Remembering Nairobi

I have been reminded of Nairobi twice in the past two days and the remembering brings with it feelings that I have no names for. Feelings of wanting to remember more, to know that my short experience over a decade ago was real, to somehow share and say, “I experienced this” and “this is a world that continues daily of which I remain largely unaware.” I’m writing a blog post, for goodness sake, which is something I haven’t done in months and months, even though I don’t actually have much to say.

I thought of Nairobi yesterday when, still in my post-therapy daze, I pulled into the parking garage under Trader Joe’s. Life in the city is full of constant noise and so I am always struck by the hush of the parking garage. All sounds are muted and absorbed, and there are few enough people coming and going that I can actually feel quite alone. My whole body relaxes in the stillness. There is quiet, there is calm.

This parking garage always reminds me of the hush of a cathedral my class visited somewhere in the heart of Nairobi. The large, primarily concrete-looking structure, was an oasis of quiet in a city so busy and full of new experiences for me that I’m sure I was constantly overwhelmed. The contrast between what I felt inside and outside of the cathedral has always stuck with me. Two different kinds of sacred.

I thought of Nairobi today for the very obvious reason that my professor was talking about some time he spent in Kibera, a part of the city where people are packed together in makeshift homes with no infrastructure, trying to survive on next to nothing. The poorest people live at the bottom of the hill in Kibera, where all the sewage and waste runs in the rain. At the top of the hill, you look one direction and see the browns and grays of the slum, and look the opposite way to see the verdant green of a golf course. It’s a profoundly disorienting sight for an outsider, the weight of which I know I will never be able to hold.

Shortly after my trip to Kenya I took an English class where we had an assignment to write a poem in the style of a poet we had read. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” served as just the muse I needed to start expressing some of my inexpressible experiences, to begin to name the beauty and the ambivalence. I returned to that poem tonight, and found it still largely satisfactory. The short stanzas were always awkward and they strike me as even more so now–the questions still feel clunky. But the aching beauty and the infuriating injustice, these still feel sharp as ever.

            My Own Questions of Travel:
January 2002, Kenya

                  Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
                  in this strangest of theatres?
                                                          ~Elizabeth Bishop

Should we have come here?
Is it gluttonous to trade a year’s food equivalent
for a twenty four hour’s flight?
Do we profane by making mementoed snapshots
from a sea of permanent improvised tin roofs
or scabied, parentless children?
What arrogance allows us to wish blessings
as we tip-toe over seeping sewage
and calcium rocks craved by pregnant women?
What is this force that draws us from such distance
into the gaze of savannahed plains
and stoic, self-satisfied golden huntresses?

But is it not also wrong
to calculate and measure this experience?
To do so is to deny divinity in this encounter.

In the wind-whipped peace that suspended on rappeler’s ropes
as we leaned off the rocked face of the Rift Valley
straining to spot those leafless trees—
our first giraffes.
In the bold stares of the timid schoolchildren
who crowded and poked our ghosts’ complexions
as if we were fire.
In the unearthly silence within a concrete cathedral,
as outside owners of only empty bellies
begged coins with one hand
and clutched benumbing narcotic in the other.
In the musical embrace of the red clad choir,
who greeted us with piercing, trilling shouts and,
with beads dangling on hollow earlobes,
asked, “if not this, then how
do your women express their overflowing joy?”

And would not the world be empty
without the memory of velvet moss hills
where — for an eternal moment — the world seemed right
as the laughing children dissolved into the silken valley,
their tinkling, cowbell voices echoing the single foreign word:

And we have come to realize,
the continent once dark in our minds,
we now see with a face.


Fleeting Encounter

I preached something akin to a sermon in my homiletics class last week. I’ve never wanted to preach and so the process of writing something to present was a challenge on numerous levels. What I came up with is more like a rambling meditation than a sermon, per se, but as a meditation I feel pretty decent about it. Because I’m a writer and not (yet?) a speaker, I thought I would like to share my meditation in a medium more suited to its form, and so I’m going to share it here. (Even as a written piece, it could use work, but that is for another day.)

I have many resistances to being a preacher which I will not explore here (fruitful therapy topics, however!), but the one resistance I could address in this, my first attempt, was my fear of having to say something I don’t really believe just to make a suitable sermon. I knew that if I was going to get myself to stand up and talk, the one thing that was absolutely imperative was that I believed what I was saying. I’m in a place of wandering right now and so to present anything else felt disingenuous. Thus, working from the place where I am, and inspired by Shelly Rambo’s** reading of the text, I wrote about the fleeting encounter that Mary Magdalene had with the risen Jesus.

I imagined I was speaking at a retreat, rather than in front of a church congregation, and I said something like this:

            Today I’d like to invite you to just sit with me and spend some time listening to this text. As we slow down and put ourselves inside the story a bit, I hope that you will notice something you haven’t noticed before, or maybe become aware of a feeling you haven’t spent a lot of time noticing before. It has been said that in this gospel, the Gospel of John, that Jesus is “exegeting” God to the world. That is, Jesus is living out in a very specific way that way in which God is always turned toward the world. Throughout the gospel, then, the way that humans react to Jesus is a concrete picture of the way humans react to God in general. In a similar way, I invite you to think about the ways that you react to the text and imagine that it is a little snapshot of something that happens in your relationship to Jesus or God in general.

We’ll spend a little time just working through this story, paying attention to details, dwelling in the text. I’ll give you a few thoughts on some of the implications the text might have, which and I hope will be helpful, but primarily I invite you to be attentive to the ways in which this story speaks to you. It is my hope that, through the Holy Spirit, we might each find an encounter with the risen Jesus, no matter how fleeting it may be.

 At the end of John 19 we left Jesus dead in the tomb, and John 20 picks up the narrative a couple of days later with the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary is one of the women who had followed Jesus and stood by his side during the crucifixion and this is the story of her first encounter with Jesus after his resurrection. The notes in my Bible say that a lot of the action in this text takes place in the present tense, which makes the story very vivid to the original readers. The writer of the gospel wants us to feel the intensity of the events as if they are just now happening. It is as if we are there.

 It is so early in the morning when Mary shows up at Jesus’ tomb that it is still dark. We imagine that she approaches the tomb slowly, and in the faint light has a hard time understanding what she is seeing. Where she expects to see the stone in front of the tomb entrance she sees an opening. Instead of seeing Jesus’ body, she sees an empty space. She is shocked, terribly upset. She takes off running in the direction of Simon Peter and another disciple, and tells them breathlessly, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have put Him!” Peter and the beloved disciple take off running towards the tomb. Mary goes back in that direction as well, but by the time she arrives the disciples are gone.

            When Mary gets back to the tomb she stands there weeping. This word seems to not just mean crying with a few tears, but makes us think more of a wail or a lament. A loud expression of grief. Mary is sobbing by the tomb. Not only has the teacher whom she loved been brutally executed, but now it seems he has been further desecrated by the theft of his body.[1]

 Weeping outside of the tomb opening, Mary does not go in, but bends over and peers inside. As she looks, Mary sees “two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been.” One sits where his head had rested and the other where his feet had laid. It has been posited that these angels mark the place of Jesus’ body as if to demonstrate that it has not been removed by robbers, but by the very act of God.[2] If this is their message, however, they do not speak it plainly to Mary, but instead ask her a question pointed unflinchingly at her grief, “Woman, why are you crying?”

            Can you imagine what it would be like to look into the scene of a grave robbery, knowing that the body of your dear friend has been taken, and be met by the sight of two angles who want to know why you grieve? I imagine being pretty startled by these figures dressed in white, sitting in a place that had been empty last time I looked. But, if Mary is startled, the text doesn’t show us. Instead, it is as if she doesn’t really see them. Not for who they are, at any rate. It is as if she is too wrapped up in her own grief and questions to really see. Instead, she repeats nearly the same words she has already said to Peter and the beloved disciple. “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

At this moment Mary, perhaps sensing a presence behind her, turns around and sees Jesus standing there. For us, the readers of the story, this is the moment of the big reveal. We already know the story. Jesus is not dead, he is alive. And here is the moment when he first appears! We saw him dead in the tomb and now, here he is, standing, breathing, talking. Living.

But, this isn’t the big reveal for Mary. Mary looks at the risen body of her teacher and sees a stranger. The stranger repeats the words of the angels, “Woman, why are you crying?” And then, although she has yet to tell him that she is looking for anyone he asks, “Who is it you are looking for?”

Just as she didn’t really seem to see the angels, the text tells us explicitly that Mary doesn’t see Jesus for who he is. She thinks he is the gardener. She think he may know where to find Jesus’ body. In this moment it seems that all Mary can think about is finding Jesus’ body. She can’t see Jesus for who he is, and she doesn’t even really answer his question. Instead she responds with her one repeating thought. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

I don’t know what your own experience of grief has been like. It is different for each of us, but when I see Mary in her grief, some things feel familiar. Maybe they feel familiar to you too. In my experience, there aren’t a lot of words during the process of grieving. There are feelings, or maybe no feelings at all, but there are few words that seem adequate. Maybe this is why when faced with grief and death we often resort to clichés. “She’s in a better place now.” “He’s singing with the angels.” “At least her suffering is over now.” These words don’t really help. But they are something to say. Or perhaps we find that a refrain repeats in our mind. “I can’t believe he’s gone.” “How do I go on after this?” “I just loved her so much.” Even though Jesus is dead, Mary expects that his body still remains. His lifeless body, perhaps, but still, it is him. If she can find his body, there is some part of him that she can still touch. The only thing she can think about is finding his body. We imagine the repeating refrain in her head, “Where is he? Where is he?”

Looking back at the tomb she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

 Jesus doesn’t say, “No, no. You’ve got it all wrong. I’m not the gardener! It’s me, the one you are looking for.” Rather, Jesus looks at this weeping woman, blinded by her grief, and simply calls her by name.


 In fact, in Greek this moment is even more striking. Up to this point in the story, the narrator has called Mary, “Maria.” This, it seems, is what she is known by among the disciples, in normal speech. But when Jesus addresses[3] her he calls her another variation of her name. “Miriam,” he says. This is not the address of a stranger. This is Mary’s name on the lips of someone who sees her, who knows her, who calls her by name.

This, this is the moment when Mary finally sees. Suddenly, she is not talking to a gardener, but Jesus himself! We can almost imagine her face, a mixture of shock and joy as she quickly turns to him. “Rabboni!” she cries. “Teacher!” This not just as a title, but is also a word of  personal address. This isn’t just the teacher of many, though he is that. This is her teacher, the one she has followed, the one she has loved.

This is a moment full of excitement and joy. Now the Mary knows what the reader has already known: Jesus is not dead, but alive. This is impossible, yet it is true. Surely, Jesus is no ordinary itinerant teacher. God has raised him from the dead.

And yet, even at this moment when Mary is closest to the risen Jesus, the reader is pushed back a step. The author, in quoting Mary, speaks a language once removed. Mary cries “Teacher” in Aramaic and this must be translated for the text’s original Greek readers. And we are even more removed. This intimate moment comes to us from Aramaic, through Greek, and finally into English. Our sense of disconnection is jolted further by Jesus’ next words. “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

All Mary has done so far in our story is to look for Jesus’ body. Finally, she has found it. In fact, Jesus’ body has found her because he himself is alive in that very body. It does not seem surprising then that Mary’s immediate impulse might be to reach out to him. We do not know what action Mary has taken, or if she is only just about to take it. Perhaps she has reached out to embrace Jesus. Perhaps she has begun to fall at his feet in worship. Whatever she is doing, Jesus tells her not to hold on. While the synoptic gospels use this word “to touch, or to cling” frequently, usually with reference to Jesus’ healing touch, John only uses this word once. These words of Jesus’ are enigmatic. We don’t really know what Mary is doing and we don’t really get an explanation for why Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. We had this brief moment of connection, but already Jesus has put distance again between himself and Mary. As the readers, we too may feel a bit jolted.

I don’t know how it is for you, but this is the part of the story that catches me most off guard. “Don’t be touching me,”[4] as one author has it. I am jolted. I feel taken aback, rejected, even. Is Jesus really rejecting Mary? The text doesn’t say that. In fact, as Jesus continues he is letting her in on the work that God is doing at that very moment. “I have not yet ascended to the Father,” Jesus says. He is still in the process of resurrection and ascension. God’s work is not yet completed but underway.[5] Not only that, but Jesus then gives Mary a mission. She is to bring this message to the disciples. An apostle to the apostles. Mary, a woman, will be the bringer of good news to all the men who have been the inner circle all of this time. This is not to say that Jesus’ prohibition of touch it isn’t puzzling. It is. Commentators have all different sorts of ideas about what it might mean. So, this is a part of the story that catches a lot of people, but as I read I am challenged to ask why it catches me.

The story does not end here, however. Jesus continues. “Go,” he tells Mary, “go instead to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” And so she does. Mary goes. She tells the disciples that she has, after all of her searching and lament, seen the Lord! Mary, along with the brothers, has been included in the family of God. “My Father and your Father,” Jesus says. “My God and your  God.” We don’t know how the disciples take the news. In other versions of the story they don’t really listen to Mary, but John doesn’t tell us in his version how they react. The narrative moves on to other appearances Jesus makes.

Several times, Jesus appears in the midst of various disciples, has a brief interaction with them, and then disappears again. Thomas might get to touch Jesus, to feel the wounds in his hands and feet, but no one gets to be with him long. This risen Jesus, the one ascending to the Father, is the same Jesus his disciples have known, and yet he is somehow different as well. Unpredictable. Performing miracles and breaking bread, kind of like before and yet with a mysterious twist. He is here then gone. He may be back, but he is leaving again. It must be bitter sweet, this meeting the risen Lord. Knowing God has done something miraculous and new. Hearing that God will be present in a new way from now on. But sill knowing too, that Jesus will be gone once again. No longer dead, but his body, no one will be able to find it.

I don’t know where you find yourself in this story. Do you relate to Mary’s blinding grief? Are you overcome by awe at Jesus resurrected form? Are you struck with fear or indignation at Jesus’ command not to touch? Do you feel a glimmer of hope that Jesus chose a woman to be the first bearer of the news of resurrection? Do you hear Jesus call your name, the name that tells you who you really are?

There is much to read, much to notice, and much to feel in this story. Mary is the first to witness to the resurrection of Jesus. She both see and tells. She sees, but she doesn’t see all that well. It’s dark, she’s weeping, she doesn’t recognize Jesus. She is seen by Jesus and so finally sees him. He gives her a word and is gone. She tells, but we don’t know how anyone reacted. She tells, but we have no evidence for what difference her words made. In some ways, this partial seeing and telling could be discouraging. This climactic resurrection moment isn’t the pure, unadulterated joy we might hope for. And yet, perhaps this is the most hopeful thing about this story. Perhaps we too can see, even though we can barely see. Perhaps we too can tell, even if our words hardly communicate. Perhaps we too may encounter our risen Lord. Through our tears, in our confusion, or in our great joy. Perhaps Jesus will call our names and we will meet him, even for a fleeting moment.

 (**Shelly Rambo is a theologian we’re reading in my theology class. She’s pretty much all I’m talking about these days.)

[1] George Beasley-Murray, John.. Volume 36 of Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999),374.

[2] Ibid., 374

[3] Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 88.

[4] Harold Attridge,“’Don’t Be Touching Me’: Recent Feminist Scholarship on Mary Magdalene,” in A Feminist Companion to John, Volume II, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003).

[5] See Beasely-Murry, O’Day, Attridge, Rambo.

O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John.” In Luke, John. Volume IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible, Leander Keck, conv. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Discomfort Part 2: Homelessness and Other Discomforting Prayers

The other day as I was walking to the bus stop I made eye contact with a guy standing in a doorway. Because I made eye contact he started to speak to me. I didn’t fully hear what he said (because I had headphones in maybe, or perhaps because I was caught up in my own world of troubles), but the implication was he needed something from me. Without even fully hearing him, I instinctively shook my head apologetically. But I was caught off guard. Partly, I think, because he was young and his eyes were bright: he could have been a classmate of mine if he’d been a bit cleaner and a few blocks down the road. And partly because he didn’t let me off the hook. “You try living this way,” he said part in words part in gestures.

And I kept walking.

On the bus I couldn’t shake him. The look in his eyes was so recognizable to me because I suspect I often give it myself when I encounter someone of obvious means. “You have so much,” I think, “And here I am, knowing each meal I eat sends me further into debt and that much closer to the poorhouse in old age. How nice for you that you can pull out your wallet without a thought.” I am proud and I am dismissive. And I am afraid.

Out the bus window I saw a shopping cart full of clothes fortressed by paper bags and cardboard boxes. I saw two men setting up sleeping quarters in a series of doorways that belonged to a temporarily vacant building. Inside I squirmed.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I should do and how I should feel when I walk by a homeless person on the street. Do I ignore them? It’s pretty customary to ignore strangers here, so it’s one option. Do I make eye contact? There’s something in me that needs to acknowledge the humanity of someone I meet this way, and ignoring so often feels like a denial of that humanity. Do I offer money? I feel poor myself, but still I eat every day and sleep somewhere dry. Isn’t there something better and more helpful to be done than giving some spare change? That’s what I learned when I studied poverty and development.

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve been thinking that I need to come up with some sort of temporary solution because asking all of these questions every time I see someone on the street is so tiring. And so very uncomfortable. If I just came up with an answer I could stop thinking and fall into whatever justification I have named. It would be such a relief, and I have so many other things to feel uncomfortable about right now.

But then the thought struck me: shouldn’t homelessness make me uncomfortable? Isn’t the discomfort the thing that tells me something is not right?

So here’s a solution: My discomfort can be offered as a prayer of protest and a prayer for justice. In allowing myself to feel, rather than shutting myself off, I am joining in our common humanity. I am in such a small, brief way participating in the passion of Christ.

And yet. . . If I call this a solution, if it’s thing I turn to whenever I feel discomfort then I’m not really offering my discomfort as a prayer, I’m praying as a way to rid myself of discomfort. Something about it reminds me of this ad I saw once for a backpack that had a pocket built-in for the express purpose of carrying around a granola bar to give to the next homeless person who asked for help. Is this a cool idea that helps me think beyond myself in small, everyday ways, or is it simply a gimmick to downgrade my guilt enough to sell me something new? I grow weary of the latest trend to deconstruct any and all attempts at responsible purchasing, and yet I am wary of the capitalistic system that offers us (false) solutions for all our discomforts. If I pray to ease my discomfort am I paying into that same system?

At this moment, the best I can do is to challenge myself to hold my discomfort. If I grow comfortable, I will stop growing; and if I stop growing, I will never find my way towards a more just way of life. For now, every time I am confronted by someone else’s need (and my own desire to escape it), I must simply allow myself to feel. Maybe I won’t pray in the face of discomfort, but perhaps the holding of my deep unrest  will in itself be prayer.

Discomfort Part 1: Gender and Other Discomforting Topics

Discomfort is a big deal for me. Physical discomfort, emotional discomfort, relational discomfort, you-name-it discomfort. I spend a lot of time trying to avoid it and a nearly equal amount of time feeling guilty for my inability to tolerate it. There’s a lot of work for me to do in this area, and I suspect that my ability to tolerate discomfort may grow as I become more comfortable in my own body, mind, and life. I think I used to think if I became a healthier person I would feel less discomfort (and there may indeed be certain ways in which this is true), but I’m now spending a lot of time thinking about how being a healthier person might in fact lead me into deeper discomfort. I’ve got a few thoughts on this that I want to work out in writing, so here goes part one.

Today in my theology class we today we had a discussion on God and gender. As far as I could tell, as a class we were in agreement that God is not in fact male, but that most of our metaphors and all of our pronouns surrounding God have traditionally been male. I was reminded of how during the short time I took and inter-term class on feminist theology in undergrad, I exerted effort into trying to stop subconsciously thinking of God as male. For a short time, I think I was fairly successful. It was amazing to me how much our gendered language about God had, subtly but surly, caused me to relate to God as if God were male. I think that experienced change me and did help change my experience of God, but I’m also pretty sure that deep down I still think of God as a man.

The conversation today centered around the question of how do we go about forming a new imagination about God. Do we start using feminine language and feminine metaphors for God (which, although often feels strange is not actually foreign even the ancient texts of Scripture)? If we do this, are we necessarily excluding the masculine? Do we use non-gendered language about God? If we do this are we taking away some of the personhood and imminence (closeness and intimacy) of God? Is there away to talk about gender that isn’t binary and how does that affect how we talk about God?

Wow, those are a lot of hot button topics!

At the end of class someone asked me what I thought and I said, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t have thoughts. Just maybe…” and then as I talked, I listened to myself get emotional and energetic. Oh, hey. Turns out I do have thoughts and feelings and want to make them known even. My comments were mostly those of frustration.

If we talk about feminine characteristics about God then we necessarily are defining and differentiating “feminine” and “masculine.” The moment one person says, “we need to talk about God in language of tenderness” someone else says “but that’s implying that tenderness is feminine and that strength is not.”  If instead we say, “we need to talk about mutuality and equality,” and try to avoid our gender stereotypes or specificity, we end up denying that there is any distinction between masculine and feminine and we allow the language of patriarchy to go largely unchallenged.

“Eek!” I wanted to scream. “There’s no way to even have this discussion!”

And then I realized that what I really meant was there’s no way to have this discussion without making us all uncomfortable. If I go out on a limb and talk about a certain characteristic that I think of as feminine that we usually forget to attribute to God (say, nurturer or mother) then I will inevitably get push-back from someone about either the danger of changing our language about God or the danger of allowing culture to define gender and gender roles. And, since I never want to make anyone uncomfortable, I know that it’s better to just stay silent.

Except that it isn’t. What’s better is to say something that isn’t quite right and then talk about the ways in which it is wrong.  I hate the discomfort of being wrong, but the fact of the matter is that language can never get it fully right and so to think and explore necessitates risking some measure of wrong-ness. But just because it is some wrong doesn’t mean it isn’t also some right. To challenge the status quo and to create a new imagination I must risk the discomfort of wrong in order to also experience the joy and renewal of right.

So, while I did think about God and gender today, what I ended up learning was that I have to find ways to tolerate discomfort if I want to have this discussion–or any discussion that really matters. It’s a grand thought to have, but a hard one to figure out how to live.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Death Row

A couple of weeks ago my psychology professor made a somewhat passing comment that made me want to weep immediately. We were talking about how stuff that goes on in the front of the brain accounts for most of what we experience as empathy and the ability to relate emotionally to other people.

“88% of people on death row have frontal head injuries,” he mentioned. The fact that people who have experienced intense abuse, as well as other forms of traumatic brain injury, have impaired empathic ability can account in many respects for the conditions that lead to their violent crimes.

This does not mean, of course, that all people with brain injury have violent tendencies, but this shockingly high statistic gives a person pause to think. What does it mean that we are condemning to death people who have physiological and uncontrollable circumstances that have altered their ability to interact with the world? Is there not a call for compassion and a rethinking of what it is we hope to accomplish when using death as a form of punishment?

“If you have to hit your kids, just avoid the head,” my prof said somewhat wryly.

I just can’t shake the gripping tragedy of the ways we punish children for the sins of their fathers[/mothers].

The World As Best As I Can Remember It

Well, I just wrote what may be the introduction to my last paper of my first year in seminary. Perhaps it is too informal and will be deleted or perhaps it’ll be reworked, refined and will remain. At any rate, this is, in short, what I have been working 20 years to say:


Jacob he loved Rachel and Rachel she loved him
And Leah was just there for dramatic effect.    –Rich Mullins

The story of Leah and Rachel seized my imagination when, as a thirteen year old girl, I first heard Rich Mullins’ song “Jacob and 2 Women (The World As Best As I Can Remember It).” For the first time in my church saturated life, a story in the Bible felt deeply human and thus absolutely true. I read Genesis 29-30 repeatedly and kept wondering, what does it mean? As the song lyrics indicate, there is something in our church culture, and perhaps in the biblical text itself, that tends to read the beautiful Rachel as the star of the show and the one to be pitied, while the unloved Leah is seen simply as a pesky interruption or perhaps even a jealous woman of flawed character. Yet, for the next two decades it was Leah with whom I felt companionship and with whom I wept.

For most readers this story of two sisters does not make the list of most troubling passages in the Old Testament—there are too many other stories in which God appears sadistic and the chosen people behave horrifically—but this has always been the story that won’t let me go. As I spent time deeply immersed in the study of this text it finally became clear to me that all along this text has asked questions so close to my heart that I did not know how to articulate or honor them. Am I beautiful? Can I be loved? Where is God in my rejection and unfulfilled desire? The story of Leah and Rachel speaks to the heart of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be human. Its pathos and ambiguity tell the truth about our deepest needs to find love, purpose, and perhaps even the attention of the creator of the universe. It is through Leah and Rachel in all their sorrow, bitterness, rivalry, and hope, that God brings forth into the world the deeply flawed yet passionately chosen people of the covenant, the promised children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the agents of God’s blessing to the entire world.

I look through the night

And I can see the rising sun.” ~Rich Mullins

After an hour or two of bumbling through some Hebrew homework this  afternoon I realized that I’d better clear my head before heading to class or  I’d be a lost cause. I decided to head to school a little early and to find a spot on Elliott Bay to watch the sun glint off the water and seek a little rest for my spirit.

My soul, brain, and heart are weary because of school and because of life, and I am seeking, usually somewhat unsuccessfully, to learn how to both feel my feelings and care for myself in the process of doing so. For a few brief moments before class I sat in the grass, felt the sun, played with Instagram.  And listened to Rich Mullins, having just been reminded that Rich is someone I can always turn to both to understand me and to articulate my known and unknown longings, sadnesses, and joys.

Walking back towards school a woman caught my eye, wearing something whimsical and weaving grass in her hands as she walked. I tried to stop staring only to look away and into the eyes of a man carrying grass-woven flowers who began immediately to speak with me. Slow to comprehend, I worked at pulling my earbuds out of my ears as he handed me a flower. “The petals are for happiness,” he said. “And the grass for longevity.” He pointed out his wife (the woman who’d caught my eye) and told me their respective ethnicities. He introduced himself, and I, still trying to extricate myself from my headphones, shook his hand and told him my name as well.

Finally I was focused enough to actually grasp his words as he told me he’d been 145 days sober and that any little bit would help. I looked into his eyes and I fished around for a dollar, which extraordinarily I actually had on my person. “God bless you,” he said. “Bless you,” I responded, comprehending our interaction only as it was ending.

I could analyse the social and economic implications of our interaction. I could break down his sales pitch from the moment he caught my eye to the sentence he finally used to ask, without asking, for money. I could contemplate the efficacy of giving money to people on the street or trouble over the racial dynamics and power structures at play. But this time, at least for this moment, it wasn’t about those things but was instead about grace.

There I was felling lonely and listening to Rich Mullins sing, “Well, the grass will die. And the flowers fall. But Your Word’s alive, and will be after all,” when I was seen, spoken to, touched, and given a beautiful flower made of grass. I looked into the eyes of another human being and was met.

Most days I am full of doubt. Doubt about my vocation and my ability to ever truly live. Doubt about God’s goodness or maybe God’s presence or maybe just my ability to experience either. Doubt about whether facing the pain really does allow for new birth or just more sadness. And yet, even so Jesus shows up, all wrapped up in this flesh and blood, embodied in the sun, the water, the eyes of a stranger.

“And everywhere I go I see You. And everywhere I go I see You.”