A Blessing for Survivors When Perpetrators are Lauded

Even as I found myself moved by the inauguration (particularly VP Harris being sworn in), I’ve been thinking a lot about Tara Reade today.  And the way our society seems to so easily demand sacrifice of survivors because “he’s done so much good.”

Feeling like the world needs some blessings right now, this is the third in a series of blessings for the (extra)ordinary days in which we find ourselves.

A blessing on you who spoke up,
even knowing your voice would be drowned out.*

Yes! the Spirit’s empowering fire rests on you,
liberating and unleashing the Truth you hold within.
May you uproot the pernicious tendrils
that would have you mollify the crowds with your silence.

Even when your name is forgotten,
                       (and his is memorialized)
your story, your voice, your impact
           on our world, on humanity, on democracy, on the church
           will forever be remembered.


Mark 14:3-9
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.


*And abundant blessings on you who choose silence, exercising agency over your story. This path is just as worthy.

A Blessing for Indistinguishable Days

Feeling like the world needs some blessings right now–or perhaps it’s just me–this is the second in a series of blessings for the (extra)ordinary days in which we find ourselves.

[Is this your experience, too: conversations, events, and days melding into a congealed, homogenous lump, indistinguishable from one another? Within covid-time, memories blur and the meaning of “time” has unexpectedly shifted. Some days, it can feel like Groundhog Day, ten months in a row.]

First, may you be blessed with courage
to slip out of the shadow of shame:
           of forgetting that birthday/appointment/meeting/really important thing
           of realizing, days later, that you never followed up
           of discovering, weeks later (if you ever think of it again at all),
                      that you never sent that thank you note
                      (the one you really meant to send)
The indistinguishable moments, one after the other,
           distracted you, exhausted you,
           leaving you utterly perplexed.
Courage, though, and laughter will be your escape hatch
ejecting you safely into surrender.

And then, may you be blessed with grace,
for remembering even one out of ten
           birthdays, appointments, meetings, really important things,
           thank yous,
is a momentous feat to be celebrated.


Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV)
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

A Blessing for Those Struggling to Get Out of Bed

Feeling like the world needs some blessings right now–or perhaps it’s just me–this is the first in a series of blessings for the (extra)ordinary days in which we find ourselves.

Bless you, bleary-eyed, dream-caught one,
who cracks an eye open to gauge the sun’s ascent,
and then sighs wearily, turning over, back turned to the grey sky.
Holy hugs to you whose limbs feel like lead,
stubborn and inert, yet warm and sensitive.

While dread of the day cocoons you,
and traps you in immobility,
the radiance of Christ surrounds you,
and in a gentle voice, you hear,
“Beloved, come out!”

Like one revived,
you are unbound from the blankets,
the strips of cloth that held you tight.
A miracle to start the day.


John 11:38-44 (NRSV)
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

It doesn’t matter if Mary was a virgin.

The credibility of the Good News does not rest on Mary being a virgin or not. Luke 1:26-38 falls in the category of needing some proactive interpretive remediation. We can’t just bypass it as a text that doesn’t matter when it has impacted our way of being for so long. Part of our burden and divine call is to dismantle life-leaching interpretations and rebuild what really matters.

This is my sermon from 12.20.20, based on the text from Luke 1:26-38. I used the Inclusive Bible translation, which does not reference Mary as a virgin but a “young woman.”


You may have noticed that the translation of today’s Gospel reading chooses different language than what our ears might have expected.  The Inclusive Bible purposefully refers to Mary simply as a “young woman.” Maybe you didn’t notice the changed language — or maybe you did, but have long since resigned to downplaying or ignoring the traditional reading.  I’ve been there.

We are used to hearing here in Luke 1 that Mary is explicitly a virgin.  That her sexual history matters.  Not just that, but that her knowledge and experience of sex matters in the incarnation of God.  If we read this text at all, we cannot help but stumble through the seeming emphasis on Mary’s virginity. And it’s impossible to escape in the Advent and Christmas season generally, with regular references in our favorite carols and art.

So, why would the translators of the Inclusive Bible purposefully choose a more vague term, “young woman”?  The short answer is: because it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if Mary is, by clinical definition, a virgin or not.

Which of course, flies in the face of 2000 years of dominant Christian thought and theology that argues otherwise.

At the risk of condensing 2000 years of history that says it does matter, I’m going to sum up very briefly why I think the translators made this critical shift.

This text has been interpreted in a way that has impacted Western social structures, gender identity and formations, and concepts of sexual purity, particularly for women.  Mary’s virginity has been used to instill a purity standard and the consequential body shaming and promotion of sex as a dirty act, again particularly for women.

In the face of two millennia of distorted interpretations, one has to change the language to make a point.  I think the translators made the shift because the focus of this story isn’t meant to be Mary’s sexuality or sexual history. The focus of Luke 1:26-38 is the miracle of God affirming the human form to the extent that God chooses to inhabit it.

This aligns with God’s story as a whole: creation being inherently good and worth loving completely.

The credibility of the Good News does not rest on Mary being a virgin or not.  So, this scripture falls in the category of needing some proactive interpretive remediation.  We can’t just bypass it as a text that doesn’t matter when it has impacted our way of being for so long. Part of our burden and divine call is to dismantle life-leaching interpretations and rebuild what really matters. 

That’s what we’re doing here today.  I want to talk about two things that do matter in today’s text.

Mary Matters

First is that Mary matters!  Her significance, or at least part of it, is that she is a discerner and doer of God’s dream.  In the company of many of her Jewish ancestors, Mary is surprised by Gabriel’s visit and announcement of her role in God’s story.  Luke says she is confused, perplexed.  Even resistant. 

This is a familiar pattern in the story of Israel – Abraham and Sarah were confused and perplexed by God’s promise of a son, even in their old age. The prophets were known to be true prophets only if they had resisted their call a bit.

Even Zechariah, earlier in Luke 1, is also visited by a messenger from God who announces the future birth of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist. If you remember that story, Zechariah is incredulous, for Elizabeth, his wife, is also too old to bear a child.  Zechariah, in his surprise, is rendered mute until John is born.

Mary follows in this very long tradition of being drawn into God’s story in a particular and compelling way.  After the requisite wrestling with strange, good news, Mary, like her ancestors, carries on with life as though she believes the word of God given to her. 

Mary’s body is undeniably significant in this story as the one who lovingly carries the child within her and delivers him.  But more significant is her willingness to wrestle with the blessing of God, even as she does not understand it. More significant is Mary’s willingness to actively consent to participate in God’s dream.

We know this is Luke’s intent for Mary’s place within the story.  Later, in chapter 11, as Jesus is in full-time ministry mode, a woman in a crowd cries out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”  To which Jesus replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” [11:27-28.] Which is precisely what Mary did.

In Luke 1 and beyond, Mary steps into her vocation as a model disciple—one who discerns God’s word and does it, utilizing her body in faithful acts of discipleship.  Her response to God’s invitation is Luke 1 is evident in the Magnificat. Her response is joyful consent.

Does this resonate with you?  When have you been surprised by an invitation to participate in something greater than yourself?

God Affirms Human Form

The second thing that matters about today’s text is that God affirms the human form as good, beloved, holy: a sacred space worth inhabiting. 

This is the message behind the text.  As Dr. Kyle Roberts writes in A Complicated Pregnancy, “God did not avoid our body, our genetics, our brain, our human condition.”*   God is not indifferent, aloof, apathetic to the human experience.  God chose incarnation, to become mortal with all that that entailed.  And God chose a natural, pleasurable process by which to enter the world.

I wonder if that was part of Mary’s surprise as well—that God would affirm our cells and our experience. That God would choose an ordinary body—her ordinary body—to bring Love to life. 

But why should we be surprised?  Again, God has said from the very beginning that our bodies and all creation are very good. It is we who have cast doubt on that truth. It is we who have believed lies that we should be ashamed of our ordinary bodies.

This is part of why a virgin birth does not matter: “a virgin birth gives us a different Christ than the one we really need.”**  We need a Christ who knows pain and joy, pleasure and heartbreak, hope and despair.  God said, “Yes,” to humanity, to the goodness of our bodies.  God chose the human form because God loves the human form.

What matters in this story is that Love chose to become human, offering the ultimate affirmation of our full, embodied belovedness.

An Invitation to Love Our Bodies

One of the invitations of today’s scripture is to allow ourselves to be surprised that the human body is beloved and necessary in bringing God’s Love to life.

Body positivity is a bit of a buzzword these days.  Lizzo, an amazing singer and rapper, has been a vocal advocate for body love the last few years.  In particular her song, “Juice,” is what one commentator calls an “anthem” of self-love and respect.  She centers the goodness of her body in the song, a profoundly prophetic message as a Black woman.  While that might initially sound individualistic, Lizzo claims her liberation and expresses her joy in a way that echoes Mary’s song.  Mary’s song points to a deeply personal, internalized sense of worth and goodness, that then flows out beyond her self. 

“My body can do this. My body is worthy of birthing the Holy One.” 

Like Lizzo proclaims, Mary, too, is profoundly empowered and participating fully in the incarnation of Love. The incarnation that needs Mary’s body, individually first – all of our bodies, collectively – to bring Love to life. 

An Invitation to Love Others’ Bodies

The roll-on effect of this is that we are reminded that all human bodies are beloved and necessary in realizing God’s shalom – including those bodies we might consider enemies.

I want to share with you a poem by U.S. poet Jane Kenyon called “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993”.  Yugoslavia was in the midst of violently breaking up in the winter of 1993.  As wars often are, it was a complex conflict fueled by religious tensions. On Orthodox Christmas Day, in January 1993, Bosnian forces launched a surprise attack on the Serbs, knowing that Serbian Orthodox Christians would be unprepared on this very special, holy day.  This is what Kenyon is referencing in her poem.  

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts and arguments: 

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?” 

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

“What does it matter now?”  It matters that God loved the world so much that God took on human form.  It matters that God took on human form, affirming “our bodies, our genetics, our brain, our human condition.” It matters that God chose Mary, an ordinary young woman, to lead us with her example of bold discernment and action.  This is what matters.  This is Good News.

Before Gabriel departs from Mary, they offer a blessing; so I offer this Advent blessing for you:

The Holy Spirit will gently rest on you,
a delicious glow that grows
from the tips of your toes and fingers
to the top of your head.
The Most High will empower you
and energize you
and the Love you bring to Life
will free us all.

I pray it be so.


*Kyle Roberts, A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary Was a Virgin and Why It Matters (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 179.
**Roberts, 183.

Cut from the Cloth of the Ancestors

In the final month we lived in Virginia, alongside the requisite sorting, box-making, and packing, I finished a project that was nearly a decade in the making.  The project hadn’t languished because it was particularly difficult or big—it was just one of those projects that lies fallow for awhile until it’s clear that its time has arrived.

The project was a small wall hanging—no more than 2’ x 2’. In early 2011, I had moved to Pittsburgh to begin a Master’s program, taking with me my sewing machine and a stash of fabric as my study-break hobby.

This was not just any fabric, though; it was fabric I had gleaned from my mother’s stash and from fabric she had gleaned from both of my grandmothers, who were both deceased.  The fabric was mostly scraps—small bits leftover from yesteryear’s (or yesterdecade’s) projects, likely clothes and quilts.  Some pieces were no bigger than a couple inches across. Most were wonky remnants.  All had a bit of that musty, mothball grandmother’s-closet smell.

I began taking the scraps and piecing them together, using a technique called “crazy quilting,” where symmetry is not a goal, at least until you finish the square.

Eventually, I had made about 35 squares. Half of them, I pieced together and quilted for my sister.  The other half sat in a box for the rest of our time in PA.  And then it sat in a box in a basement while we lived in London.  And then, still in the same box, it sat in my study while we were in VA.

Years later, at the start of 2019, I resolved to finish what I now called my “Grandmother Project,” to put the final squares together and make a wall hanging for myself. 

By Summer 2019, it was still in the box.  But as a move loomed in our future, I felt a poke of “quilter’s conscience.”  And then, separately, when it seemed clear that my ordination for ministry would be happening before we moved, I felt the critical impetus for following through on my resolution.

I felt this because I linked the possibility of my ordination with my ancestors—particularly ancestral women with whom I shared either genes or spirit.

So, in August and September 2019, I finished piecing the top. I carefully layered the backing, batting, and top together. I then quilted it by hand.  Finally, I bound the edges and it was complete. With the ordination service approaching, I requested that “Grandmother Project” be part of the worship visuals as a symbol of gratitude and interconnectedness to those who have “made a way” for my journey.

As I stood facing the congregation that morning, I also stood in front of my handiwork, my grandmothers’ and mother’s fabrics, and I was anointed for ministry.  My mother and mother-in-law joined me, draping a vibrant stole around my neck that they had collectively made.  It was a sacred intersection of blessings, of standing on hallowed ground with women who had paved the way for me, whether or not they knew it.

Photo credit: Justin Showalter

Recently, I’ve taken out more of these old scraps from my grandmothers, my own fabric occasionally mixed in.  As I cut them into squares for some future project, I think of my grandmothers and I wonder about their lives.

As I’m currently reading My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Path to Mending our Bodies by Resmaa Menakem, at times I reflect on the mystery of my own grandmothers’ hands. 

I think about the scars and trauma my ancestors endured, and wonder how much of that lingers in me. I wonder about how my grandmothers thought about race, gender, white privilege, or the land they inhabited.  I smile at the question with an unknowable answer: What would they think of their granddaughter-pastor? 

In the absence of answers, I keep cutting squares and asking for their blessing and wisdom. I offer my gratitude for them, for their labors in keeping loved ones clothed and warm with all varieties of colors and patterns. And I let their love shape my ministry, as I think now of those who will lead us in the years to come.

Rooted and Freed to (Be) Love(d)

This image on my arm has become my symbol of commitment to resisting dehumanization, both my own and others’. She represents our freedom from the lies of systemic oppression that restrain the fullness of life and loving expression.

For me, transitions tend to invite introspection—first at the time of the transition itself, and often again at anniversaries of the original event. These reflections take on multiple forms, such as journaling, personal retreats, or planning rituals with friends. Other times, the reflection is intertwined with embodied expression: cutting off my hair, adding holes to my body, or inking up my skin. 

Recently, I crossed a milestone anniversary of a significant transition – one that was, in fact, marked by fresh ink on my right forearm.  It is this experience, the art and the personal growth, that I reflect on below.


The chaos felt violent, unnecessary, and soul-deadening. When I finally found a shred of Center, something deep had shifted within me, and I began pondering my first steps out of the swirling mess.

Stepping out of any tumultuous experience is a significant transition, a liminal space to be named and honored. And so, I commissioned an artist-friend to draw a tattoo for me.

The instructions were basic: it should be based on a Celtic tree of life (a symbol that connects with my spirituality); with a nod toward a water-loving tree, such as a weeping willow (connecting to my natal watershed); and, I wanted the full spectrum of color represented.

My friend took these instructions and mocked up a couple of options.  I was immediately struck with one where she had intuitively transformed the trunk into a feminine figure, such that the roots became her feet, and her arms and head stretched up to form the bottom branches.  This was it.  This was the one. The image spoke to what had shifted in me and, in turn, marked my stepping out from the shadows.

Part of what shifted within me, you see, was a new unwillingness to be boxed in.
An unwillingness to put my head down, to be veiled in silence, to take up less space.
An unwillingness to be complicit in the unconcealed, deliberate stifling of my very essence.

As I was reminded countless times, I had agreed to this.  I had initially consented to The Box,* diminishing myself in some vague, perverse form of Gelassenheit.  I settled for the self-silencing. I optimistically trusted that this was rooted in something theologically sound and that I would grow to understand it. Instead, I found it was rooted in the tired, old forms of patriarchy and sexism, and every time I mentioned this or stepped out of my box, institutional denial emerged with scapegoating hot on its tail.

At a point, I had enough.  (Part of my reflections now, many moons later, include an incredulity that I stayed as long as I did.)

The tattoo, then, was a way of saying, “no more!” – a visible, physical reminder that life is too short to be boxed in for a “greater cause,”** when in reality, The Greater Cause desperately needs our full, flourishing selves.*** 

Part of my call is not only to believe that I deserve this for myself, but to actively advocate for the flourishing of others. That’s partly where the full spectrum of colors in the tattoo comes in.

This image on my arm has become my symbol of commitment to resisting dehumanization, both my own and others’.  She represents our freedom from the lies of systemic oppression that restrain the fullness of life and loving expression. 

In flinging wide her arms, the Tree Woman is not only freed from her shackles, she is freed to love and to be loved.  Songbirds land in the safety of her weeping branches, and she sings along with them.  The life-rich soil on the banks of her stream, she firmly holds in place with a steadfast resolve. Travelers of all sorts find under her canopy a safe haven for rest, arms stretched wide to hold and be held.  (She loves to be held as much as she holds.)


In a recent worship planning meeting at Madison Mennonite, our chairperson opened the gathering by sharing the following poem of Hildegard of Bingen. As he read, I saw reflected that while this tattoo is on my arm, it represents the experience and blessing we all need in milestone moments and in their anniversaries.  As we find our roots and shake off the shackles that bind us, we are freed to be “encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”

Good people,
Most royal greening verdancy,
Rooted in the sun,
You shine with radiant light,
in this circle of earthly existence
You shine so finely,
it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.


*I was told The Box would grow and change its shape, according to the person inhabiting it.

**A scarcity mentality leads us to accommodate the “greater cause.”

***Becoming our “full, flourishing selves,” does not include the “freedom” to trample on the potential growth of others.  It may, in fact, involve the surrendering of certain “privileges or preferences” to enable the thriving of others. In this vision of Freedom, my flourishing is directly tied to your flourishing; if you are chained, then I cannot be free.  (…to adapt the quote generally attributed to Lilla Watson.)

Sneak Attacks of the Night

The poem, perhaps yet unfinished, has been rolling around for awhile. It speaks of that which keeps us up at night — anxieties, traumatic memories, resentment, anger. There is something about the dark that invites these things to blossom in ways they wouldn’t dare during the day.

Petals unfurling at night,
a flower blossoms in the shimmering glow
of an ever-full moon.

Stubborn and devious,
it will not bloom in broad daylight
(no, for there it withers
under the stout resistance of one’s heart
and mind.)

Instead, this sickly-sweet blossom prefers
a still, silent world
shadows
poor night vision.

Feet, hands frozen
as if in a dream
can neither pluck it
nor flee from it.

A stray cloud passes;
the momentary distraction
shatters the illusion.

Then, a deep breath,
blankets tucked in again.
Weary eyes shutter.

The petals collapse in on themselves,
defeated for this night.

Richard Boyle @hellorich

Most of my creative energy in the last weeks has been directed toward church-related plans and staying present with broader invitations of life. All of this has required a high level of collaboration, which is fantastic and I wouldn’t trade any of it!

But it has been awhile since I’ve written anything “shareable” for the blog. I saw this on a friend’s timeline and I knew it was true for me.

The poem above, perhaps yet unfinished, has been rolling around for awhile. It speaks of that which keeps us up at night — anxieties, traumatic memories, resentment, anger. There is something about the dark that invites these things to blossom in ways they wouldn’t dare during the day. Sometimes there is the grace of a passing cloud, or a new perspective; often there is not.

In the Midst of the Storm

In these late summer COVID days, the imagery and reality of storms seems ever-present. Several conversations lately have turned toward thunderstorms and the swirls of chaos many find themselves right now.  It’s a vulnerable time; we feel exposed to the elements, utterly out of control.

Of the storms in the Bible, my favorite to reflect on is in Job 38, where God speaks to Job from the middle of a whirlwind.

“From out of a storm, the LORD said to Job:
Why do you talk so much, when you know so little?
Now get ready to face me. Can you answer the questions I ask?” (CEV)

While some might read this theophany and hear an über-powerful God who smites doubters and sufferers alike, I hear in the passage a deep love for all that God has made: a God who birthed the oceans; who embroiders the hills with sunlight; who has storehouses of snow and dew.  This is a God who has thought of every detail, arranging the cosmos with an artist’s keen eye.  And this is a God with a dry sense of humor, asking questions that direct Job (and us) back to his inevitable mortality and finiteness.

One of the most disorienting aspects of life in this COVID time (perhaps especially for white U.S. folks) is that our illusions of being in control have been shattered. The whirlwind has whipped away the flimsy protections of privilege.  This has led to our feelings of vulnerability, to which we all respond in different ways.

The invitation of Job 38 in a time like this is to surrender to God.  There is so much we cannot control right now (or ever).  To surrender to God is not to be obliterated or made insignificant; it is to be liberated from the illusory self. To surrender is to see that we are but one piece in a beautiful web of the cosmos, intricately created and loved – loved not because we hold it all together, but simply because we are.

In the midst of the storm, the Holy One will meet you.
Let Them guide you through the chaos with a Love that is infinite.


Songs featuring storms have themselves been swirling through my mind. Here’s a short playlist.

Friends from our days in London.

This essay was originally written for the August 2020 Madison Mennonite Church newsletter.

Lord, have mercy

A sermon on Matthew 15:10-28; Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Lord, have mercy.
“Lord, have mercy.” It’s one of those phrases that suits so many situations and can be taken so many different ways.  Sometimes we utter it in exasperation, in disbelief or sarcasm, with an eye roll for good measure.  Perhaps more often these days, we say it in grief, shock, or surrender.  It’s a line for when we are at a loss for words or when words are simply insufficient.

The Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 yells this phrase at the top of her lungs.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented.”  Jesus doesn’t answer, but we know that he heard her, for the disciples sidled up to Jesus and urged him to send her away.  “She keeps shouting.  Her voice is shrill.”

Jesus weighs the situation, doesn’t say she can’t be there, and sort of diplomatically says, “Sorry, can’t help. You’re not in my constituency. Not my responsibility.”

The woman, of course, persists.  She jostles forward, using her body to block his forward progress.  “Help me, Rabbi.”

Again, with the excuse that the healing salve he has developed only works in certain cases, Jesus denies her access – he doesn’t have enough to spare, and it won’t work for her type.

Yet she remains, unmoving at his feet.  “Yes, Lord, yet even my type are healed by a drop of this balm for which we would scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town.”

Jesus, whether in mock or true surprise, responds, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Her wish, the desire of her heart, in contrast the Pharisees earlier in chapter 15, is pure and life-giving.  What comes out of her mouth is the hope of her daughter’s healing.  And her daughter is healed instantly.

Healings in the Gospel of Matthew
Looking at the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, healings like this are commonplace. Generally, you can separate the healing stories into two themes or categories. 

The first category is the smaller of the two. These healing stories are grouped because they’re the ones where Jesus is the proactive actor.  There’s Peter’s mother-in-law in ch. 8, who is ill and Jesus goes in to heal her.  She does not, in the text, ask for healing and yet receives it.  Or there’s the man with a withered hand who Jesus encounters upon entering the synagogue in ch.12.  Again, the man does not ask for healing but receives it.  The healing of these stories reflects a proactive grace or proactive salvation – these are the people whom Jesus seeks out or whom he seems to just encounter along the way and offers healing.

The second category is the bigger group: healings that occur because people have sought out Jesus.  If the first group shows the proactive healings of Jesus, these stories show the responsive grace of Jesus.  Certainly, the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 falls in this camp, but this group also includes the crowds who are constantly following Jesus around. Who materialize instantaneously as he walks into towns, or gets off a boat, or comes down a mountain.  Many are healed or cured because they have sought out Jesus.

As a whole, the Gospel of Matthew encapsulates both proactive and responsive healings and grace. There are those who seek Jesus out and those whom he encounters along the way, and the end result is the same: healing.

Seeking Jesus Out
Given today’s text, I want to take a closer look at those who seek Jesus out.  The story of the Canaanite woman connects closely with three other healing stories in Matthew.

Two of them involve two blind men – so four blind men in total – and the third is a father who advocates for his epileptic son.  In each of these four stories, the ones-seeking-healing enter the story with the same line: Lord, have mercy!  And they all do so with equal gusto and persistence, for they are portrayed as speaking this line, “Lord, have mercy,” while “crying loudly,” or “shouting” or jostling through a crowd.  All, inevitably, find healing in Jesus’ response.

But the Canaanite woman’s story diverges here.  The first distinction is that while all experience some level of marginalization because of being affected by illness, the Canaanite woman has two additional stigmas. She’s a woman, of course, an unfortunate gender in that context. And the fact that she makes herself known in public through shouting is serious faux pas.

And, she’s Canaanite. The ethnic backgrounds of the others are not mentioned, from which we can infer that the men were Jewish.  She’s a woman…from the wrong tribe.  So the first divergence is that she should not be there; or, if she’s going to be there, she should know her place and stay in the background.

The other detail that is unique is that she is the only one who meets resistance from Jesus and the disciples when she cries out for mercy.  The disciples–silent in the other three stories–openly voice their desire for her to shut up and go away.  Not only is her voice not welcome, but they also want her to leave.  Jesus also puts up a barrier for healing that he does not construct for the others.

She did nothing different from the others who approached Jesus for healing, crying out, “Lord, have mercy!”  Yet she encounters resistance.  The relevance of how this still plays out today–even at the highest rungs of social and political power–should not be overlooked.

The “Foreigner” of Isaiah
Commentaries pitch a variety of hypotheses on what is happening between the Canaanite woman and Jesus.  In drawing in Isaiah 56, my sense is that the Canaanite woman is the example par excellence of the “foreigner” in Isaiah 56, whom God has committed to “gather in.”  Her body and her embodiment of covenant faithfulness bridge the good news of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ teaching.

Hear again the words of Isaiah 56:6-7:

And the foreigners who join themselves to me,
Ministering to me,
Loving the name of YHWH and worshipping me–
All who observe the Sabbath and do not profane it,
And cling to my Covenant–
These I will bring to my holy mountain
And make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be acceptable on my altar

The Canaanite woman persistently joins herself to the Son of David, who shares Canaanite blood with her through their common foremothers Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.  She ministers to Jesus with her wisdom and tenacity, acknowledging Jesus’ authority, and throws herself at Jesus’ feet like a servant.

She is committed, in her own way, to the law of the Sabbath, setting aside her daily labors to seek restoration, renewal, and healing for those in her care. The desire of her heart is a worthy offering.

She knows that she is one who, while an outcast of Israel, deserves a welcome at the house of prayer.  In fact, she will not be kept from it, even if she has to scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town or sweep up the crumbs from the communion table.  I Am Who I Am has promised to gather all those in – the outcasts who seek the Holy One and the ones the Holy One encounters on the way.

Have Mercy, O God
For what or for whom do you seek healing?  When have you received healing as a gift? 

Whether we have sought out Jesus or unexpectedly encountered him on our journeys, our status as foreigners or even imposters will not be a barrier to the welcome table. 

As we see others drawn in, perhaps throwing elbows and shouting for mercy, may we not stand in their path, or ask them to be quiet and leave. May we instead step out of the way, for all deserve healing and a place at the table.  The Spirit is at work, gathering us to the holy mountain, where there is enough bread and wine for us all.  

Prayer of Petition, in preparation for Communion

Have mercy on us, O God, Son of David.
If we might but taste the crumbs which fall to the ground,
that will be enough to feed our faith,
to make us whole.
Draw us in, we who were once far off,
to your holy mountain,
to your house of prayer –
not only for our healing,
but for the healing of our children,
our siblings, our community,
for the healing of all nations. Amen.


Featured Image: Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canaanite Woman Asks for Healing for Her Daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57555 [retrieved August 18, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilyas_Basim_Khuri_Bazzi_Rahib_-_Jesus_and_the_Canaanite_Woman_-_Walters_W59243A_-_Full_Page.jpg.

Book Review: The Lost Art of Dying

The details: L.S. Dugdale, The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom (New York: Harper One, 2020).

The problem and the question:  More and more North Americans have been dying poorly. We pursue a seemingly endless array of medical treatments with the hope of a cure, and, in exchange, often sacrifice our quality of life. We are dying alone and with regrets. And we die in fear, untethered from a sense of a bigger purpose. How can we support others’ dying and prepare for our own dying so that death is done “well”?

The thesis:  To die well, we must live well. 

What this means for Dugdale:  Dying well means living with a sense of our finitude.  We’re all going to die someday, and it’s best if we deal with that fact while we aren’t facing death head-on.  That does not mean we look forward to dying, but that we have judged and arranged our todays (and tomorrows) with an awareness that we cannot do/have it all.  We cannot be cured of death.

Dying well requires a connection to community and loved ones.  Which is to say that we must be present for others when they are dying (to both support them and to be reminded of our own mortality), and we must be prepared to unashamedly invite others in to our dying processes. Community helps us answer – or, at least admit that we often have – lingering questions about our existence.

Dying well means considering our literal deathbed.  The art of dying well is to curate, if you are able, your final days and moments so that you are at “home.” A hospital can be a “home” for various reasons, but Dugdale argues that hospitals often present barriers to dying well. So, thinking through what is important to you is a first step to dying in the bed and company of your heart’s desire.

Dying well requires that we acknowledge our fear of death.  It is out of fear of death that we “wage war” on the illnesses that ravage our bodies.  This fear is sometimes mistaken for a “desire to live,” though the quality of life one lives when on a third or fourth experimental drug says otherwise. It is natural to be afraid of what we do not know and what we cannot control, but Dugdale writes,“[N]ot all fear compels a person to submit to torturous procedures that are unlikely to help.”*.  To die well while afraid is to “walk courageously…toward the terror and sadness.”** To stare back at the fear of death is the only way to die well.

Dying well means attending to the body and the spirit. Dugdale writes of “vandalized shalom,” where bodies, communities, and the world are not as they are meant to be and are affected by decay.***  Yet it is within (broken) community that we find meaning and transformation. And it is within communities of faith, Dugdale suggests, that we find spiritual grounding to ease despair and emptiness.

Finally, dying well entails devoting time—more than one might think—to the rituals surrounding death.  While our culture around death has shifted significantly in the recent past, passing on to “professionals” the actions associated with saying our final good byes, Dugdale suggests that what is gained with efficiency does not offset what is lost ritually. Rituals, like preparing the body for burial or funerals, aren’t meant to be efficient, but to be effective markers of significant transition. In the case of death, they are meant to allow us to show love to the deceased, to the bereaved, and to contemplate our own mortality. What would it look like for families and communities to return to holding these rituals, rather than funeral homes?  Would it help the living to live (and die) better and to mourn more fully?

Personal reflection:  I finished this book on my birthday, a purposeful move…for though birthdays invite us to celebrate our lives and existence, with each passing year, they also mark, if we pay attention, our certain mortality. While I had a blip in my mid-20s where the idea of death filled me with utter sadness, I have largely felt unintimidated by death. I’m certainly not personally eager for it, nor do I wish anyone else an untimely death, but, with Dugdale, I have felt convicted that how we live (not what we have or ultimately what we accomplish) is how we die. And so I have tried to shape my life around priorities, which include faith, community, and no small amount of not-putting-up-with-crap.

A birthday donut: definitely contemplating my mortality, with the help of delicious, delicious carbs and fat.

Reading The Lost Art of Dying couldn’t have come at a better time–in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of societal upheaval, and in the midst of the earth rebelling against human abuse. Each of these circumstances reminds us of just how interconnected we all are. How your ability to live well relies on my ability to live well. How your ability to die well — without fear, surrounded by loved ones at home — is intricately connected with my ability to die well.

It may seem strange to educate ourselves on dying well, while death feels far off, but as Dugdale suggests, what better time is there?  What does it mean for you to live well? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

On a lighter but connected note: 

*Dugdale, 98.
**Dugdale, 110.
***Dugdale, 150.