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I am one of the lucky ones. I grew up in a progressive, loving United Church of Christ congregation. The church was my extended family: the people who watched out for me when I was a child, the place my friends were, the social fabric of my family’s life. Growing up didn’t change that: as a teenager, the church provided me with adults to confide in when I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my own parents about my crushes, my changing body, my existential angst.
When my high school friends were being hurt by their churches for being gay or allies, my church was discussing whether to become Open and Affirming – overtly, explicitly welcoming of gays and lesbians. (This was before anyone talked about bi and trans.) When I came out, myself, I had no particular fear that my church would cut me off or shame me.
I am one of the lucky ones.
And so when I heard that Carol Howard Merritt was writing a book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, I knew that although I would want to read it – as a fan of Carol’s work and as a pastor to the wounded – I did not think of it as a book that I would need for myself – one of the lucky ones.
As I wiped my tears at the end of the first chapter, however, I began to suspect that I had been wrong.
There are many forms of spiritual wounding that the church, in its many forms, can inflict upon those who have sought to follow its teachings. In her book, Carol addresses directly many of the most egregious forms of harm: the sexism, the abuses of power, the homophobia that are so rampant in certain parts of Christianity. With great compassion and grace, Carol offers not only alternative perspectives, but prayerful exercises to begin the healing process.
It was in these exercises, indeed, that I realized the real power of this book. For it goes beyond telling the truth of these shattering experiences, but offers a framework for putting the pieces back together. And there, in that framework, I re-discovered that truth that undergirds our faith, but which is often too uncomfortable to remember: we are all broken. We are all wounded. Healing Spiritual Wounds is a work of truth-telling and grace not only for those who are most deeply scarred by the Church, but for the many whose brokenness comes in the form of a myriad of papercuts. The real power of this volume is in its ability to speak across experiences to a shared reality of woundedness, and the possibility for wholeness.
Healing Spiritual Wounds will certainly be a tremendous tool for every pastor, as we work with and minister to the many who have been deeply and directly wounded by the willingness of many churches to prioritize doctrine over compassion. Yet I think that those who see this book as a tool for helping others will be surprised at the healing that even we – the lucky ones – can find within its pages.
Now after that, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt…” Matthew 2:13
Thus begins one of the hardest texts in our Gospels, yet one we rarely hear, for this section of Matthew tends to fall on the Sunday after Christmas, when most of us are on vacation. Titled in many bibles “The Massacre of the Innocents,” it tells of how Herod, upon learning that he had been tricked by the Magi (who went home by another way, instead of reporting back as ordered) had all the children in and around Bethlehem, who were under two years old, systematically killed. He was, of course, trying to destroy the child whom the Magi had named as a King – the infant born to Mary and Joseph.
Jesus and his family escaped. Most did not.
At this time of the year, we celebrate the coming of God into our world. We celebrate the incarnation: God made flesh, God with us. It is vital that we not overlook this detail as we re-tell the story; that we not lose ourselves in the cuteness of a baby surrounded by lambs and angels. God came into this world in the same messy way that all of us did: as vulnerable and dependent as any human baby. It is vital that we remember God’s choice to become fully human out of love for us, for here God reminds us that our humanity matters. Our bodies matter.
Nor was it only the body of one infant, born in a stable in Bethlehem, that was of consequence to God. As much as the original incarnation, the continuing presence of God made flesh matters. The Body of Christ – interwoven, interdependent humanity – matters. The Body of Creation – vulnerable and needy – matters to the God whose love incorporates the entire world.
But if the incarnation matters – if it matters that God took on human flesh and lived as one of us – then we must read this Gospel passage as more than a horrific story.
For a powerful ruler, fearful of a challenge to his authority, sent soldiers to kill the people of his own realm. The powerful ruler sent the army, not into battle against other troops, trained and ready for battle, but to kill those who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were able to escape, under cover of darkness, praying that the baby wouldn’t cry, that no one would see them, that somewhere, someone would welcome them: strangers in a strange land. Praying for Emmanuel: God with us, even as refugees.
The story that horrifies us in the Bible is unfolding in our daily papers, on the nightly news. People, who look much like Joseph and Mary, are fleeing state-sponsored violence, carrying their children and a few, necessary possessions. Children who look much as Jesus would have – brown-skinned children with wavy hair and big brown eyes – are watching as unspeakable horrors play out before their eyes.
Once again, Emmanuel – God with us – is fleeing before the specter of violence. Once again, people are dying because those in authority care more for their power than for human lives. Once again, the incarnate God is a refugee, seeking shelter from the cruelty that fearful humanity so often inflicts.
Once again, we are reading the story of the Massacre of Innocents. But now, we do not have the luxury of assuming that we would stand up to Herod’s violence. Now, we do not have the luxury of assuring ourselves that we would welcome this Nazarene carpenter, with his wife and son.
Now the Christ Child awaits a cease-fire, and a bus out of Aleppo. Now, Joseph barters passage on a leaky boat, in the hopes of reaching Lesbos. Now, Mary rocks her child to sleep in a sprawling refugee camp that has become Jordan’s third-largest city, and wonders how long she can survive in a tent. Now Emmanuel – God with us – wonders where to find shelter, welcome, love.
Friends, in this Christmas season, let us remember that it matters that God took on our humanity, our vulnerability, and came to live as one of us. And let us follow in the way of God, recognizing without fear our own vulnerability and interdependence. Let us live as thought the incarnation really mattered to us, right now, in 2017. Let us put ourselves into the story, let God-with-us know that we are also with God, wherever God is made flesh in this world.
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I hadn’t seen another human in long enough that the sight of one was shocking.
I’m really not sure how long I’d been walking… weeks, at least. Months? It was possible. It’s hard to tell, to mark seasons, when so little vegetation remains: no leaves to bud, or grow, or fall and mark the passing of the seasons. It also makes foraging hard; I ate by taking from the stores left behind, the ones not totally destroyed. Even climbing over rubble, it was hard at first, because stealing is such a terrible crime. Those first times, I would take what I need, constantly glancing over my shoulder and running away through silent streets; eating alone, I waited for the brutal punishment from the conglomerates whose profits I’d taken. I would hide myself at night in the empty towns, fearful of the consequences for this worst of all crimes.
Slowly, the taking got easier, and I would grab more, enough to carry some with me so that I wouldn’t have to scrounge every single meal… so that I could escape the towns for a little while. The emotion, every day, of stepping through the destruction, carnage; the terrific mess that comes from the anger of people with nothing to lose… The towns through which I walked had once teemed with those who were never more than disposable labor, never more than paying customers, existing to make the industry owners fat. In the end, they had nothing to lose; though, perhaps more importantly, nothing to gain as their toil, their little income, was used – as they were used. Used up, sucked dry and discarded when finally nothing was left of them but the scents of disease, of death… of whatever chemical had destroyed what the weapons and bacteria hadn’t.
Day after day, I stepped over rubble, not looking too closely at what lay beneath. Day after day, I focused only on keeping myself alive. It was too much to think about those who had perished. I don’t know why or how I survived. Long ago I stopped asking; that was energy I needed for other things… for living with the assumption that I was the only one in the world, the only one to have survived the war that had touched everywhere. Everyone else seemed to have succumbed to the shows of force that had only resulted in fear and revenge; in the booming industry of destruction. They told us it was job creation, the making of death machines. If so, it was job creation for both sides, in the end.
The conglomerates never told us war is profitable.
War was supposed to make us powerful. Violence was supposed to end violence. Exclusion was supposed to make us safe. Fear was supposed to create respect. It didn’t quite work out that way.
When I was a child, my grandparents told me stories of when they’d talked with their neighbors – when people had lived side by side, rather than behind walls. They told me of their grandparents’ time, when a family with two jobs could both eat and pay bills. One story in particular came back to me often, in those lonely days: Grampa told me about his father’s friend, who had come to our land from far away. As a child, I would ask, over and over, “But how could he trust that his friend wouldn’t kill him?”
That was all I knew.
War, in the end, had wrought nothing but death. Including, I believed, my own: although I still lived, I couldn’t imagine it would be for long. Not alone, not on canned beans and whatever else I could find. I walked, I believed, towards my death. Yet still I walked, because staying put would make me see, make me think, make me dwell on the horrors we’d all seen in this world-ending war to see who could be the greatest.
Actually, it wasn’t the sight of people, but the scent of cooking that stopped me in my tracks. I had gone up into the hills, with enough food to last a while, feeling a need to be away from the vestiges of humanity, of industry. After a day or so of hiking, as I came up towards the top of a hill, a scent drifted towards me… a scent which reminded me not so much of food, but of home; of a time, almost forgotten, before the only possible emotion was fear, or anger, or retribution.
The scent seemed like a dream, so beautiful that my eyes filled and a lump rose in my throat. I didn’t fully believe it could be real, even when I came over the crest of the hill, and beheld through my tears a blur of green.
As though things were living, growing!
The shock knocked me off my feet, and I sat down hard, staring hungrily. I hadn’t seen anything like it… well, since both sides started burning, poisoning, trying to starve the other side… trying to drive up prices, gain wealth off of the pain of ordinary people.
This ground had been burned, but a streak of bright, brilliant green shone against the blackish-gray landscape. I stumbled to my feet and ran down the hill, eyes fixed on the life before me, just wanting to bury my face in something living…
She stepped out before me, spoke to me, stopped me.
I didn’t know anyone else was alive.
But suddenly, there was a woman standing in front of me. She spoke again; I didn’t understand her, it was not my language that she spoke. Everything I had been taught, all my life, should have made me suspicious. She was everything that was enemy, from the color of her skin to her clothes and language.
But none of that seemed to matter, in that moment. She was human. She was alive. My attention was caught by the beating pulse in her throat: the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life.
I fell at her feet and wept.
She spoke again, and though I still couldn’t understand, she spoke softly, almost with… kindness? That couldn’t be… I couldn’t understand it. The whole scene felt suddenly surreal, and the sense of hallucination dried my tears. None of this was real. I was dead, that was the only rational explanation: this was some afterlife of peace – the religious whackjobs had been right after all.
She turned and started towards the green; bemused, I followed her, aware again of scent of cooking and of my own rumbling stomach. Maybe at least the afterlife would have more than canned beans.
Then we reached the next hill.
The swath of green marked not only things growing, but cultivation: neat rows, plants I hadn’t seen in years and could barely name. All of my wonder came rushing back. In awe, I kept stopping, touching leaves, smelling the ashy dirt, thinking my heart would explode within me. It hardly occurred to me that this must be the work of more than one person. But at the top of the hill, beyond the end of the fields, I saw a small cluster of shacks, heard the hum of voices, smelled the smoke of cooking fires.
Not just me. Not just me and her. People.
Not many, mind: a few dozen at most. They were quiet, almost sullen, appearing angry. At the time, I barely noticed, for that had been the norm among people. I wandered among them, half-following my guide, dazed.
Suddenly I found myself knocked off my feet again; not by emotion, for once, but literally: hit behind the knees. By instinct, I swiveled to strike at my assailant.
I found myself staring into eyes of a child.
A child! It had been so long. I had no sense of how old this one might be. Towards the end of the war, the end of time, the women near me stopped bearing children, knowing their babies would only die.
I should have been angry at being hit, but mostly, I was fascinated by this little one who suddenly cowered, scared by this accident, knowing there would be consequences. Sure enough, someone came quickly, their hand raised to strike child. The gesture was so familiar, so expected… I had been so close to doing it myself. But before the blow could land, I caught their wrist, stopped them; with my other hand, I pulled child close, reassured her. “It was an accident,” I mumbled, my voice hoarse from disuse.
I let go the wrist I was still holding, held my hands out in a gesture meant to say it was okay. The man who had come over to punish the child eyed me warily for a moment, then took my hands and pulled me to my feet. For a moment, I tensed, scared; then he let go, nodded brusquely, walked away.
Had someone really just helped me?
My guide took me to where people were cooking, sat me down. Someone gave me a plate. I watched as others bustled around, preparing the meal; eventually, someone rang a bell – a rock hung among metal fragments – and everyone gathered, shoving, pushing to be first, to get the most. I didn’t think, just leapt up and pushed into the scrum, eager to get real food, be with real people, fill my belly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw child, the one who had knocked over. She’d been pushed back, and lay sprawled on ground, crying….
I stopped. The world stopped; the air vanished as though I’d been punched. Gasping, ears ringing, fighting, pushing others away, suddenly desperate; meanwhile the child still cried, and the shoving only sent people careening towards her –
“No! Don’t hurt her!”
I didn’t think I’d shouted. But there was silence, stillness, shock. Shaking, I walked over and picked up the child, who was surprisingly light. I carried her, still sniffling, to get food, then sat with her; made sure she ate carefully, chewed every bite. I’d never watched someone else eat; I’d never cared for anyone’s hunger but my own. Her evident fear broke my heart: she ate quickly, messily, focused on her food but aware of her surroundings; aware of those who would readily take her meager portion. In her fear, I recognized myself, both in the desire to take and her fear of being stolen from. My stomach hurt as I looked at this child, as doomed as I, fighting for her food – might it not be more merciful to take it?
Who has a child in times like this?
She shouldn’t grow up like this, fearful and hungry. She shouldn’t grow up like me, simply waiting to die.
Her scant meal finished, she looked up at me, wary curious; her gaze made my heart beat painfully in my chest. I’d thought myself alone, the sole survivor perhaps on the entire planet. Yet here there were people, and the beginnings of community. Here, there was a child; here, there was life; here, there way hope. Prompted by the aching of my heart, I moved to do what I had never even imagined: I gave the child my food.
And every head turned.
And every voice faltered.
And every breath was held as this tiny one looked at me, eyes wide, and took what I gave her as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
We’ve been here two years now. Two years, but four harvests, for the weather here is mild and the soil is good. We still eat together, the whole community, but now the line is quiet. We are beginning to trust there is enough. And now always, the children eat first.
I have made a point of learning enough words to speak to those around me. Really, we’re all developing our own language, a pidgin mix that is ours alone. But on my own, I’ve learned enough to know that the best cook used to own one of the industrial conglomorates; that the most careful gardener lost her whole family when the factory next door exploded after safety measures were repealed for sake of productivity; the woman who had led me here had been a bill collector who often lined her own pocket by extortion, forced to choose between the suffering of her own or of others; the child’s father had, as a child himself, been sold by his family; sold and sold again at the whims of the oligarchs. Here, in this village, lived those who had labored and those who profited from that labor: the predators and the prey. Here, we live together, work together, eat together, speak together, create together.
It’s not easy to undo old patterns. It’s not easy to let go of old fears, of prejudices, of desires for revenge. I should say: it’s not easy for us, the adults. But the children here laugh and sing, dance and play, and they are teaching us.
Here, anything seems possible, for we had all believed ourselves walking dead. We had seen ourselves simply as those who hadn’t yet succumbed when humanity was cut down and leveled. But here, out of that which had seemed dead – this burned ground, this doomed people, springs new life where no one feeds upon the blood and sweat of another. No one profits by another’s loss.
It is a hard lesson to learn, and there are nights when I stand on our hill, looking out at the land around, still blighted and dead, and wish we had learned it sooner: what it means to be community, what it means to live in peace.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse; a branch shall grow out of his roots… the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. And a little child shall lead them.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” -Luke 21:5-6
Jesus is such a killjoy sometimes.
Here they are, going into Jerusalem, Jesus and those who have followed him. Jerusalem, bigger by far than the places they had so far been; the sights unusual for so many of them. Many of the Galileans, and certainly the Judeans in the group would have been to Jerusalem for the festivals; yet we know from Luke that there were non-Jews among Jesus’ followers as well, perhaps some who had never been there. We don’t know who, among this group, spoke with such awe; what we hear is simply the understandable amazement. The temple, that almost impossibly huge, beautiful, solid structure, would have seemed almost as though it had always been, would always be; as though it had not been created by human hands. It would have been hard to imagine its not being there, this building which dominated Jerusalem skyline; this building which housed God.
It would have been overwhelming, if not impossible, to conceive of the disappearance of such an important structure: how could something so present, so much a part of life, no longer be?
When you’re in place of transition – even good transition, even expected transition – imagining an “after” is nearly impossible.I know something about this in my own life, and suspect many of you do as well. Transitions mark end points in many ways, even the transitions we have most desired; they invoke grief, with all its associated emotions and stages. Living in transition, we find ourselves living in the unimaginable; feeling our way forward, and having the familiar become suddenly strange. Both Jesus’ followers, and those who author of Luke in 85CE, inhabited such transitional periods, as indeed we do now. Theirs were comprised of the power plays between Jewish autonomy and Roman occupation; between factions of religious and secular authority; between regions; between classes; between sects… all trying to imagine an unimaginable reality, in a way that would bring the most benefit to their own.
In either time, Jesus’ words prophetic. Not because he was predicting a future reality, for the destruction of Temple had already taken place when Luke wrote, but because he was, in tradition of prophets, speaking the hard truth of the current situation. Jesus spoke the truth that nation has already begun to rise up against nation, betrayal has already occurred. Jesus spoke the truth of our reality in which the ground is shifting beneath us; in which people are hungry, in which people are suffering; in which speaking truth does not make you popular, but dangerous.
Jesus speaks the truth that does not make him popular, but dangerous.
Jesus speaks the truth, right before this passage in Luke, that the widow who gave her last coin – her entire livelihood – to the Temple treasury, was betrayed by a system that was supposed to care for her rather than starving her in the name of God.
Jesus speaks the truth, in the passage before the widow, that there have been authorities in all times who prioritize social standing and visible piety over acts of compassion and grace; who would more easily devour than build up.
Jesus speaks the hard truth, throughout the scriptures, that we will be judged not by our finery, not by our beautiful buildings or our social or political or religious achievements, except insofar as we use these to care for the marginalized: the ones whose blood and sweat built the edifices we so admire, and the structures in which we so easily house God.
Because even the places we build for God; even the structures that we make for our dearest hopes, our sweetest dreams, our noblest visions; even these are simply structures of human design and construction.
Certainly, the God who consented to be contained within human flesh has consented as well to dwell in human buildings, for our God does not require perfection as a prerequisite for presence… or for grace. But we must not mistake God’s presence for approbation, just as we must not mistake God’s grace for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Rather, as the 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, grace should be that undeserved gift that changes our lives, which makes us strive to live up to that which has been freely bestowed.
God’s free gift of grace should have some cost on our hearts.
So indeed, God’s presence in our human bodies and structures should be that which makes us strive to build as God would, in the image and likeness of the divine, rather than in the reflection of human failings.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfection is not cause for calling our efforts “good enough” and letting go the rest; rather it should be a constant impetus to do better: to acknowledge the imperfections, the inequities and injustices on which we have built; the lives and bodies that our impressiveness have cost; and to find new ways forward.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections is no reason at all for us not to take it all apart: to live into the transitional time, as hard as it will be. For as nation rises against nation, as we are tempted to fight for our own short-term self-interest, as we are tempted to see other as inherently enemy, God calls us to build something new. God calls us to stand on the side of the widow, the hungry, the homeless, the excluded, the marginalized, in ways that tear down the systems that have been used to exclude and dehumanize.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections should not make us less willing to speak the truth: that we are imperfect, yes, but that we can do better than these human structures that serve the powerful to detriment of the least of these.
For as frightening as it may be for us to acknowledge that our great structures, which inspire in us such awe and reverence still have their flaws, still might not stand; as painful as it may be to see that the structures we love and in which we find God might be built upon the suffering and oppression of those deemed “lesser”, “other”, “enemy”; we recall that God’s grace both forgives and changes us. God’s grace turns our hearts to follow the one who showed us what human flesh is truly capable of doing and of being.
As impossible as it might feel to dismantle the huge, beautiful stones until not one stands upon another; as tempting as it may be to turn inwards, to side with our own; to build, upon existing structures, walls to keep out other nations as they rise up: in so doing we risk being, not betrayed but betrayers of this beloved Creation.
It feels impossible, especially in this time of shaky ground, of transition and uncertainty. But this is the call of our God of grace, for whom and in whom we do our building.
For the stones of human construction cannot stand. The stones of misogyny and racism, of fear and suspicion, cannot contain God, larger than any human creation. The stones of xenophobia and exclusion, of hatred and distrust must fall before we can begin to build the kin-dom. The promises of God cannot be built on that which has been used to exclude and oppress. Rather that which has been must fall before the new city of God, the holy place of peace, can come into existence.
We must learn to choose carefully the stones for our construction. We must learn to build upon compassion, inclusion, equality. We must learn to rely upon God as architect and builder. For only when we have removed the blocks of fear and hatred from our structures; only when we have dismantled the suspicion and fear in which we have tried to contain our God and ourselves, can that time come when the wolf and the lamb lie down together; when the lamb need not fear being devoured and the wolf has no need of getting fat off of the vulnerable. Only then can the marginalized live without the fear of attack, and the privileged share freely their power. Only then shall all eat and be satisfied. Only then shall all live well their days upon this earth. Only then shall we all know the true peace that is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of compassion and justice.
The promises are before us, that the ways we have known – though familiar and sometimes comfortable, though solid and seemingly immovable – need not be our way forward. There is a better way: a way that is good, rather than “good enough”; a way that follows the path of God’s grace; a way that will require something of us, which will cost us; a way to which our uncontainable God is calling us right now.
God’s grace is before us, giving us the words of challenge and of promise. Will we listen? God’s path is before us, leading us along the road to a New Jerusalem, a promised realm of justice, equality and peace. Will we take the first step?
Lent is very nearly upon us.
Did you groan at that? Even a little? Lent has something of a bad reputation as being a dark and punishing time – a time of deprivation and endurance. We slog through forty days without whatever little pleasure we’ve denied ourselves: Easter is our finish line, when deprivation can finally give way without guilt, and we can pat ourselves on the back for getting through such a miserable time.
It’s a cynical view, and one I hope none of your share in its entirety… but I very much doubt that there are many among us who didn’t recognize ourselves, at least a little, in the above description.
So perhaps this is the year to re-frame Lent.
On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortality. More than that, we are reminded that we are all made of the same stuff – the same ash, the same stardust.
Given this perspective, what is it that we might give up, during these 40 days? What would change, for you, if you were to walk through this time, saying the Ash Wednesday blessing in your heart during every interaction: “Remember that you and I are dust, and to dust we shall return”?
In Lent, we remember Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and the temptations that were presented to him: to use his abilities to feed himself, and calm his own hungers; to rule over all the world; to manipulate God.
During this time, perhaps we would do well to ask what temptations we face: To serve ourselves before others? To exercise power over others – our co-workers, our friends, our children? To try to bargain with God, or make God serve us? What is it that we are tempted to put before our love of God and God’s Creation?
What if our Lenten discipline this year were to give up convenience for the sake of community? If we were to stop using Dunkin Donuts styrofoam or plastic cups, and remember to bring our own instead? If we were to commit to buying local, or second-hand? To walking more and driving less?
What if our Lenten discipline this year were to broaden our perspectives: to commit to reading only books written by women, or people of color, Muslims, or LGBT folk? What might we learn about ourselves, our God, and our temptations, if we were to journal such an adventure? What might we learn, if what we gave up for Lent were an insular perspective?
It strikes me that Jesus did not fast so that he could really enjoy his first meal back after the wilderness experience. His fast was one of purification, of focusing priorities, of gaining perspective on the tempting distractions of this world. He fasted so that he could see the offers made him for what they were: idols that would turn him from God. He fasted so that he would be better prepared to serve God – to serve God’s creation and the Body of Christ – with his whole self.
Perhaps that should be the goal of our disciplines as well. May we remove from our lives that which distracts us from one another and from God. May our fasts leave us changed for the better, able to fully appreciate and live into the new life of Easter.
For Further Reading:
Why reading books by black* authors is important:
*the principle applies to any non-white-straight-male authors, in my opinion
In the first days, when Creation was still new, there arose a series of majestic mountains, whose peaks seemed to caress the blue of the newborn sky. The two greatest rose to dizzying heights, their lower slopes swathed in rich forests, their peaks brilliantly white. Long they stood, side by side, gazing out upon the world which seemed to stretch out forever below them, and murmuring contentedly one to another.
And they had reason indeed to be content, for the tiny creatures who lived below seemed forever in awe of the beauty and majesty of the mountains. Few creatures had the ability to ascend to the height of those highest peaks, and so the two great mountains stood alone, knowing themselves great among all creation, closest in all the world to God. Indeed, gazing upon one another and seeing beauty reflected back, it was hard not to believe themselves the most perfect denziens of Creation, the pinnacle of God’s handiwork, the very reflection of God’s majesty.
One day, the Northern mountain was idly watching an eagle soar and dip in great wheeling arcs, and found its gaze drawn downwards, into the valley that separated the Northern and the Southern mountain. From that height, the mountain beheld a lovely view; a broad expanse of green meadow, dotted here and there with fields and orchards and vineyards. Winding brightly through it all, a slight silver ribbon; the river that formed from the streams and cataracts of the two great mountains. Northern murmured contentedly to Southern, “See how pleasant that space between us is; green and fertile. It is the water from our peaks that makes it so, you know.”
Southern Mountain looked down as well, though the valley was far below them and it was hard to see much detail. Indeed, it was lovely, and the thought that the melting of its bright, snowy peak made that beauty possible… well, it just made Southern all the more proud of itself. Southern said as much to Northern, who agreed with the assessment. “Without us,” they agreed, “that valley would not be as rich, or as beautiful. What a blessing that we are here!” And they settled back to gaze fondly upon one another, contented to be not only reflections of God, but participants in God’s work of creation and life.
So they passed many happy centuries together. From time to time they gazed downwards to see what they could of the valley. For sometimes it was obscured by clouds for long stretches; other times, the shadows of the two mountains fell upon the valley and darkened it. The distant valley remained much as the two mountains had initially seen it; lovely and fertile. Sometimes the silver ribbon ran wide, sometimes it narrowed so that they could scarcely see it from their height. But distance blurred the details, and the two mountains could go long stretches without ever even remembering the land between them.
One day, Northern turned its mighty gaze upon its partner, and paused, quite confused. Southern, aware of the scrutiny, waited for the expected compliment; the recognition of divine presence in those wooded slopes, sheer rockfaces, and sparkling summit. Yet Northern continued to gaze, saying nothing, until Southern quivered in some anxiety, shedding some rock into the distant depths. The far-away crash roused Northern from its reverie.
“Oh, pardon me, friend, I didn’t mean to stare.”
“What is wrong?”
“Oh… nothing.” Northern sparkled pink in the setting sun, obviously uncomfortable. “I mean… I just noticed… it’s nothing, really… but… have you lost height?”
Southern, shocked, was still for a moment, and then roared in anger at the other mountain. Snow blew furiously from its summit as it thundered, “How dare you even ask such a thing?! I, lose height? As if God would allow any such thing? How could the reflection of God change, let alone diminish!”
So great was Southern’s anger and hurt that winds howled between the mountains throughout the night and well into the following day. When, finally the winds calmed, the lower slopes of both mountains glittered with early frost, and clouds obscured the valley. Northern tried to apologize, but Southern pretended not to hear, and the clouds persisted.
After some time, things seemed to return to normal between the two peaks. Murmured compliments passed once again between majestic peaks. Contented commentary on the soaring of the eagles, on the colors of the sunrise, on the twinkling river far below, became, again, the norm between the two old friends. And so passed another aeon. But in the long silences that fell between them, they often stole glances, one at another. For it really did seem, to both mountains, that perhaps they had lost some height, after all.
Millenia passed before Northern gently broached the topic once again. “It seems to me,” it said tentatively, “that the valley is not so distant as it once was.”
Southern, after considering for a moment, set aside its vanity and glanced downwards. Northern had a point, after all; the fields and orchards and vineyards did seem somewhat… well, not closer, but more visible. And that visibility did not please Southern, as it saw for the first time the houses, sheds, and roads that criss-crossed the formerly-pristine valley. “Hmph,” Southern sniffed. “I don’t see that that’s a good thing.”
“No,” Northern agreed. “But I’ve noticed it, recently. And it got me wondering; if it’s getting nearer, then, why, it must be getting higher.”
At this, Southern roared again in rage. “Higher!” it shrieked, sending a bit of itself sliding down. “As if! It will never be as high as we!” And once again, snow began to swirl, and clouds began to form.
“Come now, friend,” murmured Northern, soothingly, “Of course it shall never be like us. We’re special; God made us so, you know. So there’s really no need to storm like that. Besides,” it added, with a sideways glance at its counterpart, “if it were getting higher… well, it must be getting that height from somewhere, and I don’t see that getting so upset that we shed rocks and trees and dirt down there is really going to help matters.”
Southern, though still quite rageful, had to pause at this reasoning. Although the clouds remained, the wind stilled and the snow fell back upon the peak.
“That is true,” it said slowly.
“We must be cautious,” Northern continued, with more confidence. “That valley has gotten a little taste of height, and of our perfection and majesty. I can’t really blame it for wanting more, but poor thing; it can never really be a mountain. Not like we are. So it would be unkind to encourage it, don’t you think?”
“Of course,” Southern murmured, its equanimity restored. Calmly, both mountains watched the swirl of clouds below. “We must be kind to the valley. It cannot help that it is not like us, and I’m sure it cannot help wanting to be like us.”
A long time later, Southern added, rather as an afterthought, “I wonder what it must be like, to be a poor little valley?”
Northern sighed happily. “Nothing so grand as being a mountain, I assure you.”
From then on, nothing seemed to change between the two mountains, but Northern felt, from time to time that perhaps they spoke less often than they had before. Northern wondered if, possibly, the compliments and reassurances that had flowed so smoothly between them – the recogition of God in those lofty peaks, in the brilliant perfection of their height – weren’t – maybe – just a little bit stale, as if the same words were being spoken without quite the intention that they had once contained.
These thoughts concerned Northern at first; then concern became worry, and worry became anxiety, and anxiety became preoccupation, until near-silence fell between the two mountains; a silence that was filled with the imagined dialogue that Northern’s fears created. Until the day that Northern realized that the silence wasn’t complete.
“What did you say!?” Northern asked Southern, rather sharply; sharply enough to start a small avalanche. In its annoyance at having given up more material to the valley, Northern very nearly didn’t hear it’s partner’s reply.
“I’m sorry,” Southern said softly, “I wasn’t speaking to you.”
“Who were you talking to, then?” Northern demanded, still irritated at the loss of rock and dirt.
There was a brief pause before Southern replied. “The valley,” it said, with the firmness of an impending argument.
Northern was taken aback. “The valley!?” it barked in mirthless laughter. “Why?!”
Southern was quiet for a moment, enough for Northern to sense that something was amiss. “The valley is nice,” it whispered finally.
“I’m sorry.” Northern tried to sound sincere; Southern was clearly uncomfortable. “I’m sure the valley is lovely.” It glanced downward, which – truth be told – it had mostly avoided since the conversation about losing height. The clearer views of the valley weren’t nearly as pleasant to Northern as the more distant ones had been.
“It is lovely,” Southern replied eagerly, “more than I’d realized.”
Northern paused, rather taken aback by this enthusiasm. It looked appraisingly at Southern; looked closely for the first time in the aeons that it had been absorbed in worry about their relationship.
“What happened to you,” Northern cried, just barely able to not let its surprise shake loose any snow or rock. Southern’s snowy peak had all but disappeared; nothing more than an icy rime coated its summit. Upon further inspection, the streams that flowed down Southern’s slopes had broadened, and flowed with a distinctly muddy cast.
“Hmm?” Southern mumbled, “Oh, nothing. Doesn’t the world look lovely this afternoon? The afternoon sun makes such long shadows…”
“Don’t change the subject!” Northern retorted, and despite its best efforts, the earth between them shook with the mountain’s fury. “I thought we’d agreed not to let the valley take our height!”
“It’s nothing, really,” Southern countered. “I just realized how much sunlight I’d been blocking.”
“You realized?” Northern grumbled.
“Oh, fine, the valley told me.”
“And you believed it? And you gave it some of your stone and earth?”
“Yes,” Southern cried, defiantly; but it trembled slightly.
“Mark my words, nothing good will come of this. You give a little, that valley will take a mile.” Dark clouds swirled around Northern, obscuring the peak.
“You would deny sunlight to the valley?” Southern retorted, defensive and hurt.
“God made the sun to shine on us. If God had wanted the sun to shine on it, God would have made the valley a mountain, like us. Would you go against what God wants?”
Southern was silent for a long moment. Northern, feeling its point had been made, added smugly, “I’m sure you thought you were being kind, but you have to be careful. Start talking to valleys, and you could lose everything.”
Despite feeling the utter truth of its position, Northern could not help but notice Southern’s distance, after that conversation. Nor could Northern mistake the sudden proximity of the valley floor, the softening of Southern’s once-sharp peak. On the day that the last snows disappeared from Southern, leaving its summit rock-bare to the springtime sun, Northern berated its companion angrily, dismissing Southern’s remarks on the drought that had plagued the valley, the necessity of the snow-fed streams to the health of the valley river and everything that depended on it.
“It’s become depedent on you,” Nothern remarked disdainfully. “I could have told you this would happen. Nothing you can give will ever be enough, you know. It’ll wear you down until you’re at its level, and then where will you be? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Yet Southern ignored its counterpart, and its streams poured forth with both water and the silt that would nourish the valley’s soil. Northern’s warnings grew dire, then threatening, and then panicky – especially when Southern would let loose an earthquake that shook even Northern’s foundations.
“Hey, now, stop that!” Northern screamed, as a tremor shook a sizeable chunk of its lower slopes free and sent it tumbling down towards the river.. “You can go slum if you must, but you can’t make me support that good for nothing lazy valley. It’s not natural. We’re made to be mountains. It’s made to be a valley. We’re not supposed to be alike. You can try to go against what God planned, I’m going to live up to the perfection God intended for us!”
Southern didn’t respond.
Northern waited a long moment, then tried a different tactic. “I bet you can’t see as high as you used to,” it said softly. Even in the silence, it knew it had Southern’s attention. “I bet the world isn’t as beautiful from down there. Remember how much you loved watching the eagles circle below your peak? Remember the beauty of a snowy peak against the clear blue sky? Do the people still come and stand in awe, now that you’re so short?”
In the quiet that followed, Northern felt sure it had won its point.
Then a new voice spoke. “Do you hear the breeze in the branches of the trees? Can you make such music, with your snow and rock? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, tall one.”
Southern chuckled at the new voice’s comment. Northern was shocked into stillness, until it realized that it had been the valley who spoke. “How dare you speak to me!” it thundered. “You would not be what you are without me!”
“Possibly,” the valley allowed. “Although whether that is a good thing or not, is also a matter of perspective. Without you, I might have been a meadow, or a plain, or a grassland. But I would still be, just as God made me.”
“HA!” Northern laughed, but Southern cut in.
“Stop, stop. Northern, stop. Can’t you see we’re connected? Can’t you see we’re in this together? Our being depends on the valley, and it depends on us. We’re not enemies, but equal parts of God’s creation.”
“Equal, ha.” Northern snorted. “I can’t believe you’d betray me like this, Southern.”
“I’m sorry you feel betrayed,” Southern replied calmly. “But I cannot, in good conscience, continue to value certain parts of creation more than others.”
“No. God didn’t. We did. But we were wrong.”
Northern was so horrified, so infuriated by this reply, that it could say nothing else. But as months became years, and years became centuries,, it continued to hear the conversation between Southern and the valley. Mostly, these two spoke softly, so that Northern could only hear if it cared to listen carefully – which it didn’t. Indeed, Northern was so intent upon not listening to the dialogue between valley and mountain – dialogue which was sometimes painful to hear, when the valley spoke of the winter darkness made worse by mountain shadows, or of the fierce snowstorms that had seemed so playful and beautiful to the mountains at the time… When Northern heard Southern’s quiet apologies, it became disdainful, and brewed up out-of-season storms as a demonstration of its power, of its might, of its God-likeness. But Southern sheltered the valley as best it was able, and acknowledged the pain that the storms brought, until Northern felt embarrassed, and ashamed, and angry at its outbursts. Yet when it overheard again the quiet conversations between valley and mountain, it resolved, in its shame and anger, all the more to win the day.
Still, in all its planning and scheming, Northern could not fail to notice how low a hill Southern had become. Nor, indeed, could it miss that its own snowpack had dwindled; that try as it might, little bits of mountain were flowing down the streams of which it had once been so proud; the streams which flowed into the now-nearby valley river. So focused had Northern become on the argument it had with Southern that it had scarcely noticed its own decline; but now it looked around and saw that the Creation upon which it had looked down from such lofty height was not so far below; indeed, the birds now circled well above its bare summit.
“This is your fault,” Northern spat bitterly at Southern. “Your melting for those who were below us. You’ve brought us all down.” But Southern didn’t seem even to hear, too engrossed in converation with the valley.
Yet there were gaps in that conversation as well, Northern realized; gaps when it seemed that both Southern and the valley were listening to another voice; one that Northern could never quite hear. Northern barely spoke to Southern by this point, but its curiousity finally grew until at last, one day, when it was sure the valley wouldn’t be able to hear, Northern asked Southern about the other voice.
Southern was surprised. “Can’t you hear it?”
The valley, who had, in fact, been listening, sighed. “No, Northern cannot hear it. To hear that voice requires that we hear more than just our own voices, more than just our own stories.”
Southern considered these words. “Of course,” it replied. “Which is why I didn’t hear it for so long – it wasn’t until you and I started talking, Valley.”
“It wasn’t until you started hearing me, Southern,” Valley corrected gently. “It wasn’t until you were able to hear my story, without defensiveness. It wasn’t until you stopped trying to tell me how I’d experienced my own tale; it wasn’t until you were willing to hear me, in your heart, even when it made you uncomfortable. It wasn’t until you stopped being afraid, and started being willing to change because of what you heard me say.”
Northern harrumphed. “I’m not afraid,” it said grandly.
“Lift me up,” suggested the Valley.
“You’re changing the subject,” Northern countered, quickly. “I still don’t see why Southern can hear this other voice, and I can’t.”
“Southern and I depend upon one another. We share a common root, acknowledge a common ground. We give to each other. We recognize God in each other.”
“You’re alike enough, now, to see that, I suppose,” Northern grumbled.
“God isn’t just present in sameness,” Southern murmured, “God isn’t just present in the parts of me that I see in the Valley; but in the many ways we are different. I see God more clearly when I remember that God isn’t just a mountain, but is both mountain and valley, hill and plain – more than the sum of all of us.”
“And when you know that; when you can give of yourself for the God who is present in difference,” the Valley continued, “then you leave room for the voice of God to enter into the conversation.”
Northern was stunned. God? The voice that Northern couldn’t hear? How could that be? How could the pinnacle of Creation, the most powerful and majestic part of all Earth, be unable to hear the voice of its Creator?
Southern seemed to hear the unspoken question. “When being great and mighty is what matters to you, you hear the voice of power. We spoke it for years, you and I, and mistook it for God. We mistook ourselves for God. But when you hear the voices of those whom our power has hurt; when you hear beyond yourself, with all your heart… then God will be made known.”
The Valley gazed upon Northern, who realized for the first time that it wasn’t totally clear where the moutain ended and the valley began. Tentatively, Northern let a few rocks tumble down.
“How could the reflection of God change, let alone diminish?” Northern asked, plaintively. “We were the image of God, once, Southern…”
“We were an image of God, one among many. One image of one aspect of God. Our mistake was in thinking we were the only image, and therfore believing ourselves to be gods.”“I’m afraid I won’t know who I am, once I’m not a mountain,” it whispered.
“I know,” Southern whispered back. “But it’ll be okay. We’re all still learning. And perhaps, really, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps what matters isn’t who we are, but whose we are. As long as we know that, I think we’ll be fine.”
And now a new voice spoke, so low Northern had to strain to catch it. The voice came from everywhere at once, even, it seemed, from within Northern’s rocky core:
“Prepare God’s way, remove the obstacles. The valleys shall be lifted, the moutains made low, and all Creation shall see God together.”
Anyone who knows me, knows I love Paris. It’s one of those rare places in the world where I have felt entirely at home.
But I can’t update my profile picture with the blue, white and red overlay.
Because although I grieve deeply the attacks of the past 24 hours in that place I love so much, I grieve as well the equally deadly attacks that didn’t garner outrage on social media. Just one day earlier, dozens died in Lebanon and Iraq. Where are those overlays?
Some people are using the Paris attacks as a means to condemn student uprisings that are calling out racism in the US. I don’t see any of those same people grieving the deaths of brown people. I don’t see profile pictures changing to reflect deaths of any but those who look like us.
Do All Lives Matter?
But here again, let us raise up those lives that are not valued, those deaths that are not grieved. Let us remember that black lives matter. That brown lives matter. That Muslim lives matter.
Let us remember that if all those lives had truly mattered to us this whole time, the refugee crisis might not have reached such proportions. That we might be receiving refugees with more compassion for what they had been through. That those who are fleeing for their lives might not have been turned away at every border, made to live in squalid camps without adequate food or sanitation or healthcare.
I grieve the lives lost in France. But I grieve equally all lives lost to fear and violence – in the Middle East, in Europe, in South America, in the United States. And I lift up in particular those whose deaths, like their lives, seem not to affect us. I lift up those who seem to matter less.
And I will continue to do so – clearly and loudly, following the call of my faith to love all my neighbors – until all deaths are grieved, all violence evokes outrage, and all lives really do matter.
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
“Deny yourself: take up your cross”
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.
“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,
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,
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,
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
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?