Psalm 103:1-2 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
Ash Wednesday Meditation
In the book of Numbers there’s a story about a man named Korah of the tribe of Levi who, with a couple of his Levite friends, gathered about 250 chiefs of the congregation of Israel and rose up against Moses challenging his authority and presence as Israel’s leader. Korah spoke to Moses, “‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” (Num 16:3). The accusation from Korah dropped Moses to his knees, so the story goes. Moses saw the accusation from this son of Levi not as one against him but against God. And so, Moses tells Korah that God will tend to and deal with this situation in the morning. So, morning dawns. Moses instructs the bulk of the congregation of Israel to move away from Korah and his two friends. Once the majority of Israel is safe, Moses says to everyone,
‘This is how you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works; it has not been of my own accord: If these people die a natural death, or if a natural fate comes on them, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.’
Moses stopped talking. And then:
The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, ‘The earth will swallow us too!’ And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense.
From dirt they were taken and to dirt they returned.
In the Psalter, Psalm 88 picks up this story. Korah is remembered in Israel’s hymns; the psalmist giving voice to the one who dropped to the bottom of the pit when the earth opened up underneath his feet:
You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness? But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?
Psalm 88 has no happy and uplifting ending. The psalmist is not rescued from the pit and darkness is the only thing that accompanies them day and night. God seems absent and distant. And maybe even more than that, God appears to be gone. Not for lack of trying, the one stuck at the bottom of the pit cries out day and night, pleading with an entity that might have left them there to rot. Here enclosed in walls of dirt they suffer, here in the dust they are in agony, and here in the darkness they cry out and….silence.
From dirt they were taken and to dirt they are returned.
These are the mournful, sorrowful, anxious filled, agonizing, words of Ash Wednesday. Today is our reckoning with God—each of us embarks on our own journey into divine encounter. Today we each come into close proximity with the divine and the holy and are exposed as stuck and sick. Today we each recall how fragile our lives are—vulnerable to virus and infection, to breaks and fractures, to mental breakdown and heartbreak. Today we each are reminded of how often we have failed ourselves and others, broken promises, played the charlatan with her act together, opted for self-gain over self-gift. Today we each clearly hear all the voices and see the faces we turned deaf ears and blind eyes toward as they asked for help, for acknowledgment, for dignity. Today we each are brought to our knees in our humanity remembering that our time here is finite. Today we each collide with the ruse of free will and autonomy. Today the ground opens underneath us and swallows each of us. Today we each drop all the way down to the bottom of the pit, landing on hard ground and are consumed by darkness. Today we each echo the psalmist, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (Ps 88:18).
There is no way to bypass Ash Wednesday and proceed straight to Easter. For those of us sitting here in 2021, the new life of Easter is hinged on our encounter with God in the event of faith that is the death of Ash Wednesday. We must each walk this long and arduous path of self-reckoning and self-exposure spanning the time from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. I cannot protect you from it; in fact, I must lead you into it. Today they weight of my stole feels more like the heavy of a millstone than the light of fabric; today I anoint you not with oil but with ashes and dirt.
From dirt you were taken and to dirt you will return.
Don’t lose heart, beloved; hold tight to the mercy of God. There is no end of the earth so far, no pit so deep, no darkness so dark, no dirt and dust so thick where you, the beloved, are out of the reach of the love and mercy of God, from where God cannot call you back unto God. Not even death itself can separate you from love and mercy of God.
He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities; He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness; He satisfies you with good things, and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.
In this episode, my friend, Rachel Cohen (@pwstranger), tells me her story. As I make mention of in the introduction, Rachel and I have been friends for the better part of a decade. Our paths have overlapped and split an overlapped again. We share some of that story in the episode, so I won’t go into detail here. Rachel also spends time throughout the episode telling her story of her self-alignment and realignment about her sexuality and embodiment with what she believed and was taught. Rachel’s story is unique and one that is best in her voice, so I won’t go into detail here about that either. What I will say about this episode is that Rachel and I cover good ground looking at the capitalization of self-gaslighting to peddle a false gospel and how we can monetize our shame and guilt for likes and retweets and shares, how certain schools of popular theology use the theme of brokenness and failure as a means of self-justification, and how the freedom of confession can be freeing for a moment and turn into putridness like manna kept longer than commanded. Rachel mentions that for her (and I’m guessing for many other people) there is a perception of thriving that is disconnected from the inner self. We can present as thriving while on the inside the core of the person is being suffocated and starved. The way this misalignment of the self persists is by controlling what information is accessed by the self. In other terms, you are dunked deep into the echo-chamber and held down so that liquid is your self’s amniotic fluid from which you can never be born. But is this actual “thriving”? No, it’s a perception of thriving according to the rule and approval of those around you. To actually thrive necessitates an ability to be *yourself* even in the midst of encountering new information, new people, and even information and people you disagree with and that/who disagree with you. You cannot find *your* voice if you are forced to speak a certain way, so gaining alignment and having “integrity”, Rachel explains, necessitates finding your voice for yourself and to come to your conclusions. No one gets to tell you what to think—even if you are informed by teachers and leaders and mentors, you decide what you are going to think. This ownership of thought is important especially when engaging with theology which is a form of human meaning making, as Rachel explains. And it’s important because here you can distinguish between shame that is healthy conviction and your own conviction because you transgressed *your* own boundary and shame that is destructive because it’s imposed on you by an external system. But this is only the first part of our conversation…there’s part II. So, start listening here and then get ready for part II…*
You should be. Listen here:
Rachel Cohen is a licensed therapist who currently lives in Denver, Colorado with her lovely partner and dog. She has two Master’s degrees: one in Theological Studies, and the other in Counseling. While in seminary, Rachel began to examine and move beyond many of the deeply held beliefs and ideas that were pervasive in the evangelical Christian circles in which she was residing. It was also during this time that she began the complex and liberating journey of coming to understand and embrace herself as a queer woman. She is passionate about helping others untangle unhelpful narratives and ideas, discover more of who they are, and learn how to establish healthier boundaries with others. Her favorite recipe is BBQ salmon bowls with mango avocado salsa. Her favorite pastime is songwriting. She’s currently reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle and The Body Says No by Gabor Maté.
*In this episode Rachel and I speak about a podcast, Millenneagram, that I listened to late in 2019 and early in 2020 as part of my personal therapy practice as I was processing some major pain. When Rachel and I recorded the host and producer of the podcast, @riverpaasch was not publicly going by “River”. Rachel Cohen brought this to my attention and I felt that I should add something here in the blogpost because it’s important. That podcast is no longer in production. And their work is profound and insightful, and I highly recommend hitting those old episodes as well as finding them on social media to learn from them.
Untamed by Glennon Doyle
Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation by Cheryl B. Anderson
Heterosixism in Contemporary World Religions: Problema nd Prospect by Marvin Mahan Ellison
To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedediah Jenkins
Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist: How to End the Drama and Get on with Life by Margalis Fjelstad
Psalm 29:10-11: The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore. The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.
The chorus of a Vineyard hymn, “Refiner’s Fire,” goes like this:
Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord I choose to be holy/Set apart for You, Ready to do Your will
I remember singing songs like this. I remember wanting “holiness” to be my one desire. I was so moved by this desire, I dedicated myself not only to the holiness of right thought but also to right action. This is the way active holiness was explained to me: not having anything to do with vile “secular” culture that is the playground of Satan and his demons waiting for unsuspecting Christians to wonder in and partake of his pleasing fruit and fall from grace through his seduction to damnation. I had to avoid anything deemed morally “bad”. This is what it meant to be set apart for Christ and holy: to keep myself clean from the stain sin (of “not Christian”). So, following recommendation, I tossed “secular” CDs, avoided “secular” movies, made sure my books were either the Bible or “Christian”, and ditched friends who weren’t Christian. I’d keep my mind on heavenly things and make sure my deeds aligned with them. I would go to Church every Sunday, memorize scripture, submit to men, and attend every bible study. This is how I was holy, and this was God’s will.
Sadly, that definition of holiness ran me into the ground. I had to spend my time focused on myself, on my image, on my presentation of myself so I could appear right with God. That definition of holiness was killing me, making me judgmental, condescending, angry, and starved for personal substance and presence and action. I didn’t reckon with myself, I just tucked everything I didn’t like in a box and shoved it somewhere else. It turned me so far inward that I couldn’t follow Jesus and I couldn’t see my neighbor and her needs. I was inside out, self-consumed, dysfunctional, and dead. This was holiness? This was being set apart?
Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord
…[Paul] said to them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” But they [said] to him, “But we heard nothing if there is a Holy Spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Into what then/therefore were you baptized?”
Acts 19:2-3a; translation mine
The way the introductory Greek reads suggests Paul has intent to go to Ephesus to find those who believe in Jesus to ask some interesting questions. When he finds them, Paul asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s current crucial mission. Paul wants to know: has God taken up residence with you and in you? The disciples reply they’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit. Paul’s response? Another question: into what therefore were you baptized? While the question is simple the impact is profound. The disciples explain they were baptized by John. Well…okay…Paul says…but…: there is John and then there is Jesus; there is the verbal assent of repentance and then there is the bodily assent of practice; there is cleansing the outer person with water and then there is the refining fire of God’s cleansing the inner person; there is water and then there is Spirit.
For Paul, John’s baptism with water is for the confession of sin and repentance. But it’s not enough. There’s more. There’s a trajectory involved in baptism that necessitates the presence of God in the life of the believer; it’s this presence, this Spirit, that unites us to God through faith in Christ. This trajectory is started by John, according to Paul, and it is finished by Christ.  John is the herald and Jesus the message. Not only their bodies must be baptized, washed, and dedicated to God but also their work, their discipleship must be baptized in Christ. It’s through repentance we die and are submerged in water; it is through this death we find life in the baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
“I have baptized you with water,” says John the Baptist. “[B]ut he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The one who is baptized last in the Jordan by John is now the first of New Creation, of the new order, of the new age, of the “new day.” In being last in the waters of the Jordan and receiving the baptism of repentance with water by John, Jesus is the one who stands among the people and in solidarity with God. As the first of the new divine action in the world, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, Emmanuel, the promised divine child of Mary, is God incarnate in solidarity with humanity in those same waters of death and new life. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost and with humanity in its plight. This is the one who will leave the Jordan and begin his ministry in the world focused on bringing in and including those who are shut out and excluded, mending the wounded, soothing the brokenhearted, and calling by name those whose names are forgotten.
In the event of baptism, Jesus’s history becomes our history–we, with our histories (past, present, and future), are grafted into the history of Christ (past, present, and future). It’s in this event where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit. It’s here we’re made holy, receive holy gifts, and do holy things because of the presence of God. (Where Christ is proclaimed there Christ is and holy activity is worked out in and through us.) We’re baptized by water and Spirit into Jesus’s mission and ministry. One by one, each of us is encountered in the waters of the Jordan, in repentance; one by one, each of us is encountered by God in the event of faith. Thus, in this baptism, one by one, each of us must reckon with ourselves and ask: will I follow Jesus out of the Jordan?
To follow Jesus means to love others and to love God, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to stand in solidarity with God. To follow Jesus in this moment means to come against empire (the deeper theme of Acts 19), like Paul did, like the disciples eventually did, and just like Jesus did in his divine ministry and mission in the world. When Jesus leaves the Jordan the kingdoms of humanity come under judgment and are exposed for what they are: realms of death and darkness.
This week we witnessed a coup. A coup to uphold and maintain systems, ideologies, authorities, and persons in opposition to life. White supremacy and its dominant culture of whiteness reared its head and stormed the state house and demanded democracy be silenced so the empire of man can remain standing. It wasn’t solely about supporting Trump but ultimately what Trump represents: the old age of the evil empire of death and destruction. The message sent to black indigenous people of color, to the lgbtqia+ community, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to womankind was loud and clear: power and privilege and me and mine is worth destroying your life, liberty, and democracy. This is what narcissistic power does when it’s challenged; this is the fit privilege throws when threatened. I thought 2020 exposed just how bad things are; I stood corrected on Wednesday. We are in the process of being exposed. We have racial capitalism deep in our bones and it’s dragging us, each of us, into darkness and death unto death. Be sure: this is not a “them over there” problem; it’s a problem for us. We are held captive and are complicit here. I am held captive and am complicit here.
Willie James Jennings writes,
Both the water and the touch become the stage on which the spirit will fall on our bodies, covering us with creating and creative power and joining us to the life of the Son. Through the Spirit, the word comes to skin, and becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit.
The word comes to skin, becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit… This means that we, in our baptism with water and the presence of the Spirit and word come to skin, are intimately connected to the rest of humanity—in all shades of melanin. Thus, in no way can we support governments, people, actions, ideologies, institutions and systems designed to hinder and threaten lives. As sons and daughters of life and light, we are exhorted t to live in ways to make this world free and safe for our black and brown brothers and sisters in light and life. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes,
It is time for us to be embodied realities of the black prophetic tradition and with moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination begin to create the world we ‘crave for our daughters and sons’…Now is the time. It is the time to live into God’s time and to create that new heaven and new earth where the time of stand your ground culture is no more.
For those of us encountered by God in the event of faith, we must harken back to our baptism of water and the refining fire of the Spirit. We must begin with ourselves. Without this deep and painful self-reflection and self-work, there can be no substantial change. We must ask those very hard questions: how do I participate in these death dealing systems? How have I squandered divine holiness for human power and privilege? Where does anti-black racism live in my body, my mind, my heart? Following Jesus out of the Jordan demands we step into the light and be exposed, and we repent of our guilt. It means we begin again washed clean through the water of repentance and resurrected into the new life of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ in union with God and God’s mission in the world on behalf of the beloved for this is holiness and for this we are set apart.
 Εγενετο δε εν τω τον Απολλω ειναι εν Κορινθω Παυλον διελθοντα τα ανωτερικα μερη [κατ]ελθειν εις Εφεσον και ευρειν τινες μαθητας… (Acts 19:1). I’m taking the aorist active infinitive ευρειν to have intentional direction of action thus as apposition in relation to the aorist active infinitive of [κατελθειν] which completes the thought of the aorist active participle διελθοντα: Paul passed through the higher part and came down into Ephesus. Why? Well, namely, to find some disciples. In other words and looking at the questions that follow in the dialogue between Paul and the disciples, he is intentionally looking for disciples to make sure they’ve received the Spirit.
 Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 184, “These were not people who needed convincing. Their commitments to a new way were clear. Yet the questions are crucial.”
 Jennings Acts 184, “John was preparation. The way of repentance he declared in Israel was the stage for the one who lived that life of repentance for his people. John was a person, but Jesus was a person and a place of living. John was an event that flashed across the landscape of Israel. Jesus was the bringer of a new time that extends to all space.”
 Jennings Acts 184, “These questions expose not simply gaps in their discipleship but lack of clarity of its telos, its end, goal, and fulfillment. Clearly John the Baptist presented a renewal movement in Israel, a calling home, a clarifying work establishing the divine claim on a beloved people with a purpose. That purpose was to trumpet a new day in Israel. Paul is of that new day, and soon these disciples of John will also be of that new day.”
 Jennings Acts 184, “The saving work of God is always new, always starting up and again with faith…Paul invites these disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters only to find it again in the resurrected One.”
 Jennings Acts 184, “Baptism in Jesus’ name signifies bodies that become the new day.”
 Joel B. Green“The Gospel of Luke” The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”
 Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”
 Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174
 McMaken Sign 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”
 Barbara Rossing “Turning the Empire (οικουμενη) Upside Down: A Response” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Ny NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) p. 154 “‘In the οικουμενη all are Romans’: this fact—mourned by Agrippa but celebrated by Aelius Aristides—describes the first-century context both geographically and politically. It is the context we have to assume also for Acts. So, I would argue οικουμενη in Acts means ‘empire’. And this proves important for the reading of Acts 17 (both the account of the incident at Thessalonica as well the Areopagus speech) and acts 19 along with the trial scene we find there. What Paul is turning upside down is not the ‘world’ in the cosmic sense but rather the ‘empire’ or imperial world.”
 David Justice defines this term in his paper “Negating Capitalism: The Beloved Community as Negative Political Theology and Positive Social Imaginary” presented at AAR/SBL 2020 Annual Conference Virtual/Online forum Black Theology and Martin Luther King, Jr. 12/2020. Justice writes, “Racial capitalism, wherein racism and capitalism are mixed such that race is exploited to gain capital from racial identity…” p.1.
Womanism is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It seeks, according to womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (Phillips), to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension” (from Wikipedia)
 Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. New York NY: Orbis, 2015. 227. Lorde quoted.
Theological Examination of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
Hi! I decided to talk about one of my favorite books because I was inspired by a group of students and my academic research. I had fun working on this video. I hope you enjoy it.(It’s a bit longer than I had hoped it would be, but I definitely said the things I wanted to…and could have said a lot more!).
Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And, the worst part is there’s no-one else to blame
Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, enfold me
I am small and needy
Warm me up and breathe me
Ouch I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe…Sia “Breathe Me”
This is one of my favorite songs to turn to when I’ve had one of those days. The days defined as terrifically terrible, where everything I touched seemed to turn to dirt, my words fell like stones destroying rather than bricks building. One of those days where I was clearly the one in the wrong, where I failed badly, did that thing I swore I’d never do again…Those days where I wish water could truly wash me clean inside and out.
The feelings that surround me are those that are products of an internal monologue that is in dialogue with the law. There are two sides to the law. It can be both positive and negative. The positive side of the law is the side that creates structure and order in our school, in our town, state and even in our nation. Laws create order out of chaos. To follow the law in this way can bring comfort: I know what is expected and what to expect.
But the negative side of the law is the side of the law that exposes something about me I’d rather have hidden. That side of the law that brings to light what I’m desperately eager to keep cloaked in darkness. That I’m not kind. That I’m not good enough. That I’m a failure because I’ve failed once again. That I’m not who I like to think I am and not whom I’ve lead you to believe I am. The negative side of the law exposes the imposter and drags her into the light. This part of the law doesn’t strengthen me and highlight my talents and capabilities, reminding me how powerful I am; rather it draws to the surface my guilt and shame, that I’m lost and fragile, small and needy. “Be my friend, hold me/Wrap me up, enfold me…”
The book of Galatians does well highlighting both aspects of the law. Paul refers to the law as working with and not against the promises of God but that the law also functions as a disciplinarian in the life and mind of the person. To deny both aspects of the law is foolishness; it is even more foolishness to think that by the law one can avoid the negative aspect of the law. That is the relentless hamster wheel of perpetual performing and existential self-denial of mass proportions. Everything is not fine. We are not peachy-keen and better than ever, or “too blessed to be stressed” and certain no Christian colloquialism will alleviate the tumult under the surface.
The reality is we’re all pressed in on every side. And now more than ever as we slide full-speed into the end of the semester. Grades hanging in the balance: will you fail or will you succeed? College acceptances and rejections? The yays and nays depend on whether or not you’ve done enough on paper. Have you done enough and in the right time? Family pressures; friendships under strain; anxiety and stress rising; mind, body, and soul longing for a moment, a breath, a safe place.
This safe place so longed for rests in the lap of Mary. After giving birth, Mary was ceremoniously unclean according to the laws of Leviticus. However, Mary gave birth not just to any child, but the son of God. Thus she was, after having given birth, holding and nursing the new born Christ, for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of Very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet there she was: with God because He was with her, physically, in her presence and she in His. From the moment of His birth, Jesus had begun to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment. This is God with the guilty and shameful, the lost and fragile, the small and needy; this is Emmanuel, God with us.
During Advent we recall the long awaited event of the fulfillment of the promise of God: I will be your God and you will be my people and you will love me with all your heart, mind, soul, and body. We are brought to the one to whom the law directs and guides. The law’s reign as disciplinarian began to crumble the moment Christ was born; its ability to render a verdict about who and what you are was revoked when Christ died and was raised. Thus, the whispers of condemnation ricocheting in your head have been silenced; that fear of failure: stilled. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
Christ has fulfilled the law relieving it from its role as disciplinarian; thus, we are not to remain in the condemnation of the law. Our guilt and shame, those terrifically terrible days and seasons in our lives don’t have the final word because Christ has taken our burdens and given us His light yoke. So, as we go toward the end here, be gentle with each other and be gentle with yourselves. We’re all battling our internal condemning monologues with the law. And remember: In Christ, you are the befriended, the held, the wrapped up, the enfolded. No matter how all those cookies crumble, you are the beloved and adored.
In little over a month, I’ll step in to a new role: religious educator. To be honest, it’s not a particularly new role for me, considering my participation in the church–the very reason I’m am being ordained to the priesthood is based on my calling and gifting to teach, which I’ve demonstrated. So, the newness of the role is more about it being an official, paid, vocation/occupation. I’m excited about this new role and this opportunity to use my gifts in a professional way and, well, receive some perks apart from internal satisfaction.
But in the midst of this excitement and affirmation (for truly I see to have received a call as an affirmation), there lies a hiccup. Every part of me wants to embrace, arms open wide, the level of excitement I want to have, but I wrestle with the ever persistent shadow of the accusation: selfish. To take the call, I’ve asked (demanded?) my family to uproot and move to another state, to another job, to another school, to another life. And this request is contrary to how I’ve lived my life for the past little-more-than-a-decade as a stay-at-home-parent. For these people, my family, I’ve pushed myself aside giving them spots one through four. Even when I was working so hard on the very training that allowed me this very opportunity, they came first; I wove my education and exercise of my gifts into the cracks of my days as not to disturb the ebb and flow of our family life.
It doesn’t help that the mama bear in me is active; I’d do anything to protect my kids from pain and discomfort. However, the very pain and discomfort I wish to always protect them from and that they are currently experiencing comes from me. This is the internal war being waged in my mind. No matter how hard I shake, no matter how fast I run, I can’t seem to escape the accusation: you’re selfish. Yet, I can neither shake nor run from the reality that this new job is a real good, a good I need to (and want to) grasp with both hands, a good I’ve been training for for over a decade.
It’s here, in the midst of this struggle in my mind, I need to rest fully on the grace of God. And I don’t mean the trite: let go and let God. (Though, I’ll admit that probably colloquialism does apply to some degree here.) What I means is the grace of God that is the rod and staff of comfort that walks us through the shadow of the valley of death (Ps 23:4). The type of grace of God that holds us up as we descend into the darkness that is faith. As I navigate this delicate walk between accusations of selfish and affirmations of good, I am reminded that just as my life has been (for both good and for bad) in God’s hands, my children’s lives are there, too. God’s providence is not for me alone, but also for them and my fear shouldn’t cause such shortsightedness: (once again) this isn’t solely about me.
The accusation is silenced in this grace of God that as I am lead by the hand through this dark valley because it is God leading me into this new phase of my life so are my children being lead; it is God who is the author of this new chapter in my life and in theirs. I am reminded that this opportunity benefits my children and does not take from them in the ways that I imagine it does/will. I will be stepping out of one way of providing comfort into a whole different version of providing comfort. This job allows my children a new way of viewing their mother and thus women in general. This job allows me to take steps to the side, giving them a clearer view of their own path. This job allows me to start to untie these apron-strings and assure them that I’m fine and that, when the time comes for them to leave–and it will and quick–they not only will but can.
In this job rests the beginning of what I’ve truly been training for this past decade-plus: landing this plan. Taking this job and making these requests that I have, is me beginning the initial descent. And while this flight has been great–not without major turbulence–a plane can’t stay in the air forever. So, I flip the switch that illuminates the directive: “fasten your seat-belt.” And my voice sounds out in breaks and crackles over the loudspeaker: Please prepare the cabin for landing.
A few weeks ago there was a study* that concluded that mothers who work shouldn’t feel guilty because their children turn out just as well as children whose mothers did stay home with them. This is good news. I hate that my friends feel guilty who work and feel bad for working and not being home with their children. I’ve long held the belief that if you want to work then work, if you have to work then work, if you want to stay home and can, do it. You any of those very things. I’ve never believed that because I stay home with my three children that they’ll be some sort of super-humans; but then again, my theology prevents me from believing such lies about motherhood and parenting.
Lies that have come into existence because the axiom has shifted from God to humans and when that shift occurred there was a vacuum and like any good vacuum something was sucked into the void: parenting. If we no longer look to God, then we default to looking to ourselves (I think therefore I am (Descartes) and I have no need for that hypothesis (Leplace about God)). And, if it’s up to us then we must get to the core of human society and how to keep it going and even evolve it and that is how we end up with the idolatry of parent-hood and parenting. If you don’t want your child to grow up to be a sociopath/psychopath then you should _____!For your child to be truly compassionate and intelligent you must never____! I’ve seen this line of thought coming from both traditional and attachment parenting blogs and websites (my husband and I fall in the weird conundrum of both traditional and attachment parenting techniques). The onus of a productive and good society falls heavy on the fleshy, bony shoulders of weak men and women: if you do this parenting thing right, we’ll not only keep society running, we’ll improve it!
Lies. Horrible horrendous lies.
But what bothered me most about this study and the hype about it was that there was this implicit conclusion that I, as a stay at home mom, somehow feel less guilty because I stay at home.
I feel guilty day in and day out. I feel guilty just as much as my friends who work (it might be different, but I doubt the level is any different). I feel guilty because I fail my children daily. I feel guilty because I’m aware that I’m not treating these three human beings, who God has placed in my hands to care for, perfectly. The reality is that I don’t need a parenting manual to tell me I’m failing, because as soon as my voice raises and that anger over-comes me and I grit my teeth, I know I’m failing. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, first and foremost those who are quite literally bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh and this command I fail daily. From my experience, motherhood (parenthood at large) is naturally inclined toward guilt. I could search every town in every state looking for that one non-guilt-ridden mother, and I’d come up empty. Facade or not, parents are guilt ridden.
And that brings me to my main point. The hard news we don’t want to hear is this: we are all failing as parents. Failure is failure is failure. Working or staying home, we are all failing our kids because we’re broken human beings. At night, when I lay my head on my pillow, my shoulders are no less burdened by guilt and regret than a mother who works.
Guilt is guilt is guilt.
And it doesn’t matter how many studies are published that say x or y about parenting and guilt and that I shouldn’t have it; none of it alleviates my guilty feelings, my guilty conscience, cleans my blood stained hands. At the end of the day, the only thing–and I mean: The. Only. Thing.–that takes that guilt from me is the absolution proclaimed to me from the Gospel, which is the gospel of the justification of sinners. Jesus Christ died for all of my failures as a mother, all of your failures as a mother or father, and he was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). By faith in Christ we are united to Christ and what is His (righteousness, not guilty, beloved) becomes ours (it is imputed to us) to such an extent that we are indistinguishable from it; just as, on the cross, what is ours (sin, guilt, unbelovedness) became His–Jesus became sin (it was imputed to Him) to such an extent that He was indistinguishable from it. And this entire event (or exchange) is ours by faith in Jesus Christ and not by works of the law; we are entirely justified by faith in Jesus Christ apart from works. All of me–all of you–now is determined by faith in Christ and not by works of the law.
In the event of justification by faith in Christ, your guilty status is revoked for good and replaced with the status of not guilty. In the event of justification by faith in Christ, in His word of absolution to you, your guilt (all of it) is actually taken from you because in the word of absolution you are recreated notguilty, you are recreated forgiven, you are recreated beloved.In the event of justification and by the word of absolution you stand as one who is not guilty, who is forgiven, and who is beloved.
It is this word of absolution, and only this word of absolution, that will ever take away our guilt for real.
*There were some holes poked in the research supporting the study. On a podcast I listen to produced by Slate, Mom and Dad are Fighting, I heard that the comparisons were drawn between stay at home mothers in the 70’s and working moms of today. I mention this not to discredit the conclusion (mothers who want to/have to work shouldn’t be burdened by guilt of some abstracted idealistic version of motherhood that is fairyland) but to say that I’m aware of the errors.
Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: do not drink, answer him: I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.
― Martin Luther “The Life and Letters of Martin Luther”
You might not know it from the outside but I’m a mess; that’s not a celebratory statement, it’s just the truth. I’m a mess, but not based on my works. I’m a hard worker, from morning to night. If any one were to say anything to me it wouldn’t be: Work more!, it would be: I’m worried about you…you’re working too hard! I’ve actually heard that before. You wouldn’t necessarily call me a mess because I’m not a “mess”, at least not on the outside.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it?
I can cry: I’m a mess! But you might cry: Foul!
Because my mess isn’t (currently) external but internal. My mess is locked in my conscience, under the stern eye of a horrible prison warden that drives me on relentlessly. My conscience is easily pricked by the accusations of the devil and, rather than do what Luther recommends above, I actively try to prove those accusations wrong by my works. I’m a mess because of the chaos on the inside, the storm that wages violently, the guilt that drives me to fear sitting down, to do only my best, to care about/do everything. And daily I have to talk my own self down off a ledge with words of the Law and the Gospel; not only daily but multiple times a day. I am justified by faith in Christ apart from (both good and bad) works…
And this is the leveling force of the two words of Law and Gospel: we are all messes not purely based on the external state of our persons, places, and things; truly, we are messes because of what is going on with our consciences. And because of this, you and I both want that conscience soothed, to silence the voice of the internal, relentless, prison warden driving us with bullwhip and yoke. So we do what we know best, we’ll either try to work our way to virtue or we’ll try to make failure a virtue–but nonetheless, it’s a pursuit to justify oneself by works. I will either try to show the other “overachievers” how awesome I am (tell me how awesome I am!) to silence that relentless voice, or I will try to garner some camaraderie among the other “ne’erdowells” (my failure’s ok, right?)to silence it. Both approaches–which most of us vacillate between daily, if not hourly–are self-justifications because they’re centered around works. Both groups of people are looking for affirmation.
What we need–what our troubled, messy consciences need–isn’t affirmation from our peers but absolution from God. We need the Gospel; we need the Gospel of the justification of sinners. We need freedom; we need the freedom that comes from the words: You are forgiven from your self-justification, from your good and bad works. We need to be coaxed out, loved out, convinced it’s really safe to come out of our prisons because captivity is all we know and that’s safe; freedom is unknown and is risky. No one can preach too much freedom to the former captives–even when they are pushing boundaries, asking do you still love me now? Am I still justified by faith now? What about now? ….Annnnd…now? Because the answer is always: Yes, even now. I love you even now.
For messes like us, there is no such thing as moving on from or getting too much of the doctrine of justification, the proclamation of the Gospel, the pronouncement of absolution, because we are too dull to get it, too skeptical to believe it, too scared to actually leave our prisons behind. If push came to shove, most of us would rather try to sin less than thumb our nose at the accusations of the devil by drinking more, recreating more, joking more; captivity doesn’t shake off easily, captives maintain their captive mindset far long after they’ve been set free.
For messes like us, one-way love, freedom, and what Jesus has done on our behalf is too good to be true; thus, for messes like us there’s no such thing as too much love, too much freedom, too much Jesus.