A Biblical Case for the Removal of Racist Monuments

Our country has been having this debate for years now. Quietly in the 20th century, but much more extensively in the last few years since 2017. How should we view and understand monuments built to honor Confederate and other controversial figures? Should they be removed? Are they an important way to remember our history, or a hurtful way to prolong racial discrimination? If they are taken down, will we doom ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past?

It is first crucial to discern why and when these monuments were erected to begin with. If you look at a timeline of Confederate monuments being erected, you’ll notice two big spikes.

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You might be surprised to find that the majority of them went up at the turn of the 20th century, several decades after the Civil War. This was a time when Jim Crow, segregation, and racially motivated violence were increasingly high. The statues were intended to be a sign of intimidation to Black Americans and a reinforcement of White supremacy. These images were not meant to be a cautionary tale of the dangers of slavery and division, or even just to honor veterans of an American war. They were part of a systemic movement to silence and control Black communities. This is further evidenced by the second spike in the 1960s. Not the 1860s, but in the 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. There can only be one reason why cities and towns would choose to erect new Confederate statues at the same time that Black citizens were organizing and demonstrating for equal rights. It was another attempt to intimidate and assert power. For a deep dive into the history and geography of Confederate statues, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s analysis.

In light of this I would argue that Confederate statues in particular, as well other monuments honoring racist figures like Columbus and Spanish conquistadors, are not mere historical emblems. They are symbols of idolatry. The idolatry of greed and exploitation that has long held this country captive. They are preventing us from honestly reckoning with our history by perpetuating a false narrative of heroism and honor. Removing them is not what prevents us from learning from the past, leaving them up is what keeps us stuck.

When we look at Israel’s relationship with their symbols of idolatry, they display a similar pattern. When they first prepare to move into the land, God commands them in no uncertain terms:

Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. – Deut. 12:2

Idol worship was performed on the “high places” where it was elevated and revered. God commanded them to rid the land of all traces of idol worship as they entered in for a fresh start and a clean slate. However, God’s people did not remove the high places. This wasn’t out of an abundance of caution. They weren’t concerned with preserving their history to avoid repeating it. These dangerous Idols maintained their grasp on the people’s hearts because the people saw them as a source of power and control. Why put all your faith in God alone when you can hedge your bets and have multiple options for security and prosperity? Not surprisingly, Israel continued to struggle with idolatry for centuries.

If you look through 1-2 Kings a clear pattern will quickly emerge. King after king refuses to tear down the high places. You start to get déjà vu thinking you are reading the same passage over again:

The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. 2 Kings 14:4

The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. 2 Kings 15:4

The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. Jotham rebuilt the Upper Gate of the temple of the Lord. 2 Kings 15:35

Some rare instances emerge when kings tore them down, but the next king would put them right back up. The nation remained locked in a cycle of exploitation and sin because of their refusal to remove the means and symbols of their idolatry.

If you compare Kings with 1-2 Chronicles, you will notice something interesting. Kings was written at the beginning of the Babylonian exile when the people are finally being forced to come to terms with their centuries of violence and greed. The question they are asking themselves is, “How did we get here? Did we get here because God is weak and could not protect us, or because we are sinful?” The answer of course is not that God is weak, but that they had brought it upon themselves. So the theme and tone of Kings is a grim recounting of the moral failures of the kings and the peoples’ unwillingness to repent and change. 1 Kings has 10 references to high places, 2 Kings has 17 (that’s a lot). It is essentially a laundry list of their sin and idolatry. Everything they did wrong that they now had to confront and acknowledge.

By the time we get to Chronicles, the tone changes. These books were written at the end of the exile when their fundamental question had changed. Now they were looking towards returning and rebuilding and were asking, “Is God still with us? Did we burn all our bridges or are God’s promises still for us?” Chronicles answers that question by focusing on the things King David did right in his pursuit of God, and the things the other kings did right to honor Israel’s covenant with the Lord. 2 Chronicles has 15 references to high places, but they are not found in God’s continued warnings but in examples of the few intervals where a king did remove them. These intervals were always followed by periods of obedience in Israel. Chronicles serves as a reminder that Israel was capable of being faithful to the Lord. God’s forgiveness and grace were always there when they turned to Him. Their periods of rest and joy came when they tore down their idolatrous symbols and gave their whole hearts to following God.

And that is the other exhortation Israel’s history offers to our grappling with modern idolatrous symbols. It is not enough just to take them down. Their removal must be accompanied by genuine honesty about our sin and heartfelt repentance. It was only when Israel came face to face with the fruit of their sin that they embraced lasting change. (For a beautiful example of individual and corporate confession, read Daniel’s prayer in Babylon in Daniel 9.) Our society has a similar opportunity during this period of public reckoning. All is not lost; God desires so much more for our society and can and will equip us to change and grow. Our monuments are holding us back with false narratives and misplaced honor. They have not preserved our history; they have rewritten it. Let us remove them with hearts that desire to follow Christ alone, our true and only source of security and power.

 

 

Crashing into Whiteness

There is a scene in the 2013 Martin Scorsese movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” that depicts Jordan Belfort, the film’s main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, so high from a dangerously dosed and expired super drug that his body is completely shut down. The problem is, Belfort now has to get home to stop his associate from unknowingly sharing incriminating information with law enforcement. Belfort literally crawls to his expensive, white sports car and, using his years of experience of living under the influence, carefully makes his way down the road. In what appears to be a miracle, he makes it all the way home without damaging himself, any other property, or his beautiful car. Or so he thought.

The Wolf of Wall Street Wrecked Car GIF

Once he is arrested, the police take him outside where Belfort sees his car mangled and covered with foliage and debris. The film then shows that Belfort didn’t get home safe and sound but hit nearly everything he possibly could from the moment he started the car. It’s a comedic beat in the movie, but I have been thinking about this scene a lot as I’ve somberly reflected on our current moment in the world. The shock that Belfort was experiencing as he reflected on his tumultuous ride home is, in a small way, what many white people are feeling in this very moment. For many, their lives up to this point, all of the working, earning, and relating they’ve been doing, are suddenly being called into question as the scales of privilege fall from their eyes.

The world seems to be, at least right now, seeing through a different lens on the state of race in America and the world. The pain felt by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery is being met with a new level of compassion and empathy that wasn’t as present as our black brothers and sisters grieved the murders of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many more. Compassion and empathy are powerful tools, but as they pull white people into the lives of their neighbors it brings new awareness to the fears and trials people of color experience in America every day. It doesn’t take long as white people examine the lives of people of color around them, before they begin to examine the systems around them as well. Then it doesn’t take long as they examine the systems before they begin examining themselves. All of a sudden, you’re standing on your steps staring at your dismantled sports car.

This is a feeling I am very familiar with. There have been many moments in recent history when I realized I had not been navigating the world, and, particularly, issues of race flawlessly. I hadn’t been zipping around these twisty turns with great expertise, but I was banging down the road high on woke arrogance and oblivious to my racial blind spots. The shock I was feeling comes from having to reevaluate so many aspects of my life and identity. How many friends and neighbors had I blindly hurt with insensitivity and ignorance? Was I taking the hardships they had shared with me seriously? Would they ever forgive me? How do I even pursue that reconciliation? Did I really earn any of the achievements I held deep-seated pride in or was there some level of advantage based on my skin color? Questions like these were not in short supply but it all led to one big question. Have I failed?

Have I failed to do so many of the things I believe in as a follower of Christ? Have I been denying the image of Christ in others? Have I failed to love my neighbor? Have I failed to care for the widows and the orphans? Have I failed to help Jesus usher in the Kingdom of God and participate in the restoration of creation? These questions were disorienting and painful. Thankfully, because of my faith, I already had rhythms of humbly seeking wisdom and then honestly practicing repentance, but now I had to apply that rhythm to my role in pursing racial reconciliation. I don’t know if you’ve ever repented before, but it’s not easy.

Sometimes it feels like your conscience has turned you into a punching bag throwing haymakers of guilt. This experience is similar to that described in Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s seminal work on white fragility. “Via this discourse [on issues of race], whites position themselves as victimized, slammed, blamed, attacked, and being used as “punching bag[s].” The way Dr. DiAngelo describes white fragility sounds to me like any instance of sin being revealed I’ve ever felt or heard about. Defenses go up and blame goes everywhere but where it belongs. Look at how quickly Adam’s fingers point to Eve and God when asked about the original sin. If you are feeling like a punching bag, I would encourage you to ask yourself if it’s actually your conscience doing the punching?

This process is long and nuanced. It involves the complete reevaluation and reordering of our lives. In the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes of a time immediately following his conversion when he went to Arabia. Some see this time as a season for Paul to learn the Gospel directly from Jesus, but I like to think it was more than that. Paul, who was Saul, had a worldview driven by completely different motivations than the life he would live with Jesus. Paul had to look through his life and bit by bit seek forgiveness for the atrocities he committed and redirect every area of his life so that he could now reach out to the very people he had been hurting. This season lasted three years and, even then, Paul had work to do. It is a hard process, but is the only way we are ever going to change the world. One by one the scales need to fall and hearts need to soften. So if you’re in that moment of shock right now, that is a great place to be. Maybe you won’t be able to repair all the damage you’ve done but you’ll do better next time if you just keep driving.

Graduation Advice from an Elder Millennial

I graduated college in 2005. That means by the time I was a senior I had already experienced the Columbine school shooting as a high schooler, 9/11 as a freshman in college, and one of my brothers was killed right before my 22nd birthday while serving in Iraq. I limped out of college into my first job, after three years of which I felt called into grad school and campus ministry. So I started a new job working for the CCO, which meant fundraising my salary, in the summer of 2008. That’s right, I entered a career that depended on raising financial support and then the market immediately crashed.  Not the rosy future I had envisioned for myself.

We always ask graduating seniors “do you know what you’re doing next?” We assume that they should know the answer and we rarely warn them that one’s early-mid 20s are often extremely tumultuous and unpredictable. That is only heightened for those who are graduating this year in the midst of a global pandemic and likely recession. As someone who can relate, here is what helped me survive and grow in challenging times.

Say yes to random opportunities

I had an entry-level job in Student Affairs after I graduated. It did not pay a lot, it was not glamorous, and I could have done the minimum requirements for it. But whenever additional opportunities came along, I took them. I volunteered as a faculty/staff advisor for the women’s club rugby team. I attended our annual professional conference and the second year presented a workshop on supporting students in trauma. I collaborated with other offices across campus to offer campus-wide events. When my church gave me opportunities to lead and serve, I jumped in. When a friend and coworker invited me to the CCO’s annual Jubilee Conference, I said yes. All of these experiences helped me grow personally and professionally, made me more competitive for grad schools, and eventually led to my next step. Whatever job you get, even if it does not seem impressive, make the most out of it. And if you cannot find a job, look for involvements in your community. The need for service and support is significant right now. Invest in your area and you never know what networks and connections you will make in the process.

Invest in a church family

I was an emotional wreck after college. I was processing the trauma of losing my brother, I was trying to adjust to a new town and new job, I was lonely and depressed. I bounced around to different churches for about a year, and then landed at a small Anglican church plant nearby. That church became my home for the next 7 years. They invited me to join the leadership team after a year. I did not know how to help lead a church plant but I was committed so I said yes. I had the chance to be a lay delegate multiple times at our annual church network conference. It meant sitting through a long day of Robert’s Rules and not understanding half of what was going on, but it shaped me to see myself as an active agent in my local congregation and in our global denomination. Beyond interesting leadership experiences, the church gave me a family. We were in a small college town which means I had very few peers to hang out with, but I had older couples that took an interest in me, and young families that invited me over. I did not have many other young professional friends but I was far from alone. Those people loved me and supported me and cheered me on during an otherwise untethered season in my life. It can be hard to find a church. It takes time to build relationships and to open up. But it is the best investment you will make.

Cultivate your mental/emotional health

I think a lot of us feel like a train wreck after college. Whether you go to college or not, our 20’s are a time when we are working through family dynamics and past hurt. We are continuing to discern who we are and what we are supposed to do next. It is often a lonely time with a lot of transition in friendships and community. And it is a time to lay a healthy foundation that we can build on for the rest of our lives. Investing in our mental/emotional health during this season is an investment in a stable future. It will be stressful at first. To face past trauma, to confront unhealthy patterns, to address areas of sin/idolatry in our hearts is never easy or quick. But ignoring those struggles does not mean they go away; it only means their presence in our lives is prolonged. Now is the time to grit your teeth and go to counseling. Find a mentor who can encourage and guide you. Meet regularly with a pastor or trusted spiritual guide. That may have to be online for the foreseeable future, but do not let that stop you. It will get so much better and getting to a place of greater inner stability is invaluable.

Ask for and accept help

I had no idea what I was doing in my 20’s, and that is ok. I think actually most people have no idea what they are doing most of the time. I had SO many people that gave me needed advice, who answered my ignorant questions, who shared their life experience, who were patient with me. There is no shame in needing help and needing to ask questions. Some of my most frequent advice for anyone starting a new job is to ask lots of questions. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of proactivity. Do not let embarrassment of pride get in the way of allowing others to walk with you and give you any support that you need.

Be patient with yourself and the process

When we graduate we think everyone is expecting us to have it all together and find our one true path that we will pursue forever. Especially in our age of technology where we see our peers with viral YouTube channels, or creating apps, or being social media influencers, we think we have to be an immediate success when we are young. But Maya Angelou was 41 when she wrote her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Betty Friedan was 42 when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. C. S. Lewis was 52 when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was published. Jesus was 30 when He started His public ministry. Do not compare yourself and your timing to everyone else. You are not “behind” where you think you are supposed to be. Focus on being faithful to each opportunity and each relationship in front of you.

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” (Luke 16:10)

This is not a time when you have to achieve huge success, this is a perfect time to learn faithfulness in small things. And that foundation of small-scale faithfulness, small-scale trustworthiness, will eventually be honored by the Lord in increasingly impactful ways. Be patient, stay faithful, stay hopeful. As a wise friend of mine told me, “The way we make decisions in current circumstances is how we are likely to make decisions in the future. A ‘yes’ to God today increases the likelihood of a ‘yes’ to God tomorrow.” Say yes to God today, and trust that He will provide the next yes and the ones after that.

REVIEW: Burden

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…,” John writes in the first of his pastoral letters. This letter, in fact, has a lot to say about love. It continues, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Thankfully, John doesn’t stop there because while it’s nice to know that God is love, how does this love play out among us humans? He goes on to explain that that love is best expressed unconditionally and sacrificially pointing towards the example of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Love is costly. You may think, then, that such a costly act would be reserved for those closest to you, but The Bible leans further in to the unconditional.

Gospel authors like Luke recount the words of Jesus writing, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” These are passages that would prove challenging to Rev. David Kennedy of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church in Laurens, South Carolina. Rev. Kennedy and his congregants and fellow black citizens of Laurens are confronted daily with their enemy. This is an enemy fueled by fear and expressive in its hate. This is an enemy that lynched Rev. Kennedy’s uncle. Laurens is a town that has been defined by white supremacy. Its name comes from a well-known 18th Century slave trader, and it is home to the infamous Redneck Shop, a monument to the town’s shared history with the KKK. The shop itself is housed in what was formerly a segregated movie theater.

Burden Forest Whitaker

Rev. Kennedy entered into the tension of his town armed with passages like those in John’s letters and the war he waged, with weapons of unconditional, sacrificial love, are the subject of the film, Burden, starring Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as the reverend. One of the main battlefields in Laurens, wasn’t in the street in front of the shop where many tense protests were held, but it took place in the heart and mind of a young man named Michael Burden played in the film by Garrett Hedlund. Burden fits the mold of many young men that have been indoctrinated by a white supremacist worldview.

In his local chapter of the Klan he found easy access to housing, work, resources, and drugs. The closest thing to love he had experienced came from the owner of the Redneck Shop. Burden rose to the rank of Grand Dragon, and, in a sign of respect, was given the deed to the shop. This was around the time Burden met his wife, Judith, who was also involved with the Klan but had already begun questioning their practices and worldview. This lead Burden away from the Klan and to the doorstep of Rev. Kennedy where he’d find an opportunity for love to be redefined.

Burden Garrett Hedlund Usher

The true story of Rev. Kennedy, Michael Burden, and the Redneck Shop is impossibly complex, and the film version makes it slightly more idyllic in order to tell a more concise story. Burden tells a beautiful story of pain turned to healing, of hate turned to love, and of hopelessness turned to redemption. Hopefully, the film does inspire people to practice perfect love in the face of fear. Hopefully, like another recent film, Skin, we begin to see a prevailing narrative that people’s hearts can change and that leaving white supremacy behind is possible. To truly appreciate the complexity of this story, though, it’s worth digging into the ongoing true story.

Rev David Kennedy

The real life Rev. Kennedy in front of the Redneck Shop.

Rev. Kennedy is still battling to remove the Klan’s presence from his town. Burden is now separated from his wife and re-associated with some of his former Klan family. White supremacy has an overwhelming hold on people and systems that are in our lives every day. The work of dismantling such a pervasive system is exhausting but made easier if we are motivated by a higher power. The initial success of Rev. Kennedy’s sacrificial love showcased in the film is a testament to what is possible if we heed Jesus’ words, but as the fight against white supremacy continues in the hearts of men, the streets of Laurens, and all over our country, its worth acknowledging that love is often a burden that gets a little lighter because Christ first loved us.

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” – 1 John 4:9-11

Wondering what to do for Lent?

Some of us have grown up in churches where Lent was an annual practice and a core part of our worship and rhythm of our year. Many of us are hearing about Lent for the first time or are familiar with it but have never engaged with it in an intentional way. Wherever you find yourself, I believe that Lent can be a vibrant time of spiritual growth, repentance and soul-searching, discipline and focus.

What is Lent?

This is a practice that the Church has been observing for centuries. It is meant to mirror the experience of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days, preparing for His earthly ministry and ultimate sacrifice. It is a time to seek the presence of Christ in intentional ways in preparation for Easter. It can be a spiritually rigorous and intense experience at times, but one that is meant to make the joy of the resurrection that much sweeter and triumphant! You can read more about the themes of Lent here.

How do I decide what to do during these 40 days?

Before you choose a specific practice, start by reflecting on what’s going on in your life recently. Do you have a big decision or new chapter coming up? Are there unresolved emotional wounds in your life that you’ve been avoiding dealing with? Is there a fractured relationship that you want to mend but don’t see a way forward? Are you wrestling with habitual sin? Have you struggled with consistency in your pursuit of Bible reading and prayer? Are you feeling distracted and distant from others? Determine what you are feeling most urgently and where you need to invite the work of the Holy Spirit to join with you.

From there, consider adding something positive into your routine and/or taking something away. The goal of a Lenten fast is not to be perfect and to “do better” as a Christian. The goal is to insert disruption into your normal routine in a way that will allow Christ to be more at work within you. By shifting your habits and schedule, you can more readily make room for Jesus in new ways. With that goal in mind, here are some practices to consider:

Prayer focus

Particularly if you are anticipating a decision and new chapter, wrestling with unhealed emotional pain in your life, or habitual sin you can’t conquer, this may be a good place to start. Make the decision to pray about these things regularly and open your heart to God’s working in those areas. This will need to be marked by willingness to then actually let God lead and move! It is ok if you are hesitant and scared at first. It is ok if you have to start slowly in opening up to God about what you are really dealing with. It is ok if it is deeply unsettling and you feel vulnerable and exposed. Be brutally honest in prayer, don’t think you need to give God polished prayers of what you think He wants to hear. Be open about what scares you in this process, where you’re wrestling with distrust, where you don’t want to let Him in, where you’d rather keep hiding or relying on yourself. The more you are honest with God, the more you’ll allow Him to meet you in authentic ways. There will be days where you want to shut down and give up, keep your eyes on our hope of the resurrection and the promise that Jesus makes all things new!

Food or device fast

Last year my husband and I fasted from gluten and dairy. That is the most extreme fast I have ever done, and it is not necessary to do something like this every year. It definitely disrupted our normal habits very extensively and just the act of doing something different as a gesture of faith was very impactful. You can consider fasting from one form of food such as sugar, soda, caffeine, chocolate, meat, etc. If you give up a food, try to use it as reminders to pray and seek the Lord throughout your day. When you are tempted to consume the thing you have given up, turn to prayer and invite the Spirit to help you and work in your mind and heart. Remind yourself that you are empty apart from Christ and that you need the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to sustain you and truly satisfy you. If you are struggling with feeling like your life is chaotic and unfocused, something simple like this could be a good choice to bring focus and discipline into your days.

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Many people choose to fast from their devices in some form. This could mean being off social media, being off one specific platform, limiting the time of day you are using devices, setting your phone to grayscale to curtail it’s impact on you, etc. Perhaps you are always playing music on Spotify or other streaming.  You may need to close those apps for set times of the day and be in silence with your thoughts and allowing Christ to be with you in the stillness. One suggestion would be to adopt the practice of “scripture before screen”, reading your Bible before you open your phone. It could also include putting your phone away during meals and when you are with others. If you are dealing with feelings of disconnection and anxiety, this might be a good option for you.

Introduce a positive new habit

I will ALWAYS recommend spending more time in God’s Word. Set a goal of being in your Bible/Bible app every day. Pick a book of the Bible that you want to gradually work through and start simple with one chapter a day. Find a friend who wants to do the same so you can encourage each other. The more you are immersed in the scriptures, the more you will know God and recognize His guidance and wisdom in your life. If you’re wanting to grow closer to God during Lent, Bible reading is an excellent strategy.

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You can also make intentional time for reading other books you know will be encouraging and formative. Maybe it’s being disciplined to attend Sunday worship and Bible study/small group every week. Think about opportunities you have that you know will help you learn and grow but that you have a hard time doing consistently. Lent is a great time to make them a priority and to give the Lord your time and focus in a new and sacrificial way.

Don’t give up

It is very likely that you will not be perfect at your fast. If you slip up and forget something or slip into an old behavior, don’t give up! Keep going even if you make mistakes. The Lord desires our hearts not our perfect behavior. If your heart is wanting to pursue Christ during Lent, God will receive that and meet you in ways you might not expect. Take this step of faith and obedience, keep going, and have an open heart before the Lord to see how He wants to reveal Himself to you along the way.

Is Self-Care Just Self-Absorption?

If you are ever on Instagram, you know what I’m talking about. There are guides for self-care activities. Pictures being posted of ways people are pursuing self-care. Encouragements to others to make time for self-care. There are many ways in which these are good and healthy trends. God created a day of rest for all of us to take a break from working and to allow God to be sovereign in all things. Jesus periodically retreated into solitude to pray and rest. Space to rest and rejuvenate is a Godly thing.

As with anything, there are ways it can become selfish. It is very possible for self-care to turn into a lack of responsibility or engagement. To be more focused on our comfort than on working through hard things with others. To be an excuse to avoid commitments that we do not want to deal with. But behind many expressions of self-care is a deeper question of whether others can be trusted to care for us. A latent despair can underlie it where we feel the only one we can depend on is us. That requires much more than a face mask to remedy, it requires empathy and Christ-centered connection.

Who is most often seeking self-care?

In my observation, those who post about it the most on social media are women and/or people of color. We could resort to snap judgements and say these groups are “snowflakes” and lacking resilience. Or we could take a moment to look at the times when their posts are going up and what that may reveal about their/our experience of society. As a white woman my purview has limitations, but I will start with what I know. I most often see women talking about the need for self-care when topics of discrimination and sexual abuse have been prominent in public conversation. It ranges from accusations against public figures, a new television show or movie being released that features themes of gender-based issues, new legislation being passed that ignites debate, etc. These topics hit close to home for a lot of women and strike nerves that may be very raw. This can result in feeling emotionally drained, experiencing increased anxiety and depression, and having hard conversations with others. In these instances, self-care is often sought because we feel uncared for by our environment. The space we occupy feels threatening and so it is up to us to care for ourselves.

Similarly, these same types of struggles can emerge along racial lines (often intersecting for women of color). When there is a police shooting of an unarmed black man, or racist comments made by a public figure, or when church leaders exhibit a lack of support for justice issues, when co-workers are thoughtless and prejudicial, these events can have a very hurtful impact.  An understandable reaction is again to retreat into self-care practices. This can simply be to recharge after a draining day, and can also be a symptom of feeling alone in society. At times self-care can be an expression of isolation if it feels like you are the only one you can count on.

Take-Care

From Self-Care to Communal-Care

The Church of all places must be an environment where everyone can feel known and loved. That does not mean we all think exactly alike, or that there are not guidelines and boundaries for healthy relating, but it does mean that when one of us is grieved, we are all grieved.

So bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Gal. 6:2

Humans are inherently selfish, and Christians are no exception. Even in the Church we struggle to care about situations that may not directly affect us. Sometimes we doubt whether the situation is real, or we are so removed from it that we forget it exists. Either way, that contributes to our brothers and sisters often feeling as though they are in it alone. But if we start with a posture of loving curiosity, we will be much better positioned to join with one another in our joys and sufferings. How might this cultural moment be impacting someone who is different from me? How would I be feeling if this was happening to me and to people who looked like me? What are some questions I can ask to better understand the ways others are reacting that may feel strange to me? How can I share my time and resources to meet the needs of the Body of Christ? If we all started with these questions, then very few of us would be alone for long.

Communal-Care driven by Christ-Care

The only way we can sustainably join with each other is if we are animated by the love of Christ. In our own power we will very quickly become frustrated or impatient, we will very quickly feel attacked or misunderstood. But through the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit, we can care for each other in ways we did not think possible.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. – Eph. 2:13-17 

It requires the power of Christ to show generosity to one another, and it requires the power of Christ to let others know our struggles and support us in them. It is a humbling experience to share our stories, to share our wounds and vulnerabilities. And it is a humbling thing to be an instrument of Christ’s healing and assurance. Both are part of the Christian life because Christ first demonstrated both. Jesus was wounded for our sins, and was raised to life again to bring us eternal healing. We follow His example in acknowledging our pain and in seeking wholeness together. May we paint a picture for the world of what it means to be a people that are honest about our suffering and fatigue, and who never allow anyone to recover alone.

 

Full of “Venom”

Kane, a delightful British bloke played by John Hurt, is all smiles at the table. Having seemingly recovered from his close encounter with a face-sucking alien, he’s excited to eat a normal meal and share a laugh or two with his ship mates. Unfortunately, this meal isn’t going to sit well with the newborn extra-terrestrial calling Kane home. Fans of the 1979 space horror classic Alien know where this iconic scene is headed. It’s a scene that works for many reasons. Sure, it’s shocking with a high gross-out factor, but it also delves into metaphor playing with perhaps one of life’s greatest existential dilemmas…what is it that truly lies beneath our surface? This question is most recently explored in Sony and Marvel’s Tom Hardy vehicle, Venom.

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Venom (2018)

Our outside isn’t scary. Think about all the channels we have to control what others experience from us. Everything from a fresh haircut to a hot new fit to a flattering selfie camera angle, helps us regulate how others see us. Aside from physical appearance, we have all kinds of mechanisms that act as bouncers keeping those who might want in on the right side of the velvet rope. Talking about the weather or a simple “I’m fine” are some of my favorites. No, our outside is safe, but our inside is a different story.

Who are you really? If everyone knew every thought you had or every feeling that has captured your heart would they still love you? Forget love, would they even like you? As pretty as your outside is, what if nobody could handle the monster hiding inside? So we hide in fear, but all of that hiding and fear can give us the false impression that we are the good guy in our story, a false impression Venom’s lead character carries. When we’re introduced to Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a popular investigative reporter and charming beau to Anna (Michelle Williams), he has total control of his outside. However, his inside starts seeping out and over the first act of the film his life totally unravels. Still, Brock tries his best to keep his outside intact. He lies to himself. He’s not the problem. He’s not to blame. He’s still a really good guy. Except, he’s not and it takes a lot for him to realize it.

By a lot, I mean it takes a sentient, parasitic alien goo inhabiting his insides. This isn’t just any alien goo, though, it’s Venom, one of Spider-man’s most popular and visually memorable villains of all time. Venom is a species called a symbiote. They pair with a host, merging in every way. The lines blur between Brock’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and Venom’s. They become one on such a level that they refer to themselves with plural pronouns. “We are Venom,” the pair will say.

It’s said in the film that the symbiotes need to find a compatible host to survive. Hold on. Venom is a homicidal psychopath. He’s a villain. If Brock is the good man he thinks he is, if he’s the good man that exists on the outside, why does he make such a good host for the bad guy? The most intriguing and entertaining components to this story take place in Brock’s journey of self-actualization. This only happens because Brock’s ugly inside gets a face and starts oozing out to the surface. Is he all bad? No, but his goodness doesn’t begin to shine until he confronts the darkness inside.

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Venom and Spider-Man from the “Spider-Man” (1994) animated series.

Shouldn’t we all be so lucky as to have a parasitic alien inhabit us? Here’s the good news, though, as scary as our insides can be to us, they’re not to God. When we find ourselves in a place where we’re exhausting our energy to keep our deepest darkest feelings at bay, are we really living in the freedom Christ offers us? When we engage in practices of prayer, confession, and repentance we are letting our inner horror movie out. When we willingly bring that darkness into the light before God and others, those things that bring us guilt or shame or embarrassment, those things that we think will surely expel any love we’ve ever experienced, those things that we think will drive others away, the opposite of that begins to happen.

Here’s the thing about God, as Romans 5 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God knows us already. You can’t hide your scary bits. When our insides stay hidden, they have power and control over us. They take up real estate in our hearts and minds, but once they’re let out, it opens up space for something else to dwell. When we acknowledge our sins and place them at the foot of the cross we can say along with Paul in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

When the darkness inside meets the Light, it doesn’t stand a chance. This is how our hearts change. We will never scare God away, and others that have God dwelling in them can handle our horrors as well. God dwelling in us creates a symbiotic relationship between us and the Holy Spirit. That relationship probably won’t turn us into a superhero but may give us everything we need to bring actual goodness into the world instead of the false veneer of goodness we present. Venom isn’t the greatest movie in the world, though fans of the character and Hardy will probably find it to be an entertaining depiction. Some of the film’s treasure lies in its call to self-reflection. It might just be time for us all to let the monster out.

The Names of “The Hate U Give”

There is a pastor that I know who is really gifted at making baptism feel really personal. As the person approached the fount, there would always be an exchange where this pastor would read their full name aloud, and then explain the etymology or meaning of the name. “This is…,” he would say as he announced their name, “…their name means courage (or love, strength, etc.).” Another pastor I know, has the person state their full name and then says, “[insert name here], child of the covenant, very loved of God.” Usually, a life altering pivot point is what brings us to the baptism fount. I love that these pastors use it as an opportunity to continue to remind each person who they are. Our names come with some powerful purpose, promise, community, and love attached to them. God knows us and call us by name.

The baptisms I’ve been honored to witness, have been powerful ceremonies where the subjects’ names have been used to remind them of the new life ahead. In recent years here in America, another cultural ceremony has become all too common. One that involves names being read, tweeted, and shouted through megaphones. The names of some fellow image bearers have gained a new meaning in death. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Antwon Rose. Botham Shem Jean. These names have become a cry of lament. Their meaning has shifted from purpose and promise to loss and pain. These are the names of people of color who died in incidents like that depicted in the film, and the book it was adapted from, The Hate U Give.

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The Hate U Give (2018)

Police brutality and excessive use of force have become hot button issues in American society. It is one of those issues that has always bubbled under our collective surface but found a new boiling point in the digital age. Those names and the many like them are now loaded guns. For some they inspire protest and action, for some they tap into fragility or fear, and for others all they call forth are tears. So how on earth could a young adult novel or it’s film adaptation cover such an emotionally charged topic?

The Hate U Give does it with grace, truth rooted in experience, compassion, and authentic performances. In the story, Starr (an Oscar-worthy performance by Amandla Stenberg) is witness to an unarmed friend being murdered by a police officer during a traffic stop. The film follows the personal, social, and societal fallout for Starr following the crime. As a white man, I am limited in how well I can translate Starr’s experience for you, but I can speak to what I experienced during the film. There was pain that it might be tempting to become numb to and there was hope I pray we never lose.

Following the murder in the film, some of the heartbreak comes from how painfully familiar the older generation was with what was happening. The film opens with Starr’s father explaining how to, best as he possibly could, survive the average traffic stop. Later he knows Starr will be haunted by the trauma in her sleep. The book and film get its title from Tupac Shakur, a late prophetic rapper whose words I wish would become less relevant. The events in this story are the same act in the same play that people of color can’t seem to get out of.

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Tupac Shakur’s prophetic legacy lives on in The Hate U Give.

Starr’s father, Maverick, tries his best throughout the film to give his children guidance based in the reality he knew, but he also tried his best to give them hope. That hope is expressed as he explains the names he gave his children. They were intentional to remind them who they are. He knew Starr was always destined to shine, he drew his son Seven’s name from the Biblical number of perfection, and his son Sekani’s name from the joy he hoped he’d never lose. Their names point towards a future filled with purpose, promise, community, and love. Mav knows that he had to give his children something more than hate. The Hate U Give reminds us that those names that we’ve seen tick across the bottom of the news or trend on twitter need to give us more than hate as well.

The Hate U Give is worth seeing, probably in community, and coupled with some rich discussion, prayer, and follow-up. It is a work of fiction, but it is an invitation to enter a very real experience. Khalil Harris is a fictional character, but Trayvon Martin was a real person. Sandra Bland was someone’s daughter. God breathed life into Eric Garner and gave him his image to bear. Oscar Grant walked, and talked, and laughed. The emotions and opinions attached to these names after their deaths can be exhausting, but if we ever hope to give the next generation a better world we better remember everything those names now mean.

Tree of Life Synagogue and the Need for Weariness

Some families take vacations to Disney World. My family would vacation in Pittsburgh. This was partly because my grandparents lived there, partly because Pittsburgh is a wonderful city. I spent 12 years post-college living in the Pittsburgh region and in many ways regard it as my home city. It is a city known for its many distinct neighborhoods, my favorite of which is Squirrel Hill. I have spent countless hours there with family and friends. A predominantly Jewish community, it also houses restaurants and shops from a wide range of cultures and nationalities. It has the best movie theater in the city, and is a welcoming neighborhood full of vibrant culture and life. Despite the terrible violence there on October 27th, nothing will change that.

When I first starting seeing breaking news that a Pittsburgh synagogue was being attacked, I knew it was likely in that lovely community. Watching the story unfold, my primary response was weariness. After a week that was already marked by hatred and violence with the mail bombs, this was overwhelming. I felt sadness and anger, but mostly I felt numb. This has to stop. Things have to change.

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When we look at God’s history with the community of faith, He has used weariness in the past to move us forward. Buried in the middle of the Old Testament book of Numbers is a remarkable passage about some unexpected fruit of growing weary. Numbers in general is an often overlooked book that packs a punch. It follows the time of the Israelites leaving their enslavement in Egypt and their forty years wandering in the wilderness. God led them out of Egypt through signs and wonders and guided them straight to the Promised Land. But the people were not ready. They were so accustomed to slavery that they could not imagine freedom. All they could do was look back at their bondage and believe that it was normal and as good as it gets. They could not imagine that the unknown could be better than the comfortable past, so they believed it must be worse. They froze because all they could see were giants, not milk and honey (Num. 13:31-33).

So God consigned them to 40 years in the wilderness, one year for every day that the spies were in the promised land (Num. 14). Enough time for the generation that was born in Egypt to pass away. An entire generation is born in the wilderness, a generation that is listed in the middle of Numbers (chapter 26). The genealogies in this book is typically where readers get bogged down, but they are there to show us when a change begins. Something significant happens with this generation born in the wilderness. They no longer look back, they start to dream about what is ahead.

The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. Num. 27:1-7 (NIV)

The daughters of Zelophehad begin to imagine possibilities of things that have never been before. What if women could own land? Not only that, they are envisioning life in the Promised Land. They are thinking about what it will entail and they do not want to miss it. No longer are the people looking back to slavery as their frame of reference. They are looking ahead and dreaming about things that have not yet been.

These young women represent what God was trying to do in the people through their wandering. To bring change in their desires. To wear them out on life that is sub-par so they start dreaming about abundance. So that when they are led back to the edge of the Promised Land, they want to go in and never look back. They want to take hold of God’s rest, provision, equity, and goodness. They were meant to hate the wilderness and former bondage so they would love the fulfillment of God’s promises.

This story offers a similar application to our weary hearts today. It is normal and good to feel sadness and anger. It is fitting and right for us to hate the works of evil. And our Godly response can be to dream rather than freeze. Many giants of evil are dominating our cultural landscape, but we serve a God with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut. 7:19). Take your weariness to your community’s inter-faith gatherings and support your Jewish neighbors. Use your platform to remind yourself, and others, that acts of hatred and violence are not normal or as good as it gets. Research the candidates running for office in your region and go vote for people who will pursue righteousness and peace. Pray for the Lord to move all of our hearts away from selfish complacency and towards new possibilities for Kingdom flourishing. May we be a people who are shaped by the promises and power of God and who dream of things greater than we have yet seen.

 

Does Sexual Purity Do More Harm Than Good?

If you were a Christian kid in the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, you probably encountered some form of the “Purity Movement.” There were books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity that touted the benefits of courtship over dating. Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings. The Silver Ring Thing and other organizations held gatherings and were present at music festivals to encourage young people to commit to remaining sexually pure until marriage. It was a major topic in youth groups and Christian youth-based curriculum.

A recent book by Linda Kay Klein has drawn the spotlight back to this era in the evangelical church. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free details her experiences along with interviews of many others. In a recent NPR interview, Klein tells her story of legalism and shame and the trauma it caused for her and others. She recounts stories of being told she needed to dress differently to prevent the boys from “stumbling” (a biblical term meaning to fall into sin), and that she ought to exhibit less knowledge and enthusiasm for learning so as not to undermine the leadership role of the boys. Along with countless others, she internalized shame and anxiety about her body and her thoughts. She was constantly worried that she would do something that would compromise her purity, a standard that was inconsistently communicated and therefore even more anxiety-provoking. During college and beyond she began to move away from the teachings she received about sexual purity, but struggled for years to have a sexual expression that was not also marked by visceral reactions of shame and anxiety. Through her own story and those she interviewed, she posits that the purity movement left a generation of young women traumatized.

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I am only a few years younger than Klein and remember all too well much of what she described. I also read Joshua Harris’s book in high school and also heard the narrative that sex before marriage will make you damaged goods that no good Christian man will want. I also absorbed a transactional faith that if you are a pure and modest woman, then God will reward you with a husband and a wonderful marriage. Although not as extreme as the teaching Klein received, I too internalized a largely sexist standard that women needed to help guard men from sexual sin (men bearing little to no responsibility for their sexual purity) and that men were to be the leaders in all relationships. I listened to her interview and felt deep sadness and sympathy for the pain she experienced. I know that it is real and valid, and worthy of affirmation and grief. In no way do I wish to diminish the very real hurt she received from destructive teaching. At the same time, I took a different path from Klein which is also worthy of telling.

My story is entirely a testament to the grace of God transcending toxic and unhelpful distortions of what is meant to be good and beautiful truth. Through the work of the Holy Spirit and faithful community around me, here is what I received instead. 

Purity is the wrong word

The very language that is used to describe a call for young people to abstain from sex until marriage sets up a false expectation. In a spiritual sense, to be pure is to be without sin. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the only human who has ever lived a sin-free life. Therefore to talk with young people about a very sensitive and intense topic using language that implies perfection is a sure recipe for guilt and shame. It is impossible to always remain 100% pure because even a stray lustful thought will mean you are no longer pure.

The way the movement was constructed led to an emphasis on personal behavior, which led to legalism, which leads to inevitable failure, which leads to despair and isolation. If our driving motivation is to be perfect for God, we are doomed from the start. Rather, we are made perfect BY God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this life we will always struggle with sin and our hope is in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, not our personal willpower. I had to reorient my perspective away from being focused on my own ability to be perfect, and towards a perfect God who loves me unconditionally and accomplishes what I cannot do for myself.

Celibacy is not a vending machine

I very much wanted to be married and yet was perpetually single. I was always highly involved with my church and in my mid-20s even entered vocational ministry. By all accounts I was doing everything right and was deserving of God blessing me with a great husband. Yet no husband presented himself. Over the course of multiple years I had to wrestle with what my celibacy was for. A particular parable from Luke was deeply convicting:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10

On the surface this parable may seem harsh, but it essentially means that we cannot put God in our debt. I will never be able to work hard enough or be good enough for me to become better than God and for God to then owe me something. If that is the case, then everything I have is a gift from God. Nothing is earned by me but is freely bestowed by a generous God. The Lord did not owe me anything for my celibacy, I was only doing my duty.

This was one of the most important lessons for me to learn. I have seen a great deal of pain and despair among men and women who “did everything right” but remained unmarried or had marriages fall apart. This has led to disillusionment and in some cases rejection of their faith. If we have been taught and believed that making all the right choices will earn us the things we want, we will have little to which to cling when life disappoints us. I had to make peace with the idea that marriage is not a biblical guarantee and God does not owe me a life-long happy marriage. God promises me that He will always be with me, and says that is enough. I came to a specific turning point where I believed that God is worthy of my obedience because of who He is, not because of what I want from Him.

God asks hard things for good reasons

Celibacy is hard. I spent much of my 20s feeling lonely and wondering where to find affirmation if not from a boyfriend/husband. I was not single by choice, I was single by default. It can be draining to take care of yourself by yourself, it requires a great deal of emotional energy. I wrestled with discontentment and wanting my life to look different than it did at various points. And yet I would not trade those tumultuous years. The Lord showed me what it meant to depend on Him and to rest in being fully known and fully loved by God.

There were many evenings where I would sit on my patio and have a stream of consciousness prayer conversation with God about my day and about my thoughts and feelings. I would not have done that if a husband was there. God used what could have been a purely lonely time to show me what intimacy with my Creator can be. It was time of learning that God cares about the things that happen in my day that only I care about and is closely involved in my life. God is a comforter who sees my emotions, sees my confusion, and draws near to speak the assurance of truth. Jesus is trustworthy even when nothing else is going to plan. Those years were hard but also a precious gift.

Friendship and marriage are equally important

Not everyone can or should be married and marriage is not the only way to experience love and intimacy. The purity movement focused almost exclusively on marriage as the ultimate prize and gave us no idea for how to cultivate meaningful and lasting friendships. When churches focus the majority of their ministry on marriage and family, many others are alienated, and all of our lives are poorer for it. Intergenerational friendship has been a tremendous joy in my life that has added a great richness. No matter your stage in life, friendship is essential for knowing each other and knowing more of who God is.

Sexuality is highly spiritual

When it comes to teaching young people about biblical sexuality, we’re bad at it. The purity movement largely lost the beauty of why God calls us to sexual fidelity. It is so much bigger than, “sex before marriage is bad so just don’t do it.” God presents a much more lovely picture of what sex is for and why it is important. Frequently in scripture God will equate marriage with His relationship with the community of faith across both the Old and New Testament (Hosea, Eph. 5, Rev. 21 just to name a few). The sexual and emotional intimacy between a husband and wife is one of the clearest pictures of the spiritual intimacy we all share with God. The way we experience our sexuality is designed to be intertwined with the way we understand our connection to God.

In marriage a husband and wife commit their whole selves to one another. They commit to sharing everything about themselves and make a vow to love the other person unconditionally. Tim Keller frames it well in describing sex as an act of “covenant renewal.” The act of sex is giving yourself in the most intimate way to another person. It is meant to occur in a context of deep trust and vulnerability, an expression of not holding anything back from the other. This is the way that God loves us and commits Himself fully to us. To love us unconditionally and to never leave or forsake us. When we trivialize and dull our experience of sex we inadvertently diminish the way we experience God’s love and fidelity to us.

Waiting until marriage is a blessing

It is true that if you have remained celibate through training yourself to see sex as bad, a switch does not automatically flip on your wedding night to make you enjoy sex forever. But because sex is profoundly significant, it is still worth waiting for. Something unique happens when there is only one person that is the source of your sexual pleasure. When we also abstain from pornography and masturbation within marriage we are solely dependent on the other for sexual expression. We cannot find sexual pleasure apart from the person we have pledged ourselves to, and that creates a bond that is lovely and designed to last. Sex is also far more than only pleasure, it is a vulnerable offering of yourself in the assurance of emotional and physical trust and safety. Sharing your whole life with someone is not easy, and our American culture is increasingly skeptical of the benefits of marriage and monogamy. Yet God designed it this way because we need a deep and unique bond to help sustain us through the trials of life. Sex is a very good gift that is a powerful sustainer of love and unity.

This is by no means a comprehensive exposition of everything that the purity movement got right and everything that it missed. There is also much more to say about the ways that God heals our sexuality when it has been abused or misused, and the way we experience the connection of sexuality and spirituality in celibacy. My intention is to share from my journey, which is my own and therefore has limits. I welcome questions and on-going conversation about what has shaped your journey and your hopes for the Church moving forward.