Monday, February 3, 2020

All of us or None

I finished The New Jim Crow a couple of weeks ago. It’s a powerful book and, even though I know why I put it on the back burner, I can’t believe I didn’t get to it before now. I’ve heard the book’s main argument over the years, of course. Anyone aware of institutional racism in this country has, I hope. The war on drugs has essentially created a new Jim Crow system and the evidence for this is compelling. Ten years after its publishing, I think it’s safe to say that The New Jim Crow has cemented itself as an essential read for those who want to look our nation’s problems squarely in the eye and seek to solve them. 

The book’s ending has been rattling around in my head for weeks. Well, really one phrase: All of us or none. There’s a prison activist group that’s taken that phrase for their name. There’s an Emma Lazarus quote to the same effect, though for a different context and different audience: Until we are all free, we are none of us free. 

Now, this is not a new idea. It’s not a particularly western idea either; I don’t care to count the number of sermons I’ve heard about ubuntu, a Bantu term popularized for us white people by Desmond Tutu’s theology. We are all interconnected. We know that for a certainty. And when one of us hurts, we all should feel the effects. Humans are social creatures and this planet is one interconnected system. I am because we are. All of us or none. Simple. 

Simple, but difficult. Simple, but exacting. Because many of us who are in most ways free, we don’t always understand that our freedom, our comfort, our convenience, rests on the imprisonment of others. In the United States, our anglo freedom has always rested on the imprisonment of others. We have always been, and still are, too ambitious to do much of anything justly and sustainably. In our rush for our freedom, we have crushed the freedom of others. 

It is daunting to imagine the work and sacrifice needed to set each and every human free, free from poverty, free from discrimination, free from all that prevents us from living life and life abundant. It is daunting to imagine how to set the Earth free from the ways we have bound it. But the work is necessary; the sins of racism will continue to claw at us until we are torn apart. The use and abuse of our planet will result in catastrophic effects for us unless we begin the healing now. Poverty will spread like the disease it is until our world is a waste. 

But more than that, more than all of that, more than the fact that those of us who are free are still imprisoned as long as anyone is imprisoned, is the heartbreaking fact that any are imprisoned in this world of abundance and glorious diversity. Why aren’t our hearts perpetually breaking for those who are bound tight by poverty? Why are we outraged by all acts of racism, not just the obvious ones? Why must we be reminded over and over and over again that people are people and that we are none of us free until we are all free? 

If we Christians are to be anything like Jesus, the one who proclaimed release for the captives and the year of the Lord’s favor, then our every thought, action, and organization should be shaped for freedom for all. 

And can we imagine what the world would look like if we did that? If every tiny country church was committed to freedom from poverty, freedom from addiction, freedom from discrimination, freedom to be who God made each of us to be? I fully believe that if we made that our mission, our way of life, our way of being in this world, then groups of ten or twenty or thirty would reshape the communities they’re in. And once you’ve been freed, truly freed, then what in this world would stop you from freeing someone else? 

Imagine a denomination committed to freedom. Even a denomination of a few dozen churches fully committed to freedom would be able to make a noise, to lobby for or against legislation, to hold public servants accountable, to be a voice advocating for a more just government on each and every level. That’s the slow work of the Social Gospel, I admit, but I am frightened by anything that moves faster than that. Maybe that’s a fear I need to be freed from myself. 

All of us or none of us. I feel this deep in my bones, a fundamental truth that has been hidden over the years with layers of self-absorption and acceptance and a numbing fear of change. Now that I’ve unearthed it, though, why would I hide it under a bushel? Why would I allow it to be dimmed when it could transform how we live with one another? Why would I keep the gospel to myself? To preserve an organization? To save someone else’s feelings? 

That’s not what Jesus did. 

And a seed that was planted in me, though it has had to fight through rocks and weeds to grow, has finally started to sprout. Maybe I do genuinely want to be like Jesus. 

Maybe it’s time.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Losing My Soul

Content warning: suicidal thoughts, self harm, homophobia

I sat in my office yesterday with my phone in my hand, a little drained from having paid our second power bill of the winter season. This woman had called the church as a last-ditch option, having tried getting help from a few other agencies and being denied for complicated reasons. I met her at Wal-Mart to get the power bill from her as she went into work and she said, “I’d hug you, but I’d spend half my shift crying.”

I know the look she had on her face. I’ve had it myself. It’s a look that reaches down into the rest of your body and makes you rigid and brittle. It’s that “holding it together” look, the one that comes from convincing yourself that you have to make it through today without falling apart. I had that look on my face for most of seminary and I just had myself to care for. I can’t imagine being a single mom working a full-time job trying to care for a son and yourself and still finding that your funds are coming up short. I know the look but I can’t imagine her life.

Back in my office chair, having just got off the phone with the power company, I thought about the sermon I preached a few weeks ago about Zacchaeus, about how after talking to Jesus, he poured his wealth back into the community. I called out the Waltons in that sermon, asking what it would be like if they took their combined $200 billion in wealth and gave half of it to the poor and then paid their workers something better than a living wage. What a different world we’d live in, a world where this mother wouldn't have to worry about paying her bills.

I thought about the coats that I needed to sort for our winter clothing drive, the ones we’ll bless on Sunday. I thought about the cans we collected for our food pantry that I had just helped load into the back of a pick-up truck, driven by a volunteer who had himself once needed to use the food pantry while he got back on his feet. I thought about the phone bills we’ve paid, the visits I’ve made, the time I’ve spent just listening to people who need to be listened to. I thought about the meetings upon meetings I’ve sat in to try and start some much-needed literacy and child advocacy and programming. I thought about all that we’re doing and all that we hope to do and I got mad.

So, of course, I took to Twitter. Now, I interact differently with Twitter than maybe others do. Usually, I do a lot of reading, a lot of thinking, a lot of listening to people I might not otherwise get to interact with and a lot of bookmarking resources to learn more. I’ve cultivated a space on Twitter where I can learn and be pushed and while I am guilty of mindlessly scrolling from time to time, more often than not, I leave Twitter with a new piece of wisdom or insight than I had before, rather than leaving with rage and a hardness of heart.

I went to Twitter because my anger was a half-formed thought and I wanted to lay the situation out for others who might not be thinking about it. Because while I could have dragged Wal-Mart and made comments about how religious organizations are subsidizing corporate greed, that wasn’t the point I wanted to make. I was thinking about all the work my church has done, my tiny country church with maybe 20 people in worship on Sunday now that the snowbirds have gone home for the winter, and how the current troubles in the United Methodist Church jeopardize our ministry.

So I talked about all we’ve done over the past few weeks. I talked about how a split in the UMC would damage and maybe even end our ministry. I talked about the rural church as both a band-aid on poverty and the prophetic voice speaking out against the systems that cause and ensconce poverty in this, one of the richest countries in the world. I mourned all the good work that might go undone and I spoke out against those who think things will be fine regardless of what the denomination decides to do. If rural churches close because of what’s decided at the next General Conference (and they really might), we will be depriving rural areas of the only safety net they have left.

Now, I have an interest in the current fight in the UMC over the ordination of clergy in open same-sex relationships. I’m not dismissing the importance of the fight for inclusion and I wanted to make that clear in my thread. So at the turning point of the thread, I said, “It’s not just that what’s happening at the highest levels in the UMC is causing tension in congregations and, more importantly, continuing the spiritual and mental abuse of LGBTQ+ United Methodists, it’s that the ministries of the local church are being damaged.” My point in this thread was not to ignore the depth of the struggle in the currently united Methodist Church, but to witness to another reality on the ground. People will go hungry as a result of our fight. When the body of Christ is divided, it cannot be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Someone I didn’t know replied to this tweet. They read the whole thread and agreed that the loss of rural ministries was sad, but that, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” In essence, they said, all the works of my church didn’t matter if we allowed gay people to continue in their sinful ways, to the detriment of their, the gay people’s, souls.

What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul.

I haven’t replied to this person and I might not ever. Having looked at their page, I can tell they’re quite convinced of their position and while I believe deeply that we have to talk to one another if things are going to get better, it would take a lot out of me to engage in conversation with this person.

Because I could go back to Mark 8, where this verse comes from, and point out that this is the chapter in which Jesus feeds the 5000, heals a blind man, and warns against the yeast of the Pharisees, those who were more concerned with their own righteousness than the well-being of the least of these. I could point out that this verse comes from Jesus’ speech telling his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, meaning that Jesus was telling them to eschew any hopes of a political power or a violent uprising but rather to commit themselves to execution rather than compromising on their love of the poor and their commitment to reforming the corruption of the religious systems around them. I could pull out my list of counter-arguments to each of the verses in the bible that condemn same-sex sexual encounters or make a theological and hermeneutical argument that our God is a God of abundant love, using passages from the New Testament letters that were closest to our founder, John Wesley’s, heart. I’ve done the work. I could lay out my case based primarily on scripture while also incorporating the tradition of the church, using my reason, and incorporating my experience of God, as is our theological task. I was baptized a United Methodist, raised a United Methodist, confirmed a United Methodist, educated in a United Methodist seminary, and I serve as a United Methodist pastor, licensed and appointed by Paul L. Leeland, the bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference. I have the bona fides to engage this argument with integrity.

But I don’t want to do that. Engaging in that way would be a repetition of arguments that have been made in book after book, pamphlet after pamphlet. We might hone our debating skills, but not much would change. And if I owed this stranger on the internet anything at all, other than the respect and dignity that all humans are owed, if I had some relationship with this person, this is how I would engage with them.

What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?

Do you know what it’s like to lose your soul?

Because I do.

I lost my soul when I leaned out my bedroom window and started burning myself with the cigarette that I had, up until that moment, been smoking. It didn’t hurt as I pressed it into the skin of my chest, the skin of my body that caused the men around me to sin with their eyes, even with it covered up. It didn’t hurt because I couldn’t feel anything. I was empty. There was nothing in me. If Jesus had tried to take me up to heaven in that moment, there would have been nothing for him to grab onto. A decade’s worth of shame had sent my soul somewhere else and left me bereft.

I lost my soul when, wrapped up in the arms of the man I love, standing on the rooftop of his apartment building, a thought came into my head that I should break away from him and jump the fence. I saw myself running, climbing the chain link, and falling falling falling until I hit the concrete twenty stories below. For the briefest of moments, that emptiness was back, that utter void within me as my soul fled elsewhere, and I almost did what the thought asked. It is only by some miracle that my arms tightened around my partner’s shoulders and my head buried itself in his chest and it is only by love that he knew to hold me just as tight for as long as I needed it. I can only imagine what thoughts went through his head, what prayers he raised, when my soul left me.

There have been dozens of times before and since when my soul has left me, when I have had to walk around like a whitewashed tomb, caught in the emptiness of the unachievable righteousness that had been taught to me in my youth. My soul, that part of me that connects to our God who is love, would be gone and I would be unable to love God or my neighbor or myself. My soul flees from this body that I was taught to hate and fear because its curves incite adulterous thoughts in others and because it craves physical touch. My soul flees from this body that can never do enough for God. My soul flees from this mind because it is convinced of my worthlessness, my sinfulness, my inability to be saved by Christ who can do all other things.

I am unable to be saved, of course, because I’m unrepentantly bi.

And so, my soul left me again after reading this tweet. My soul stayed gone, departed to wherever it is that she goes when the sin of this world blossoms into shame and self-hatred within me, as I drove home from my office. My soul was nowhere to be seen when I came around a corner on the winding road that leads to my house and realized that it would take no effort at all to let my foot sink onto the gas pedal and relax my grip on the steering wheel and run my car into the concrete barrier in front of me. My soul was already gone. Why bother keeping the rest of myself in this world? There’s no profit in it. All the good I could do doesn’t matter, because God made me with a defect in my sexual orientation that is irredeemable.

Do you know how hard it is to snap out of that? Do you know what a struggle it is to summon your soul back to you after it’s gone? Have you, for a second of your life, had to wrestle with a soul with propensity for flight, a soul that gained its wings because of what your church has taught you? Have you been unable to think, to breathe, to function because your soul has been paralyzed by your church’s, your church’s, decision to declare your God-given existence a sin, to proclaim you unworthy of the ministry you were so clearly designed for? Have you sat night after night carving lines into your thighs to punish your body for existing outside the church’s declared righteousness?

Because I have.

This debate is killing me.

And you’re right. No amount of good works in this world will save me. I could house every person in this world and still, I would lose my soul each and every time I accept into my heart the claim that I am unworthy because of my body and who my body is attracted to.

Because that’s what’s happening inside me every time my soul flees. Through my church, the purity movement taught me that my body was bad and that I was bad because my body was bad. Argue that that wasn’t the intent if you want, it was still the outcome. I have spent so many, many years of my life ashamed of this female body I walk around in, afraid of it, hating it for not being something safer, something less likely to cause sin. My church, my home, the body of believers who first taught me about Jesus, also planted the seed of my worthlessness, a seed that has grown into a terrifying monster of a plant that sucks in all that I have to give it. And now my church, my home, feeds this monster by condemning me in perpetuity for the horrendous sin of being a woman who is attracted to other women. There is no place for my soul to dwell with this monster inside of me.

And every time I have to listen to these lies about my worthiness in Christ, this monster grows. Every time I have to engage with someone whose theology feeds this monster, I lose a little more ground. It does not matter how many times I tell myself that there is nothing in this world that can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, the church has created a flightiness in my soul and I believe the church when it tells me that I am lost and without hope if I remain the way I am.

I don’t know what the solution is. I’m working hard to root out the shame and worthlessness that the church has caused me, but it’s slow work when I’m routinely doused in shame again and again by the church. I’m working hard at my ministry because it’s the only thing I know how to do, even though the next General Conference could take this church from me. And I’m telling my story now because maybe it will reach someone who hasn’t been reached yet and help to change their mind and that feels a little bit like hope. I don’t want to leave my church, my home, but I’m also so, so tired of losing my soul. Because maybe I do agree with this stranger on twitter who reads the Bible the way I used to. Maybe it’s time to leave the church, no matter how much good I’m doing, because the church causes me to lose my soul.

In the meantime, I go back to folding coats and washing clothes for those who need them. I go back to writing sermons full of hope and challenge for people who need both. I go back to reading and watching and listening to things that keep my soul where it belongs, enmeshed with this beautiful body that God made for me, capable of channeling the everlasting love and grace of God into this world that needs it. I go back to developing practices that will keep my soul here with me, where I need it, so that I can do the work that Christ calls us to. I go back being as much like Jesus as I can be, with grace to cover all the rest, grace in the form of people who I love and who love me, just as I am.

And, like a mother praying that she’ll be able to keep the lights on for one more day, I pray to God that this is enough.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019


I know that many of you have been following me as I've graduated and begun a new job. It's a time. It's been a hard two months. Just this week, it’s been a long couple days. 

It’s only Tuesday. 

But salvation is a sinkful of dishes.

Salvation is an achievable task, a sign of life, in a sea of impossible and overwhelming hopes that reach for an impossible and unknowable future. 

You see, I believe deep in my being that this world was made in goodness and grace and that goodness and grace surround us with every step we take. I believe that in goodness and grace we were born, each of us, and to goodness and grace we will return, each of us. I believe that even in the most horrifying situations, there is still a glimmer of goodness. It’s hidden, of course. It’s overwhelmed by the evil around it, of course. But it is not gone. It’s never completely gone. 

It’s a ridiculous belief. I know it. The world is overpoweringly awful. I could sit here and name sins as easily as Paul catalogs them, though our lists would sound different. I would talk about racism and sexism and classism and colonialism and xenophobia and heteronormativity and greed and apathy and pettiness where he talks focuses overmuch on the sins of the body, but for Paul, bodies were the only thing within his control. He could not name the sins of empire as I can today. He doesn’t stand on the other side of the movements that I do, movements that damaged bodies and minds and souls in ways that he never imagined. 

But even as I name those sins, I know some of their cures. Understanding. Reparations. Economic justice. Equality. Repentance. These things are surely biblical. They are surely from God. I could spend days giving you receipts, biblical foundation for these ideas, but honestly, I don’t have the energy for it, not when those who are wiser than me have written more intelligently about it. In their work, I see goodness breaking back in. I see redemption. I see a story of salvation that doesn’t require a profession of faith to get behind. I see work that we can all do, no matter what we believe. 

But especially as Christians, especially as people believe in the in-breaking of the reign of God, we must work on our sins, to correct the consequences of our sins. Jesus was not born a first-century Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine so that we would shy away from the reality of his life, from the consequences of the Word’s presence among us in the flesh. We who in the United States occupy the position of the Roman Empire in the parables and teachings of our Lord and Savior must always be ready to name the sins that keep us from him. Not only to name them, but to repent of them. That’s Jesus’ first message, when he begin his ministry. 

Repent. Repent for the reign of God is near. 

And we may as well answer: How? 

How to we repent of this much pain? How do we repent of this much harm? How do those of us who are white in the United States repent of genocide against Indigenous nations? How do we repent of chattel slavery? How do we repent of generations of benefitting from these sins? How do we repent of the continuing systems of subjugation, more polite and ignorable genocide and slavery? How does anyone outside of poverty repent of the sins that entrench and perpetuate the impoverishment of our siblings, our earth? 

If we cannot repent, how can we be saved? 


Salvation is a sinkful of dishes. 

Salvation is an achievable task, a sign of life. 

Repentance is dish soap and a good scrubbing pad. 

And grace is the strength to begin again. Grace is endurance that continues until the task is done. Grace is someone else who comes in with a dishtowel to dry as we wash, to sing and laugh and encourage. Grace is the assurance that the task requires nothing more than willing hands and a teachable spirit. The rest will come. All we have to do is start. 

So, friends. Let’s start. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

You Are Mine

I preached this sermon as my good-bye sermon to Salem UMC, where I interned for two years, but I also preached it as my final in my preaching practicum, got some good feedback, and made some good changes. You can click here for the lectionary scriptures for this morning, which include Paul on the road to Damascus and Jesus' commission to Peter to "Feed my sheep," but my primary text is Isaiah 43:1-7. I also talk a lot about The Rainbow Fish. Some of you may know it. 

You know, I remember the first time I stood in the pulpit at my home church. It was a lessons and carols service and one of the readers hadn’t shown up, so my choir director hands me a piece of paper and says, “Will you read this?” I take it and nod and he says, “Now?” and so I get up before God and creation and walk up to the pulpit and read this lesson from Isaiah. The part that most of the people from my church back home remember is that I wasn’t wearing any shoes at the time, but what I remember was the sense of purpose I had when I approached the pulpit. I had a job to do and I was going to do it. 

And now, I wonder what I’ll remember from this moment, the last time I stand in this pulpit, in this place that has taught me so much about who I am and what it means to be a pastor. I’m much more prepared now than I was back then—I’ve got my shoes on and everything—but, I guess, at the end of the day, I still have a job to do and I’m going to do it. For this morning’s sermon, I’d like to share an important lesson I learned during these past two years, but before I do that, would you pray with me? 

God of hellos and God of goodbyes, God of learning and God of teaching, thank you for bringing us to this time and this place. Be with us here today. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. 

There were two words that I was wildly unfamiliar with when I began seminary. They weren’t big, fancy theological words like hypostatic union or homoousion or obscure liturgical words like ambo and alb. They were simple, words that I think everyone knows. Words that were so easy, they made them into a children’s book. Here, let me find them. Ah yes. 

I. Can’t. 

I can’t.

See, I read The Rainbow Fish as a kid and I loved it. A modern-day parable if ever there was one. I loved the shiny scales and I loved the colors so much so that they’re still the dominant color scheme in my decorating, all blues and greens and purples. 

But I also took the message to heart. This book is one of those stories that I read so often and so early that it made its way into how I understand myself. I learned that the only way you make friends is by giving them things, sharing with them. 

Like the Rainbow Fish, I have precious things about myself that I can give away. I can share what I’ve learned, I can share my time, I can share my effort, and I can share my skills. I can do plenty of things, and so “Yes, I can!” became the shiny scale that I gave to anyone who asked for it. And, like the Rainbow Fish, this giving kept me happy. 

At least it did, for a good long while. 

You all know probably know what’s coming. There came a day when I had no more scales to give. Somewhere, between going to school, going to my internship, working as a librarian, nanny, tutor, and editor, and investing in my relationships, friendships, and family, I gave away my last shiny scale. I reached back to pull out another and came back empty handed. There came a day when someone asked me for something and I said, “I can’t.” 

It shattered me.

Because, it turns out, when you build your self-worth on what you can give to other people, the moment you don’t have anything left to give, you become worthless in your own eyes, and that is a hard thing to come back from. When you think you’re worthless, all sorts of unkindness will seep into your spirit. For me, to say “I can’t” once made it hard for me to say “I can” again.

Now, I'm not blaming my tendency toward overcommitment and burn-out on a children's book. There were a lot of life-long factors at play and honestly, I had forgotten this book until someone gave it to the kid I nanny and I read it to him a couple of months ago. But when I read it again, I recognized something about the book that I hadn't seen before. 

The Rainbow Fish wasn't written for me. 

The Rainbow Fish wasn't written for the kid prone to self-giving and low self-esteem. It was written for the kid who needs to learn how to give. It’s teaching a lesson I didn’t need to learn.

This happens sometimes in our scriptures and our theology too. We talk so much about pride as our fundamental sin, the sin that most other sins sprout from, that we forget that many of us can't muster up any pride at all. When it's assumed that pride is our primary sin, we're told to think of ourselves less and to think less of ourselves, which is the opposite of someone who struggles with self-worth needs to hear. When you misdiagnose the sickness, you prescribe the wrong cure.

You may have experienced this too. You’ve shared some of your faith stories with me and I can guess that there’s at least one other person in this room who has struggled or is struggling with a cure prescribed by scripture that wasn’t meant for them, or at least, not meant for them at this point in their life. 

But the beautiful thing about our scriptures, our theology, and our tradition, if we spend time with them, is that they know that not everyone struggles with the same problems all the time. 

Jesus speaks comfort to the rest of the disciples but challenges Peter; he is preparing all of them for their ministries to come, but he knows who needs to be pushed and why. 

And Paul, when he first hears from Jesus, receives a convicting message rather than the encouragement he receives later. 

Isaiah is full of woe for the powerful who are not looking after God's people as they should but he speaks strong words of consolation to those who need it. “You are mine,” God says to God's people in our passage from Isaiah. “You are precious in my sight. I would trade the world for you. I will gather you to myself and I will love you.”

Now, you may find yourself as a disciple or Peter, as Paul before Damascus or as Paul after, as someone God is trying to convict or as someone God is trying to comfort. If you’re like me, if you’re someone struggling with “I can’t,” you’re likely in need of some comfort and a new orientation. That’s the cure for the sickness we suffer from. When you have grounded yourself in what you can do for others and suddenly find yourself unable to do what you have always done, you have to find solid ground somewhere else. 

These words from Isaiah are that solid ground for me. They’re what I say to myself to remind me who I am. Be not afraid, for I have redeemed you. Be not afraid, I have called you by name. You are mine. You are precious in my sight. 

Knowing that I am loved by a God who unshakably loves me became my new way of understanding myself. It's my new solid ground and that's the lesson that I learned at seminary that I want to share with you today: my worth does not come from what I can do for others and so I am free to do work for others. I am wrapped up in the love of God and daily sustained by God's grace and that is all I need. If I never did another thing for anyone else for the rest of my life, I would still rest in God's love. I don't need what I do to make me worthy. God’s love does that for me. I can say “I can’t” and the world will spin on. 

But because I am loved by so great a love and because I am grounded in that love and grace, I can give what God has given me to others. See, the Rainbow Fish is not diminished by giving away his scales— the ocean is lit up by them. When we are freely giving out of the abundance that God has given us, it lights up the world around us. We only get to do that free, abundant giving, though, if we are resting in God's love. 

And that is my charge to you today: rest secure in God's love and then give knowing that you are secure in God's love. That's all that we ever need do. 

Now, you may be in a completely different place in your faith journey. This sermon may have gone completely past you because it’s not a lesson you need to hear. That's okay. That's good, in fact. That means that this body of believers is all growing, somehow, someway, and you don't feel the need to be like everyone else. It is a beautiful thing if you are new to faith, even if you've been going to church for a while, and you're still figuring out who God is to you and who you are to God. I hope this sermon inspires you to spend some time thinking about God's love and what it means to you.

It is a beautiful thing if you are confirmed in your faith and feel God's love in your life, but aren't sure if, how, or where to share what you’ve been given with others. I hope this sermon inspires you to look at yourself and figure out what your shiny scales are and how you can give them away.

It is a beautiful thing too if you, like me, have spent your life giving your scales away. I would challenge you to think about where you find your worth, your ability to give, and to ground it somewhere unshakeable.

And it's a beautiful thing, even if it doesn't feel like it, if you have grown as a disciple in the knowledge of the love of God and have given out of your abundance and life has knocked you down anyway. You are blessed if you are poor or disadvantaged or mourning because it is God, the maker of every good thing, who will fill you up and restore you. Know that you are held in the arms of a God who loves you and that one day, you’ll be able to give again. But it is not this day and that too is a good and joyful thing. Rest in God’s love. That’s all you need to do.

In a few months, I will pack up everything I own and move to Cullowhee, North Carolina. It's so far west, it's practically Tennessee. But it's where God, or, at least, a bishop who's supposed to be listening to God, has sent me to be a pastor. A couple of months ago, maybe even a month ago, that would have scared the life out of me, despite having learned so much from my time here about leading worship and planning small groups and managing church finances and just existing with church people. No matter how prepared for ministry I was, I was struggling to care of myself, much less take on Jesus's commission to tend his sheep. I didn't have anything to give.

Now, though, I feel like I can handle it. I need some rest, for sure (seminary, like I’ve said before, is a marathon that you run at a sprint pace and I'm tired), but I feel stable now. I feel peaceful. And that's not just because the papers are in and the work of seminary is done. It's because I know that I don't have to do the work, I get to do the work. It’s the lesson of a lifetime and I’m so grateful to you all for supporting me while I learned it.

So, after two good long years here at Salem, as I leave this pulpit, if I leave you with any message at all, let it be this: Wherever you are, whatever life has given to you or taken from you, rest in God’s love. Know that God loves you deeply and calls you as God’s own. Let that knowledge fill you up and, when you’re ready, give in love to everyone around you. Let’s light up the ocean around us with all that God has given us.

Amen? Amen.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Stones Would Shout Out

(This is a sermon I preached for my preaching practicum, inspired by the gospel passage for Palm Sunday, Luke 19:28-40, which directly follows.)

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'"

So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

We all have stories. 

Some of us have our standard stories, the ones we tell when we’re first meeting people or the ones we tell over drinks or the ones we tell when we want to share our hard-won wisdom with others. But we all, each of us, have stories about our life that we hold dear, stories that, when we share them, explain to others who we are and why we do what we do. Stories are a vital part of our human lives, of the way that we live in community together, and we spend hours each day telling them and hearing them. We all have stories and stories matter. 

As a nanny for a two-and-a-half-year-old, I read a lot of stories. I read stories about cats in hats, about rainbow fish, about hippopotamuses and armadillos. I’ve read Where the Wild Things Are so many times, I can recite it from memory. “The night Max wore his wolf suit and mischief of one kind” [mime turning a page] “and another…” and on and on it goes. Charles and I read stories from everywhere and we read lot. We also read the Jesus Storybook Bible, or the “Yeesus book,” as he calls it (he’s not very good with j’s yet). He loves the rainbow story (Noah’s ark) and the storm story (Jesus calming the storm) and we always somehow end up reading the Abraham story, because it’s got the most stars in it. Charles and I both love stars. 

But there’s one story that I wasn’t prepared to tell him. See, there’s a little Catholic church just down the road from where Charles lives and we go there at least once a week to play on the playground. We can spend an hour on the swings, with a couple of breaks here and there for the slides. At the end of playtime, Charles wants to go to the church. He was baptized there, so I figure we’re allowed in, and once we’re inside, he does everything you think a two-year-old would do in a church: wanders up and down the pews, hands me missals to read, and plays hide-and-seek in the confession booths. 

It’s all good fun. Once, though, he ran up to the chancel area and I, as a nanny and a protestant, had to decide whether I was going to stop him before he made it up to the altar or risk the lightning bolt, or at least the anger of the priest, if he pulled off the altar cloth and went running down the aisles with it, pretending it’s a cape. I chose to chase him up there and walk with him as he explored and we ended up sitting together on the “comfy pillows” (kneeling pads) in front of the cross back up behind the altar. 

Well, actually, it isn’t a cross up on the wall. It’s a crucifix. Charles and I looked up at the crucified Jesus and I… had no idea what to say. How do you tell this story to a two-year-old? What do you say? I decided to let Charles guide the conversation.

“Yeesus has a boo-boo,” Charles said.
“Yes, he does,” I said. “He’s got a couple.”
“Kiss it, make it better?”
“That would be a nice thing to do, but he’s too high up for us to do that right now.”
“He’s sad.”
“Yes, he’s sad right now. His boo-boos hurt. And people were mean to him.”
“He will get better?”
“Yeah, he gets better! We talk about that on Easter!”
“He will get better.”
“Yes, he will.”

Then Charles noticed the sacristy and we were off again, but I’ve come back time and again to this moment in front of the cross. Why did I have such a difficult time telling that story? I can explain the effects of gravitational tidal forces outside the event horizon of a black hole to a third grader. Why couldn’t I explain Good Friday to a toddler?

The answer, of course, is that conversations about hatred, death, and loss are hard, especially with children. We want to save them from the evil and suffering in this world if we can, and Good Friday is a story of evil and suffering, even if it’s bookended by celebration on Palm Sunday and resurrection on Easter morning. We let the children wave palm branches in the air as we sang our hymns this morning, and we’ll dress them up in their Easter best and let them go hunting for eggs next Sunday, but we’ll leave them home with babysitters if we come to church on Friday. Let them be innocent for a while. Shield them from all the pain that’s in the world.

But I struggle with that. This story, the story of Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to Good Friday to Easter Sunday, this is our story, our story as Christians. Pain is a fundamental part of our story. Tragedy is a fundamental part of our story. We have spent centuries trying to explain why, trying to tell this tragic story in some way that makes sense. And even though we struggle, it’s still our story. We need to be able to tell it. And Charles is a baptized Christian. It’s his story too, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

Each of the Gospel writers sat down to tell this story, the Passion story, and found that the events leading up to Golgotha needed some background, some context. Mark’s gospel is breathless in its run up to the Passion, going non-stop from Jesus’ baptism through his ministry and teaching all the way up until the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where time starts to stand still and events are described in detail you don’t find anywhere else in the Gospel. Mark needs you to know this story.

Matthew takes Mark’s gospel and adapts it for Jewish Christians, putting a different lens on the Passion story so that his audience would hear it more clearly and better understand the “why” of it all. Luke does the same, but for Gentile Christians, like us.

John’s gospel, which we read from last week, is an explanation from front to back about why Jesus died and rose again. It has its turning point in chapter 12 and then goes on for another nine chapters, all of which have to do with Passion Week and the teachings Jesus shared as he said goodbye to his disciples. For all of our gospel writers, the passion is the center of why they write. Their wrestling with the reality of the crucifixion gives us four different but beautiful retellings of the events that led Jesus to Golgotha. 

Every three years, we go through this cycle of telling the different passion stories, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Matthew, Mark, Luke, hearing each of these different voices try to make sense of what happened to Jesus. Every Holy Week, we hear John’s side of things. We have spent all of Lent preparing ourselves for this week, to encounter again the story that leads us through Good Friday to Easter Sunday but today, all that preparation leads us only to a question. 


Why did Jesus die? 

Was it all a part of God’s plan? John certainly seems to think so. 

Was it because of the leaders in Jerusalem? All the gospels point some blame that way too, with sometimes tragic consequences. We have a history of antisemitism in the church, and much of it sprouts from how John’s gospel treats “the Jews,” as if Jesus himself isn’t Jewish. 

Was it the crowd’s fault? The gospels surely don’t think they’re innocent in all of this. 

Is it our fault? Well… that’s what I learned when I was a kid. 

And maybe that’s the reason I struggled to tell the Passion Story to Charles. I learned as a kid that Jesus’ death was all my fault and I spent years carrying that shame around. But in the years since, I’ve learned so many other ways to tell this story. I’ve learned to always pair Good Friday with Easter Sunday, to believe as we Christians believe that with every death, there’s a resurrection, because of this Resurrection. I’ve learned to pay attention to the backstory, to study how Jesus lived his life and find new life for myself in his teachings. I’ve learned so much about the world Jesus lived in and the world I live in and how much humanity has always struggled with goodness, every single one of us, in many different ways. I’ve learned that we’ve always longed for community and have built up communities and will act out when it seems like someone is threatening our community, or our way of doing things, and Jesus was certainly doing a new thing. 

I’ve learned to tell this story as a story of God’s great love for us, that out of goodness and compassion, the Word of God came to Earth, incarnated in a human body, and lived a human life and died a human death and even though pain and death are parts of our story that we cannot walk away from, we also know that a light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it, even if it feels that way sometimes. 

When I tell the Passion Story, that’s the story that I want to tell. I want to tell the story where God loves us so deeply that God couldn’t stay away from us, even though God knew it would probably hurt. I want to tell the story where even though we hurt God, God loves us with an extravagant love and showed us that there is nothing we can do that will separate us from God. I want to tell the story where hurt and pain matters, and is real, and is powerful, but never gets the final word. I want to tell the story that ends in love. 

We all have our stories and our stories matter. We all have our own way of telling this Christian story of ours. Maybe my Passion Story is not your Passion Story. Maybe you’re not sure how to tell it. That’s okay. It’s not an easy story to tell. But as we listen to Luke’s Passion later in this service, and as we go throughout this Holy Week, I want you to think about the story, about what matters, and about how you would tell it. Because, as Christians, the passion story is our story. It is our story of life and death, the story that leads to Resurrection. If we don’t tell it, who will? 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


Editor's note: Sometimes you preach a sermon to yourself. This one I preached at Salem UMC on Sunday, April 7. The main scripture for the sermon is John 12:1-8, but I also retell the events of John 11. You can find the Sunday's other scriptures here

There are so many beautiful promises in our scriptures for this week. In Isaiah, we hear of the dry riverbeds in the desert being filled with water, and a way being made where there was no way before. In the psalm, which we read together as the call to worship, we hear of the LORD restoring the fortunes of Zion. In the passage from Philippians, Paul counts everything in this world as nothing compared to the promised wonders we'll receive in Christ. There is new life everywhere in our scriptures, and it's right around the corner.

Except for our Gospel Lesson. There's something strange happening there. It's a short lesson from John, first off, and we've been traveling with Luke all this Lent so far. On top of that, there's no context of what's happened before or what's about to happen and we have no idea of why Mary does what she does. We've been preparing ourselves for a new creation this Lent, and it's not at all clear how this story fits into that narrative.

But Ehrich, in our sermon series book The Gift of New Creation, pauses over this story. He notices what Jesus says to Mary and he says that we should pay attention to what happens here. So that's what I want to do in the sermon this morning. I think that this story holds encouragement for us, if we look at it right. But before we venture into Bethany and the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, would you pray with me?

God of life and death, thank you for bringing us to this time and place. Be with us here today. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Amen. So in this story, we have Jesus attending a dinner in Bethany at the home of some people that we're probably familiar with from other stories in scripture: Mary and Martha, those famous sisters who have different ideas about cleaning, and their brother Lazarus, who recently died.

He got better.

This story, the story of Mary anointing Jesus, actually comes right after the raising of Lazarus from the dead. That happens in chapter 11 and this is chapter 12. And it's important to remember that story before we read this one. Jesus had been preaching somewhere else on the other side of the Jordan, when he hears that Lazarus is sick. We're told that Jesus loves Lazarus and his family, but he still waits two days before he heads his way. Now, we don't know why Jesus waited, but we do know what the disciples think about the reason behind his waiting: Lazarus lives in Judea and there are people in Judea who want to kill Jesus. When Jesus finally does decide to go, Thomas (of Doubting Thomas fame) says to his fellow disciples, “Let's go with him, that we may die with him.”

It's with this attitude that they go to Bethany to wake up brother Lazarus: ready for a fight. But when they get there, there no fight for the disciples to get into. Instead of an angry mob, they’re greeted by Martha. She goes up to Jesus and she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It's a bold move from a woman, and one that may have put the disciples back on edge. But then she says, “But I know that even now, God will give you anything you ask.”

Jesus and Martha talk about resurrection and Jesus reminds us all the he is the Resurrection and the Life. Then Martha, comforted by her belief, goes to get Mary.

Now Mary did not go out to see Jesus when he arrived. She mourned deeply over the loss of her brother. But when Martha comes to get her and tells her the Teacher wants to see her, she gets up and runs to him, with a crowd of mourners running after her, thinking she's gone off to go weep at the tomb. When she sees Jesus, she falls at his feet weeping, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

There's no theological discussion this time, no talk of resurrection. All Jesus can say in response to Mary's grief is, “Where have you laid him?”

And everyone else says to him the very thing he said to his disciples when he called them, three years ago by the Lake of Galilee. They say, “Come and see.”

And Jesus weeps.

Now, John's gospel is not a gospel for this kind of behavior from Jesus. In John's gospel, Jesus knows it all. Jesus is rock solid, using signs and miracles to reveal himself to be the Son of God. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus is eating and drinking and reacting all over the place, but in John, does nothing so human.

So when Jesus weeps in John's gospel, you know something serious is happening. He goes to the tomb and he asks for the stone to be rolled away and Martha, ever practical, says, “But Lord, the smell. He's been there four days.”

Jesus doesn't care. The stone is rolled away and he prays and then calls for Lazarus to come out and out Lazarus comes.

When Jesus weeps, something serious happens.

And once word gets out about Lazarus, people start turning to Jesus. The leaders in Jerusalem actually wonder if there's any containing Jesus at this point. They're worried about an uprising, which would bring the full force of Rome to their doorstep. They decide that Jesus should die.

Jesus, hearing this, retreats to the wilderness near Ephraim and he stays there, even as people are headed to Jerusalem to get ready for the Passover. And everyone in Jerusalem is looking for him, wondering if he'll be so bold show up in Jerusalem at the Passover.

This is the backdrop to our story for this morning. What happens in our story this morning is the turning point of the gospel of John, when events have reached a fever pitch and everything starts to happen at once. Against this background, dinner at Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ starts to look pretty significant indeed.

Who knows what the conversation was at dinner that night. Maybe Jesus taught some more, reflecting on his recent time in the wilderness. Maybe Lazarus spent the evening turning to people and saying, “Boo!” Maybe Martha tosses in some of her ideas in between bringing out food and passing plates around. Maybe the disciples discussed whether or not they would go to Jerusalem for the festival, all amid the hustle and bustle of a big, busy dinner. Whatever they talked about, though, all of that discussion and laughter and noise stops when Mary comes into the room with perfume.

Here, I started to walk down from the pulpit to the lectern, which is on the floor near the first few pews of the church. 

Imagine what it would be like to be there in this moment. Imagine the sound dying down and heads turning as Mary walks up to Jesus with this bottle of perfume in her hands. She kneels in front of him (here I knelt down) and there’s a small crash as she breaks the jar open. The smell of the perfume spreads throughout the house and maybe the mutters start then. The text tells us that the perfume is pure nard, which comes from a plant grown in the Himalayas. It had to be traded for and it was very costly—Judas thinks that it could be sold for a year’s wages. The costliness is the beginning of the scandal. Mary has spent an exorbitant amount of money on the perfume that she now uses to anoint Jesus.

But what she did next must have caused even more of a stir. Instead of anointing his head, as one might do with a king or someone else chosen by God, she stays kneeling and anoints his feet. She wipes them not with a cloth but with her hair. Imagine what looks Mary and Jesus exchanged after she had done this intimate and powerful thing for him. Imagine the rumors that began to swell around the room because of what she had done.

(I stood back up here and preached the rest of the sermon from the lectern.)

Judas is the first one to object out loud and he’s silenced by Jesus right away, because, Jesus tells us, Mary understands something that no one else has caught onto yet. Jesus is going to die, and soon. That expensive perfume would last for at least another week, through his entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, through his last Passover with his disciples, and through his trial, execution and burial. She had this perfume so that she might keep it for the day of his burial and, seeing the writing on the wall about Jesus’ conflict with the rulers in Jerusalem and knowing the type of death that Jesus was likely to die, Mary took the only chance she thought she would have to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.

See Mary, in the midst of all of the hustle and bustle of the Passover preparations, amidst all of the excitement of Jesus’ ministry and prophecy and miracles, in the middle of the continued celebrations of  and gratitude for Lazarus’ new life, sees what no one else sees. She sees her last days with someone she loves deeply. No matter what it costs, no matter what people may say, she is going to mourn him, show her love for him, and care for him however she can.

And Jesus is moved by this. Because of what Mary did, this house, which so recently smelled of death, now smells of perfume. Where before Mary had bathed his feet with tears when she thought he abandoned her brother to death, she now anoints his feet with deep humility and care because she knows the sacrifice he’s about to make. It’s a bold move for a woman to make and scripture tells us that Jesus loves Lazarus and his bold sisters. What Mary does has such an impact on Jesus that he’ll repeat her scandal at the only other dinner recorded in John’s gospel—the Last Supper, where he’ll kneel before his disciples and wash their feet and dry them with a towel, just as Mary had dried his with her hair.

So, we know what Jesus did with this story about Mary, but what do we do?

Well, I think we mourn.

Sometimes, our lives bring us to the same place Mary is. We can be overwhelmed by grief and loss, no matter what joy gets mixed in, and we need to name that grief and allow ourselves to feel it, no matter what else is going on in our lives. Mary took time to mourn Jesus on the eve of a potential political uprising—the stakes couldn’t have been higher. And she is praised for her act by none other than Jesus. It is vital, then, that we, no matter our circumstances, allow ourselves to grieve.

Because it’s that grieving that allows for new life to enter in. Next week, we’ll wave our palms at the beginning of the service and remember the Passion story at the end. We will mourn that loss as we do every year, because mourning what we’ve lost on Good Friday makes us ready to welcome in the new life that comes on Easter Sunday. We repeat this pattern over and over again, year after year, because we need to be given permission and space to grieve in this and every season of our lives.

This story that we read is so emotionally dense when you think about the characters in it. John’s gospel is full of stories about characters that feel real to us doing extraordinary things. And here, the person being praised is not the person with the most practical solution, the person focused on the mission and the goals. It’s the person who’s paying attention to the people around her and herself, the person who is caring for emotional needs that we may not even notice on first read. Mary is aware of how overwhelmed she is and the grief that is ahead of her, as well as of Jesus’ vulnerable position, and she does this extravagant thing to honor these things.

As we go throughout this week and next, let’s allow ourselves room for grief. Let’s allow ourselves time to feel our emotions and to look out for the emotions of others. We hope and pray for new life, always, but let us with Mary mourn the pain in our lives. It might not seem like it right now, but if we do it right, our mourning will fill our lives with new sweetness, like perfume poured on the feet of the Savior.


Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Mara's Story

But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them,

“Call me no longer Naomi,
call me Mara,
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
but the LORD has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
when the LORD has dealt harshly with me,
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

-Ruth 1:16-22

I don't think that God sends calamity. I'm not always sure where the blame lies or if we can even talk about blame when disaster and disease and death strike, but I know I don't blame God. God wants life for us, life abundant, and God opposes those things that bring pain and illness and death. I don't know that that brings me all that much comfort, but I do know that it calls me to action. If I can oppose those things that bring pain and illness and death, I know that I'm doing something right and I want so deeply to be doing something right. A little shift in responsibility, a little bit of pneumatology, a dash of a revealed-but-not-yet-realized eschatology, and I've got the closest thing to an answer that I think I'm going to get about what to do about evil. 

None of that is Naomi's concern, though. She is hurting and a debate about the origin of her hurt is not what she's here for. She's lost her husband and both of her sons in a famine. Her whole world was taken from her and now she's left wandering back home with this lost puppy of a daughter-in-law. Even better, they're headed from this place of famine and disaster to a town whose name literally means "House of Bread". It's בֵּית לֶחֶם or Bet Lehem, which we know as Bethlehem. So yeah, if I had just suffered some terrible losses because of a famine and came back home to the House of Bread, just at the time of the harvest, and got greeted with "Oh, hey, Naomi, is that you?" I'd sass off too. Naomi means pleasant and Mara means bitter, so her response to these people who are greeting her is, "I am so far from Pleasant, you may as well call me Bitter. And you know why? Because God is a vindictive fuck."

And I think that's great.

Like I said before, I don't think God causes calamity. I think that humans do enough of that on our own and so we have some power, in some, maybe many, situations, to mitigate that calamity, but Naomi isn't in a place the challenge systemic injustice that leads to man-made famines. She's hurting and she's angry and she feels zero need to hide it. I love it.

I love it because it's honest, but I also love it because that's where I'm at right now. I am bitter and I don't want anyone telling me to be pleasant. I have, over the course of my life, spent copious amounts of time pretending to be Naomi when my real name was Mara and I am over that. I will feel how I feel, thank you very much, and you don't get a say in it. I will not smile when you tell me to smile. I will not dance if I don't feel like dancing. I will mourn when I need to mourn and you do not get to take this away from me.

But bless your heart for trying.

I think that, as a good southern woman who's also an overachieving people-pleasing middle child who found herself on the road to pastoral ministry, I'm not really allowed to be bitter. I should end any bout of mourning or even complaining with a "But I know it'll all be alright!" because anything less is displaying distrust. Distrust of the system, distrust of "the way things are," or distrust of God, they're all the same thing in some circles, and they're dangerous.

But see, I've always thought the system was a little wonky, from the moment that my pastor told me to be quiet and stop talking about things I didn't understand when I challenged unfair dress codes at youth group, and probably before then too. I've always had that idea needling at the back of my brain that things aren't the way they should be and that we should be trying to fix it, not cover it up. Sadness unmourned is sadness perpetuated. Pain demands to be felt. And so when Mara comes to town and demands to be seen as herself, I want to stand up and applaud. At least we've named what's happened.

I never imagined that this is where I would be as I went into my last month of seminary. I never in a thousand years would have thought that I would allow myself to feel this much pain, to acknowledge this much pain in my life. My names mean happiness in two different languages and my blood type is B+. Naming pain is not something that's in my nature. And yet, I've found it to be the most important thing I could have learned over these past three years. Let Naomi be Mara because Mara is what life has made her. Pain demands to be felt and it will be, whether we name it now or ten years from now. The important thing is to be where you are and not where someone else thinks you should be.

But, what I'm seeing, as I go on with life, is that while pain is real and shouldn't be ignored or set aside, pain is also not the whole story. And maybe that's what people have saying all along and I just missed the message, but there's something much more profound about having lived with your monsters and deciding that yes, in fact, there is something more than that. The Gospel, in the full light of our electric suns, turns into so many platitudes, but when you've been plunged into darkness, you realize it was the light you needed all along.

The book of Ruth isn't really about Ruth's story. Sure, Ruth makes this promise, and Ruth travels to a land that is foreign to her, and Ruth does the work of gathering food and gathering a husband, but the person who's redeemed at the end of the story is Naomi. She's the one who holds the baby Obed, whose life has been restored to her at the end of all this struggle. And I find it beautiful that this story that we've wrapped up in romantic love, that we read at weddings and quote to each other in moments of devotion, has nothing really to do with romance. It has to do with restoration. It has to do with naming the bitterness we feel and, at the end of the ordeal, naming the new life that has come out of our struggles.

Now, I'm not there yet. I'm still bitter and any restoration in my spirit is a work in progress. But I have to tell myself that that's okay, because it is. It's not a moral failing and it's not something to hide. I might not be pleasant, but at least I'm me.

And that's something beautiful, and something worth sticking around for.