The night gnaws at me from the outside like the fear does from within, the world in my stomach is churning. I know there’s a hell because there is a place in me, where the worm dieth not. But brimstone or no brimstone, I am cold. I know the wood beneath me is hot. Seeking comfort, I stretch out my hands, hoping to be lapped gently by tongues of fire.
I’ve been marooned in this moment, a thousand times over. The wind keeps carrying me back to it. And every time, the scene ends the same: she walks over and says she knows she saw me with them. Every time, I hedge my bets, I put my hands in my pockets; I stumble. I swear. I deny.
But this is not the Biblical tale, and I am no poor man’s Simon Peter. In the red-soaked heartland where I live, it is okay to say you have seen Jesus. Everybody has seen the man, and everybody has a story to tell about him. People here say they have seen Jesus in thorn bushes and cloud formations and jars of mustard, at the top of the mountain and the bottom of the bottle. People say they have seen the face of Jesus appear in a caesar salad, and heard his voice somehow in the radio static; they’ve seen stars turn into crucifixes like birds in formation. In a way I believe them all, since the One for whom poetry herself dances fills all things, with or without their permission. In a way everyone who says they have seen him tells the truth, even if they don’t mean to.
So it is not the fact that I have seen him that causes me consternation — we tell those stories with the joy of proud grandparents. It is where I have seen him, and how, and with whom I have seen him. Do I tell her I saw him last week in New York City at the vigil for Orlando, outside the Stonewall Inn? Could I explain how I felt the Spirit in the air, the same Love I felt at the tent revival? But there was no church, and there was no steeple; I was outside the gate with LGBTQ people.
It was the night after 49 sons and daughters lied down in a pool of blood, carried away from their mothers by the evening tide. They were holding onto each other in bathrooms stacked with corpses while blood filled their noses, and the floor — and it was the night after. The phones were still lighting up their pockets against lifeless bodies, when the rescue workers came hours later, the sound of heaving mothers in autotune, turned into the sound of an iphone. This was the night after. The people came like Israelites, to a place they knew as a temple, to wail, to chant, to hope, to sing their songs of lament, and to beg their country to stop screwing themselves to death with their own guns.
It was there I last saw the man from Galilee, amidst the shouts and pain, in the thick of fierce love and God-forsakeness. It was in their tears that I saw the grief of God, and in their clinging to each other I felt God clinging onto us. Outside the gate, outside the temple, outside the city that kills her prophets and stones those who are sent to her — it was there that I last saw him. God with us, the friend of sinners, stood in our midst.
Some of the friends of Jesus would not be caught dead there. Yet in the same city this week, they took pictures with Donald Trump, with their thumbs in the air. And that day, that one day, they did in fact say — but he is the friend of sinners! — and they were right when they said it. It is just that their Jesus is only the friend of sinners, when the sinner in question happens to be Caesar. He’s a friend of Caesars, because they want to be friends of Caesars. The old moral majority is frail and mortal now, hoping that Trump can make America great again — and Lord willing, make them great again too. Remember us when you come into your kingdom, they whispered to the man in the red ball cap, as they handed their own Iphones to their sons to take their photos.
I, like them, cannot fathom my own complicity in the Babylon I helped to build. We cannot fathom the comedy of our clown's Eucharist, breaking the bread with fingers sticky from blood and gun powder, counting money and getting off. Preaching a gospel without justice, a God who asks nothing of us in particular toward the poor...a religion in which the cross is negotiable, but the assault rifle is not. The violence in the world exposes the darkness in us, and this is judgment. Still, the lamb standing as if slain draws near to us even now, summoning us to follow him wherever he goes, to love not our own lives even unto death. To come apart from the city of violence, to join him in making all things new.
Something shifts in my watery stomach while I’m sitting at the fire tonight, revisiting the crime scene of my own betrayal(s). I have acted on my fears more often than on my faith, as much as anyone. But I feel truth rising from the back of me, like hunger. I know I’ve been to many temples, been on the other side of the veil, and found a little man behind a curtain more often than I’ve found some sort of wizard or some kind of ark-most especially behind the veil of my own frail heart. Yet with relentless consistency, every time I’ve been outside the gate, I have seen the man—I have seen Jesus. But it’s really not Jesus you want me to disown now, is it? It’s his friends you want me to deny.
Still outside the Stonewall Inn, I know I saw men of sorrows, acquainted with grief. We hid our faces from them; we esteemed them stricken by God, afflicted. But Christ was there, with them. Christ is with all of those who are outside the gate. I saw him there, in them, all over again.
This time, I will not deny.