With the Fourth Sunday in Lent behind us, we are more than halfway through this 40-day season of intentional self-reflection. Followers of Christ set aside these 40 days to prepare ourselves for the convicting challenges of Good Friday and the liberating blessings of Easter. As we get closer to that day of resurrection, we also get closer to Jerusalem in our discipleship with Christ. Nearing what he knows will be his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and death, Jesus tells us that if we want to follow him beyond death and into the victory of new life, we must deny ourselves—turn away from our false personhood, as in who the world tells us we are, and toward our identity in God’s eyes—pick up our cross, and keep on following in his footsteps. When we look at the big picture—not just today, but where Lent is leading us—these days of contemplative preparation for what’s coming are crucial, because I can’t pick up my cross and follow Jesus if I’m not at peace with myself, if I’m not OK with who I am.
On Monday, Florida’s governor signed the Parental Rights in Education bill into law, which opponents of the legislation call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Among its controversial measures, the law forbids teachers from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. A story from National Public Radio interviewed several teachers who are concerned about how this legislation will affect them and their students, one of whom is Clinton McCracken. Mr. McCracken, a gay man who has taught art for 21 years at Howard Middle School Academy of Arts in Orlando, says that the new law “tells him and his LGBTQ students that there’s something ‘inappropriate’ about them: that their identity is taboo, or somehow dirty.” In response to the legislation, he says, “I’m not teaching kids how to be gay in my classroom, but I’ll tell you what I am doing. I am trying with all my power to teach kids to be OK with who they are.”
It strikes me that this is what Jesus is doing all the time in his earthly ministry: teaching all of God’s children to be OK with themselves. Sometimes he uses words that can be gentle or downright harsh. Sometimes he uses actions that can be as subtle as wandering off to pray by himself to get centered or as confrontational as telling a mob of men to throw a stone at a woman allegedly caught in the act of adultery if they themselves have never sinned. But Jesus is always about getting us to be honest with ourselves, to get real with who we are so that we can follow him into all the challenges and blessings God maps out for each of God’s unmistakable children.
In light of Florida’s controversial new law, I’m thankful for teachers like Mr. McCracken who give rise to liberated children like Landon Svatek. Landon was a member of our church who died in his sleep three years ago. Although his passing was untimely and terribly sad for all who loved him (and that’s a lot of us), what remains a comfort to me is that I have no doubt Landon was at peace. He was OK with who he was, and he shared that liberating joy with all who were blessed to be in the circle of his affection.
I recall vividly when Landon approached me at church and whispered to me that he would soon be starting hormone treatment as part of his gender transitioning. After sharing that secret with me that would soon be celebrated public knowledge, Landon pulled away from my ear and showed me one of the most radiant smiles I’ve ever seen. In that moment, I remember thinking, “There you are. I see you.”
Curse the world’s attempts to keep Landon or Mr. McCracken’s students or any of God’s children from being OK with who they are. Bless the work of those faithful to Christ’s Way of liberating love in doing everything in their power to teach all of God’s children to be so real with themselves that they would never hesitate to pick up the tasks mapped out for their one-and-only life and walk with courage into the unknown. May we all be at peace with ourselves enough to pick up our cross and walk with Christ into all of life’s convicting challenges and liberating blessings, for this gives witness to what is eternally true: you are God’s beloved child, and you are meant to be OK with that identity so that nothing would keep you from loving others as you love yourself.