whether to pursue graduate studies in social work or theology, I visited a pastor friend of mine.  He asked me to tell him about why I was interested in studying social work vs. theology.  After a few minutes, he stopped me: “Ryan, when you talk about social work you are very matter of fact; but the way you’re talking about taking classes in theology, it’s so clear this is for you, you’re glowing.”

While I have enjoyed my social work classes in the undergraduate program in which I’m enrolled, it is the study of theology, and of the sacred relationship between religion, power, and social change, that makes me feel most alive.

My friend Claudio says that theology starts where it hurts.  If that’s true, then Christianity must begin with the suffering of the poor and the downtrodden.  (There’s really a lot of overlap here with social work’s commitment to serving marginalized populations.)  Good theology doesn’t obscure the fact that Jesus was killed by a first century lynch mob, or that God-fearing Christians in this country lynched thousands of people in years well within recent memory.  Good theology grieves and rages about Eric Garner’s death; it marches in the street and remembers how our own Lord had his breath choked out of him by brutalizing agents of the state.

This is the kind of Christianity I’m interested in telling others about – not a religion that points to the afterlife as an excuse to detach from the world’s suffering, but a tradition that in the hands of the oppressed can bring forth great life and repentance.

After a long season of searching, I believe I’ve found a place where I can study Christian theology, oppression, social movements, power, scripture, ethics, history, interfaith concerns, and tradition in healthy community with the support of a stellar team of faculty and staff.

I’m happy to relay that I’ve been accepted at my top choice for seminary, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, about a block from the University of Chicago.  The school is also offering me a generous merit scholarship that should cover tuition and housing expenses.  I’m mailing my acceptance letter today, and this fall I should be moving to Chicago to pursue a Master’s in Divinity degree.


McCormick is a Presbyterian institution, and part of an ecumenical theological consortium of eleven graduate schools of theology in Chicagoland, where if you enroll at one school, you are able to easily take cross-listed courses at any of the others.  (Imagine if you could attend any Big Ten school and then take classes at the other nine without hassle.  Amazing, right?)  This is particularly cool because there are actually more seminaries, theology professors, and books on theology in Chicago’s metropolitan area than in any other city in the world, outside of Rome.

McCormick is indeed cross-cultural, urban, ecumenical, and thoroughly reformed.  It is hard to believe I’ll be attending seminary – let alone an institution as reformed as McCormick, given my general disdain for this tradition – but I have a strange, comforting (hopefully not just in my head) sense that this is a step in the right direction.  From what I have gathered from research and from visiting, this is a community of people committed to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ, evident in the fact that there is no racial majority among their student body; that they center anti-racist training; that third world liberation and womanist and feminist theologies are taught and affirmed; that the professors represent various traditions and backgrounds, but share a biblically faithful vision for forming a new generation of ministers of Christian hope.


McCormick’s quad

I continue to believe social institutions shape us in powerful ways we often do not recognize.  Employers, churches, family structures, schools, clubs or professional associations…when we join these organizations we are doing more than lending them our name and time – we are in a very real way submitting to being formed by these structures, which in our day often dehumanize and commodify us.  But I want to attend McCormick because I believe it to be the kind of institution that would shape me in positive ways, honoring my agency and challenging me to be better as I discern my calling and exercise my ministries of connection, writing, hospitality, and play.

So, to the inquisitors, what will I be doing in the future?

Well, I’m still not entirely sure.  Though I’m now able to proudly sate my friends’ and family’s curiosity, I still don’t know how to describe the trajectory of the rest of my life.  The future might look like me becoming ordained as a presbyter in a certain tradition.  It might look like me getting a job in government, at a publishing company, a nonprofit, or even working as a social worker with a background in Christian ministry and theology.

If I had to chance any sort of hazy vision, at this point it would probably be safe to say my future will involve seminary and writing (and breathing) and family and friends and eating good hot squid, but that’s about as far as I can see ahead of me.  And that should be okay, taking things one move at a time.  As Dr. King (who once lectured at McCormick!) said: “faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

the cross and the lynching tree

“The Cross and the Lynching Tree are separated by nearly two thousand years. One is the universal symbol of the Christian faith; the other is the quintessential symbol of black oppression in America. Though both are symbols of death, one represents a message of hope and salvation, while the other signifies the negation of that message by white supremacy.

Despite the obvious similarities between Jesus’ death on the cross and the death of thousands of black men and women strung up to die on a lamppost or tree, relatively few people, apart from the black poets, novelists, and other reality-seeing artists, have explored the symbolic connections. Yet, I believe this is the challenge we must face. What is at stake is the credibility and the promise of the Christian gospel and the hope that we may heal the wounds of racial violence that continue to divide our churches and our society.” – James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

James Hal Cone was born black in white-dominated southern Arkansas in 1938, and grew up there during the thick of the segregation era.  Like his parents, pastors, and friends, he lived directly under a state-sponsored reign of racial violence, going to church and coming of age in a time when Judge Lynch was actively terrorizing African Americans.  He would wait nervously for his father to come home every night, knowing that death was a real possibility.  At the age of 16 Cone experienced a call to ministry, and began serving as a pastor for several local congregations that following year.

While attending graduate school in Chicago, Cone realized that none of the lauded European thinkers he was reading in his coursework had anything to say to the disparate social conditions being experienced by blacks in America.  While he appreciated their contributions to the theological canon, their inapplicability to his current context dogged him.  “What,” he remembers wondering, “could Karl Barth possibly mean for black students who had come from the cotton fields of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, seeking to change the structure of their lives in a society that had defined black as non-being?”

From these questions he turned to the examples of the scriptures, the black church, and his three greatest ethical and theological influencers – the fiery preacher-turned-social-prophet James Baldwin, Baptist Reverend Martin King, and Malcolm X, the black Muslim leader who famously de-converted from Christianity, declaring it “a white man’s religion.”  From attempting to synthesize the best of their moral teachings, Cone has developed a thoroughly Christian religious framework called black liberation theology, which seeks to primarily identify God with the oppressed, in solidarity with black dignity and power against the dehumanization of racism and white supremacy.

James Cone

Cone has spent his life in the academy and the church singing the stories of the marginalized, and his comprehensive systematic theology pointedly makes the claim that the God of the Bible is a special guardian for all those who are oppressed throughout the world – what one Salvadorian liberation theologian and martyr called “the crucified peoples of history.”  Cone currently serves as Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

In Cone’s latest work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he draws explicit parallels between Jesus’ brutal crucifixion and the deaths of thousands of black women, men, and children who were brutally murdered under a regime of carefully-calculated acts of terror and mob violence.  His argument is devastatingly simple: if you are an American Christian who wants to come to a better understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion, you must look at the lynching tree; if you would like to gain a better emotional, sociological, or theological understanding of what first century crucifixions were like in Roman Palestine, there is no better example to look towards than the well-documented firestorm of lynchings that inflamed this country for nearly a century.

As Cone observes:

“Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, and tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.”

Strikingly, the meaning of these two painful symbols is nearly identical; both the cross and the lynching tree remain intimately similar icons.  Why then, one is left to wonder, has the rather glaring connection between the cross and the lynching tree been so powerfully obscured by American society?  On issues of complicity in racism including lynching and segregation, the Western church’s communal consciousness seems to have experienced a sudden and collective amnesia.  Or maybe it is not so sudden – according to Cone’s research, throughout nearly a century of celebrated protracted lynchings, one cannot find a single sermon or theological treatise given by any white Christian leader, evangelist, layperson, or theologian who made the explicit and obvious connection between the cross and the lynching tree.

What have could possibly accounted for this?

As civil rights leader and journalist Ida B. Wells commented as she documented lynchings across the country, “American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.”  Some seventy years later, Martin King would prophesy something similar when he said “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

There are few current trends more indicative of “dry-as-dust religion” than the way the meaning of the cross has been spirited away at the hands of white Christians, even as it is sanitized and actively and purposefully divested from our culture’s most potent mirror image of it.  It is hard to consider this trend anything other than the working out of our society’s idolatrous racialist framework, which continues to hold the church in cultural captivity.

the lynching tree

For as Cone carefully recounts in his latest work, the cross of Jesus meant something entirely different for whites than it did for blacks.  While white Christians on their way home from church looked at broken black bodies and saw nothing but hollow entertainment, black Christians could in the victims of lynching see their long-suffering, crucified God.  While white Christians looked at the cross and chose to willfully abstract this symbol into detached spiritual dimensions, black Christians saw solidarity, a source of impossible support.

Cone reminds us how, through their direct experiences with the lynching tree, black Christians could ultimately find hope in the cross, even in the face of an immanent system that could put the body to death, but could not kill the spirit.  This is the liberative power of the gospel, which we can no longer afford to obscure; these stories must be centered, catechized.

These killings are not all that far behind us.  The twisted memories of the lynching era still inhabit our shared atmosphere.  To paraphrase the words of the great writer James Baldwin, we are trapped in history and history is trapped in us.  In the United States at least, American Christians gather to worship not only at the foot of the cross, but also in the shadow of the lynching tree.  Therefore, followers of the crucified God cannot possibly find any meaning in the cross unless we are willing to see Jesus’ death in light of lynching, by looking squarely at the sour, strange fruit in our midst.

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