[Image Description: A tree with two large, split branches emerges from a creek. The bark is brown, and there are smaller branches above with green leaves. The water in the creek is light brown with white bubbles on the surface from rapids. Some stones and sticks are in the lower left part of the image on land.]
When I took this photo over the weekend, the water in this creek was much higher than average. But year round, when the levels are lower, this tree is planted within the water. It’s always connected to the water.
I paused for a moment, recognizing that trees don’t merely have their own individualized set of roots. They are often connected to entire root systems underground. This tree, planted in water, likely nourishes other trees too. The trees receive nourishment from the ground table as well, but I imagine (or at least, I like to imagine) that this tree contributes in a special way.
I found this to be a lovely parable of sorts.
All too often, we are socialized to feel guilty for resting, or practicing recreation, or limiting productivity, or caring for our bodies. Cultures of capitalism and ableism have formed and socialized us in these ways.
But we are worth rest, recreation, pause, and care.
We are worth nourishment.
Why should we continue to feel guilty? We need and deserve all of these. And when we center them, planting ourselves in them, we inevitably nourish others too.
[Image Description: Gray background, Blue text. In all caps, it reads, “Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”]
CN: Migrant children in detention, Childhood Neglect
This is a difficult thing to name, but it’s important to call this to our minds and our action:
So often, when children experience neglect —
the absence of adult attention and mirroring, emotional safety and support, food, water, shelter, medical care, language development, learning, affection, hygiene, and other essential human and developmental needs —
they find ways to blame themselves.
Neglected children concoct stories, weaving together a host of “causes and effects” that aren’t linear or actually true, but these narratives are internalized and deeply believed. Sometimes, these blame narratives emerge directly from the words of adults, but they also emerge as a survival strategy.
After all, if the mistreatment your fault, if it’s something you’re doing, something you’re failing to do, or something just “bad” about who you are… there might be chances to change this. If you can figure out just what it is… if you can determine what is so guilty or shameful about you… you might be able to fix this. The mistreatment, which seems to be deserved, might be temporary.
Alongside all the physical dangers of neglect, this survival strategy comes at a great cost. Guilt and shame are internalized at the deepest levels. But this survival strategy also shields from the intolerable: Children cannot bear to believe they are trapped indefinitely among adults who will not care for them or who are thoroughly unsafe, even if that is the true story.
This week, we have heard troubling testimonies about migrant children as young as 7 and 8 years old who were made to be responsible for the care of toddlers in detention. Children cannot parent children. In addition to compounding physical neglect, this sets up scenarios for children to feel guilty. They do not have the capacity to meet the physical and emotional needs of younger, distressed children — children who are separated from the parents who could actually care for them.
So what is the true story here? And what story are we going to tell them?
What story will actually reach these children? Actually liberate their conditions and change their reality? What actions will remove the separation and the neglect?
We also should not bear a reality where children are trapped indefinitely among adults who will not care for them or who are thoroughly unsafe. We must change that story.
They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.’And he said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
[Image Description: Three gray-brown rocks are stacked upon each other, each smaller than the one beneath it. The rocks are on top of sand, and the sand has tracings with concentric circles as if there is a ripple effect from the rocks.]
To the Person That Harms,
To the Family That Wounds,
To the Shame That Devours,
To the Violence That Festers,
To the Grief That Upends,
To the Diagnosis that Stuns,
To the Substance That Hooks,
To the System That Discriminates,
Any of You, or
All of You, or
More Than You
(That Which Stays Silent or
That Which Exists Beyond Lists)
have never been a gift in disguise —
not tied with a bow
or packaged with grand, silver linings.
But here’s one thing you’ve yet to figure out:
The more you knock us off balance —
The more you pummel,
The more you trounce,
The more you disrupt and delight in the off-kilter,
The more we come to know what our balance is.
And that balance,
when we know it,
when we can name it,
when we can internalize it,
is Strength Beyond Strength.
That Balance is Our Sacred Invitation.
That Balance is Our Secret Intervention.
[Image Description: A clockwise spiral made of a variety of colors — shades of red, orange, green, and yellow]
Every single thing that happens is born of particularity.
The largest things and the smallest things, alike —
who we know and love,
what routines we’ve developed,
how we’re partnered,
what our daily work looks like,
even what we’ve had for breakfast —
these may not have happened at all, except very particular factors lined up.
He showed up at a meeting.
A conversation brought synergy.
She asked me for a favor.
We missed the train.
A job ad suddenly came into view.
I got fed up.
Someone told them they were really good at this.
A new question emerged in her mind.
Every bit of this is particularity. Most of life has an “it wouldn’t have happened this way, except” attached. I love to think about this.
And here’s a Real Mystery:
At times, we might sit back and marvel that some the best gifts of our lives, the very best people and opportunities for whom we feel an immense amount of gratitude, might not have come into being in the way they have, and may not even exist except for the fact that we experienced a major life detour —
at times, one we would have never chosen, and one we may not have wanted at all.
We might look at these people, opportunities, and life rhythms as expressions of The Sacred Otherwise.
The Sacred Otherwise. . .
Without the detour —
the frustration —
we wouldn’t have had these other experiences.
Plan B, C, D, ad infinitum are very sacred, because they are expressions of life that might not have existed at all. This is true with most things, in fact.
They are the Sacred Otherwise.
This doesn’t mean that the detours, interruptions, disruptions, losses, departures, and frustrations were necessary, or that they were gifts in and of themselves. Far from it. In fact, they might still ache somewhere within us.
But even then,even there,
The Sacred Otherwise is born of particularity.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
This opening paragraph of the 5th chapter of Romans contains many powerful, evocative words. And very likely, if we reflect on them, we’ll notice that these words usually have stories attached.
There are words like faith, peace, grace, endurance, character, hope, and love.
These words weave their way through the letter Paul is writing, and as we connect to them personally, there are probably stories attached. . .
There are moments in our lives when we’ve felt our faith was deeply rooted and connected to the faith of others. . .
There are moments when we’ve felt a deep and abiding sense of peace. . .
There are moments when we became suddenly aware of the grace of God and the ways it impacts our lives. . .
There are moments when we’ve lived stories of endurance, character, hope, and most especially love. Or at the very least, these are the stories we want to live, don’t we?
We want to live stories of endurance, character, hope, and love,
and these are the stories we want to share.
Certainly these words are a part of our collective life together also — not only our individual life – but these words involve the very life that God is weaving through all humanity. These words are the stories God wants us to live.
Yet I also notice in this passage there is a challenging word too. It’s an honest word, and it is a word that likely has stories attached also. The word is suffering. There are moments in our lives when we have experienced deep suffering –
moments of loss, illness, confusion, and isolation,
moments when we began to question whether we were worth very much,
moments when we questioned whether our life has value and meaning.
Our world knows suffering too, including communities that surround us right now. We live in a world where poverty, racism, and classism all exist, along with the many divisions we create to separate some from others, declaring worth and value upon some while viewing the rest as ‘less than.’ The word suffering has stories attached too.
Interestingly, Paul says, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. . .” Why? “. . . because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
So many times, well-meaning people have looked at stories of suffering and tried to make them better than they really are. We have so many ways of speaking trite expressions, trying to make the suffering better in some way, but without recognizing the pain that is found within ourselves, our friends, our neighbors, and our world. We say things like,
“God will never give you more than you can handle.”
But we know that some bear burdens that do feel absolutely unbearable.
Or we say,
“Everything happens for a reason.”
This can make our pain seem as though it is somehow necessary,
like it is some crucial sacrifice toward an amorphous, future good coming into being.
Goodness does often come into being, but it doesn’t make our pain necessary.
It doesn’t mean it is God’s plan, hope, or desire for us.
I don’t think Paul is talking about any of these platitudes when he says, “we boast in our sufferings.”
Let’s hear that sentence again. Paul says, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. . .” Why? “. . . because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
I think Paul is saying that God’s love is the final word, and God’s love is weaving its way throughout our lives — so much so that it is even present in the suffering. Perhaps, it is known most intimately in the suffering, not because God needs us to suffer to discover it, but because God loves us so deeply, that God will be with us right there. God will love us always, and God’s love will be revealed in and through even the stories of suffering.
And that brings us to other words found in this passage. They are tiny words, and on the surface, they seem insignificant, yet they reveal God’s posture toward us.
Words like with.
Have you ever thought about how amazing that word is? Paul says, “We have peace with God.” With. God seeks to be with us. God shows up, including the deepest stories of suffering. As God is with us, we feel peace, and sometimes we feel this beyond our deepest understanding. The word with reveals God’s posture toward us.
Or how about the word through?
Paul says we have this peace with God “through our Lord Jesus Christ, throughwhom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” Through. We have received God’s love and mercy through Jesus Christ. We are reconciled through his very life. This word reveals God’s posture toward us.
Or how about the word into?
Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Into. This love comes into our very being, and the Holy Spirit dwells with us. Into. This word reveals God’s posture toward us.
In the midst of the season of Pentecost, today is Trinity Sunday. This is a day in the Christian calendar when we ponder the love of the Triune God. We don’t just do this solely with our thinking, working really hard in some way to wrap our minds around the reality that God is somehow three and one at the same time –One God, Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not some game of mental gymnastics.
This is a day when we can ponder the Triune God with our hearts and our very lives.
This is a day when we ponder the Triune God with our very life stories.
And perhaps we could say,
this is a day when we ponder not only the love of the Triune God,
but the loves of the Triune God.
These loves might just transform how we see our stories.
When we say that God is Triune, and
when we say that God is one in three persons,
we are saying that at the very heart of God —
at the very heart of Who God Is —
lies the existence of community.
God is one, and
God exists in a community of relationships,
as love is shared and expressed.
And here is one of the most beautiful truths about this revealed vision of Who God Is:
God wants us to join the community of these loves.
It’s not that we become God,
but each of us and all of us
are invited truly to an experience of the life of God.
This Triune vision reveals God’s posture toward us,
so we know when we suffer,
we are never alone.
We are surrounded by God.
We are surrounded by a community of loves –
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer –
and we are invited into the community of loves that exist around us
in our own relationships,
in this community of faith,
in this entire world
where God can be found
around every corner,
under ever rock,
and revealed in and through every human life,
each one infinitely filled with worth and value.
These are the loves that surround our lives.
These are the loves that transform our stories.
So let’s hear Paul’s words one more time:
“We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”