The Epiphany of Martha and the Magi of Myrrh

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

For years, these words of Martha have calmly laid still on the page of my Bible. However, this year, as the Gospel reading for January 4th, two days before the Feast of Epiphany and five days before the debris flowed in Montecito, these words keep interrupting my thinking at inconvenient moments and get caught in my throat, dry and bitter.

And while I still do not understand what it means that Martha, legitimately grief-stricken and raw with anger, runs out to meet with Jesus and goes on with what reads like a wonkish exchange about the doctrine of resurrection, what amazes and confounds my imagination is how she—in the midst of personal tragedy and perhaps even fighting extreme disappointment in Jesus, the trusted family friend who is inexplicably late—ends the conversation with this declaration:

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

What is that, but an epiphany?

Despite being deeply bound by the societal constraints of being a woman in an ancient Middle-Eastern culture, and her own predispositions towards sensibility and propriety (unlike her free-spirit sister Mary), God saw fit to give Martha the opportunity to utter these radical, blow-the-roof-off words. Her heart must have been an open mansion, ready for her Lord. Through divine insight, she was able to find her way into realizing that Jesus was the guy all those prophets had talked about, the guy who was the hinge in history who would bring both justice and mercy….and yet…the same guy who came two days later than he had to be, and the same guy who could have healed her brother and prevented all of this distress as He had for so many others in their community. Why, Lord, why?!

It is true that the Gospel of John does not leave the reader in this uncomfortable tension for long because Jesus is revealed to have his heart broken with grief and goes on to resurrect Lazarus from the dead. However, because so often we are inclined to leap to these heartwarming resolutions, despite the fact that so much of our actual lives don’t seem to manifest in quite the same tidy ways, today I want to stay in this liminal space, this space of not knowing, this space between what has already happened and what comes next. Why? Because Martha did not know how things were going to turn out when she–perhaps through gritted teeth or in trembling surrender beyond what her entire being could conceive—confessed her faith in her Lord.

Indeed, who is this God that I call ‘Lord’? Yes, I trust in a God who weeps with me in my sorrows, and yes, I pursue a God who I believe can bring life into the places of death. But, I am learning first-hand that this God is also a God whose ways are hidden and whose  paths often appear incomplete. This God does not sanitize how things are, or promise a life that reads like Whig history, ever progressing with inevitable improvement. Instead, this God appears to be a God of transformation—where waiting in liminal spaces is not only part of the deal, but the very parameters that form us.


Sometimes, my son asks me to tell him Bible stories “from my mouth” – that is, in the oral tradition. No reading. Just good ol’ fashion story-telling. I think he was hooked after I once told him my own crazy version of Elijah’s contest against the prophets of Baal—all kitted out with goofy sound effects. Sometimes, he asks for a specific story (e.g., “tell me the one about Mordecai and Haman…”) but usually, he invites me to pick one myself–with the caveat that he prefers stories from the Old Testament because there is more action, he says. So I flip through my mind’s Rolodex of Sunday School Bible stories and inevitably I conjure a tale about Joseph or Joshua, Moses or Daniel, and the whole thing starts to sound like Hebrews 11’s list of Israelite heroes.

There are stories of people that I have failed to tell my son, though, because I do not know enough about their lives. At the end of Hebrews 11, the author regales us with an action-packed summary of all those who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became might in war, put foreign armies to flight.” These are the stories that my son savors.

The author then shifts gears and reminds us that there were others too—perhaps, those we would prefer to forget: “Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured…others suffered mocking and flogging…they were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy…..Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised….”

These faithful people were brought down paths that were incomplete. Things didn’t always make sense. How do I tell my son these troubling stories?  And yet, how can I not tell him their stories? For they too are part of the cloud of witnesses that are supposed to bolster us to persevere. How can I not tell him when their stories are so much more like our own—incomplete, partial, often hidden from our usual sense-making?


In the Christian church, the season of Epiphany is rooted in celebrating the visitation of the scholarly Magi to the Christ Child. These first pilgrims, wholly unchurched and whose science of the enchanted cosmos and study of ancient prophecies led them to trek after a brilliant star across the continents, arrived seeking and bearing gifts for the King. Not knowing much about these Magi, I love imagining these three fellows on the journey, comparing the gifts they have packed. This is how I see it:

Two of the magi are feeling pretty good about what they have chosen to bring– the first has gold to represent kingship, and the second has frankincense to represent holiness. Those gifts seem like solid home runs. The third magi, however….the third magi has packed myrrh, an ointment commonly used for embalming, thereby representing death. One magi whispers: Psst, Magi #3, this is not recommended gifting material by Miss Manners. The other remaining magi rolls his eyes, “Good job, Magi #3. Way to go, man. You are a serious party pooper.”

I can’t help but wonder who the Magi of Myrrh was and what he understood. It’s easy to comprehend taking a pilgrimage to seek out the Chosen One who is supposed to unlock the mysteries of the universe. It’s another thing to doggedly pursue the chance to lay eyes on a prophesied King who, your career’s worth of studying shows, is going to need help with a respectable burial, and then have the guts to bring a present that reminds everyone about that unpleasant reality.

Magi of Myrrh, how much did you know, and how much did you not know? What was it like to travel all those miles and months, carrying your jar of myrrh, burdened with some profound sense that the Sacred One was going to die an untimely death? Did you feel like crying at inconvenient times as I do when I think about those who have been taken in an untimely way? What did your fellow magi think of you when they saw your gift? Did they know that death was foretold as well? Or did they just think you were a nut?

Magi of Myrrh, I know this is probably not how things work in JK Rowling’s world, but will you be my patronus? Help me to have courage to dwell in that liminal space of not knowing how things are going to turn out and  still show up for the arduous journey. In whatever limited understanding I may have, help me to utter as Martha did: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  Help me not be afraid of the often unbearable tension between the promises of God and life’s sorrows and losses. Help me carry my jar to the King too.

Photo #2 credit: Bochum1805, De tre vise männen (the three magi, kings from the east) (license)




The Silence of Epiphany: An Unexpected Lesson in Geology


Having spent my childhood being carted hither and yon on the highways of NJ, I thought I knew what debris was: dirty plastic bags and forgotten dead branches lying on the side of the road, gravel and pebbles irresponsibly flying out of poorly secured dump trucks, piles of dried leaves crowding the entrance of sewer drains.

So, in the early hours of January 9th, when the local emergency text alerts warned of “debris flow” resulting from the newly scorched mountainsides to our neighborhood’s north and east, I imagined rapid streams of shrubbery, leaves, branches, and rocks cascading down and flooding narrow windy streets, and maybe dumping a couple feet of mud on someone’s property.

I had no clue that when geologists use the word “debris” they are talking about boulders. And that “debris flow” means lots of boulders essentially mud-boarding (as opposed to snow- or surf-boarding) down the mountain. No, let’s be more accurate here: actually, geologists say that the boulders “float like corks on the top of a flow” made up of water and fine sediment. (Great. That’s just great.) And then, gravity carries the flow down where it wants to go, and picks up everything natural and man-made in its path—houses, cars, trees, power lines…people— with such monumental force that it can only be caught and held tight in the arms of the sea.

I had no clue that six days before the flash flood, the local paper ran a story explaining that, after the Thomas Fire, county workers were trying to clear debris basins with the knowledge that local flooding and mudslides had followed fires in 1964, 1969, and 1971. And now, the Emergency Management director had already noticed that, “we’re starting to see gravity rock fall,” and that “one rock could close a road.”

I had no clue that a paper presented in 2001 by UCSB geologists began with “The next ‘big one’ in Santa Barbara may not be an earthquake but a boulder-carrying flood” and that significant parts of the city actually sit on top of old deposits from debris flows which “most likely occur every few thousand years.” Geologist Edward Keller had said, “If such an event were to occur again today, many homes and buildings…would be destroyed and the loss of life would be catastrophic.”

Right. So….

How do you wrap your mind around the fact that you just possibly experienced a once-in-a-few-thousand-year geological phenomenon? An occurrence that clearly exceeded what the city and its people were psychically prepared for (after being spent from the Thomas Fires), and where a lot of rocks that each “could close a road” did just that and much more, along with entirely cutting off access for two entire weeks on California’s major thoroughfare – Highway 101 –and transforming into an breathtaking vision reminiscent of a Louisiana bayou? And this is all without even beginning to account for the thousands of displaced persons—many of whom had to be rescued from their homes by the National Guard by helicopter or military vehicles, hundreds of damaged or destroyed houses, and the unspeakable horror that visited over a dozen families as their loved ones were taken from them and lost that night.

What can we utter, but silence?


And then, if you dared to keep pushing the logic of our damaged earth forward, to tremblingly realize that another mountain tsunami could actually happen again? That is, not in a few thousand years, but rather when the next major storm hits.

OK. (Bartender, another glass of silence, please.) I think I might need to just bracket that thought for now.


A local blog post began, “Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it.” For a neighborhood known for its lush green lawns and paradisiac views even in the deepest of droughts, this is a devastating observation. And now that the roads are mostly cleared and residents are being allowed back to their homes, our community is staring at a considerable Goliath. Apparently, 2 million cubic yards of mud and rock landed where it shouldn’t have. The local paper soberly reports that 90% of that debris load remains on private property. And, currently, since the County and the Army Corps of Engineers’ cleanup efforts do not include private property, there is no existing plan for how to remove this debris.


When I am out and about in the unaffected parts of town these days, I see with new eyes the large rocks and boulders on the sides of roads, in parks, on trails, next to houses. I can’t help but ask the geological question: what story could that boulder tell of how it ended up there?

As human beings, we like to think of ourselves as many things. Homo sapiens. Homo ludens. For scholars—especially social theorists and philosophers –the list goes on. For those who live in Montecito, it looks like we are about to become very acquainted with the rock-moving part of our species: Homo movens petram.


A prayer was offered by the Jesuits for the people of Japan following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. In some small but real way, it seems we, who bear witness to what has happened in Montecito, are in fellowship with their suffering. Perhaps then, this prayer belongs to us too:

Most merciful and compassionate God,
Giver of Life and Love,
hear our prayers
and let our cries come unto you.
We weep with your people
We hear the cries of orphaned children and laments of bereaved parents
We feel the desperation of those searching for loved ones
We behold the silence of vanished villages.
We see the devastation.
We are overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
Our hearts are hushed, our minds are numb.
Let not our hands be stopped, our voices dumb.
God of the universe,
Open our hearts to feel your compassion
Galvanize in us the act of continued giving
Bond us to our sisters and brothers in need
Comfort and heal the injured, the bereaved, the lost
Strengthen the aid workers and medical personnel
Bolster the resolve of governments and those with power to help
Open through this tragedy pathways to partnerships and peace
In Your Name of mercy and healing and compassion we pray.

Fourth Sunday: Johnny, Mary, and a Wreath

Every year it’s been the same. By the Fourth Sunday of Advent, a homemade wreath stands on our dinner table, festooned with candles. But, rather than looking grand and stately, expressing a sense of the royalty it is meant to represent, it has begun to look a bit ragged and dried out. (Not unlike this year’s notorious Christmas tree in Rome, affectionately dubbed “Spelacchio “ aka “The Mangy One.”) Indeed, the stalks of rosemary that typically compose our wreath become desiccated, and the candles are a sorry rag-tag crew standing at uneven heights. Everything about our wreath by Fourth Sunday looks tired.

The exhausted state of our wreath usually has felt a bit of an embarrassment, and I often run out to the garden and snip a fresh batch of rosemary to assemble Wreath 2.0. But this year, as I think about our poor ol’ wreath, unlit and unceremoniously left behind when we evacuated in a panic two weeks ago, I actually find it to be less of an embarrassment, and more of a comfort to ponder the possibility that the people through whom God chooses to live and bring His Revelation to this wretched and suffering world…those people may be far more kindred in spirit to our tired Fourth Sunday wreath than the First Sunday iteration in all its pertness and promise.


Every once in a while, I read a book that I am completely smitten by. The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is one of those books. A new and recent find in the children’s section of public libraries, it is a book rooted in scraps of an unfinished story by Mark Twain, that is gently but assuredly brought to new life by Philip and Erin Stead (respective author and illustrator of the Caldecott Award-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee, itself a gem!). The result is a poignant, outlandish, and at times wickedly humorous tale about a boy named Johnny whose life’s main feature is misfortune (he makes Charlie Brown seem like Richie Rich) and whose one friend in all the world is a mangy old chicken called ‘Pestilence and Famine.’ When all appears to be more lost and limp than usual, Johnny meets an old woman who begs for alms and to whom he confesses that he has nothing to give, but offers up his one-and-only friend. This purest act of kindness is received and exchanged for a promise of fulfillment that ends up reaching far beyond Johnny’s, and even the reader’s, imagination. What is most intriguing is that the rare tenderness of this tale is actually searing to the conscience. It is a laser beam that cuts through the crass and pathetic struggles for power we daily witness in our world and reveals all in the light of what is true. For the magic of the story is not in the actual miracle that the old woman interjects to turn things around, but rather in the realization of the remarkable expanse that is found in Johnny’s heart.


Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This Collect, or collective prayer, for the Fourth Sunday in Advent elicits an aspirational image of architecture that raises a couple hard questions: How do we become people whose Interior is a mansion prepared for Jesus Christ? What if our Interior right now feels closer to being a one-room apartment with a galley kitchen rather than the 12-bedroom Mediterranean villa with infinity pool that is Johnny’s?


In the Gospel reading for the final Sunday of Advent, St. Luke recounts a dialogue between the most-prestigious-of-God’s-messengers Gabriel and the until-now-nobody Mary. It is a dialogue whose outcome is as unlikely as the redeemed fate of Johnny:

“…The Lord is with you.”

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered….

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God….”

“How can this be…?”

“…Nothing will be impossible with God.”

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Again, the real magic in this exchange is not in the unexpected chosenness of Mary (though that alone provides plenty to meditate on), but rather the fact that, when Gabriel shows up, he finds in Mary a person who is already mansion-ready on the inside.


On this last day of Advent, I think of the people of Puerto Rico who remain hungry and without electricity.  I think of their loved ones and so many of their young people who relocated to the mainland, whose hearts ache for their island and their families left behind. I think of the countless refugees who have fled their homes and cities, and remain stuck in detention centers with no control over what will happen next. I think of local Hispanic families and communities whose lives feel strangled by the fear and threat of deportation. I think of my Ventura County neighbors who have lost their homes to the same fire that came within hundreds of yards of consuming mine.

I imagine their circumstances–as much as my limited experience can extend me, and I nervously ponder how nearly the Thomas Fires came to forcing my family and me to taking a small sip from their cup of suffering. (Though, even during our evacuation, having the privileges of family and resources to lean into–and having multiple days to prepare and anticipate the fires– always meant that we were being buffered from a level of forlorn existence that is the reality for so many.)

And while, in the months to come, I will surely be working out what lessons and carols I am to learn and sing from our experience of the Thomas Fire, I have begun to wonder this: Who is it that God chooses to draw near to? Who are the people who have found favor with God? Who are the people whose Interior is already on the sure road to becoming a mansion prepared for the coming of their Lord?

It seems that they are not necessarily who we, or much of the world, tend to think of, or who are noted as such. Quite frankly, they probably are persons who are not even on our radars. Not on anyone‘s radar. Perhaps they are among those we have forgotten– in Puerto Rico, in detention centers, in shelters. Perhaps they are Mary called to live into the Impossible. Perhaps they are Johnny whose only friend is Pestilence and Famine.

For those of us buffered from drinking of the cup, do we dare to enter their stories so that our lives might become intertwined, and maybe gradually, there might be a chance of a mansion being found in us, prepared for our Lord?

Version 2

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Thanks for walking through Advent 2017 with me.

A lot of unexpected business this Advent.

All evacuations in Santa Barbara County were lifted this past Wednesday. Thanks be to God.

Third Sunday: The Coming of the Thomas Fire

*This blog post was largely composed between the evacuation days of December 12-15, 2017. It is being posted on the morning of December 16 as the fires tumble over protective ridges and threatens to bear down on our neighborhood. This post is dedicated to the firefighters on the line, the residents of SB County who have not left (or can not leave), and the Las Barrancas neighborhood diaspora. We watch and we wait; our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy.


a garland instead of ashes

Garlands are quite pleasant to imagine. A hand-made ring of white wild flowers circling a young child’s head as they meander through the meadow. A crown of luscious blooms riding majestically above a bride or groom’s temples. Garlands, oh garlands! They are contented sighs in the lovely form of petals.

But, Exhibit A this week contains not garlands, but ashes.

Ashes from the smoky grip of the Thomas Fire that lays waste not only the chaparral plants and drought-dried landscape, but also the storied views and fresh air of the South Coast horizon. Ashes that dust the driveway like rancid powdered sugar. Ashes that drop out of the mustard-yellow sky like snowflakes distorted by evil serum. Ashes that cling to the wings of backyard birds. Ashes that swirl into our car and tumble into the trunk as we try to escape– at first, for a brief respite after being stuck in our house for three days; then once again, when we dash out to the public library to pick up N95 masks; and, yet once more, as we load up the car with boxes and bags packed in a state of measured panic after a restless night of evacuation notices that keep rolling closer. The imminent threat of flames fueled in turns by the wind and my fears are reified by the accelerating rate of the county’s text alerts. And, as I try to force myself to eat a bowl of cereal on Sunday morning, what I feel in the pit of my stomach is what I know I must fight: a growing pile of ashes.


the oil of gladness instead of mourning

I had imagined it, but I confess that I half did not believe that we would actually do it. We drove away. We left closets and dressers full of clothes, shelves of beloved books and memories, pantries full of food and a garage filled with belongings from floor to ceiling. “All stocked for what and for when?” I wondered as I sat in the car checking over my mental lists. “Perhaps for nothing and for never,” I thought, as we drove away with two cars, three suitcases, two boxes, each of us with a backpack in tow.

Evacuation is a beastly mental game for us planner-types. Unlike illness or death–both of whose ultimate impact comes upon our lives like a brutal but direct knife stab to the gut–evacuation of this sort is the exact opposite of a clean break. In one moment, I need to pep talk myself into being prepared for the worst–where I lose every material thing that I don’t now have in the trunk of my car. But in the very next moment, I need to be just as prepared for the best–that my house and neighborhood will come through intact, and that I will shoulder the odd obligation to return to some semblance of normal.

Is this why Lot’s wife turned around to cast one last gaze at her home? Was her monkey mind darting from vine to vine like mine? Do I have the willpower to keep my gaze on what lies ahead–to trust in the God who promises to bring me to safe open places–and not wonder about what we left behind? Oh that I might be saved from my propensity for arriving at an untimely & (un?)savory end and to be doused by an oil jug of gladness…


the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit

It’s not every day that going to the hotel pool is a God thing. Two firefighters sat relaxing in the whirlpool and shooting the breeze with my husband. They chatted casually about the strategies for fighting the Thomas Fire. They explained how they work 24-hour shifts on the fire line. One of them lived less than two miles away from the hotel, but hadn’t been home for two weeks. They chuckled over getting Christmas shopping done in time. When they packed up to leave, I shyly thanked them for doing the work that they do. With a mildly sheepish smile on their faces, they politely said, “You’re welcome,” as if their grandmothers had told them that was the proper thing to do.

There was something about being in the presence of these two firefighters who had seen with their own eyes the fire that I fear, breathed in the acrid smoke that smells like death, and heard with their own ears the marching orders that were being executed to save my community. Their presence seemed sacramental at the moment: ordinary guys who were visible signs of invisible grace, God’s living and loving presence in our lives. And here they were–relaxing by the pool. I honestly don’t know why, but it lifted my spirit to see them and to know that they were resting. Their rest and their smiles bolstered me inside; it felt possible to turn in my faint spirit for a mantle of praise. I felt able to stretch out my arms and receive my daily portion of manna–a healing image of what it is that falls from the sky.


We watch and we wait; our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn….to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (Isaiah 61:1-3 )



Second Sunday: Under the Duress of Fire

With so much bad news in the airwaves these days, we all long for good news. Yet, not only has my expectation for good news diminished as I’ve grown older, but so has my standard for what constitutes “good news” at all.  With the season of Advent upon us, I’ve been wondering: what turn of events, or proclamation of a new reality, would constitute “good news” or “good tidings” as the Scriptures say? And what can I realistically hope for?

Get you up to the high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’  (Isaiah 40:9)

Having been nurtured and protected within secure boundaries of wealth and health, when I have read about Jesus proclaiming “the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness,” I feel glad for those who need the healing, but do not tend to take in the good news as being for me. I do not see myself being jostled in that crowd that Jesus, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” as St. Matthew put it.

But, having this year to be still and to reflect, I see that I am actually of a people who–despite our enjoyment of career successes and relative affluence–are “harassed and helpless” on a daily basis. We wake up tired, rush ourselves and our loved ones out the door to work and school, and then rush ourselves back home to eat, work more, and then collapse in bed. We do this day in, day out, against the backdrop of first-world moral burdens: expectations to consume ethically, reduce our carbon footprint, stay fit, tend to the needs of our local, national, and global neighbor–all of this and more. And this is without even taking into account the internal vexing we negotiate when confronted with the historically entrenched morass that is our daily national experience of increasingly contested moral demands, intractable reflexes of physical and psychological violence, and hardened systems of injustice. Indeed, “harassed and helpless,” we try to perform “normal” when we are in public, and, in private, we abdicate our responsibilities for a few hours, indulging in the creature comforts of our lifestyle choices, the fruits of our long investments in education, career, or family.

The only difference I see now between myself and the crowd that Jesus loved on, is that the crowd knew that they were in need and were ready for some loving. Me, my vision is shrouded by a defensive wall of blindness.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1: 4-5)


Knowing that our neighbors of Ventura and Carpinteria are under evacuation and at the mercy of yet-uncontrolled wildfires, seeing images of glowing night fire engulfing roads that we have become acquainted with and bearing down the hills of Highway 101 towards the ocean, feeling that low-grade anxiety as I drift off to sleep and my mind wonders if the winds will bring the fires over our hills…the collective force of it all has a sobering effect on the soul. To know that you simply can’t pick up your house and all of your life’s possessions and protect it from being consumed by flames, you begin to see all of your belongings–all your self-sufficiency–in a peculiar light, like the odd sky and pink sun produced by the smoke-filled air.

I find that the anxiety that this wildfire is producing in me a curious form of judgment, a measure of how tethered I am to the things I have collected and set my personal sense of achievement and security in. To know that it can all go up in flames, to know that we may need to simply drive away from it, leaving it to meet sure destruction– what would it be like to experience a certain degree of freedom when confronted with that reality? To trust that, even when that happens, we are being ushered towards the arms of God? What is it to taste such a freedom? Is that taste the stuff of ‘good news’?

Could it be that the redemption of such a disaster, to be painfully endured on the level of the personal, may also be scalable upward to the societal level where our collective indifference to inequalities and violence–within our racialized, gendered, and class-based interactions–have led to a shared reality that is the equivalent of a fire-ravaged landscape? Could it possibly be?

If the promise of redemption is actually true, then there is some seriously good news to take in here, folks. But, the question quickly becomes: How do we bridge the gap between the promise and our present reality? Where do we begin?

See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him….He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:10, 11)





First Sunday: Ode to Advent 2017

Marking holidays and seasons was never a big thing in my family when I was growing up.  Maybe that’s why I’m not the type of person who really gets into the hoo-ha of ornaments, decorations, and holiday music. While the neighbors do their liturgy of  hanging springtime banners, flying patriotic flags, spraying spooky spiderwebs across their porches, and stringing sparkly lights along the roof lines, it is sad but true: we are the boring house. My poor children.

So, it has been a novelty these last few weeks to find myself experiencing an unfamiliar twinge of excitement in my bones. I have peeked and peeked at the calendar, trying to shush the flapping clamor that stirs in my heart. Like a young child who Just. Can’t. Wait. for Christmas Day to come fast enough, I have felt eager. I have felt Very Eager for Advent.

Advent often seems to be the forgotten appetizer to the main course of Christmas, but in my view, this should really be a banner year for upping Advent’s public profile! Indeed, anyone who knows anything about the signature Advent themes of judgment and repentance and who happens to have been paying the slightest attention to the ongoings of our world these days should be Very Eager. OH yes, the prospects of four weeks of apocalyptic Scriptures never felt so good.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil–to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! (Isaiah 64: 1-3 NRSV)

Version 2

The first time Advent really took root in my life was in 2001 when Fleming Rutledge came to our church and taught on the collect for the First Sunday: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light….” These opening words of the prayer took on a very distinct hue that year, that fated year of September 11th. But what has stayed with me from Rutledge’s words is not a sense of theodicy–how the Christian faith makes sense of, and gives a location for, the otherwise senseless suffering and evil exacted upon the people of New York.  Rather, it was Rutledge’s flinty insistence that the wrong-doing, “the works of darkness,” the scent of evil, is not only to be attributed to the perpetrators, those who we distance ourselves from as The Other. No, what caught me short–and what continues to get stuck in my throat–was the hard Truth she laid down about how “the battle line runs through each person.” The line between good and evil is not between me and the Other, she said, but inside my very own self. Each and every one of us. (Cue mic drop and ear-splitting feedback…)

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you. (Isaiah 64: 6-7a NRSV)

Version 2

This fall, I have been attempting to follow the trail of the Daily Office readings found in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. This has amounted to traipsing through significant chunks of Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezra, and Nehemiah. To my honest surprise, I simply have been spellbound by their heartbreaking laments and gnashing of teeth. Their words have been pitch perfect for our present age. Jeremiah and these other prophets of old must have witnessed some serious nonsense and egregious behavior. Their sacrifices of anger and frustration must have been apt responses to the violence, cruelty, indifference, and complicity they must have seen among their people and within their kingdom. Surely, like us in our best social media-induced frenzy, those prophets could have been daily ravaged by sheer outrage.

And yet, reading these Scriptural accounts, I can’t help but get the feeling that these guys did not live out their days stalking the earth and utterly consumed by what felt so anathema. For what human being could be a conduit of so much red-faced bile and not have their souls misshapen in sad and terrible ways? Rather, the power of their prophetic witness seems to located in some sort of submission, a disciplined heart, a practiced pursuit of God’s very face — so that they might take on only what was laid upon them by their Creator God. And, lest one be prone to float away in a state of melancholia (as some of us are), it is striking that always always ALWAYS–even in the midst of the hard words–there was always the repeated refrains of hope, the promise of salvation, and yes, the promise of divine judgment on behalf of the poor, the afflicted, and the needy.

Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved….You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink…..Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. (Psalm 80:3, 5, 7 NRSV)


It’s a good thing that Advent leads into Christmas. I don’t mean the escapist version of Christmas where we drape ourselves with over-sentimentality, nor the consumer heaven version of Christmas where we shop ourselves silly. No, it’s a good thing that the heavy clomping footsteps of Advent leads to the topsy-turvy reality of Christmas where society’s outcasts are the only ones trusted with the lead roles in the cosmic drama, and the solution to all the treachery that surrounds and afflicts us–and that we hide in our very own hearts–is found not in the finger snap of a benevolent-yet-patronizing genie, but in the insane act of the Divine ripping out its heart of love and setting it to beat within the fullness of the human plight, so that we–not merely as individuals, but as a people and as a nation--might have a chance at life again. (If we really think about it, we must admit, none of it makes any sense. But, if we really think about it, Love is that way, isn’t it?)

The chance at Life again often seems so little in the face of what feels to be so much when we confront the headline news and the mire of our personal lives. But, for four weeks, Advent gently shakes us, “Hey, you! Wake up. Wake up! That insane cosmic drama? It’s still unfolding… Don’t doze off dreaming of your appetites. Don’t be lulled by your despair. No, don’t give up yet. It’s not over. Trust me, it’s going to become alright in the end…. Just wait and see.”

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. (Mark 13:37 NRSV)

Charlottesville, Unsettled

wilesAt the start of August, I began Deborah Wiles’ Revolution, a historical fiction for middle-schoolers about a young white girl watching Freedom Summer come to her hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi.  And while I was entering the imaginary mind of an 11-year old puzzling over the so-called “invasion” that worried the adults around her, a very different type of invasion actually occurred in Virginia. As what we have now phenomenized as “Charlottesville” unfolded, what occurred during the tension-filled weekend of August 12th uncomfortably echoed the fictional 1964 world that Wiles had constructed:

In Wiles’ Greenwood 1964: A group of white men with rifles picketed the Laflore movie theater with signs, “KEEP GREENWOOD SEGREGATED! DEFEND STATES’ RIGHTS! DO NOT PATRONIZE LEFLORE THEATER!” A speeding car violently crashed itself into the theater’s glass ticket booth, adding fuel to the protesters’ rancor. Local police stood by watching and did nothing. Inside the theater, three black boys cowered in fear after having dared each other into buying tickets and entering into the newly desegregated space. A white family, worried about their eldest son who worked at the theater, quietly snuck the movie staff and three boys out the back door to safety. Later, one of the boys would be shot with a bullet, planned and delivered from a slow-moving car.

In Charlottesville 2017: After their time of worship, a Jewish congregation quietly left through the back door in order to avoid the ominous presence of armed militias and those who paraded in front of their temple, following their shouts of “There’s the synagogue!” with “Seig Heil” and other anti-Semitic chants. An earlier request for local police presence had been inexplicably refused. Such intimidation and eerie absence of police security was similarly experienced by those attending a prayer meeting for clergy preparing for a non-violent confrontation with white supremacists. Later that afternoon, a car would speed down Fourth Street and drive into a group of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing Heather Heyer.

Obviously, these two historical moments were completely different–even at odds. The former marked Northern college students and civil rights activists descending upon a small Southern town to force the state of Mississippi’s hand in enacting the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race and color. The latter (and the present) marked a collection of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and militia groups descending upon a small Southern city to defend from removal a Confederate general’s monument, taking a stand to “Unite the Right.” Completely different invasions. And yet, what does it mean that Wiles’ historical fiction about American race relations in 1964 can so prophetically rehearse what we witness today in the race relations of 2017?

Like identical twins, each historical moment lives its own life and possesses unique birthmarks that we often don’t see; but like identical twins, they possess an uncanny likeness and peculiar set of similarities that irresistibly draw one’s gaze to linger just one moment longer. When I sat up and contemplated the parallels for the first time, it was simply breathtaking.

Undoubtedly, others who are well-acquainted with the sting of racial discrimination and the brutality of racialized violence have been long aware of how little progress our country has genuinely made with regards to matters of race.  For me, however, in these weeks following the terrorizing of Charlottesville, I feel like I have been stumbling—bewildered, angry, heart heavy with tears—down a path that others have experienced: that of coming to consciousness.

Of course, this is not the first time that I have thought seriously about America’s shameful racial past and present. As a history major and as a sociology professor, I’ve read the books and prepared the classes that explore the intersections of race, class and inequality. Yes, I have intellectually grasped and even had my moral imagination pricked by the troubling wounds of our society that remain unhealed. But, as so many know, until something crosses your own path—until the knife cuts into your beloved people and does violence to your beloved spaces—a certain internal switch doesn’t seem to flip. But when it does, a hot coal is set burning inside of you–and it won’t stop burning.

While many others are far more equipped and more entitled to write on these matters,* I’ve come to realize that I’ve been in a state of emotional overdrive since August because Charlottesville is mine too. Charlottesville is the place where my husband and I got married, where we joined the worldwide Anglican Communion, and where we first became homeowners. Charlottesville is where I gave birth to our first child, where I trained in thinking sociologically, where I stared down my fears and completed a dissertation, and most importantly, where I experienced what genuine community meant, and continues to be home to several of our dearest friends in all the world. Having spent eight formative years there, I too have had my heart indelibly rent by the stunning events that took place on my campus and my downtown only two blocks from my former church home.

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To see the stark images of Nazi flags, of unhooded white supremacists and of flaming torches being marched along the very spaces I fondly remember for Frisbee throws, little children’s Halloween festivities, and picnic lunches, was like seeing someone you love getting spit in the face. To receive the clipped telegraph-like reports from our friends who witnessed that weekend first-hand—whether it was observing the horror of men flagrantly wielding semi-automatic weapons down familiar streets, or posting the latest intel on what could possibly explain the city and university’s inadequate response—was the closest I have come to imagining what being in war might feel like: A moment-by-moment existence, when it feels like anything can happen. Anything.

Where the travesties of Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and countless other cities had disturbed what moral equanimity I possessed, what happened in Charlottesville has sounded in me an unceasing alarm. I don’t know what must have prompted someone like Moses to awaken to his Hebrew roots, to feel the tightening grip of his people’s agony in his own heart, and to feel disgust when he looked at himself dressed in his royal Egyptian garb, but he obviously had come to consciousness one day. And then, in his baby-fresh zeal and perhaps in a desire to right the wrongs he felt manifested in his own privileged being, he managed to kill an Egyptian aggressor who was beating a fellow Hebrew, and then was put in his place the next day when attempting to break up a fight: “Who made you a prince or judge over us?

Since the harrowing events of Charlottesville this summer, I have felt it almost intolerable to assume a “keep calm and carry on” mode of existence. In my place of work, in my place of worship, and in my own personal life, I have been burdened with the question of why we are so hesitant to openly discuss the realities of our deep racial wounds. I get a lump in my throat every time I think about what it is to have courage, to take risks, and to accept the costs of doing what is right —three things that we regularly exhort our own children to live into.

But, I must admit that I am afraid. I am afraid that, in my own version of Moses’ baby-fresh zeal, that I might manage to make a fatal error, to lash out in a heart of violence against someone I love or hate, or to poke my nose in affairs that I am not entitled to engage, and are far more complicated than I can ever appreciate. I am very green and I know it. Still, as I have been reading to better understand the people and the events of the civil rights movement, I find myself both inspired by the courage of so many who did the right and hard thing, and relieved to find that those actors were actually human—fraught with their own quirks, foibles, and prone to mistakes. Despite their flaws, there was genuine Good ultimately yielded from their actions (even if they did not live to enjoy it themselves) and they rested in the knowledge that they had been faithful to what they were called to do.

I know that, as human beings, it is in our nature to make some sense out of unexpected events. We all strive to create a narrative that helps us make the necessary adjustments in our thinking and imagination in order to achieve some coherence and sense of meaning. For me, I have been deeply unsettled to realize that the parallels between Wiles’ Greenwood, Mississippi in 1964 and the events of Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 are no coincidence and that, in fact, a direct line joins these two historical points. In deep and profoundly grievous ways, I have come to see how we fell asleep and never left 1964 Greenwood, Mississippi. And now, we have woken up in Charlottesville with much of the same actors and the same dynamics still in play….a reality that actually stirs even greater pain because, after fifty years’ worth of dashed hopes and jagged scar tissue, it seems that we simply have no more innocence to lose.

My ears have been ringing with the probing question that any good middle-school teacher would ask her students after reading Wiles’ book: So….what would you have done if you were living in Greenwood, Mississippi back in 1964?

Indeed, what will I do now that I am living with Charlottesville? Will I have the moral courage to do the hard thing?

In the quiet of the night, the answer is clear: How can I not? For, to whom shall I go?


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*For astute voices who are on the ground in Charlottesville, consider the essay by UVA professor Willis Jenkins, and the concise, but sharp reflections offered by the New City Commons staff who are housed in downtown Charlottesville on Fourth Street, a narrow lane that is now marred by unleashed violence and death. For a collection of current sociological writings on race, white supremacy, and other Charlottesville-related matters, consider this.