a leaf buckled concrete: paths of hope

Every time I spot a weed growing up through concrete, I think, “Good for you.” I can’t help myself. I am biased toward underdogs, toward wildness, toward bucking the system. One of my many faults. While I would not say that I have a pro-weed orientation in life, I prefer the natural world to concrete in nearly every instance. That stubborn little weed reminds me that persistence is a superpower.

 In faith-driven, Biblically rooted justice work, the inequity I hope to expose and reform is massive. I often teach about the systems and norms that created our unjust status quo to folks whose life experiences have sheltered them from interacting with such unpleasant realities. Getting people in the room is a battle in and of itself, but after that I have come to recognize two distinct blocks. The first is visceral defensiveness. The second is perceived powerlessness.

 To learn of such atrocious injustice as an adult who has actively benefitted from and propped up systems in the name of Jesus, patriotism or justice, can be disorienting. Such a shock, in fact, that it is easy to deny this history exists, or to shake one’s head, disbelieving. At the very least, most want to claim innocence: “I’ve never oppressed anyone! I don’t even know people getting hurt by this so-called injustice!”

 Encountering such obvious disparity, people often feel shamed, guilty, or accused…all of which lead to defensiveness. Defensiveness destroys relationships and short circuits curious impulses. We are not capable of learning from others when we are busy defending our own action (or inaction). We cannot think of solutions when we refuse any responsibility or even connection to the problems being addressed. Because I have learned to anticipate such defensiveness, I now name it as the enemy of the good in the very moment in which it occurs. Feeling defensive or attacked is not a reason to walk away. When I name the creeping posture of defense, people usually look up, exposed, but also interested in any available alternative. I encourage folks to notice their defensiveness, commit to investigate it later, and then lean in to the conversation at hand. I ask them to seek to understand before they decide who is to blame (or if they even agree).

The other block many must overcome in these moments is the completely overwhelming—I-had-no-idea—shock of seeing the reality of injustice in our systems. When folks learn to avoid defensiveness, staying invested long enough to learn about the realities others face, they often feel crushing grief. Overwhelmed at the power and longevity of injustice, they instinctively see their own powerlessness to change anything. “I hear you. I’m with you. But what am I supposed to do?! How on earth can I do anything to actually help?” While this reaction can keep relationships alive, it can lead to the same sense of paralysis that results from defensiveness. In either case, injustice remains, with no resistance from well-meaning folks who enjoy the privileges of living in the majority.

I think this is why I love that little weed. Whoever designed and laid that sidewalk probably did everything right. They scorched the earth, leveled the ground, and poured one of the strongest substances known to man on top of it. And yet. Despite all odds, that little spunky weed grew. A leaf buckled concrete. It’s a Christmas miracle! Or maybe a gardening nightmare? Either way it gives me hope that a living thing made to find the light, with enough time and determination, can crack through a system made to permanently block its ability to grow. Go weeds go!

In parenting and educational circles, grit is a new buzzword. We have long recognized the difference in natural ability and growth. Some kids achieve because they are naturally gifted to do so, while others have deficits they learn to overcome through determination, delayed gratification and belief in their abilities. These kids develop growth mindsets, to borrow from Carol Dweck, and they learn to face obstacles that seem insurmountable one step at a time. Yes, failure is likely from their starting position. But taken in small steps, small victories add up until they accomplish their goals, achieving well beyond their initial trajectories.

As a parent of teens and a tween, I now realize I would rather send a kid into the world who has grit, who has learned to slowly overcome odds, than I would a kid who has easily achieved most accomplishments. This is not to say I am against easy achievements. By all means, knock it out of the park, especially if it comes easily! Adulting, though, is hard. Losing a job, working under a mean boss, caring for sick kids or parents, having a marriage fall apart, or suffering in economic distress all require a long term commitment to stay the course and learn the new skills required for the task ahead, even if it feels impossible. Grit, it turns out, wins the day.

Here in Nashville, succulents are all the rage, and frankly, I’m uninterested. Give me a rainforest over a desert any day of the week. I know they conserve water, but I live in Tennessee instead of Arizona for a reason. I like vibrant colors, gorgeous blooms, and diversity that makes the eye hungry to take it all in. People I love who know about plants love them though, so I finally got a succulent or two. Damned if I haven’t grown partial to these little miracle growers. They are stubborn sons of bitches, and just like my beloved urban weed warriors, they stay alive. They keep growing, even in shameful neglect. I think we could all do well to take a page out of the succulent handbook. Dig deep, determine to grow, and create beauty in the worst of circumstances. Come to the table, pay attention and decide to change your part of the world. Together, let’s see just see how many cracks we can make in the system until there is room for all of us to grow.

Lent Readings: The Kingdom of God is Like...Part I

The presence of Lent in the church calendar—40 full days of preparation for Easter—reminds us it is wise to prepare. When we ponder where we are headed and think about what is coming, we sometimes find ourselves strangely more engaged in the present as well. In the Biblical record, God uses the number 40 as a measure of time for the people (It rained on Noah for 40 days, the Israelites wondered for 40 years before entering the Promised Land, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before publically launching His ministry). God used this time to bring God’s children closer: to increase their desperation for God, to remind them of God’s power and provision in their daily lives, to encourage and pour into them before a hard season ahead. 

     In the Catholic Church I visit every Ash Wednesday, the priest reminds us that Lent is experienced most fully in three ways:

1)   We sacrifice something in order to remind ourselves of thirst, of hungering after God, or to disrupt patterns that diminish our flourishing in Christ.

2)   We willfully use this experience of disruption to push us toward Christ, placing Jesus in the front of our minds, or at the top of our day.

3)   We turn our eyes from ourselves and toward others as we intentionally live more generously toward those in need during Lent.

For these 40 days, I pray you would be mindful of these 3 ideas, and maybe use them to orient yourself toward God. 

     Christ’s coming sacrifice and resurrection are our only hope for living well with ourselves and others. Allow yourself to know this during Lent. Allow yourself to recognize the abundance in your life, and to lean in to the lean placesJ. Allow yourself to think about people who live with very little, and know that they often hunger for and understand God in ways that may be hard for us to understand. Allow yourself to hear God’s words in these 40 days, to begin to understand what God cares about, and then think about how you can imitate Christ by pouring your life out for others. 

     These readings end each week with the Beatitudes.  In the last year I have come to see all the ways that I have diminished the power of God in my life because I have cared about protecting and expanding my own power and security instead of looking to God for significance and peace. In the past, I decided God’s Kingdom was made in my image, so that the hardest workers, the kindest, the most intentional people win. The Beatitudes remind us that God doesn’t value what I value. God promises to be present, generous and available to those who have no power, to those near the margins, to those who align themselves with the overlooked and against self-interest alone.  This Lenten season I am reminded that if I want to prepare myself for Christ’s coming kingdom, I would do well spend 40 days marinating in the words Jesus used to describe it.  (One other note: all of the selections are poetry.  While we love to be instructed by scripture, W. Brueggemann reminds us that the very nature of God is mysterious, wonderful, and creative.  Poetry—instead of a helpful outline—is a fabulous medium to usher us into the presence of God.) 

     When the priest at the Catholic Church places ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross, he murmurs, “Turn away from your sin and believe the Gospel.” I pray that as we read these verses of God we would think about what it means to simply “Believe the Gospel” in our daily rhythm of life.                              

Find stillness, wait, and believe,


Below are reading for the first half of Lent. More to come.

Week 1

To Ponder:

“God is that way with us, He wants to hold us still with Him in silence….They cannot all be brilliant or rich of beautiful. They cannot all even dream beautiful dreams like God gives some of us. They cannot all enjoy music. Their hearts do not all burn with love. But everybody can learn to hold God…We shall not become like Christ until we give Him more time.”                                                    -Brother Lawrence

“Maybe you search for understanding, but find only one thing for sure, which is that truth comes in small moments and visions, not galaxies and canyons; not the crash of ocean waves and cymbals. Most traditions teach that truth is in these small holy moments.”                                                                            -Anne Lamott


To Read:

Mar 6 Matthew 5:1-12

Mar 7 Proverbs 2:1-15

Mar 8 Ps 94:12-22

Mar 9 Micah 6:6-8

Mar 10 Matthew 5:1-12

  Week 2

To Ponder:

“Recovery involves quelling the riot of thoughts in the mind and thinking the overpopulation of images and feelings that accumulate with an abundance of activity. Silence and solitude are the recovery room for the soul weakened by busyness…In silence and solitude we regain our perspective, or more importantly, God’s perspective. Augustine described it as learning to “perform the rhythms of one’s life without getting entangled in them. Alone with God in prayerful quiet, the rhythms of life are untangled.”        -Howard Baker 

“Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ.”                                                   -Blaise Pascal

To Read:

Mar 11 Ps 90:12-17; 91:1-2

Mar 12 Ps 95:1-8

Mar 13 Ps 120:1-2; 121:1-4

Mar 14 Zeph 3:14-18

Mar 15 Ps 107:1-9, 19-31

Mar 16 Daniel 6:25-28

Mar 17 Matthew 5:1-12

Week 3

To Ponder:

“To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete.  The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message.  Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”                                                                                                             -Soong Chan Rah

 “This is the best way to act: talk a great deal to the Lord….Choosing Christ brings mystery, rejecting Him brings despair…I choose to look at people through God, using God as my glasses, colored with His love for them.”           -Brother Lawrence

To Read:

Mar 18 Ecclesiastes 7:5-14

Mar 19 Ps 130

Mar 20 Job 42:1-3

Mar 21 Isaiah 40:21-31

Mar 22 Ps 142

Mar 23 Hosea 5:15-6:3

Mar 24 Matthew 5:1-12


Kindness: a brave act of resistance

A month ago, in the midst of a government shutdown, with a second missed pay check looming, with fights over border walls and locations for Presidential addresses escalating, with angry, blaming tweets flying, with despair climbing, I caught a glimpse of one of the ways we might retain our sanity and affirm our shared humanity. I participated in a ceremony in which a young woman became a Bat Mizvah, and it was so beautiful that I could hardly believe the world didn’t radically change for the better during the hours I spent in the synagogue.

Many traditions recognize the power of a ceremonial marking to guide families through a transition. In Judaism, a young Jew makes his Bar Mitzvah, or her Bat Mitzvah, to acknowledge the transition from childhood to adulthood. The event can be simple or lavish, but it always contains chanting in Hebrew from the Torah, family and mentors who help guide the young one by participating, offering words of affirmation, and praying, and the presence of friends to help the Bat Mitzvah celebrate her hard work and maturation.

 As I watched my young friend step to the lectern, I realized she was invited there by a fiercely-loving Rabbi, who had been working with her to prepare for this experience. Even though the young teen had to rise, chant, speak, and present herself to her community, her Rabbi and mentor stood with her, encouraging her, laughing, guiding her along. Isn’t that wonderful? She didn’t have to walk alone, and neither do we! We can both look for guidance from those who have walked the road before us and provide guidance, space, and an invitation to those who come behind. The Rabbi’s embodied solidarity—her standing with-ness—was stunning in its simplicity. What if we all became people who stand with tender others?

The pinnacle of the ceremony is when the child comes to the Torah, with reverence, and, in this case, some playfulness, to chant a portion heard all around the world from every young person becoming a Bat Mitzvah. There was beauty in the solidarity, in knowing that even on this day geared toward celebrating her, she was one of many. We interact with and document our histories in such performative ways now. Our reliance on social media, on images to demonstrate our worth, has given us importance but also left us alone. Reading a portion of Torah shared globally reminded me that it does not have to be so. We can live in our own skin while resonating and belonging to so many around us. My story is mine, but it becomes meaningful when it is contextualized with the stories of so many others.  

Early in the ceremony her grandparents, brother and parents spoke words of life over her. Her grandparents adore her and were radiant with the pride of folks standing on the sweet side of raising kids to hold on to their faith, their history, their people and their community. They spoke words of blessing, intertwining the legacy of the past with their hopes for her future. Watching, I thought we all have the chance to be people who know the past and what it offers, even as we walk into the unknown ahead. Still, how lovely to pause and hear it. To acknowledge that we don’t spring into existence out of nothing, but we join a living river of souls in stress and at ease, ascending and descending as they find their way.

 Even more poignant, I wept tears of gratitude as I watched my dear friends speak words of life over their daughter. A mom and a dad, each invested in their communities in so many ways, thoughtful and fun, passionate and, above all, present for the long haul in the lives of dear friends. They welcomed their daughter into such friendship. They let her know, with great specificity, that they see her. She got to hear her mom and dad not just celebrate how fabulous she is, but to know deep in her heart that they see all that she is learning to offer the world. They didn’t speak of some hypothetical daughter, but instead of her very self, in her unique wonder.  Watching them speak over her, and then watching her big brother come and chant part of the Torah with her, left me marveling in the beauty of telling each other the good we see, out loud, face to face. This young woman’s life will forever be grounded in the words she heard. Rather than speaking up when we notice the worst in someone, what if we find words to call out the good?

In this era of accusation and assault, this holy moment in time felt like a miracle of kindness to me. Every element offered an alternative for how we might live well with one another. We do not live in scripted times, and we can’t control how others will play their roles in our current national or personal dramas. This ancient ceremony reminded me, however, that while protest and speaking up and advocacy are necessary, they alone will not save us. We need more than resistance, and must go further than merely rejecting the bad. Watching a brave and beautiful young woman become a Bat Mitzvah offered us a beautiful alternative as we created space to affirm the good.

Consider this an invitation to name the bad, to resist hateful evil, while also speaking the good you see into the world. Evaluate your own energy and behavior. Use your voice to resist through challenge and through lifting up beauty!  In dark times, the presence of light is an act of brave resistance. As Dr. King famously argued, hate cannot defeat hate, but love can. We are transformed in the sharing of hope, not just in the resisting of evil. How much more effective might we be if we call out the good we see in others, if we name our hopes for those who come after us, if we honor the best in those who came before us? Advocate for a better world by creating it in the spaces you share with others.