Behind the Song: “I Am Welcome”

The chorus of the song “I Am Welcome” from my new album “Fully Alive”  is just one simple line repeated a couple of times, but I’ve been amazed over the years how deeply this brief refrain seems to touch people. Here are the words…

I am welcome, I am welcome, I am loved just as I am

I often use this song when I lead worship in churches.  I sing the verses of the song and the congregation joins in on this simple refrain.

I’ve been amazed how often people start to cry as they sing these simple words.  Part of the reason is because far too many congregations have done a lousy job of fully welcoming people to be who they truly are. I’ve heard lots of painful stories over the years of how people were judged and rejected by churches– told that they were not welcome in one congregation or another. Not welcome to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion for example because they were divorced. Not welcome to be married or to have their children baptized. Not welcome because they weren’t “members” or because their lifestyle was regarded to be somehow “unacceptable” to God.  People in the GLBTQ communities especially have been through hell in this regard.  I’m so incredibly glad that the tide is significantly changing–although of course there’s plenty of work yet to be done.

But beyond the ways that folks have sometimes been excluded and condemned by churches or by other institutions, many of us have a painfully hard time fully welcoming and loving ourselves–“just as we are.”  We struggle to accept ourselves and to believe that who we really are is loveable.  Maybe we can’t forgive ourselves for some of the things we’ve done (or maybe not done).  As the bridge of “I Am Welcome” says…

Some of us have skeletons in closets that often haunt us/ And some have been put down so much we’re convinced even God couldn’t want us

But this is precisely why I wrote this song–to remind myself and others that it’s not only “okay” but actually beautiful to be a good old flawed human being.  It’s taken me a long time to embrace the truth that the spiritual journey isn’t about being perfect. It’s about learning to deal gracefully and deeply with the reality that we are all “mixed bags.” The mind-blowing Truth of the Gospel is that the Divine knows us better than we do ourselves and sees through all of our ego-driven half-truths, defenses, games, deceptions, strategies, excuses, addictions, cover-ups and crap.  God knows that we’re all less than we could be, or should be, or want to be.  The Source is fully aware that we let ourselves and others down. We forget who we Truly Are at our essence.  We hurt people, including those we love the most.  We blow opportunities and squander our gifts and energy and opportunities. Hopefully not on purpose and hopefully not recklessly or maliciously.  But let’s face it–we do that too– and sometimes with spectacularly painful and dramatic and heinous results.

And yet… as the bridge of the song concludes,

Here’s the bottom line/ the deepest truth about our lives/ is revealed as we embrace these simple words/…I am welcome…

In other words, God is flat out crazy about us anyway—so much so that to quote the late author Brennan Manning, “God would literally rather die than live without us.”

The “good news” is that somehow, even with all of our inconsistencies, this awkward dance we all do between our beauty and our brokenness is all okay. The Divine has made it all okay, and we’re all Welcome to simply be who we are, with all our gifts and glories, and yes, with all our worst screw ups and failures.  And I do mean ALL of them.  Otherwise Grace isn’t real or radical enough to truly set us free.

But Grace is that real, as President Obama just recently reminded us in his stunning eulogy for the Mother Emmanuel 9. Grace is unearned, and yet God gives it to us all anyway. Not because we’re good, but because God is good.

Oh I know that’s hard to believe. It’s harder sometimes to even like. I mean there’s a part of our smaller senses of “justice” that is offended by this Love that is handed out so indiscriminately and beyond all forms of meritocracy. And as hard as this kind of Grace is to believe, sometimes it’s even harder to feel. As I say in the first verse of this song,

It’s funny, ‘cause if someone told me what I just told you/I’d quickly tell them man there’s nothing you could ever say or do/ That could take away God’s crazy, relentless love for you/ and even though my head believes that that’s the truth/ my heart sometimes won’t listen to my best theology /It’s like the Grace I love to sing about was meant for everyone but me/ O Spirit come and find me; I think I’m needing to relearn/ That my place at your Table is not something I must earn/ ’Cause I am welcome…

The Truth is that it’s more than okay to be at home in our own skin and to just be who we are.  I may be stepping onto a potential theological landmine here, but I believe more and more that it was somehow an intentional part of the Creation Story that the “human condition” be exactly what it is—a Story about beings who were and are created with a capacity both for amazing fidelity and beauty and freedom and love–and yet also with an impressive capacity to choose against Love and mess it all up royally.  I mean isn’t that who we all are?

Well I know that’s who I am.  I can’t believe some of the stupid, selfish stuff I’ve done at various points in my life.  Times I look back on and think, “how could I have done that?  How could I have said that?  How could I have acted that way?  Treated someone that way?  Been that divided within myself? Where the hell was I?  How did I lose myself that completely?

But you know, the more the years go by the more I find myself actually feeling grateful for this freedom we all have to mess up as much as we do.   As much suffering as we sometimes bring upon ourselves and others, I’m learning to see it as a good thing that we are all free to lose our way.  I have a hunch that the Creator knew from the get go that this wild journey of getting lost and found again and again is what we humans would need in order to grow and mature “into Christ” (or into our Buddha nature–whatever framework you want to use).  Having the freedom to get it wrong sometimes is not only how we grow into our True Identity as children of God made in the Divine image–it’s also how we remain fully free for real relationships.  Real loving relationships can never be puppet shows in which we are forced to act or be a certain way.  And as Fr. Richard Rohr often remarks, “we usually learn and grow more by getting things wrong than by getting them right.” Anyone who has paid attention to his or her own spiritual journey at all knows this. Or as Julian of Norwich wrote, “First the fall, then recovery from the fall, and BOTH are the Grace of God.”

I don’t know about you, but somehow this is really good news to me.  ‘Cause I’ve messed up plenty.  And I’ve also learned some of the deepest and most important things I know deep down with my whole heart by virtue of the mistakes I’ve made.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not in any way minimizing the tragic things that we humans sometimes do or that others have sometimes done to us. I’m not talking about “cheap grace” or giving ourselves license.  Being Welcome doesn’t mean it’s “all okay” to lose ourselves so tragically and completely that we recklessly harm ourselves or others.   There are consequences for wrong actions and things we were and are never “meant” to do. But what I am saying is that even when we detour and lose ourselves most dramatically and the worst things actually do happen, the Love of God is still unconditional. In fact that’s when we ALL—victims and perpetrators–need to be reminded of Love’s unconditional Welcome the most—as the members of Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, SC are teaching the world even as I write these very words.

It’s amazing how Grace is most powerful and transformative when God offers it through human beings who have every right and reason to hold a justifiable grudge or to flat out hate those who committed a gross injustice against them.  Oppressed peoples in the tradition of Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr. and BB King and Oscar Romero and Harriet Tubman have consistently taught this kind of Grace to the world. As Dr. Cornel West recently said (and I’m paraphrasing a bit so click here to see the actual video) during an interview in Australia, “In the face of catastrophe, the Love has kept flowing and the best folks in my tradition have always responded with compassion, courage, and vision and never with hatred or vengeance.”

So I guess what I’m really trying to say in this song is that knowing and believing and trusting how deeply loved we all are–and always will be– is the most important spiritual Truth of all. I need to be reminded of this again and again, because I forget this again and again. But it’s funny. The more “Welcome” I feel personally, the more I want to be the most healthy, just, kind, caring, morally and ethically and spiritually alive person I can be, and the more I want to extend this same Welcome to others.   And that’s why the final chorus of the song evolves a bit to extend this Self-Love to others;

I am welcome, I am welcome, I am loved just as I am/ I am welcome, you are welcome, we are loved just as we are/ O Spirit burn that Truth into our hearts

Note:  You can download the song, “I Am Welcome” or the entire “Fully Alive” album on i-tunes by clicking here,

or purchase the physical CD and have it shipped to you by clicking here.

Behind The Song: “Jesus Was Not An American”

Fully Alive cover

The song “Jesus Was Not An American” from my new album “Fully Alive” (listen to a clip of this song on i-tunes) starts out with an apology I’ve wanted to make for a long time…

Let me start with an overdue apology/  to some veterans of foreign wars I’ve known/  In my attempts to be a man who stands for peace/  I regret some of the arrogance I’ve shown/   Looking back sometimes I wish I’d kept my mouth shut/ and met you in some human place beyond who’s right or wrong/ and listened to you speak of what can still bring you to tears/  and honored what you’ve lived with all these years

 When I was a pastor in a small northern Wisconsin town in the mid 1980’s, I sometimes preached some controversial and hard-hitting sermons against war in general and against some of what the U.S. was doing militarily during the Reagan years. I had no ideological axe to grind and no agenda other than to try to be a faithful preacher. And though I was just 25 when I started that pastorate in 1984, chances are I would still agree with the overall content of whatever I said in those sermons. I’m no more in favor of war as a way of resolving differences now than I was then. In fact I’m probably more anti-war now than ever.

But what I regret was the extent to which I was flat out “clueless” when it came to how those sermons probably sounded and felt to some of the vets in my congregation. Most of them were WWII vets. Some served in Korea or Viet Nam. Many of them went through absolute hell when they were in combat. Some of them held their friends as they breathed their last breath. Many of them still struggle to live with the things they had to see and do and experience when they were soldiers.   A lot of them still can’t really even talk about it.

Over the years, as I’ve been privileged to just sit and listen to what some of my veteran friends have been through in various theatres of combat, I’ve come to a place where just about any soldier gets a pass in my book. Most of my opinions feel trite or somehow beside the point. My heart simply breaks for what these men and women had to go through and what they have had to try to live with.

Very few of them asked or chose to be in the battlefields. They all did their best under incredible pressure. They tasted fear and horror of a magnitude that few of us will ever know. Beyond the policies and reasons for the wars, they “did their duty.” And I’ve never been in their shoes. So a huge part of me just feels as though I should shut up and simply honor what soldiers have been through—not because I agree with war under any circumstances—but because these men and women were simply doing their best to serve with honor. Most of them truly believed they were fighting “for freedom” in one way or another. I’m not going to argue that point with any soldier or with the families of soldiers. I just want to honor their intentions, even if I don’t always agree with their perspectives.

But this “God and country” stuff—the sentimental synthesis of biblical faith and patriotism—wrapping ANY nation’s flag around the cross of Christ and claiming that “God is on our side” or that God favors our cause over that of an enemy—is dangerous in the least, and at worst, flat out idolatrous.  And to somehow suggest that the God of Jesus cares less about the death of so-called “enemies of our state,” civilian or otherwise, than God does about citizens and soldiers of the U.S., is to at best ignore and at worst to make a mockery out of so many of Jesus’ teachings—most specifically his mandate to “love our enemies” and to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated.

Precisely because the heart strings connected to the “land of our birth” run so deeply within us, we need sometimes to simply and bluntly remind ourselves that God—the Source—the Creator of All that Is—The One whose Essence is Unconditional Love–is not the tribal deity of any one nation or group of people. For those of us whose spirituality is grounded in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, every human on the planet is created in the image of the Creator and is a child of God. The Divine will not be reduced to the mascot, cheerleader, or chaplain of any one country. If we are going to pray that God will bless our nation, we need to also pray that God will bless the people of every nation. As I say in the bridge of “Jesus Was Not An American”…

 I’m glad to pray that God will bless our troops/  But the Love of Christ crosses all borders and boundary lines/  So I’ll pray for troops of every land and I’ll pray most fervently/  For the innocent defenseless whose lives are torn apart/  When policies are reckless, and so-called “smart bombs” are not so smart

 I love the U.S. and believe that at our best we stand for some very noble ideals (though it should be acknowledged that our founding fathers also had some serious blind spots when it came to the rights of indigenous peoples, people of color, and women).  One of the principles I value most deeply (and I do so as one who is motivated by the respect and love I find grounded in biblical teachings) is the separation of Church (i.e. religion) and State.  Out of respect and love for those of my “neighbors” who do not believe in God at all, I don’t want anyone’s take on religious matters to be imposed on others, and I certainly don’t want a theocracy.  What a disaster that would be.  As another presidential electoral cycle is already kicking into gear, I think we need to make this point as clearly and strongly as possible.  Because as a follower of Jesus I am called to treat others as I myself would want to be treated, I don’t want Jesus or Christianity or ANY religious perspective forced on others.  I wouldn’t want someone else’s religion forced on me, and that’s why I won’t force mine on others.  And I don’t want religious Truth–beyond a general sense that virtually ALL religions value and stand for Love at their core (despite the extent to which most all religions have been distorted and misappropriated by violent and hateful subgroups)– to be forced into the discussions at the heart of electoral politics.

Yes, we have a beautiful Constitution and Bill of Rights, and when we act according to those principles we are often among the best that nation statehood can offer this world.  Sometimes we even line up beautifully with biblical values and Sacred Scriptures of many different religious traditions.

But the United States is not God’s “chosen nation.” God does not love or favor the U.S. over and against other nations.  Yes, I hope and pray that we as a nation state will choose to stand for biblical concepts and Truths such as justice, kindness, compassion, earth-keeping, love, mercy, freedom, respect, and the well-being particularly of the most vulnerable folks among us. I will work hard in respectful community with others in our pluralistic culture to see these concepts and Truths realized in our common life and in our nation’s policies.  But I will pray and work to see these things realized for the peoples of all other nations as well.  Yes…

 I know this is hard for some to hear/  But Jesus was not an American/  And when the nations rage, and the gears of warfare grind/  Jesus weeps for the victims on every side.

Note:  “Jesus Was Not An American” is available for download on i-tunes on Bryan’s new release “Fully Alive.”  You can also purchase the physical CD have have it shipped to you immediately by clicking here.