Holy week has been a hell of a week. Our palm branches were barely stored to become next year’s ashes when our “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was interrupted by the breaking news that 31 of our brothers and sisters in Brussels had died because of the cowardly acts of a few misguided brothers. I wish that I was still capable of being surprised by how quickly some brothers and sisters quit singing “Hosanna” and began shouting “Crucify!” One misguided brother said, “I mean it’s hard to believe. We can’t waterboard—listen, nothing’s nice about it, but it’s your minimal form of torture.” (Trump) I feel confidant that the Jesus spoken of by those two Corinthians was not a fan of state sponsored violence.
Before we even had a chance this Holy Week to recall the commandment that Christ gave us to love one another as he had loved us; some duly elected brothers and sisters in Raleigh breathed new life into old Jim Crow when the NC General Assembly passed House Bill 2. It is hard for me to count such duly elected persons as my brothers and sisters in Christ. I struggle with the thought that so many of them spent this Easter worshipping the one who died with his arms nailed wide-open welcoming all G-d’s children, especially those wounded by religious legalism and bigotry. (Storey) It is disheartening to think that on that holiest of days some of our brothers and sisters still believe that they are saving us by waging a bitter civil war. The observation that we live in dark days is entirely appropriate and unfortunately can be made all too often.
What shall we do in such dark days? We will do what Easter people have always done; we will celebrate in the shadows. We have always celebrated the resurrection and the hope for new life in the shadow of the cross. We will rejoice that the light that shines in the darkness, and that darkness did not then, will not now, nor ever will overcome it! We must celebrate because Christ died and rose again so that our misguided, even if they are duly elected, brothers and sisters and their supporters might die to such bigotry. And that we who find them both to be contrarian and oppositional might also die to our intolerance. “[For our] old [lives are] dead. [Our] new life, which is [our] real life…is with Christ in G-d. [G-d] is [our] life.” (Colossians 3:3-4) But, trust me when I say that nobody wants to die. The emptiness of sanctuaries on Good Friday compared to the full pews on Easter Sunday is evidence enough. Death, even if it is metaphoric, is painful. In my near 40 years on this earth, I have died 100’s of times and I will likely need to die 100’s more.
I wish this story took place in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, but it doesn’t. I grew up in the ‘80s when everything that is currently fashionable was fashionable for the first time. My friends and I filled our days playing football in our backyards then basketball in our driveways interrupting both for occasional excursions into a patch of woods behind my house to sneak the equally occasional drag off a communal cigarette we stole from somebody’s mom or dad. Most of our games ended with us firing insults at each other. And just as football and basketball have rules, so do insults. You were free to talk about anybody’s mama, but never about the color of her baby’s skin. Besides, racist slurs weren’t the worse thing you could be called. The worst thing your friends could say was that “you’re gay.” Our backyard and driveway insults became all the more frequent and even more vile when AIDS first became a national concern. My friends and I were taught in school and at home that AIDS was “that gay disease.” I was an ignorant little parrot who repeated what friends, family and even the faculty said never considering that their words might be wrong. And I never thought about how when those words became my words that such words might hurt others. My misguided notions exceeded the boundaries of my childhood where I could claim ignorance as an excuse. I was such a misguided and mistaken brother in Christ. My death, even if metaphoric, could not come soon enough. And when it did, I was amazed who G-d used to raise me to a new life.
His name was Tom Collins and we met in the summer of 1999. I had just finished my first year at Duke and was in my first field education placement. That summer my then fiancee, now long suffering wife, booked us tickets to see Rent in Charlotte. Rent is a rock musical loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème. It tells the story of a group of starving young artists who struggle to get by in New York City’s East Village circa 1989 living in the shadow of the disease our schools and homes taught us was a gay curse.
Tom was a bisexual, part-time philosophy professor and full-time anarchist who happens to be HIV positive. Tom is mugged in the opening scene, but before his assailants could seriously hurt him an Angel swoops in and rescues Tom. This Angel happens to be a drag-queen percussionist who has AIDS. These two men fell in love at first sight and their love deepens with each passing scene. The first act is light and upbeat establishing the other characters as fickle on-again off-again lovers. But not Angel and Tom, they are soulmates the in-sickness-and-in-health and until-death-do-we-part kind.
The first somber notes come when the cast reflects on living with HIV/AIDS. In a round the cast asks, “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” As the play progress, Angel loses his dignity as AIDS claims more and more of his life. The musical continues with the other characters coupling, falling in and out of love with each other. While they have spats and flings that lead to more spats, in the background of each scene, Angel depends on Tom more and more as he succumbs to the AIDS virus. While the rest of the cast sings about the joy of new love and the frustration when that new love fails, there in the background, Tom quietly nurses Angel. The juxtaposition of the trivialities and impermanence of the other characters’ relationships with the devotion and commitment of Tom to Angel is moving. This juxtaposition builds until each couple breaks up saying, one after the other, says, “Its over.” Its over. Its over. There is a brief silence that is broken by Tom who with much effort manages “It’s over” as he covers Angel’s body with a sheet.
Tom moves centerstage as the rest of the cast becomes a chorus hidden in the shadow of the spotlight that is now on him. He begins to sing gently in an understandably strained baritone, “Live in my house. I’ll be your shelter. Just pay me back. With one thousand kisses. Be my lover and I’ll cover you….” Tom is reprising a song Angel sang earlier celebrating their love, but when Angel sang it the song was light and joyful. Now, centerstage, Tom is encircled by darkness and sings as his heart is breaking, “Open your door. I’ll be your tenant. Don’t got much baggage to lay at your feet. But sweet kisses, I’ve got to spare. I’ll be there and I’ll cover you.”
Regardless of its medium, art—when it is at its best—bars its beholder from ever going back to where he/she was before. Tom’s voice grows conveying the depth of his love and the heaviness of his heart. “I think they meant it. When they said you can’t buy love. Now I know you can rent it. A new lease, you are my love, on life, all my life.” He sings, and I am no longer in a theater, I’m bedside and I can’t tell if I’m in a home or a hospital. All I know is that I’m there with them and I’m stammering and stuttering trying to find those right words that Tom and I both know don’t exist that will make his present reality less of a hell. And I feel that unmistakeable lump in my throat that is failing more and more to hold back the emotions that are no longer polite sympathy, but have become genuine empathy. My face flushes. My eyes fill with tears. I’m shaking. My hands, white-knuckled, grip my armrests. I feel Summer’s hand resting on mine. Her hand was soft. Her touch was gentle. I grabbed her hand, holding on for dear life, as Tom sang, “I’ve longed to discover something as true as this is,…” Tom’s voice washes over me and I’m drowning in its beauty as he cries, “If you’re cold and you’re lonely,” I’m sinking beneath the current of each note. “You’ve got one nickel only.” Each note was a wave that washed away my old life. The song was a flood that was toppling the levy that others had erected and I had so willingly maintained. Tom’s voice builds as he recalls the life that gave his life such meaning and purpose, “When you’re worn out and tired” Then he belts out, “when your heart has expired!” I let go of one armrest to squeeze Summer’s hand as if that armrest were a ledge and her hand the only thing that could pull me to safety. I had to hold her hand. I had to touch her. I had to know that she was still beside me and not under some sheet in some home or some hospital.
As Tom’s voice faded and we applauded, and in that moment there were no binaries, the most sinful being “us and them.” Angel was my brother. Tom was my brother. I was dying and it hurt. It hurt to confess that for all my progressive political correctness I was a man with unclean lips. It hurt to recognize that the Jesus I knew in my old life his arms were not open on the cross, but busy holding other brothers and sisters at an arm’s length. I was ashamed to even guess at how many people I had hurt. It took a fictitious gay man in a staged performance to show me that the same love I had for the long suffering woman who sat beside me that day, in that theater, was no different from the love between any two people.
Before there is a resurrection, somebody has to die. No one has ever got to Sunday by skipping Friday. We’d all like to believe we are willing clay in the hands of the Potter, but we know we’re more like stone waiting on the Sculptor. And when G-d places chisel to stone and hammer to chisel it hurts when pieces break and shatter. It hurts when solid stone is made into shards. But without shatters and shards, not one of us takes on the image of the one who created us. Death, even when it is metaphoric, is painful.
I will neither support nor tolerate the hateful actions of my duly elected brothers and sisters in Raleigh. But in humility, aware of my own sinfulness, I cannot say that that would have always been the case. Praise God who in the person of “Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” (1st Timothy 1:15) And while I cannot agree with them, I understand why they are where they are. I understand it. But don’t misinterpret my understanding as support. I want to stand on the right side of history and I cannot do that if I’m busy sitting on its fence. And I worship the God who doesn’t respect the boundary between life and death will not hesitate to cross the boundaries we raise between any us and any them.