every angel is terrifying

Angels in scripture love to tell humans not to be afraid when they show up on the scene. In her devotional for today, Angela Finet notes that “Don’t be afraid!” is the first line of dialogue in Luke’s gospel, spoken by the angel Gabriel who shows up to tell an old priest that he’s going to have a baby. The angel has to lead with that line, even though he’s got some serious news to share, because he can tell that Zechariah is freaking terrified.

And Zechariah is freaking terrified because in scripture, angels are not rosy-cheeked babies or glowing orbs of light. In scripture, angels are bizarre beings with mismatched parts and too many limbs. Some have four faces, some have six wings, a bunch of them have FAR TOO MANY EYES.

scripture, not sci-fi.

There is a whole thing called angelology which is not, despite my first impression, the hobby of collecting Precious Moments figurines. Angelology is all about categorizing and classifying kinds and types of angels because, well, there are a lot. Scripture’s got all kinds of weird and cringe-inducing heavenly beings in its pages. Ezekiel is particularly graphic, with cherubim (way too many faces) and ophanim (WHEELS. They are WHEELS WITH EYES: “Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.” -Ezekiel 1:18).

Ezekiel’s Vision

Gabriel was, according to some angelologists, the archangels of the cherubim. He was not a wheel with eyes, but he maybe had four faces? And some of those faces may or may not have been human-looking. He definitely had some amped up wings and was very, very large. The number of eyes is up for debate.

Whatever Gabriel the angel looked like, it was not the sweet Christmas tree topper that my mom made years ago out of old quilts sewn by her grandmother. (Kira Austin-Young is crafting an Accurate Angel Tree Topper this year, which inspired a lot of this post.) The angels who sing on high do not look like the children’s choir on Christmas Eve. Every angel is terrifying.

Yes, God is known in some circles as The Comforter. And we sing about comfort a lot during Advent, which also happens to be hygge season in the Northern Hemisphere. But the scenes that begin these stories – that is, the story of Jesus, the story of Christ, the story of God incarnate – are the opposite of cozy. The scenes that begin all of this are chaotic and confusing and filled with terror. Angels don’t translate well to the earthly realm, and they assault the senses. Their messages might begin with “don’t be afraid,” but their presence says otherwise.

What to make of that? Stand up. Raise your heads. Pay attention, even when the thing in front of your face is face-meltingly horrifying. Zechariah, the old priest, overcame his initial shock and held a conversation with Gabriel, but he still couldn’t bring himself to believe what the four-faced creature was trying to tell him. He refuses, so the angel renders him mute until his baby is born. Mary gets a visit from Gabriel, too, but she responds differently: she pays attention. “Here I am,” she says, “the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Sometimes, the stuff that looks the most terrifying on the surface turns out to be our salvation. Sometimes terror is just terror, sure. Our exquisite human bodies know how to send up flares when danger is afoot and our limbic does its best to keep us alive. But sometimes, if we’re paying attention; if we are fully present to the many-eyed abomination in front of us, if we calm our fight or flight response long enough to listen to what is happening beyond the adrenaline…well, we might find buried underneath all that fear an invitation to become a god-bearer, like Zechariah, like Mary.

stand up and raise your heads

I’ve been writing these little daily posts during Advent and Lent for several seasons now. I decided I wouldn’t do it this year: too much trauma to process, too little grip on the overflowing chaos of the world to feel like anything I have to say is worth sharing. Plus, who even writes BLOGS anymore? If I wanted to be relevant and accessible, I’d be making TikTok Advent reflections, right?

Mostly, it has felt like my ability to make connections and see patterns and understand what is happening under the surface of things has disappeared. That part of me feels burnt out, oversaturated. The breaker got overloaded and flipped off, and I can’t seem to figure out how to flip it back. My brain is stuttering, stopping and starting, and it is hard to know where to look for verified information or trustworthy perspective. I don’t want to blather on out here in public about things I’m not yet certain about – things I am not even reasonably sure of. We’re just all here in the mud and the muck of it, together.

But I woke up this morning, on the first day of Advent, and read the first page of a devotional and finished the last paragraph of my sermon, and realized that a) I had something to say and b) I still can’t convince myself to join TikTok.

Advent always starts with apocalypse. If you haven’t heard by now, “apocalypse” doesn’t mean “utter destruction,” it means “revelation.” This year, we get the “little apocalypse” from Luke’s gospel:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Jesus says that when chaos begins to reign, the thing to do is not RUN AND HIDE. It is not TAKE COVER. We are not advised to run to the prepared bunker we’ve been working on outfitting these last 20 months, or grab the arsenal of machine guns we’ve been stockpiling. We are not instructed to hold fast to what we’ve got – whether it be money or houses or privilege or power – and go down fighting.

When chaos begins to reign, when people are fainting from fear and foreboding, when institutions break down and the old order begins to defend itself by any means necessary, when there is distress among the nations because new variants keep emerging and the only possible solution powerful leaders can imagine is to further isolate ourselves from one another even though viruses do not give one shit about international borders or locked down airports, when politicians are issuing death threats agains their colleagues, when global supply chains get stopped up and teachers can’t bear to face their classrooms one more day and nurses are so overburdened and burnt out that they are walking off the job and children get hurt by ricocheting bullets from gang fights in the mall, when the community that taught you how to live a good life starts turning against you, issuing threats and lining up behind abusers because they think that will keep them safe, when money becomes a problem instead of an opportunity, when grief arrives in wave after wave and just keeps coming, when everyone around you seems to be reeling from one trauma or another and everything – everything – feels tenuous and unsteady…

Don’t curl up in a ball. Don’t shut down. Don’t stick your head in the sand or get lost on Instagram.

Instead, Jesus offers another possible chaos response:

Stand up. Raise your head. PAY ATTENTION. It might not make any sense at all, but redemption is – apparently – drawing near.

I’m going to try it, this paying attention thing. You are welcome to come along.

beware the scammers

Sermon 11-7-2021, Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren

Mark 12:38-44

My Mammaw had Alzheimer’s, and the last couple of years of her life were confusing – for everyone. She lived alone in her own home until just a couple of weeks before she died this summer, and my mom and aunts walked through a long season of slowly taking control of different parts of Mammaw’s life that she couldn’t manage on her own – cooking, cleaning, mail and finances.

Somehow, Mammaw got on all the non-profit, elder-scam mailing lists. You know the ones I’m talking about, right? A flier in the mail with a photo of a sad child, begging for money. A phone call from a representative asking for funds. There’s an entire industry built arounds scamming elderly people out of their money, and my Mammaw wandered her way square into the center of it all. She wanted to help, and she couldn’t tell what was reputable and what wasn’t. All she saw were people in need, and she wanted to do the right thing. Mom would go over to Mammaw’s house and see photos of strangers on the fridge, ask who they were and learn that it was some child who had asked for money through the mail. Mammaw ended up writing checks to false front orphanages, buying regular supplies of algae pills, and in a strange, confused trail of illogic that I can’t understand, a pro-fracking organization…which she somehow believed was feeding hungry people.

Mom and my aunts knew what was happening, and were able to safeguard most of Mammaw’s savings. But she insisted on writing checks to the people who asked her for help, even when those people were clearly scamming her. It happens all the time – charlatans scamming old, kind-hearted poor people out of the few resources they have. It is both sad and kind of gross, thinking about all the ways that people take advantage of the vulnerable among us.

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In her reflection on this passage – which we often call “The Widow’s Mite” – Barbara Brown Taylor says that the widow dropping her last two coins into the Temple Treasury is something like what happened to my Mammaw. She says that this story is a story of powerful people taking advantage of vulnerable ones.

This is NOT how we usually hear this story of the widow and her two coins. If we’ve heard the story told before, it might have been as an encouragement during stewardship season – if even a poor widow would give up her very last coins in contribution to the temple, how much more should we, people of means, be giving? Giving to the church or the temple or whatever institution it is that safeguards our religious practice and devotion is GOOD, right?

But in Mark’s story, Jesus never praises the widow. He does not say “look, you should be more like her!” Instead, this little glimpse of the widow and her mite acts as a counterbalance to the scenes that surround it. Jesus has just finished WARNING his disciples about the ways that some religious leaders use their positions of power to cheat and oppress the poor: 

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And immediately after he points out the widow, one of Jesus’ disciples marvels to him about the grandeur of the temple where they’ve been hanging out: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” But Jesus, not missing a beat, says “Yeah, you see these huge buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

The story of the widow and her mite – two coins which amount to about a dollar – literally, as Jesus says “her entire life” – is not meant to be read as an affirmation of sacrificial giving. It is sandwiched here between warnings and prophecies about the destruction of oppressive religious systems that “devour widows’ houses” and, because of their abusive practices, will not survive in God’s new realm.

Jesus points out the widow because he wants his disciples – and us – to see what things look like from the underside. He is dragging our attention – as he does so often – away from the people and places that the world tells us are the most important toward the ones that Jesus himself declares are important. Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jesus points out the widow to his disciples – this widow who no one else bothered to notice at all – in order to turn our expectations upside down. 

“If he had taken a Polaroid snapshot of the temple that day,” she writes, “and handed it to the disciple with one question written underneath – “Where is Christ in this picture?” – they would never have guess the answer. There were MAJOR CHARACTERS in that room, after all – doctors of the law and patrons of the arts, rich people and smart people, people with names and faces – any one of them a better bet than the thin woman in the widow’s weeds, a minor character if there ever was one. “she’s the one,” Jesus tells them when their time is up. “The one without a penny to her name, she’s the one to watch.”

Jesus is saying “look. Do you see what the religious leaders of this system that is about to be obliterated are doing to people? Do you see how hungry she is, how without resources, how alone? And she believes that giving her last pennies to this temple, which we know treats her like dirt, is the right thing to do.”

The moral of this story is not “be generous like the poor widow.” It is, instead, “beware the religious leaders who like to walk around in fancy clothes, insist on being greeted with respect and invited to the seat of honor at dinner and reserve the best seats in the synagogue, the ones who prey on the poor and weak and demand that they sacrifice their entire lives for the sake of the abusive system.”

Watch, Jesus is saying, what happens to the pure in heart when these systems devour them. Pay attention to this, he says, because the very same thing is about to happen to me.

It is important to name that Jesus wasn’t critiquing Judaism, and he was not implying that ALL the scribes were selfish and abusive. He’s just had an encounter with a scribe that goes very well – the one who hears Jesus teaching and asks him about the greatest commandment. Jesus says, well, of course the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all you are, and the second is really similar: love your neighbor as yourself. And the scribe approves, and says, of course, you’re right. Loving God with your whole life is much more important than any kind of offering or sacrifice. And Jesus recognized that he was someone on the same journey and said “you are not far from God’s kingdom.”

Jesus isn’t condemning Judaism; he is condemning powerful religious leaders who oppress the poor and pure in heart. He is issuing a prickly warning about preachers who want to be seen more than they want to serve. He is affirming what he has already taught: in God’s world, the last are FIRST and the ones we think are first in this world, well, they’re often last.

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Barbara Brown Taylor asks a question about this story that’s helpful for us to reflect on as we try to turn our own perspectives about who to watch upside down: “Are we really supposed to admire a poor woman who gave her last cent to a morally bankrupt religious institution? Was is right for her to surrender her living to those who lived better than she? What if she were someone you knew, someone of limited means who decided to send her last dollar to the 700 Club? Would that be admirable, or scandalous? Would it be a good deed or a crying shame?”

What do you think?

I tend to fall in the “crying shame” camp, once I read around the passage and consider all the ways that Jesus got so angry and promised judgement on the religious leaders who ignored and oppressed and abused the people in their care. “Crying shame” is how I feel about my Mammaw sending money to all those scammers, thinking she was doing good. No judgement for the widow or my Mammaw – just like Jesus didn’t pronounce judgement or praise on the widow in the text. Just attentiveness to how twisted the system is, and what a shame it is that the most vulnerable are the most taken advantage of.

Jesus rarely gets angry in the gospels, but when he does, when he pronounces judgement, when he warns of the wrath to come, he is almost always aiming that anger and judgement at hateful, dishonest, scamming religious leaders who mistreat the people in their care. Jesus is crystal clear that cruel religious leaders – the abusive, selfish scribes and the scamming Pat Robertsons and the church bureaucrats who sacrifice vulnerable people in favor of institutional survival – these folks will receive “great condemnation.” 

This interpretation of the story asks us all to upend our assumptions and expectations. It is not the priests and scribes that we should be paying attention to, and it is not the wealthy, big givers who deserve the lion’s share of our respect. Jesus, in this story, is asking us to turn our attention upside down, to prioritize noticing the least, the last, and the ones who are caught and chewed up by the gears of a religious system run by those leaders.

If we read the story this way, we might hear Jesus asking us to organize our common life together not around the decisions and desires of the most powerful, but instead to organize our life together around the needs and accommodations of those least likely to be noticed. What does this mean, practically?

This week, I have seen SO MANY beautiful pictures of brave kids getting their COVID vaccines. And one theme in the comments that their parents shared has been that these kids are being brave and getting the shot not so much for themselves but for their dear friends who are immunocompromised: so that they can eat lunch with their best friend who has asthma; so that their cousin who has health issues, might be able to come to their 8th birthday party in February; so that they can hug their elderly grandparents. That is an example of centering the most vulnerable in decision making, straight from the mouths of kiddos.

During the pandemic, we have tried to make decisions in this way at Peace Covenant, too. We are still wearing masks in the building, even though almost all of us are vaccinated, because we know that there are some among us with compromised immune systems. And we know that our beloved kids have not had that privilege up to this point. The mask-wearing is an attempt to center the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

Another, non-Covid related example: I know of a congregation in Pennsylvania that learned so much about white supremacy and racism in the United States that they collectively decided to make it a regular practice in their classes, meetings and worship to make space for the Black women in the congregation to speak first. Knowing that Black women live at the intersections of multiple kinds of oppression in American society, they decided to prioritize their perspective and their voices in their fellowship. They have actually trained themselves to wait until one of these church mothers has spoken for the rest of the discussion to continue.

What would happen if those selfish scribes decided to do their jobs with people like the widow as their priority? What would it mean for us, here at Peace Covenant, to center the opinions and needs of the most marginalized among us? 

What would it mean for us to follow Jesus’ nod and pay attention to the widows among us? How would our life together change if we prioritized the perspectives and needs of the most vulnerable? I’m curious to know what you think.

[With gratitude for Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflection “The One to Watch,” in The Preaching Life (Cowley, 1993).]

sell all you have

I preached this sermon several weeks ago, immediately before Stewardship Sunday, when the congregation is invited to consider what their contributions – both money and time – will be for the next year. It was unplanned, but the lectionary serves up fastballs on occasion, and you gotta keep your eye on the ball.

Sermon 10-10-2021

Mark 10:17-31

Today’s text is so rich and complicated – and difficult – that most preachers over the centuries have tried to wriggle out of taking it at face value. Jesus is teaching against wealth in straightforward, difficult ways – difficult, that is, for those of us who have some amount of wealth. Nobody who owns their own car or house or business or pantry full of food wants to hear that following Jesus requires “selling everything we own and giving it to the poor.”

But Jesus does not relent, even after he tells the rich man to do this. Everybody standing around who hears Jesus’ instruction is rattled, so Jesus keeps going: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

And again, when Jesus’ own disciples clap back at him, reminding him that THEY have already left everything to follow him, Jesus responds by saying “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now – houses and brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields – and eternal life in the age to come.”

Then he sums it all up by saying “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

For entertainment’s sake, here are a few ways that preachers through the ages have tried to wriggle out of this instruction to the rich young man that Jesus – and Mark, in his telling of the story – are very careful not to let us wriggle out of:

Some preachers say that the instruction to “sell all you have and give it to the poor” was only SPECIFIC to this PARTICULAR rich man – not something meant to be taken at face value for anyone who wants to follow Jesus.

But Jesus literally says, right there in the text, that it’s harder for ANY rich person to follow him than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle!

Well, said some preachers, you see, some historians think that there possibly maybe might have been this one gate into the city of Jerusalem where the traders and travelers entered. This particular gate was very, very, very narrow and kind of short, to boot. So when the rich merchants tried to enter the city, they had to remember to first stop and unpack all their goods and jewels and merchandise from off of their camels so that the camel would fit through the door. Jesus didn’t really mean that rich people can’t get into heaven, they say, he was just using that narrow gate as a metaphor….like, maybe you should set your riches down for a little bit in order to get through the door…but you’ll get them back! Don’t worry!

But Jesus is pretty clear: it’s not just holding riches more lightly, it’s about leaving them entirely. “Whoever has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news” will receive a hundredfold back.

In fact, Jesus says, y’all have this whole idea about wealth and virtue mixed up. In God’s reign, it’s the first who end up at the back of the line and the last who get first dibs. The poorest of the poor are God’s own beloved, first in line for entry into the new kingdom. And the ones we think are farthest ahead here in our earthly virtue/worth calculators, well, they’ve got a hefty surprise in store if they think that’s how God’s accounting works.

It’s impossible to wriggle out of what Jesus is teaching in this passage. Mark meets each caveat with a doubling-down of Jesus’ insistence. And this teaching against personal wealth is shot through the entirety of the New Testament. This isn’t – by far – the only time Jesus or the early Christians taught and lived in ways that refused individual wealth. We learn in Acts that the first Jesus followers lived in an economy of sharing, where they pooled all their resources and shared with whoever had need. When Ananais and Sapphira tried to secretly keep some of their personal wealth to themselves and then lied about it to the church, they get struck down dead on the spot.

So, it’s probably worth reading this particular passage – which includes the story of the only person in Mark’s Gospel to refuse Jesus’ invitation to follow him – a bit more closely. How are we like this rich man? How are we like the crowd, confused and awed at Jesus’ insistence? How are we like Peter, upset because we’ve already given up so much to follow Jesus? How can we follow this teaching in the midst of a society built on unjust economic practices and assumptions?

Let’s start at the beginning. Jesus is “on the way.” In Mark’s story-telling, that means that we are supposed to register that Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem, yes, but also toward the cross. He is on the way – and we know what lies at the end of that journey.

And, on the way, a man runs up and falls at Jesus’ feet. Both Matthew and Luke tell this story in their gospels, but they attach some identifying adjectives to the guy – a “rich young ruler” or a “young man.” But here in Mark, he’s just a guy. We don’t know anything about him. But he runs up to Jesus, can’t get to him fast enough, and falls at his feet. Clearly, he knows who this is. Clearly, he already worships Jesus. He is eager, excited, begging Jesus to tell him how to live.

“Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus, who is rarely distracted from what people are really saying and what people are really asking for, replies:

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Jesus heard in this guy’s question an assumption. He heard the assumption that DOING something, BEING GOOD, checking off all the appropriate boxes and working one’s way into God’s favor is the way to inherit eternal life. Jesus heard whispers of the Protestant work ethic, a works justification theology, a sinister confidence in human ability & achievement.

“No one is good but God alone,” he says, reminding the guy from the very start that eternal life is not earned or achieved or locked in by anything that humans can do.

Then he goes on: “you know the commandments, right? You know what it is you’re supposed to DO: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

And the guy, who is desperate for some direction says, “yes, of course, I learned those when I was a kid and I’ve kept them all my life!”

And Jesus, Mark tells us, looked at him and loved him.

Let’s just stop there: Jesus looked at him and loved him. 

There are ways to tell this story that make rich people into evil, unlovable, beyond-hope pariahs. Plenty of preachers tell the story that way. It’s tempting. But that’s not how Jesus works. He looked at this man and LOVED him. He heard the man’s struggle, and his deep desire, and witnessed his devotion and his faithfulness and his curiosity. Jesus knew all about him. He looked at him, and he loved him.

And then he said: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “go burn up all your fields and barns and possessions in a big bonfire so they don’t tempt you or anyone else.” He doesn’t say “drop out of the economy and let whatever happens to your riches happen.” He asks the man to take responsibility for his wealth, to do the work of divesting himself from its hold, to take on the labor of selling it himself. He instructs the rich man in a practice of wealth re-distribution. He asks him to figure out who the poor people are in his neighborhood and give them cash gained from sale of his own property. Jesus is not anti-money, necessarily, or entirely anti-possession. But he knows that the inequity of the economic system means that some people have far, far too much while others have far, far too little. Jesus asks this one rich man to be accountable for his excess and do his part to balance the scales.

But when the man heard this instruction, he was “shocked” and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

We never hear anything else about the rich man. We have no idea what he did, whether he gave up on his dream of following Jesus and let his possessions rule him, or whether the next day or week or year or decade he came to his senses and did what Jesus asked of him. But we know that here, in this moment, Jesus’ request feels too much. He is shocked, grieving, bitter, angry, unable to comply joyfully. 

And everyone else standing around seems to be equally shocked. Wealth was a sure sign of virtue and worthiness then, just like it is now, and the crowds couldn’t believe that Jesus would turn away such a rich man: wouldn’t his wealth be a huge boon to the organization? Couldn’t all those riches REALLY facilitate a HUGE expansion, scaling up, multiplying the reach of Jesus’ own ministry? Why in the WORLD would Jesus say something so upsetting and off-putting to such a fantastic potential donor?!

So Jesus tells them that rich people have a really hard time following him. And they are GREATLY ASTOUNDED, and ask, “well, then who CAN be saved?” And Jesus says “for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Even camels going through eyes of needles. Even filthy rich people discovering an ability to sell it all and give the money to the poor in order to follow Jesus.

Many who are first, after all, will be last in God’s economy. And the last WILL be first.

Jesus is both gracious and demanding. He is clear that it’s very hard for people of means to follow him. And he is also clear that God does completely unexpected things, even when we think those things are impossible. He makes no bones about this rich man needed to sell all he has and give it to the poor in order to join in the work of God’s reign, but he is equally clear that this man is seen, known, and beloved. 

Money is hard to talk about openly and honestly. Jesus offers us a way in: with both grace and clarity, always remembering that with God, all things are possible. I am so curious what you make of this story and these teachings, and I invite your reflections and responses.

a remembrance

Ten years ago, in October of 2011, I agreed to drive my grandma JoJo to Camp Bethel for the Northern Area Virlina District Women’s Fellowship Fall Rally. I wrote about the day back then, which is the only way I remember that what I thought was going to be a breakfast meeting with my grandma actually turned into a delightful day-long excursion as chauffeur to three of my favorite older ladies, who bickered and bantered and cackled all the way there and back, telling me stories of Pearl Harbor and meeting their husbands at illicit card games. 

The presentation at the meeting was about Brethren Volunteer Service, and someone asked for a show of hands of those who’d done BVS before. I raised my hand along with just a couple of other women, and the emcee directed the ladies to see one of us – Judy or Carol or “whoever that girl was in the back” – to hear more BVS stories. 

JoJo, standing up on her way to the restroom at the back of the room, raised her hand and shouted out, happily interrupting the program:

“Now, I want you all to know, that is my granddaughter, Dana Beth Cassell!!” 

This was, I admit, slightly embarrassing for me, especially because at the time, I was interviewing to be a pastor here in the district. Having your grandmother interrupt a meeting to make sure everyone in the room knows your name is not exactly the most professional way to network.

But it was not embarrassing for JoJo. It was all joy.

JoJo with me, a while ago

JoJo grew up in a single parent household in the 1930s and 1940s. Her father left when she was tiny, and her mother, Junia, moved the two of them back home from Ohio to Virginia, where they had family to lean on. It’s not easy to be a single parent today, so I can only imagine what it was like back then. Junia and JoJo moved all the time. JoJo moved from one relative’s house to another, some of whom treated her well and others of whom decidedly did not. She attended FIVE (maybe?) different elementary schools across the city of Roanoke. 

JoJo & her mom, Junia

In the midst of all that change, it was the church and the library that became enduring places of refuge for JoJo: she was baptized at age 8 and remained a dedicated, involved matriarch of First Church of the Brethren for all her life. Until recently, she was still in charge of the prayer chain emails. She was a lifelong patron at the Melrose Branch of the Roanoke City Library, and her beloved librarians there left really gracious condolences on her online obituary. I am a grateful heir of her love for the church and her love of reading, and I’m pretty sure that having one’s favorite librarians sharing condolences at your death is now one of my #lifegoals.

JoJo at the Melrose Library in 2017

JoJo didn’t talk a whole lot about the trauma of growing up the way she did – shuffled around from one house to the next, changing addresses and schools and never quite sure if she’d be welcomed or sent away when she showed up on someone’s doorstep. She didn’t talk a whole lot about it, but somewhere along the line, she decided to live HER life differently.

She married Bobby – a living, breathing definition of stability – and, as if by sheer force of will, she engineered a family so close-knit that when I graduated from seminary, the entire lot of them showed up in Atlanta wearing matching t-shirts out on the town & thought absolutely nothing of it.

Bobby & JoJo’s wedding day at First Church of the Brethren in 1953

JoJo and Bobby SHOWED UP for people. They didn’t talk about how or why they did that, they didn’t write blog posts or preach sermons about the importance of showing up, they just DID IT. I would be hard pressed to remember a childhood softball game or swim meet or awards ceremony that my grandparents didn’t attend. When I came home from Illinois in 2009 to have some major surgery, I walked into the hospital pre-surgery waiting room at 5am and there they were, waiting on me, showing up for me in the awful parts as well as the good ones.

Bobby & JoJo at my nephew Tyler’s basketball game a few years ago

Family was really important to JoJo, but her persistence in showing up with and for people wasn’t limited to her blood relations. She knew firsthand that sometimes the most important kinds of care and stability come from outside family circles, and insisted on showing up for her own family AND for anyone who needed someone to show up for them. 

She wanted people to know that they were cared for and wanted and welcome, and she cared about people by learning to know them. JoJo had a huge intellectual capacity, but she didn’t use that capacity studying philosophy or theology or esoteric ways of understanding the world: she applied the whole of her intelligence to PEOPLE. My sister, Leah, remembers that JoJo knew every golfer, tennis, football, baseball, and basketball player on the TV at any given time – just like everyone she saw in person, too! She could trace your family lineage back to the fourth generation, and she remembered the surgery you had five years ago and the struggle your mom was having when she last talked to you. She wanted to KNOW you, to learn all about you. Because she wanted you to know that you were important, loved, and known, that somebody had your back, that someone was in your corner.

JoJo letting her great-granddaughter, Elysee, know that she’s got her back

JoJo was not always nice. She inherited the Bostwick temper, the same temper that hobbled her own mother, her aunts and uncles, too. Her temper hurt people, and she knew it, and she regretted it. Once, Bobby had to go into the hospital for some surgery, and I told him beforehand not to worry, that I would be spending the night with JoJo and watch out for her, unless, of course, she got mad at me. “Well,” Bobby said, “she gets mad at lots of people. But she gets over it.”

JoJo never mastered her temper – its fire probably singed several of us here, today. But I’m convinced that it was that same fire that gave her the wherewithal to live the life she lived: to carve out a space for joy and delight for herself, to commit to showing up for people she loved in ways that she struggled to access when she was young. 

JoJo was a sway-er. Some of her grandchildren have inherited this habit, swaying back and forth on our feet whenever we’re waiting in line or singing in church. Leah reminded me that JoJo didn’t just sway alone, but would also come up behind us, with her arms draped over our shoulders, singing or humming a hymn, and swaying side to side. 

“Which is,” Leah says, “how I will continue to feel her with me, even now, having my back, sharing side eye glances with me and swaying to the song of life.”

It’s a chaotic, confusing time in our world. There is plenty of anger and violence and trauma – all of which JoJo knew, firsthand. I had the gift of living here, on earth, with JoJo as my grandma, in my corner, on my side, announcing my beloved presence anywhere and everywhere she got the chance. JoJo taught me a lot, including the utterly vital necessity of being someone who shows up for people, someone who has peoples’ backs; that not only is there is no other way for us to survive, but that this is also a surefire straight line to unspeakable joy.

to be a follower, instead

Before I took my last job with the Church of the Brethren, Inc., I worked with both my therapist and a clergy coach to discern whether or not taking the job – managing a creative, innovative program that I got to help envision, fund and create – would be worth the constant attempts at silencing my voice that I knew would accompany the role.

I knew that those attempts at silencing would happen because I’d been a part of the Church of the Brethren denominational work for over a decade, by then, and had experienced my fair share of being told to sit down, shut up, try to say things less FORCEFULLY. I knew it would happen, and I took the job anyway.

Not one month in, I tweeted in frustration about a week’s worth of national news filled with straight white men who had abused their power in ugly, violent, horrendous ways. Another angry young white man had committed a mass shooting. A governor was trying to explain why he wore blackface in college. And *both* the Baptists and the Catholics were reckoning with decades’ worth of turning blind eyes to their clergy sexually assaulting and abusing the people in their care.

“The news this week,” I tweeted, “mostly makes me feel like straight white men should be banned from a) owning guns b) being clergy and c) governing any.thing.”

The ensuing outrage isn’t worth detailing. What is worth saying is that, despite the insistence that I publicly apologize for this public expression of emotion, despite the years of being told I needed to be more courteous toward straight white men’s feelings, despite the conversations both voluntary and required of me listening to how hurtful this tiny tweet was to so many angry straight white men, today I feel even MORE strongly that straight white men shouldn’t be in charge. Of anything.

[Here’s your chance, angry trolls: take that sentence, copy it, paste it, stoke the fires of outrage all you want. I don’t have a boss you can call up, now. There’s no one assigned to “keep me in line” or forcefully suggest I issue a public apology any more.]

Here’s the thing: it’s not just straight white men who shouldn’t be in charge, though in the social hierarchy of American life, those guys always end up at the top of the pile. Over the last few years, I have begun to learn the truth of Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is where the last are first and the first are last. I am learning about what it means for us to take seriously Jesus’ self-emptying posture in Philippians 2 – instead of taking his privilege as something to be exploited, he emptied himself and became a servant.

The more I listen and learn from people who have occupied rungs on the American social hierarchical ladder that are lower than the one where I got plopped down, the more I know what I do not know. The contours of my ignorance are becoming clearer. To be like Jesus means to give up power and privilege, to make space for the leadership of the marginalized, to willingly submit to the wisdom and life experience of people who have systematically and historically been shut out from formal leadership in formal structures.

In the Church of the Brethren, those people have been women, people of color, and queer folks – an incomplete list of the people who, failing to be born straight white men, have not been ushered complimentarily into positions of power and influence. If I want to follow Jesus, then I need to learn to submit to the authority of those whom society ostracizes, oppresses and harms. If the Church wants to look like Christ, then the Church needs to figure out how to do this, too.

That means naming the fact that the Church of the Brethren has, historically and systematically, excluded women, people of color and queer folk from both positions of leadership and decision-making power. It means not freaking the fork out when someone – like me – says that out loud.

It means voluntarily giving up positions of power in order to make room for others who have been less welcomed or represented, but it also means listening intently to the changes that those folks tell us need to happen in order for our structures and systems to stop doing so much god-forsaken HARM to God’s own beloved children, our own beloved siblings.

I don’t think straight white men should be in charge of much of anything. I also don’t think that I, a straight white woman, should, either. I think that those of us who have inhabited positions of privilege and power should follow Jesus’ example and command and learn to submit ourselves to the wisdom, authority and leadership of the people we’ve cut off and cast out for so long.

For decades, I was groomed for church leadership. But I actually want to learn how to follow – to follow the lead of the queer people in the Church of the Brethren whose persistent witness to their own worthiness and belonging shines with holiness; to follow the example of Black Brethren who keep combining anabaptism and liberation in ways that are grounded in lived realities; to follow the faithfulness of Latinx and Spanish-speaking Brethren whose discipleship is so rich and broad that it cannot be confined to a single language; to follow the resilience of the women who have been forced out for telling the truth, whose witness has been rejected but not destroyed.

So, I’m trying, these days, to shrug off the titles and assumptions of “leadership.” I’m learning – slowly, fitfully, two steps backward for every one ahead – to be a follower, instead.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

for the love of falafel

All I wanted was decent falafel not too far from my house. When I moved down to this part of Durham a few years ago, I asked Yelp where to find falafel, and drove the couple of miles to the Mediterranean Grill & Grocery on Revere Road. It was lunchtime on a Friday, my day off. I pulled into the giant parking lot and marveled at how many other people apparently wanted this particular falafel on this particular day. But when I went in the door of the restaurant, electronic bells tingling as it closed behind me, there were no other customers. I ordered my falafel and took it outside to sit underneath an umbrella on a patio filled with flowers blooming in planters. As I took the first bite of that [unparalleled] falafel, soft chanting began to drift through the air. I looked up and realized, after tracking the shelves full of shoes outside the door to the adjoining space in the strip mall, that I was gobbling up my lunch on the lawn of a big masjid, filled with Muslims chanting Friday prayers in Arabic. I finished my falafel, covered in prayer, and left full of blessing, beauty and hummus.

I didn’t realize, that day, that I had stumbled into a neighborhood that would become really important to me. Parkwood is a planned community, first built in the 1950s to house workers moving in to staff IBM’s headquarters. The Grill and mosque occupy a long, low strip that also houses an Islamic school and – oddly enough – the Triangle Bridge Club. The adjacent ball fields are constantly filled with tiny baseball players and parents. Across the street is the Baha’i Center and next to that is Parkwood United Methodist Church, whose building is also home to the Parktown Food Hub.

Sometime after I discovered the World’s Most Delicious Falafel, I met Pastor Anita and Pastor Sharon. Anita was the pastor at the Methodist church, and Sharon was a Lutheran church planter learning about the neighborhood in order to partner with people already making a difference. Peace Covenant and Parkwood UMC began partnering – a joint Christmas Eve service, shared Bible Studies. The three of us and Rachel, another UMC minister, began meeting monthly as a Clergy Covenant Group, sharing stories of ministry and supporting one another through all kinds of life.

Sharon’s church planting eventually connected her to a woman named Aja, who had for a long time been running a food pantry out of the local elementary school. Aja, a natural connector, had tons of volunteers, food sources and connections to hungry kids, but the pantry needed a bigger space and room to grow. The connection led to the Parktown Food Hub, which has connected Methodists, Lutherans, Brethren, Muslims, atheists, Boy Scouts, mindful families, ghost hunters, seminary students, youth groups, Latinx congregations, social workers, public school teachers, and an unimaginably diverse group of people to gather together, share food, and build community for the last two years.

My congregation is connected to the Food Hub, volunteering and supporting the work through our annual budget. During the pandemic, I started volunteering in the garden out back, where Sharon’s wife Lisa – also the head of the trustees at Parkwood UMC – put her farm kid know-how to work and, with the help of a dedicated team, transformed an abandoned preschool playground area into a garden. The garden is created out of old pallets turned into raised beds, a playhouse built by a church member who realized the space needed some shade, donated seeds and stakes and soil, and compost – so much compost – comprised of the dredges, ends and scraps from the Food Hub distributions.

It is a gorgeous place. I don’t know how to describe the spirit of it without sounding incredibly cheesy. I can tell you that Saturday mornings in the garden were a big part of keeping me alive and well during the loneliest pandemic months. I can tell you that people show up and seem to just…fit in. I can tell you that Pastor Sharon operates on an assumption of abundance – abundance of food, for sure, but abundance of gifts, abundance of love, abundance of belonging. And God seems to like that M.O. The place has grown in leaps and bounds. When a need emerges, so does a solution. My sense of the ministry at the Hub is that the people there are surfing the waves of grace, holding on to God’s wily Spirit and following where she’s leading.

There is no grasping at what once was, no holding on for dear life to, well, anything. It is a place of open hands and generous spirits.

On Thursday, my last day working for the Church of the Brethren, some dear church folks took me out to dinner on the flowering patio of the Meditteranean Grill & Grocery. I ate falafel. We celebrated with baklava.

Today, I began a new position as Garden Minister at the Parktown Food Hub, which is a slightly misleading (though SUPER awesome) title. I know very little about growing a garden. I have soaked up some things through osmosis, from my Grandpa Bobby and my friend Lauree and volunteering here over the last couple of years. But the title really means “the minister who happens to be in the garden,” at least for now. The idea is to expand the Hub’s capacity to connect and nurture community, both inside and out. We’re starting with monthly garden potlucks – last week at our first one, there were figs and pears and lavender lemonade, an accordion and a *baptism.*

This morning, as we worked to clear out the beds to make room for fall planting, the Baha’i choir began their outdoor practice. They sang, we worked, and the entire morning there on this corner where I stumbled into holy falafel felt nothing less than blessed. And I am deeply, deeply grateful to be a part of it.

radical transformation

Peace Covenant CoB

August 8, 2021

John 3:1-10

I think a lot about CP Ellis. In the 1960s, CP was the Exalted Cyclops of the local Durham branch of the Ku Klux Klan. You might know part of his life’s story from the book or movie, “The Best of Enemies.” CP got recruited, along with Black community activist, Ann Atwater, to lead the cooperative effort to de-segregate Durham’s public schools. Leaders organized a “charrette,” a series of nightly community conversations, where people from all across spectrum were invited to participate in the decision-making for integration.

CP and Ann ended up becoming friends through the course of their work together, and both of them underwent serious, powerful, radical transformation in the process of learning to love one another across immense distance, difference and prejudice. Telling the story like that makes it sound like a heart-warming, feel-good story of linear change. But radical transformation rarely happens in an instant, and it definitely didn’t happen that way for CP Ellis.

In his book, “The Best of Enemies,” Osha Gray Davidson says:

“The single unifying element in the history of transformations in the West, from Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus to Kafka’s cockroach, is the instantaneousness of the process – if the word ‘process’ can be used at all to describe the psychological equivalent of a lightning strike…This was not CP’s experience…”

CP’s work on the charrette and with Ann changed his heart, but it also resulted in being ostracized and cast out of his community. It wasn’t just the Klan that called his home phone late at night shouting insults and threatening his life; it was a huge swath of the white working class community of Durham, along with plenty of middle and upper class white people, too. That was a huge loss. Davidson writes: “Just because he had discovered a commonality of experience between himself and Ann Atwater didn’t mean that he would immediately leave the Klan and sign up with the NAACP…Perhaps the best way of putting it is to say that a door previously unknown to CP had been opened to him. But he had not walked through it. And he did not want to. For the vision he saw through that doorway was not of some peaceable kingdom where lions and lambs dozed together in sunlit meadows, but of a hellish landscape befouled by miscegenation.”

CP’s transformation wasn’t quick or easy, and it was not without real pain, grief, struggle and loss. In the aftermath of the work on the charrette, he lost all of his friends. He lost his community. He did not fit in back in his white, working class, East Durham neighborhood, and he did not fit in with Ann’s community, either. He started drinking even more heavily than he had before, and even attempted to kill himself two days before Christmas. He checked himself into a psychiatric ward, where the white doctor, who could not fathom the world-shifting transformation CP was undergoing, told him his problem was that he smoked too much and sent him home.

Finally, CP found a new, young, sympathetic therapist in Chapel Hill who, after hearing his story, said to him “Look, you haven’t committed any crime. Why don’t you just forgive yourself and get on with your life?” As he drove home from that session, CP was overcome. He pulled over on the side of the road and realized that the therapist was right. “What had he done that was so awful? He had changed. That was all. Was change a crime? Did it deserve a death sentence?…He put his head down on the steering wheel and cried, his tears a mixture of anger, forgiveness, anguish and exultation.”

But even that isn’t the end of CP’s story. He spent his life working for justice, yes, but it cost him friends, his marriage, and his community. His transformation was painful and it was costly.

I think about CP a lot, because I think his story is a much more accurate portrayal of what radical transformation looks like than many of the stories that we hear and tell. Radical transformation is not painless. It is not without loss. It requires sacrifice, dying to self, and giving up so much – from certainty to safety to relationship. It is a lot to ask of a person.

And it is exactly what Jesus asks of us. Nicodemus was a lot like CP: safely installed in the upper tiers of society, he enjoyed power, wealth and respect. His curiosity about this Jesus character threatened all that privilege – it’s why he snuck out under the cover of darkness to check Jesus out. When he heard Jesus say that he must be born entirely again – give up all that privilege and power and place in society that kept him so comfortable and safe – we don’t hear another peep out of him until he shows up after Jesus has been crucified.

//

This week, we begin a series focused on the new “compelling vision” statement from the Church of the Brethren. The statement was officially adopted at this summer’s Annual Conference and is the result of several years of conversation, study, focus groups and prayer. Here’s the whole thing:

Together, as the Church of the Brethren, we will passionately live and share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ through relationship-based neighborhood engagement. To move us forward, we will develop a culture of calling and equipping disciples who are innovative, adaptable, and fearless.

I have a lot of reservations about the state of our church these days – and American Christianity, in general. Denominations aren’t long for this world, and institutional church structures are crumbling every day. But none of that means that the work of Jesus’ disciples isn’t still essential and immediate, and none of it means that God isn’t still present within and among us, working radical transformation in us even now. I like a lot about this statement. I think Peace Covenant is already well on our way to living out the vision presented here. I’m excited to dig deeper into the invitations it presents to us.

The statement starts out strong and doesn’t let up: together, as the Church of the Brethren, we will passionately live and share the radical transformation of Jesus Christ. Not just anticipate or prepare for or believe in or talk about…but passionately live and share radical transformation.

At first glance, that might sound easy breezy: we know Jesus, and we understand that life with Jesus changes us. We want everybody to have that! But living radical transformation – if we pay attention to the people in scripture and in life who have done that, lived through radical transformation – well, living radical transformation might just prove to be painful. Like Nicodemus and CP Ellis, when we see what’s on offer, we might turn our backs and opt out.

This week, on vacation in the mountains, I encountered SO MANY butterflies – orange and yellow and blue and green, flitting all over the valleys and on the mountaintops. Everybody knows the story of the radical transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. Like this:

It’s so cool! A worm curls up into a cocoon and emerges, days later, as a gorgeous, winged, flying thing! Amazing! But did you catch how that video explained the process? The caterpillar eats and eats and eats, then hangs upside down, curls into a pupa shape, and then DIGESTS ITSELF by SPLITTING ITS OWN SKIN OPEN to form a cocoon. A caterpillar’s transformation is not smooth or simple or easy: the creature digests itself. Inside that cocoon, it turns into a literal pile of goo. It isn’t kneaded or gently pushed into a slightly new shape; it is totally re-made, radically transformed. It takes digesting its own body and sitting in a liminal space as a literal pile of goo in order for the transformation to happen.

Living and sharing the radical transformation of Jesus Christ – which is where this new vision statement BEGINS – is intense. We are not playing around. We are coming right out of the starting gate saying that we fully expect to be spending some time as piles of goo while God works on our hearts and our minds, transforming them into something that we cannot even imagine. We START by saying that we are people who anticipate losing our power, our privilege, our safety, our security, even some of our relationships for the sake of divine transformation.

That’s how this vision statement BEGINS. Talk about setting a high bar.

But that is what our tradition has always proclaimed: that living lives faithful to Jesus’ call will always involve unexpected sacrifice. Alexander Mack, the first one to articulate the Brethren understanding of faith, wrote a hymn called “Count Well the Cost.” They lyrics go like this:

“Count well the cost,” Christ Jesus says,
“when you lay the foundation.”
Are you resolved, though all seem lost,
to risk your reputation,
your self, your wealth, for Christ the Lord,
as you now give your solemn word?

Are you resolved, though all seem lost, to risk your reputation, your self, your wealth for Christ?

Do we trust that Christ is worth it? Do we believe that beyond all that we could lose, there is another, more beautiful, more worthy way of living? What if that radical transformation involves losing our community? What if it drives us to want to die? What if we end up in a psych ward where no one can begin to understand what’s happening to us? What if we lose important relationships? What if we fall into poverty? What if we can’t do our jobs in good conscience any more? What if radical transformation means we lose all of what we thought was important?

This is where we START, in this vision for church together. This is the BEGINNING. Hoo boy. Hold on: we’re in for a wild ride.

integrity

I’ve had several disheartening conversations lately with vibrant, creative people who have been powerfully attracted to my religious tradition: convicted by our insistence on the whole of Jesus’ life and not just his death, intrigued by our origins as a movement resisting religious tyranny, sold on our desire to be people of Christ’s peace and invited in by our practices of communal discernment.

Each one of these people that I’ve talked with has been welcomed, promised a place in the body, and committed – fully – to life with us. They have made sacrifices, incurred debt, left other communities and places of safety. In our tradition, we talk about “counting well the cost” of following Jesus, and these beloveds have done exactly that. They have had their hearts changed, considered fully what that might mean, and made conscious decisions to follow Jesus *with us.*

And each one of these people has been subsequently insulted, betrayed, broken down or cast out, because the Church of the Brethren lacks integrity. Our actions do not match our words. Our systems contradict our convictions. We do not keep our promises.

I am part of this betrayal. I have enthusiastically encouraged some of these folks, talked up the good parts of our tradition and talked around the massive cracks in our foundations. I have shepherded people through discernment and credentialing processes, managed intern programs that promise ministry to be rich, full and supported. I’m not pointing fingers “out there” at “someone else,” I’m making a personal confession that might also become a communal one.

Queer people welcomed in enthusiastically to a particular small group who are promised fidelity and safety are just as quickly abandoned in larger conversations when their identity is assaulted and their worth is questioned.

Leaders of color are held up as token voices, encouraged to take on more and more responsibility and then heart-rendingly betrayed when people they were called to lead heap racist invective on their heads.

Young pastors whose gifts were called out and nourished, who were led into processes and contexts that we promised would lead to flourishing, collaborative ministries are left lonely and isolated when congregations refuse to acknowledge their humanity and the shifting contexts of congregational life.

I am tired of being a cheerleader for a broken system that continually breaks people. I am tired of yelling “it’s fine! there’s so much room for growth!” while the machinations and willful ignorance continue uninterrupted behind the scenes.

Our congregation has been studying Jeremiah this summer, and his ministry is instructive. God gets so mad at the religious leaders in Jerusalem who ignored the wounds of the people, treated them “carelessly” and forged ahead, saying “peace! peace!” where there was no peace.

I’d so much rather tell the truth: that we are in an inescapable season of destruction and decline; that this is the way of all human institutions; that anything built on a foundation of human power or human shame will be taken apart, brick by brick so that God, the divine potter, can re-form us, re-shape us, mold us and make us into something new, something that seems good not to us, but to Her.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Jeremiah 18

not ready to snap back

Yesterday, I went for coffee with a woman from my church. Before the pandemic, we went out to lunch regularly – she’s always on top of the local food scene and knows which restaurant to try. We’ve missed that. So we went for coffee yesterday, at Bean Traders – my favorite local shop where I have held “coffee hours” weekly for the last five years. After a year of surviving take-out only service, they finally put a few picnic tables out on the sidewalk, and we drank our coffee and ate our pie AT THE COFFEE SHOP.

I have missed coffee shops so much. SO MUCH. It was glorious to sit, sip, and chat while the chatter of other coffee drinkers floated around us.

But it was also 4pm. And, over the course of the last year, my caffeine consumption has plummeted. I used to drink the occasional afternoon cup, maybe once a week. And two cups in the morning was my standard. I also drank far more soft drinks than I do now. But these days, I am on a solid 1.5 cup coffee regimen, carefully crafted in my at home french press each morning while the dog patiently waits for me to fill her food bowl.

And so, that 4pm JOLT of coffee shop brew totally shocked my system. At 10pm, when I am usually sliding into dreamland, I was wide awake, buying books online. At 1:30am, the dog had a reverse sneezing fit and woke me up. She fell back asleep quick, but I tossed and turned and prayed about all manner of life minutiae until well after 3. I am tired this morning, and I even feel a tiny bit *hungover* from that caffeine trauma to my system.

Way back in March of last year, when everything went sideways, my logical and forward-thinking congregational leadership decided that we would gather for worship online until there were fewer than ten active cases of COVID-19 in our county. Plenty of people scoffed at us for being unreasonable, even people in positions of authority over us. But our leadership was clear: we will not allow our worship gatherings to hurt our congregation or our community.

A couple of months ago, we revised our original benchmark, understanding that maybe fewer than ten cases would never happen. We decided to keep meeting online until at least June, and to re-evaluate over the summer.

But for the last year, I have monitored the county’s active infection numbers every morning. They were in the dozens, then the hundreds, then, for a while this winter, surged into the thousands. Things are trending really well here, and over the last couple of weeks the number of active cases has plummeted into the double digits instead of the quadruple. On Friday, the number was 23 active cases in the county. Yesterday morning, the stat was -33. Yes, *negative* thirty-three cases.

That negative number means, of course, that more people were released from the period of active infection than tested positive in the last day’s tally. And we know that actual cases are between 5-10 times higher than the reported number, depending on local rates of testing. People in Durham County are still contracting COVID-19, but the numbers are way, way down.

Which means, right, that we should be jumping for joy, swarming back into our building, following the science and snapping back to normal. Right? Right?

Some people in my congregation are SO READY to do all that. Others are…not. We’ve got a survey in the field right now to gauge just how many are ready to return to in-person gathering. We will, as we decided, re-evaluate our practices in light of the science and our collective comfort level.

But I’ll tell you what: I am NOT ready to snap back. Just like the caffeine wreaking havoc on my body after a year of severely restricting my relationship to it, this push to jump back into previous patterns is tearing me up.

Part of that is my natural inclination to move slow and resist change. I know that, and I know that there are lots of other, perfectly valid and understandable ways to encounter and navigate the world.

But another part of it is this: for over a year, we have been negotiating the possibility that we might inadvertently infect, harm or even kill others with our BREATH. Again, not everyone reacted to that possibility the same way, but my reaction was straight up terror. I was not afraid for myself, for the most part, but utterly terrified that I would be the vector that infected and caused irreparable harm to others. Just by breathing in proximity to them.

That kind of terror doesn’t just stop existing with the flip of a switch, or an announcement from the CDC, or the supremely encouraging negative statistic on the chart I’ve checked every day for the last year. That kind of terror will take weeks, or months, or – most likely – years to leech its way out of our systems.

I don’t feel frozen – which is one kind of trauma response. I can feel my internal weights and measures shifting as the scientific realities settle into my vaccinated sinews. I can feel my hackles slowly, slowly, sloooooowly coming down. I am trying to allow space for the terror to make itself known in safer ways than before – to say, out loud, that for over a year I have been terrified of killing someone just by breathing on them, to let that horrific truth exist, unvarnished, in my awareness.

And also: the pandemic is still raging. Vaccines are not available globally. Variants are still killing 13,000 people every day. Durham County’s stats might be in the negative this morning, but this is an international community, and people in Durham are losing loved ones in India, Brazil, and all over Europe. In the US, our vaccine distribution has not been equitable, and it is still the case that privileged white people – who were already less likely to contract or die from COVID – are more likely to have had access to the vaccine.

“Follow the science” has become a refrain for how to act in a pandemic. But humans aren’t always logically inclined. Terror and trauma don’t follow scientific trends. So, I am trying to give myself some time and space, to allow my very mushy brain to sort itself out a bit in this push to move from survival to full-speed-ahead. I hope you will do the same.