Once upon a time, there lived a weaver who was known throughout the land for the beauty of her creations. No craftsperson could spin a finer, smoother thread.  None could recreate the brilliance of her dyes – the perfect, saturated colors of her palette.  No weaving ever seen carried the complexity, the intricacy, of the patterns the old weaver could invent. The cloth that emerged from her loom was prized beyond measure.

Stories about the old weaver abounded. It was told that her loom and shuttle were enchanted – magical devices that could work as no human hands ever could.  It was whispered that her spinning wheel could extract thread from the morning dew.  It was agreed that gray, cloudy days were the days when she prepared new dyes: when the sky gave her its clear blue, the maple trees their fiery orange, the hummingbird its brilliant green.

The house where the weaver toiled perched precariously above a river valley, clinging by some unknown means to the side of a steep hill. For the possibility of watching the weaver at work, of discovering some of the secrets she brought to her craft, people would travel for miles, even braving the dangers of the final climb. Scarcely a day went by when she did not have dozens gathered around her little cottage. However many gathered, she would welcome them with patient hospitality, giving them water to wash and drink, some little biscuits to fill their bellies.  Then she would tuck herself up to begin the work of her day: the spinning, the dyeing, the weaving that so occupied her, and that brought her guests such joy. Yet, however attentively they watched, they could not quite keep up with the swift, sure movements of her hands, and her secrets remained her own.  Those who had come to plumb her knowledge would wander back out, slightly dazed, the loom’s patterns still dancing before their eyes. On the hillside, they would pause, blinking in the brightness of the day, to gaze down upon the distant valley; perhaps it was the sudden brightness, perhaps the hum of the spinning wheel or the speed of the shuttle still confusing their thoughts, but the landscape of the valley seemed to shift beneath one’s gaze – fickle, uncertain. No matter how clear the air around them, the valley seemed hazy, and those who came to the old weaver’s home would leave, arguing over what they saw spread out before them.

Many times, the old weaver had been offered a small fortune in exchange for one of her creations.  Each time, she would gaze steadily into the eyes of the one who sought to put cash into her hand; she would stare until finally, the would-be purchaser fell silent and turned away. Yet late at night, she would take the cloth she had woven and slip down into the towns of the valley.  Making as little noise as the night itself she would wrap her weavings like blankets – light as air, soft as silk, warm as a loving embrace – around the poor, the blind, the despairing, the hungry.  Before dawn she would return to her hillside, her arms empty but her heart full, to begin again her work.

One morning, a young man came to her cottage, as she sat weaving in the midst of the crowd. He was beautiful: strong and graceful, solemn and joyful. His clothes were simple, but new and of good quality. In his fitted, well-made boots the steep path had given him no trouble, and he was scarcely out of breath as he approached the loom and dropped to one knee before the weaver. His eyes were full of respect and admiration as he gazed at her, heedless of the many others who crowded the room. “Master Weaver, your work is known to me, and I honor your skill. I would love nothing more than to have one of your weavings. If you will not take money, what must I do to get what I desire?”

The old weaver looked affectionately down at the young gentleman, reached out a strong, weathered hand and touched his cheek. “Not the Master Weaver, no, not I,” she replied. “But as to having some of this cloth? Certainly I can weave for you. Where is the wool you have brought?”

The young man’s face fell, and he gasped as though she had struck him. “I have none, Madam.”

“Flax? Cotton? Silk?” she inquired gently.

“No.” His eyes welling with tears, he began to stand up.

“My son, all is not lost.” The old weaver stopped him and took his hand. “Go out and find what I have requested of you. It will not come cheap, so be prepared: you will find what you seek on the far side of the valley, as the hills begin to rise again.  There you will find a pasture whose gate will be open, yet from which the sheep will not wander. There you will find wool in abundance, to bring back to me.”

Although the old weaver’s words were kind, the young man left her cottage with a heavy heart. Outside her door, the day was well advanced, and the valley glowed in the afternoon sun; but the distant hills seemed dark, wreathed in mist that blurred their shapes. 

By next morning, the young man had taken everything of value from within his house, and packed it carefully into a stout cart. At the front, he hitched his ox, and then climbed up onto the seat and began his journey across the valley.  The rising sun nearly blinded him, and he took that as reason to glance continually behind him, into the area where his possessions lay, carefully packed so as not to break and become useless. The glass sparkled, the silver shone, the occasional jewel winked merrily at him and he smiled, glad of the wealth that would finally serve some purpose. 

About mid-morning, he entered a large village.  Towards the far end, he could see a large crowd gathered; he halted his cart, tied the ox to a post, and made his way towards the group.  They had gathered, it seemed, around a modest house; as he approached, the young man could smell smoke. He tapped the shoulder of the nearest person, an old woman, and asked what had happened.

“House caught fire early this morning,” the woman replied. “Managed to save most of it, but parts of the kitchen and the bedroom above were lost.” She turned away, to look at the house sadly. “Young family, they didn’t have much. We’ll all have to pitch in to help out.”

The young man slipped through the crowd to where they family stood, encircled by their neighbors. They were young, younger than he, with a little baby huddled, quiet and frightened, in his father’s arms. “All our dishes were in that corner,” he could hear the father saying. “Pot and pan, plate and cup, all gone. It wasn’t much then, but it’s nothing at all, now.”

The young man paused, looking more closely at the little family. Their clothes were neat, but showed wear and careful mending. The blanket round the child was frayed at the edges, but still warm. Suddenly very aware of his own nice clothes and full cart, the young man turned and made his way back. From among his possessions, he pulled copper pots and ceramic plates, and started back towards the crowd. But as he hopped down from the cart, a slight twinkle caught his eye: a set of heavy, cut-crystal glasses, purchased years earlier in a far-off land.  He hesitated – he might need those, they were valuable, after all, and he didn’t know how much the wool would cost! And besides, it would be a foolish gift to give a couple with a little baby – such breakable things! He hurried off with the pots and plates, and presented them to the family.  Even in their shock, they were effusive in their thanks, but the young man ducked away as soon as he could, still thinking of those glasses, and slightly ashamed.  Such thanks for such little things, he thought to himself as he untied his ox and jumped back up onto the seat.  But the cart had no sooner moved than a great crash sounded behind him; he reined up and turned to see the box of glasses lying in the road behind him, smashed.

Mortified, he jumped down, swept the shards hurriedly back into the box, and left it by the side of the road.  His heart ached anew, and he wished that he had simply given the glasses to the family, for all the use that they would be to him now.

The young man continued across the wide valley.  For several days it rained, and he wrapped himself up as well as he could against the damp and chill.  Finally, one morning, the sun appeared over the distant hills, and mist rose from the fields around. Slowly, the young man’s clothes dried and the warmth began to cheer him.  He glanced back into the cart, still delighting in the treasure packed so carefully away, and the greater treasure that his things would grant him.  In his gladness at the warmth of the sun and the riches of his cart, he began to sing, and was soon so caught up in the song that the sudden halt of his ox startled him badly.

They had come to the river. Not the quiet, smooth, silver ribbon he had seen from the old weavers cottage, but a torrent of mud and branches, swollen and angry with the recent rain.  A cluster of houses stood to one side, their silent inhabitants staring, grief-stricken, at the river. On the far shore, he could make out another cluster of houses, another group of silent watchers; between them, three stone pillars peeked out of the floodwaters.

The young man jumped down from his cart and moved to join the quiet crowd.  “The bridge washed away?” he asked an old man who stood nearby.

“Yes, and our livelihood with it,” the man replied. “All that we had depended on the river and the bridge, and those who came to our villages from both sides of the valley to trade. Our marketplaces were famous; here we united the two sides of the valley.  But without the bridge..” His voice trailed off, and he stared again at the wild river. 

“I’m sure you can rebuild it,” the young man replied, clapping his hand on the other’s shoulder. 

“We found some of the timbers,” the other responded, “But not all. And where shall we get more? Down here, trees are scarce; what we do have, we need for shade for our animals.”

The young man looked around and recognized the truth of these words. He, too, stared hopelessly at the flooded river. He would have to go many miles downstream to find another place to cross, and the plight of these villages touched him. 

After a long, silent time, the villagers began to return to their homes.  The old man invited the young one for supper and a place to rest, and led him to a tiny cottage at the edge of the cluster.  There was not much to eat, but the old man shared what there was, and made a place for the young man to sleep before the fire.

The next morning, the young man rose early and went to hitch his ox to his cart, to continue his journey downriver.  The river level had begun to fall, and the villagers were salvaging what timbers they could, and bringing them back to the road.  The old man, on his way to help his neighbors, smiled sadly at his guest. “Perhaps, when you come back, we’ll have found enough wood to complete the bridge,” he said.

The young man paused, his hand on the cart. There was wood – quite a lot of it, really, in the form of the large, ox-drawn cart.  He hesitated.  He needed the cart to bring his things, the possessions he would need in order to get the wool for the old weaver.  Yet the crash of the crystal glasses rang again in his ears.  Perhaps… if he packed his things just so… Carefully, he took out everything in the cart – porcelain, silver, mother-of-pearl – and repacked it into bundles which could be laid across the ox’s back.  Then he brought the cart down to where the villagers were working.

The young man stayed several days with the old man.  Everyone in the two villages worked, with the old wood and the carefully-dismantled cart, to construct the rudiments of a new bridge.  More wood would be required, but the structure was stable enough that the man and his ox, carrying all his possessions, were able to pass over and be on their way. 

The young man could not regret the loss of his cart, when it had meant he could help the villagers.  But he noticed the weight on his ox’s back; the sacks that were not meant for such use cut into the animal’s shoulders.  He took some of the burden himself, but still the raw spots appeared on the ox.  In every village, the young man found need aplenty; and tried to lighten the load that his animal bore.  In each village, the young man left one or more of his treasures.  Sometimes, he would see one of the old woman’s weavings; there, he would leave the most valuable objects, in the hopes of giving the villagers the means to buy the food or medicines they so clearly needed. Even the ox, in the end, was given to a farmer who was trying to plow his fields by hand. And the young man went on, empty-handed, with nothing but the clothes on his back.  These, too, he might have given away, had they not been, by this time, so worn as to be almost worthless.

Finally, one day, the road began to climb up out of the valley.  Hills rose around the young man, so close that they blocked the sun until mid-morning.  After several hours, a curve in the road brought the sight of a large, fenced-in pasture, where a flock of sheep grazed quietly.  And what sheep! Beautiful, almost glowing in the afternoon light, with soft fleece so thick it looked like you could sink your arm in to the elbow.  The young man stood, transfixed, in awe at the beauty of the enclosure: velvety green grass underfoot, perfectly pruned fruit trees, their branches laden, bowing over the back wall, and the sheep – straight out of a children’s storybook.  He stepped forward, as though in a dream… and stumbled, falling headfirst into a perfectly clear stream that burbled and sang its way to a little pond, not far from the gate.  The water flowed around him, smooth as crystal, and he bowed his head and wept for the broken glasses that he had been too selfish to give away. 

“Why are you crying?” A child stood over him, staring curiously.

“Because I kept the glasses for myself, and they broke, and it doesn’t matter now anyway because I have nothing.” The young man’s bitter tears ran down his face into the stream.  He knew his words could make no sense to the child, but it didn’t seem to matter.

“It’s okay.  I have a cup.  Take a drink, the water is good.” Out of nowhere, it seemed, the child produced a little wooden cup and dipped it into the water.  Obediently, the man drank; the water, though cold, warmed him through as nothing had ever done. He stood, and handed the cup back. 

“I’m here to see about getting some wool,” he began, uncertain.

The child nodded.  “There are shears on the hook in the wall, there. Take as much as you need.”
The man paused. “As much as I need? Do you have no need of the wool, yourself? I don’t want to take this, and leave you wanting.”

The child laughed.  “We do use it for our own garments, yes.  But when there is need, there is enough.  There is always enough.”

The young man looked up, and for the first time noticed that the child was just one of many, running around in the pasture, playing among the sheep and eating the fruit.  The one who had given him the cup now took his hand, and pulled him towards the shears.  “Wait,” the young man said, “I have nothing to pay you.”

The child laughed again, a joyful, contagious laugh. “What it costs you, it has cost you already.” And without another word, the child helped the young man to shear several nearby sheep.  Soon, he had as much wool as he thought he could carry, although it seemed that he had barely sheared any of the animals who were grazing nearby.  He thanked the child, who laughed again and ran off to play.  Bundling up the wool, he turned slowly and started back up the long road to the old weaver. 
One morning, just as the first glimmers of dawn lit the distant hills, the old weaver started up the path to her cottage.  Her arms were empty, but her heart was full, and she was ready for another day at her loom.  But standing before her cottage was a young man, weary and stooped, tired and confused.  The old woman ushered him inside and sat him before the fire, gving him milk to drink and bread and honey to eat. 

“I’m sorry,” he said, finally.  “I thought I was returning to my house, but I seem to have lost my way. I ended up here, instead.” He buried his face in his hands. “I lost all that I had.  Even the wool… the birds, you see.  And the squirrels, and the chipmunks.  They needed it to keep their nests warm…”

Gentle fingers touched his cheek, and then a warm blanket was wrapped around his shoulders – light as air, soft as silk, warm as a loving embrace.  Slowly he raised his head, to see the most beautiful weaving he’d ever imagined. Intricate patterns meandered throughout, creating shapes that seemed almost to move in the first rays of the sun; birds in their nests, a flock of sheep grazing near laden fruit trees, and ox with a plow, glints of silver and mother-of-pearl by outstreched hands, a swirling river carrying away a cart. Towards the bottom, the young man glimpsed the sparkles of broken crystal, and tears again filled his eyes.

“Those,” said a voice, “we put among the tiles of our hearth, so that we might never forget to welcome the stranger.”

The young man looked up, suddenly, into the face of the young father whose house had burnt, and who now gazed at him, smiling. “See? Right here.” And so indeed they were, shards and fragments of crystal, glittering and winking back at him in the light of the fire.  The young man started, and stared around him.  He had thought himself alone with the old weaver in her tiny, precarious cottage. But as he looked, he became aware of noises from other rooms he’d not seen before, voices familiar to him – the young family, villagers from near the bridge, from villages where he had given what he could to meet the neverending need.  From beside the window, a bird sang; its nest lined in the softest wool imaginable. 

The young man turned to the old weaver. He touched the blanket lightly and murmured,  “But, I didn’t bring back any wool…”

She smiled.  “That which keeps you warm is of your own spinning, and the pattern is of your own choosing.  Now come, my son, you need to rest.  For you did not lose your way, but are home now, with your family around you.”

She led him into a small chamber, where a soft bed awaited him. From it, he had a beautiful view of the hazy valley below.  But now the haze had lifted, and the colors of the valley glowed brightly before him, each village clear and sharp. In the distance, sheep grazed; bright against the soft green of their pasture.  The man closed his eyes and pulled the weaving close around him, feeling its softness through the many holes in his once-fine shirt.  And he fell asleep, the richest man in the world.

Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For God all things are possible.”

*Inspired by “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brombaugh and “The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander

Sometimes, God sneaks up on us.

Certainly, we expect to hear God speaking here, where we gather.

We come for just that purpose: to listen, to worship,

and sometimes it is enough.

But sometimes we get hungry;

listening attentively is hard work!

And sometimes the word doesn’t quite cut it,

doesn’t give us enough to chew on,

doesn’t fill the gnawing, empty place within,

but only makes us more aware of feeling


It is tempting to sneak off,

to rush away from the speaking,

to answer a different call than the one that brought us here.

We plot our escape, absently

massaging our empty bellies,

not noticing, at first,

the basket:

for the taking, not the giving.

The basket, from which we pull, grab,

gorge, devour;

we fall back, sated, filled, overfilled,

and, finally, aware:

uncomfortably aware of the hungers of others.

Watch, you who gather here,

as all are filled by the God who slipped in;

in Word, yes,

but in the word that spoke the simple word: eat.

And we are joined in satisfied hunger,

feeling together the relief from emptiness,

pulled from ourselves into a greater Body

in the experience of abundance

in the experience of grace.

One Body, taken within our own.

One Body consumed, incorporated,

giving life and sustaining us,

God incarnate abiding, within us and through us,

the Word made our flesh,

devoured, renewed, eternal, enough,

surprising us in bread, in flesh,

in Word, in Body,

in life.

When grief hits – really hits

when finality folds in upon you

with all its echoing emptiness

Some people run, just for the sake

of moving

of having something to do

with still-living flesh

arms and legs that cannot contain

the unbearable.

And I watched as the men looked

rummaged, flailed, fled

I, whom grief turned to stone

unmovable but for the flood

pouring down my cheeks

clinging to my lashes

until the world blurred:

lost its form in a haze

of light and water.

Movement again, yet not

with the speed of whirling grief.

My eyes, half-blind, streaming

saw first the dirt

upon the stranger’s hands

as though he’d been entrusted

with coaxing new growth

from fertile earth.

Between tear-shimmer above and below

he appeared,

walking through the garden

in the cool of the morning

radiant with the first light of day.

“Where is He? For I know

He Is


and I promised to follow.”

And he spoke, and the world became


as on the first Day.

One word, and I was made new.

The mirror reflects too clearly,

all crystal-clear flaws

shards of foolishness, cutting deep

within my soul.

The more perfect reflection

have I found in the depths

of your eyes

where love does not dwell on imperfection

on that which I guard jealously

so as to keep the mirror pure.

Therefore, the day when I beheld

in that mirror-gaze I so needed

not only affection,

but grace!

You dare, cherished reflection

to scour the vulnerable depths?

to show me what I so despise

even clothed in forgiveness?

You were to be reflection, not judge.

Your eyes were to be mirror,

sightless before the windows open to your gaze.

Your eyes were to be mirror,

reflective of untarnished future

bright-white dreams and


It takes gall, indeed, to forgive that

to which I would deny entry;

to see me with all the sharp-edged clarity

I so long refused.

To see in those eyes, in which I had found

the means to like myself

(or, at least, to hate myself less),

compassion? empathy?

I did not seek after those.

For your eyes to blur my reflection with

mercy? with grace?

I defy you.

I reject the mirror that dares

to pierce me so cruelly;

to cut me open on crystalline splinters

and expose my hidden darkness

to generous light.

For the mirror to see, could there exist

a more devastating


I cannot forgive your


Based on John 6:64-66, 70-71
with thanks to Karoline Lewis for words that started this train of thought.

“Deny yourself: take up your cross”

Say what?

This was all good, Jesus, until you got all morbid.

Suffering? Really?  And death?

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been listening

And, although I think you’re right,

let’s not go too far, here.

You’re walking a narrow path, my friend,

between Temple and Empire,

and you’ve always maintained the balance.

What changed? What do you know?

Deny ourselves? Shall we cut ourselves off from our people,

our families, our communities, our faith?

Shall we push change so hard that they ostracize us,

shun us, cut us from their body

so the infection cannot spread?

Take up our cross? Quite the image…

We are not criminals to be killed by slow torture:

What offense do we give the Empire

that they should crucify us, hang us up as examples?

I don’t get it, Jesus – are you asking us to die?

to make such a fuss that we must be silenced

ridiculed and humiliated?

Do we really have so much power?

Do they really have so much fear?

I guess we do get a pretty big crowd…

How many did we feed the other day?

Three thousand?  Five?  Somewhere in there.

And perhaps you can’t sit forever between a rock

and a hard place.

One or the other will give, eventually;

either to open up some space

or to squish whomever is between.

And, I suppose, better to prepare for the coming squish

better to expect it

to choose to live in that precarious space

In case, whatever happens,

squish or crack,

the space opens up to reveal God.

It’s for the best,

she decided,

One moment of pain

a betrayal that wasn’t

couldn’t be, (right?)

if to spare the beloved

a lifetime of suffering.

Be hopeful.


Peaceful living in wartime chaos

the resistance of embodied love

among a few

tortures the heart already pierced

by each life lost;

narrows focus until

violence appears the only path

for ending violence.

Until one life seems a small price to pay

to ransom millions.

Be positive.


Drunk on grief

marinated in the power of anger and hate

the desire to eradicate

to annihilate

all who ressemble –

– even in the superficial, the external –

the apparent cause

of all that bubbles within

seethes and writhes,

seeking an outlet;

the desire to wipe the slate clean,

to rub out offensive words

or ideas

burns with single-minded intensity.

Do not become bitter.


Face to face with a story not our own

face to face with pain

and implications of complicity!

Moan aloud, exclaim

not for the wounded heart before you

but rejecting responsibility

“Not all!” – and turn away before the shatter

skewers you with flying shards.

Or hostile.


Hope would be a simpler thing

if it came with bright light and rainbows

if the valley of the shadow of death weren’t so…


Peace would be simpler

if it caught our attention

spread among us with the fire

of passion

To walk in the light is to be

above all else


open to the aching

convulsing pain that humanity suffers;

open to it in our own lives

tightly bound to the lives of others.

To hope without hostility

is to trust that no valley is endless

that no night endures forever

that joy comes in the morning.

To live in peace without bitterness

is to find the right, and remain

calm in the midst of chaos

focused on all that can be

rather than what cannot.

To love is to remember that hope and peace endure

by the grace of God –

– whom we are not.

Love is a better way.

The people came to Moses and said,”We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” – Numbers 21: 7-8

This is a strange story.  Out in the wilderness, the Israelites take yet another turn on their way to the Promised Land, and they grumble… as they have been nearly since the beginning, but now the length of the journey, the uncertainty about direction, the instability of living as itinerant people is really getting to them. Egypt, even with slavery isn’t looking so bad – at least they had roofs over their heads, structure to their days, and some certainty in their lives.

Hindsight isn’t always 20/20.

And in the tradition of children from time out of mind, the backseat whining begins. I’m tired. I don’t like what you packed for lunch. Miriam pushed me. I’m thirsty. How much farther? No, it is NOT my turn to walk next to Aaron! Manna again? I’m sick of manna! Do we hafta sing camp songs? Are we there yet?

And God, sick of the whining, sent venomous snakes to stop the complaining.

Or something like that.

This week, the president of Oklahoma University expelled two students and suspended the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, after a video was posted of fraternity members singing their chapter’s song – a song which included an N word that I won’t say here, and the gleeful promise that no African-Americans would ever be a part of the fraternity. The University and its president, David Boren, were lauded for their rapid response to the video… and indeed, it was good to see the incident treated with all of the importance that it deserved. Still, it gave many people pause when Mr. Boren, commenting on the university’s actions, said,

Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect.

There are venomous snakes among us, but we will get rid of them. We will not allow their poison to harm us all. Because we are not them, and they are not us.

It’s a lovely thought, that we can so easily get rid of the snakes among us. But it is not a helpful one, necessarily, as Drake University professor Jennifer Harvey noted:

We must refuse a logic of punishment whereby we stand and point at the immoral behavior of others, as if they are unique and different from us and the environments that produced them. We must refuse to distance ourselves — or the environments we have helped to shape — from their racist behavior.

If I am a Sooner and that Sooner over there has been exposed embracing, with great relish, white supremacist rhetoric and behavior, and my response is to say, “Well that Sooner isn’t real,” I exonerate myself and the community that produced that oh-so-real Sooner from responsibility. I foreclose already and ahead of time the myriad of levels of inquiry, response and intervention urgently needed into the environment(s); an environment that these young people’s behavior offers powerful evidence of as being itself deeply toxic and racist.

If those young men (and women) aren’t real Sooners, then what on Earth are they?

If they are not us, then what are they? And who are we?

It’s a lovely, convenient way to tell the story: that God sent poisonous snakes, as though they were a punishment against the complaining, faithless Israelites. God sent something separate. The venom did not arise from within the community; did not spring from the fears born of years in the wilderness, twisting and winding towards a distant promise, fighting local tribes and hoping that each day would bring fresh food. If we can talk of snakes, then we can hope that the venom did not come from those neighbors within the community whom we’re supposed to love, even though we’d really prefer to keep them at arm’s distance; didn’t come from those who look like us, who have traveled with us, who are beloved by the same God as we are.

If we can blame the snakes, then maybe the poison is not within us, as well… perhaps expelling the snakes will be enough to keep us safe, to ensure that the community is actually healthy, and faithful, and living into the covenant promises that include getting up to the promised land eventually.

We like to blame the snakes, and to blame God for their presence – God who created everything… even whiny, impatient Israelites. Even privileged frat boys singing a racist chant. Even us.

If we can blame the snakes, perhaps we won’t have to look quite so hard at ourselves. If we can be rid of the snakes, then maybe we don’t have to wonder where they came from, these venomous whispers of fear and frustration that arise and seep within us. We don’t have to recognize all that we have done, or left undone, to foster a culture in which such snakes can exist, in which such whispers can find fertile ground. We don’t have to recognize the myriad ways that our own words, our own silences, nurtured the snakes and kept them safe.

If we can blame the snakes, we don’t need to look for any other source of the poison.

But that poison is there.

The poison is in the hugely disproportionate number of African-American men who are arrested and charged with minor offenses. It is in the fact that those men are 21 times more likely to be shot during the arrest. It is in our defensive reaction to those numbers.

The poison is in the story of a Harvard professor arrested while trying to get into his own home. It is in the stories of women of color, whose bodies are consistently seen as both more sexualized and more criminalized.

The poison is in us all, as a recent study of the American Psychological Association demonstrated that after the age of nine, we tend to see African-American and Latino boys as being both older and more culpable than they actually are… which explains, although it does not excuse, the perception of boys as young as 12 being active threats, and shot in an excess of precaution. And the poison is in us when jokes made about the president not serving out his term – because, apparently, black men can’t hold consistent jobs for four years – are assumed to be funny, rather than offensive and prejudiced.

And the poison is in the shooting of police officers, whether because they are viewed as the carriers of venom, as snakes to be got rid of, or because of the need to inject violence into non-violent demonstrations.

The poison is there, and removal of the snakes – those whose words and actions are overtly hurtful or offensive – cannot remove the poison from us entirely. The poison is there and all our prayers that the snakes be taken back, that those among us who are not «real» – really faithful, really loving, really trusting in the God who removed us from slavery – are met only with another snake. All are prayers are met with the simple reassurance that the venom need not be fatal… even though the snakes are still there.

And so a snake of bronze was created, that those who looked upon it might live. Not an idol, this time – not a golden calf, worshiped in place of God, but an icon – an image that directs our minds, our prayers, towards God. A lens, of sorts, which refocused our scattered, poisoned thoughts, and brings us once again into relationship, sets us once again on the right path.

I had the fortune, this week, of reading the reflections of Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. He was present among the protesters on the day of the shooting, and had this to say:

My heart is breaking that violence is nothing new to us. That our Cathedral nave is filled with the faces of young people killed on St. Louis streets by guns. That there has been far too much blood shed and far too much pain.

My heart is breaking – and as painful as that is, I have come to believe that our hearts are supposed to break. Because we live in a world of pain and hurt. And in the face of it, our hearts will either break like God or harden like Pharaoh, and given that choice, I choose the Lord…

God’s invitation to Moses was to lean into the suffering of the people – intimately lean into it to the point of sharing it. In God there are no “your tears” and “my tears” but every tear is “our tear.”

That runs the risk of sounding a little too kum ba yah. But it is anything but. It is an invitation to some of the hardest and most rewarding work there is – meeting at the foot of the cross. Meeting at that place of pain and not running away from it but leaning into it.

Like God throughout scripture, loving the people enough to let our hearts break … again and again and again…

Today, the anger, pain and confusion we have been experiencing as a community has a new dimension and depth. We need to wrestle with that. We need to lean into that. If our hearts are breaking, we can be comforted that they do not break alone. That God’s heart breaks, too. And if we are tempted to lean away. To let our hearts get hard because feeling the pain just seems too much to bear … well, we need to hold even more tightly to one another and to Christ. And wrestle more profoundly. And pray more fervently.

We are tempted to lean away – to make the snakes bear the full responsibility for our pain. We are tempted to dismiss the venom that flows in us as the “status quo”, to reflexively dismiss the possibility of our own heartbreak… and our own healing. We are tempted to turn away from the image of the bronze snake that is set before us in the stories of racism – overt and implicit – that just feel too toxic, too uncomfortable, too painful.

Yet the icon remains before us. We need to look at it, focus on it, allow it to call us back into relationship. If we are too afraid to acknowledge that our society remains deeply racist, we will remain mired in poison, mired in the sin that fractures our relationships with one another and with God.

Face to face with snake bites we have all endured; suffering with the poison that runs through us all, we are called to stop trying to get rid of the snakes – to stop scapegoating the loudest and most offensive, to stop thinking that they are somehow inherently different from us, that we are not all products of the same culture, infused with the same venom, suffering from the same disease. We are called to recognize our own poison, our own complicity.

Because the prayers of the Israelites did not make the snakes – their own neighbors – vanish. Rather, God called us to look directly at the source of pain, the source of venom, the source of all that keeps us separate from one another, keeps us from being the community we are called to be.

Healing, it turns out, comes not from suggesting that the poison is in someone else, but from the willingness to look directly at the source of our own disease.

Healing comes from not hardening our hearts to those who suffer most, who carry the most venom within themselves, but in recognizing the ways in which we have kept safe the snakes, rather than those most often bitten.

Healing comes from looking that snake right in the face – looking, intently and intentionally, upon that which has harmed us all – and in that very act, accepting our need for healing. In that very act of looking upon that which poisons us, we can begin to excise the venom, and heal the entire body. In that act of gazing upon our own poison, we may find repentance – the ability to change our minds and our hearts, and come back into the community that God has always intended for us to be.

We should, certainly, keep the snakes among us from doing the horrible damage that they can, so easily do. But let us not fall into the trap of thinking that punishing the snakes will cure us all. Rather, let us open our hearts to the suffering around us, the venom within. Let us allow our hearts to break, as we gaze upon the snake and recognize the ways we have been poisoned.

Let us look, with open eyes and open, breaking hearts at the venomous racism that cannot be eradicated by a couple of expulsions, that cannot be eradicated by violence or defensiveness or blame. For only by opening ourselves – only by the intentional acts of looking, hearing, loving, may that snake be turned from a symbol of death to a way back to relationship, back to life, back to the covenantal promises of life as God’s people. Only by opening ourselves to the poison in our own heart – to the ways we have nurtured the snakes rather than their victims – may we find healing for our bodies, for Christ’s body.

May we be unafraid to look, though our hearts may break again. May we be unafraid to look, that even as our own hearts break, all who have suffered this poison might find healing.


For those days when you do all the work:
Read everything possible
Talk it through
Push and pull, stretch and twist
Even write! And write again…
And still, despite it all,
(or perhaps because of;
all that preparation can be constipating)
You walk the dog –
-proudly, without
any indication of what an ugly
mangy mutt you see
at the end of that verbal leash –
We pray.
Still, we pray all the more
for the whispered rustlings
stirring among disjointed words;
for the flowing, and the crackle,
upward-seeping capillary phrasing
The one who grooms the matted fur
stripping away muddied words,
flea-bitten clichés…
Who trims away the snarls
And maybe even adds the bow-around-the-neck
of recognition
or Word
To the dogbreath-slobbery mess
I was trying to preach.
Come, Holy Spirit,
Even when I’m waking the dog.
Remind me that I do not walk it alone:
that some dogs are so homely they’re cute;
that all dogs were created by the One
who called me to this crazy preaching thing
in the first place,
And who will not let me fall so totally
that I forget,
in my doggiest days,
I do not walk alone.
Some days we need the reminder that
even dogs,
with all their mess and slobber,
are a part of your creation.

“Thou shalt not”

Doesn’t really leave us much

in the way of wiggle-room

So we play with that last word in the commandment.

Because “murder” gives us the leeway

to continue killing

when it’s convenient:

When we will benefit from death

in newly-accessible goods

in suddenly-attainable power;

When we use killing to control

those around us –

– easier by far than controlling ourselves.

“Murder” is that which happens to us

that which we cannot justify

by some dispelled fear

or righteous anger.

“Murder” is unreasonable, cruel,

the taking of innocent life,

valuable life, or maybe

life that looks, somehow, like ours.

And “thou shalt not,” we cry,

in the echoes of “Why did you shoot me?”

“Stop shooting”, “I can’t breathe”.

After silent hands raised in calm obedience

to a lesson taught by parents who weep

to teach it.

“Thou shalt not,” unless you feel your own life,

your own self, threatened

by twelve-year-old men playing

with the normal violence of their lives;

by faces you most often see as targets

through the crosshairs.

It isn’t “murder” if the victim wasn’t innocent:

lily-white and pure as snow,

child-like and angelic in face and speech,

as they cry to us for help.

“Thou shalt not,” we cry

in irony-free certainty:

‘Thou shalt not,” but if you do, the penalty

is death, which is not murder, though intentional;

an acceptable death: calm, reasoned,

we-regret-to-inform-you death

which is different, you know.

Because it is a death that will make us

feel safer, despite the statistics;

knowing killers have been mur-

no, that’s the wrong way ’round.

And it is not “murder” when we discuss it first –

-“it” the crime and “it” the criminal,

now one and the same,

sentenced by twelve who don’t consider themselves peers,

covetous of their privileged humanity,

determining the terms of life and death.

“Thou shalt not,” we cry,

until we cannot recognize ourselves

in the one humiliated,

carrying the means of his own death;

the human reduced to the sum of his crimes

Then we shout, instead,

“Killing is justified!”

“Killing is justice!”

Then we should instead,

“Crucify him!”

For we shall not murder – no, of course not.

We are not unreasonable,

not cruel or unusual –

– unfortunate, that.  Unusual

is the person who stands, weeping

at the foot of the cross.

For all the “shalt not”s we have manipulated,

justified, defended;

all the innocents tarnished by our fear,

all the sinners judged

by those who judge themselves worthy,

all of the humanity forgotten, denied –

– as it crucifies itself so that “thou shalt not”

but I still can.

Because it isn’t “murder” if it doesn’t hurt me,

if it’s not my body on the cross.

It isn’t “murder” if I cannot recognize the image

reflected back through one-way glass

from curtained execution-room sterility.

It isn’t “murder” when our sense of order

is upset by disruptive life

or the fear of life’s disruptions.

It isn’t murder until we ourselves stand convicted

without wiggle-room,

under the weight of our own sentence, our own phrasing;

staggering to the top of the hill we have created,

out of blind-justice-reason and the illusion of balanced scales.

We slip in the blood of countless “Thou Shalt Not”

and wonder: who will weep for me?

Someone said today that writing is not
             healing –
     -in writing, it should be noted.
Begging the question of what is healing
     after all?
For certainly, the act of putting pen to
             paper will not
     cause the bleeding to stop.
Eyes will not be opened as the words
             are set forth;
     children shall not rise from their
          suddenly literate,
     and I do not wonder that Jesus
             didn’t take the time
          to write his own story.
In his limited time, he chose to heal.
And yet…
I wonder if Mary, in her grief,
     kept a journal
     or wished she could;
     (did Peter? Or James, or Joanna,
             or Salome?)
     to hold the stories told over a fishy
To keep the intimate, first-person details
     of shared story,
     to keep the perspective from shifting
     or, perhaps, to shift it?
To manipulate, tease, pull, sift, explore
     in such a way that the conversation
     that the lost voice lives anew,
     suddenly audible in scratching
In the intimacy of stories kept close
     there is room enough to ask that
     which lodges in the throat
     which might bring blame, or shame,
          or pity.
Face to face, pen and paper call forth
Why this body, this time, this anguish?
Why, now, was there no healing
     no miracle,
     though the curtain of my heart was
             rent asunder
     and my world is summer-noonday
Why did Mary, Peter, Thomas even
     find reprieve before their grief
          was half-begun,
     while three days in –
          – three weeks, three months –
     the stone is not rolled back?
Writing does not heal. The voices fade
     in folded paper, unmoving pen.
Not in scribing but in speaking:
     Talitha cum! Lazarus come out!
     was breath restored and life renewed
          and yet…
In quiet resurrection party afterglow,
     did those same words,
             carefully traced
     calm the reverb of a still-palpable
In the writing, in the holding,
     in the heart-hearing moment
     are the first stitches to mend the
     is the glimmer of sun in noonday
     is the first, rough filler
          in the crackled not-quite-shatter.
The words we commit to paper
     cannot restore breath
     and quicken only the heart
             already beating.
But in the grappling with memory,
     the rhythms and patterns
     that speak with stilled tongues
          to answer our desolation
     there is the healing:
     the promise of new life,
     miraculous as any
          fourth-day resurrection.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 40 other followers