A Revolutionary Christmas Card from Me

Mary knows what Jesus’ birth is all about:

“My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

   of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

   holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,

   from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

   he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones

   but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

   but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

   remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,

   just as he promised our ancestors.”

May you rejoice and find mercy and hope as you reflect on the upside-down mystery of the Christ-baby!

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 9.50.07 AM

I’ll be back in this blog-space in 2013. Until then–peace. Be not afraid.




God, unlike religious people, never explains why.

It feels good to be able to explain why things happen. I think that this must be a universal human impulse. We find meaning in the alignment of the celestial bodies, in the particular look of a sacrificed animal’s entrails, in the latest ‘scientific’ studies. We like to believe that we can forestall various disasters by not smoking, meditating, relaxing, going vegan, doing yoga, wearing seatbelts, buying Volvos. We like to believe that we can mold and shape our young with prenatal vitamins and classical music, flash cards, educational toys, enriching extracurricular activities. We like to set goals and to believe that our determination, effort, and hard work will allow us to meet them.

In short, we like certainty. We like control. We like to be able to say: “that’s why this happened,” and we like to accumulate data suggesting that the thing we fear most won’t happen.

An ancient rabbi, living before the time of Jesus, wrote: “there is no suffering without iniquity.” That pretty much sums up the response of many people, then and now, to tragedies. Some religious people will overtly blame tragedy on “sin,” full stop, and they usually mean either a supposed “cultural” sin that actually has nothing to do with the tragedy at hand (wink wink, James Dobson) OR they mean sin narrowly defined as an evil impulse within one individual person (I’m lookin’ at you, Al Mohler!) that has no connection to, say, the general acceptance of violence and devaluation of human life in a culture.

But the impulse to find a cause, preferably one concise cause, is common to many of us. We want to say it is because guns are too readily available, or we want to say it is because mental illness goes untreated in our dysfunctional healthcare non-system. We want to say it is because as a culture we are blasé about violence and the loss of human life. We want to find some reason for it, so that we can eradicate those reasons and make sure it never ever happens again, ever.

This impulse can be beautiful and life-giving, leading to people’s movements for change and for peace and for healing and hope.

This impulse can also be deeply destructive, if we presume that it’s actually possible for us to trace out all the ‘whys,’ or, worse, to find the One True Explanation.

When his disciples asked, “who sinned—this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus didn’t say, “obviously, since he was blind from birth, his blindness results from the fact that he was conceived during pre-marital sex.” What he did say is much more difficult and hard to explain: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And then he heals the man.

I feel uncomfortable when I read this passage, because, looked at one way, it seems like Jesus is saying that the man is a pawn in God’s game, a showpiece. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think Jesus is acknowledging pain and suffering as untraceable to some specific ‘sin’ but acknowledging that in all brokenness, God desires wholeness. Healing the man is a foretaste of what Jesus will do completely: to heal and bind up this sick and broken world. To make it as God wishes it to be. To put all the wrongs right. To make it on earth at it is in heaven.

Our ‘why’ questions are still not answered. If anything, it seems like Jesus is saying that those ‘why’ questions are unanswerable.

But he gives the man his sight. He heals him. He fixes what was broken. He wipes away the tears.

When we are the hands and feet of Jesus, this is our task, too. We will have to ask ‘why’ to be the agents of healing; we will have to think long and hard about what goals and words and tasks will do no harm and help the most. But we will also have to accept the uncertainty: we will have to resist the easy explanations and clichés and well-trodden, smooth pathways that lead us places where Jesus adamantly refused to go, and instead walk the the winding and bumpy paths of understanding, anger, frustration, and, maybe, someday, peace.

It feels so good to explain why things happen. It feels less good to admit uncertainty and complexity. But it also feels good, in a strange sort of way, to know that even though God never seems to answer our cries of ‘why?’ God wants healing and reconciliation and wholeness even more than we do.

Look for the Helpers and Love the Children

There is so much to read on the recent tragic events. Here are a few of the pieces I’ve found most helpful:

from Katherine Willis Pershey:


“this is how God comes to us: covered in blood and vernix, born in a barn as an impoverished peasant. And later, covered in blood and tears, killed on a cross as an ordinary criminal.

This is how God comes to save us. It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t even finished; we continue to wait and ask: how long, O Lord, until you come again to judge the living and the dead? But at the heart and soul of the Christian faith is the conviction that God, in the entirely unique person of Jesus Christ, shall make all things new. Every tear shall be wiped away, every sin forgiven. Every loss restored.”

from Ellen Painter Dollar:

“But as a citizen, I am not completely powerless when it comes to making future mass shootings less likely. I can continue to use my platform as a writer to argue that if regulations were in place to make it much, much harder for angry and/or unstable people to obtain weapons of mass murder, if our laws weren’t designed to protect the rights of the “gun enthusiast” over the rights of citizens to be safe from gun violence in public places, we wouldn’t have to endure regular stories of people being mowed down by bullets in movie theaters and workplaces and elementary schools.”

from Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books:

“The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.”

from Mother Jones: “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America”

“Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass murders* carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. We’ve mapped them below, including details on the shooters’ identities, the types of weapons they used, and the number of victims they injured and killed. Of the 142 guns possessed by the killers, more than three quarters were obtained legally. The arsenal included dozens of assault weapons and semiautomatic handguns.”

from Nick Kristof: “Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?”

“Look, I grew up on an Oregon farm where guns were a part of life; and my dad gave me a .22 rifle for my 12th birthday. I understand: shooting is fun! But so is driving, and we accept that we must wear seat belts, use headlights at night, and fill out forms to buy a car. Why can’t we be equally adult about regulating guns?”

from Jim Wallis at Sojourners: “What We Parents Must Do”

“Our first response to what happened in Newtown must be toward our own children. To be so thankful for the gift and grace they are to us. To be ever more conscious of them and what they need from us. To just enjoy them and be reminded to slowly and attentively take the time and the space to just be with them. To honor the grief of those mothers and fathers in Connecticut who have so painfully just lost their children, we must love and attend to ours in an even deeper way.” 


“One thing I do know: Washington will not fix these problems. It will have to come from outside of Washington. It will likely come from putting our children first, and not politics. Our children must be our first response to this, and they must inspire a response that lasts. And it likely will have to come from us — as their parents.”

and of course, from Mister Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

a clip from the viral photo/quote, copied under fair use

a clip from the viral photo/quote, copied under fair use

Pray and Put Up a (Nonviolent) Fight

It hasn’t even been six months since I quaked irrationally with fear as my husband went off with a friend to a sleepy little cinema in western Pennsylvania, weeks after the Aurora shooting. If my kids went to elementary school, I’d be quaking with fear this morning. As it is, all is not well with my soul, and I am willing to bet that a good many of my friends are giving their kids an extra squeeze before putting them on the bus today.

Statistically speaking, these fears are without foundation. Statistically speaking, Mother Julian of Norwich was totally right: all shall be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, and my loved ones will never have to fold themselves into a ball in a janitorial closet to escape the spray of ammunition. But statistically speaking, reflecting on the statistics comforts me perhaps 1% of the time. Mostly six and seven year olds. My God. I have a seven year old.

When my mind wanders across the bay from the house where I grew up to the lovely old town where families sit by Christmas trees where presents will lie unopened, where there will be no begging to stay up until midnight to ring in the New Year, where children will return after the holidays to new teachers because the ‘old’ ones were killed in the line of duty, where the children themselves are no more…I can just barely gasp out one of the essential prayers: God, help. God help them.

And then I remember: we are the hands and feet of God. Not that there is anything that most of us can do for these specific, shattered families (unless you happen to know them.) Their lives have fallen like a china dish to a concrete floor, and while they will spend years carefully gathering and super-gluing the fragments with the help of God, friends, counselors, antidepressants, rest, and time, their lives will forever be a broken dish that’s been repaired. Not every shard will be found, and they’ll always be cracked. Handled gently, they will hold together, but they will never be whole.

But there is more to the story than just Aurora, or Sandy Hook. There are thirty thousand gun-related deaths in the United States each year–something like twenty times more than the next twenty wealthy countries in the world. Children in the US are 13 times more likely to be killed by guns than children in other industrialized countries. As Nick Kristof wrote, “more Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.”

Not exactly statistics to take comfort in. And yet, in the crazy world of American politics, “gun control” divides people down the middle, with both sides unable to understand the other. The problem is not people in Montana who have hunting rifles and the odd 357 in case they meet a bear. The problem is that there are more regulations on automobiles than on arms, so that people who want to obtain weapons that have no other purpose than killing people–can we be grown-up about the difference between hunting rifles and assault weapons and handguns, please?–can do so with frightening ease.

Lines like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and “if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” are purely ideological: pithy substitutes for a look at the facts, which are that guns make killing people shockingly, even accidentally, easy and if you implement strict regulations, it will be harder even for outlaws to get guns and if an armed citizenry were the answer, why has this almost never prevented one of these horrific episodes?

Christians have, rightly, been pointing out that this is a part of the brokenness of the world, that we must cry out to God for healing, that this is a time for prayer, and so on. But if we are the hands and the feet of God for the comfort and helping of the hurting and the grieving, are we not the hands and feet of God for preventive care?

Ever since Constantine had his soldiers put a cross on their shields, Christians have been divided on something that Jesus was shockingly unambiguous about: violence perpetuates violence perpetuates violence perpetuates violence perpetually–and you don’t get to wield or excuse or perpetuate violence in Jesus’ name. That’s blasphemy.

But in many quarters, it seems, to break ranks with conservative American values and say ‘enough with the guns that have no purpose except to kill people’ is a greater blasphemy.

If the name of Jesus is on you–and if you call yourself Christian, it is–then for someone to perpetuate violence in your name is blasphemy. And so I say to lawmakers who won’t stand up to the NRA, who won’t require insurance companies to provide adequate coverage for mental health care, who wage undeclared wars, who criminalize those who should be hospitalized: not in my name.

Yes, this is a time to pray. To pray, and to put up a (nonviolent) fight.

Not Everyone Has a Bedroom

Aidan’s reading assignment today involved a book that showed photographs of different kinds of houses from all over the world. Some I coveted (a totally Hansel and Gretel gingerbread-looking house that had a roof with grass growing on it in Germany!) and some made me go…“ooh. Grateful for what I’ve got.

And then, school assignments finished, lunch dishes washed, I went online and saw that several people had linked to this photo essay at Mother Jones, which excerpts photographer James Mollison’s book Where Children Sleep: “Striking and unsentimental, Mollison’s work shows that wherever a child lies down at night is not so much a retreat from as a reflection of the world outside.”

It’s fascinating on multiple levels. Go check it out!

from the kid who spends time checking out his own investments online

from the kid who spends time checking out his own investments online

to the 14 year old Brazilian girl pregnant for the 3rd time.

to the 14 year old Brazilian girl pregnant for the 3rd time.

{a fraction of Mollison’s copyrighted images have been copied here for the purpose of commentary under the fair-use exception to US copyright law}