Nothing is lost.

“The writing life is rarely up and to the right,” my friend Jonathan tells me, and I nod, even though he can’t see me on the floor, wedged between my bed and the dog’s, wiping ugly cry off of my cheeks.

I’ve been having a WEEK.

You probably know this kind of week. It’s the week you hope everything might fall into place like chips on a Plinko board, and instead you’re still coming up nil. It’s the week when you imagine your “fake it ’til you make it” might start to pay off but you didn’t quite make it, so now what? You’re just the perennial faker? It’s the week you realize that you’ve grown attached to an idea for your life that is not real or helpful, and it’s causing you some suffering, some snotting.

Around this time last year, I took a trip to the mountains with two writerly girlfriends. Our rhythm went something like this: sleep until nine, write until noon, explore until evening, and then read our writings aloud, brave and blushing. It was here, surrounded by wood planks and dead bumble bees, that I formed the first paragraphs of my next book.

From there, I came home and did the things I knew to do after a decade in publishing. I found an agent. I cobbled together a book proposal or rather book proposals. There were as many versions as I had selves. The theological one. The journalistic one. The religious one and the thinks-she-funny one. There was the one that sounded like someone’s best friend, just not my best friend, so I had to wonder.

In the time it took me to put together a proposal, another friend had written a book.

No matter, I told myself, slow was my M.O. I may not get there the fastest, but, when I did, it would be the truest way I knew how.

Finally, it was time to pitch the idea to publishers. As we did, I listened to their feedback. Even harder, I listened to my inner feedback to their feedback. Where did this pass land in me? What did this offer spark in me? It wasn’t always clear. But I thought it might become that way with time. Time had aways come through for me.

But when it appeared like Time had arrived, there was still a niggling feeling within me. I showed up for the writing things. I did the publishing things. I strung each next best step together, thinking I was preparing a banner of celebration over this threshold. And, yet, I couldn’t bring myself to hang it. This made me very sad, and concerned, and eventually panicked because I couldn’t quite make sense of it all. Things weren’t turning out how I expected.

Enter the WEEK.

It was harrowing, but I did not give up. I woke each morning, letting my eyes adjust to a new day, a fresh mercy. I put my hand on my heart, a lot, and said, “Do not abandon me here.” I asked a handful of friends, maybe too many, to help me make sense of myself. As they did, I listened to their feedback. Even harder, I listened to my inner feedback to their feedback.

If the writing life, the spiritual life, any life worth living is not up and to the right, as Jonathan says, if it’s not a linear line of progress, if it’s not always getting better or clearer or lighter, then what is it?

It’s like a spiral, I’ve decided, and a downward one at that. Our knowing moves in circles, like T.S. Elliot once implied, whereby we often arrive where we began but with a perspective more grounded in truth. (Is this why after sixteen mattresses, I decided to re-buy the very first one I tried?) The mark of success in this metaphor is not, then, up and to the right. It’s down into the center, our center, the center of all being, the center I call God.

Nothing is lost, God says, when I am weary from all of my wavering, feeling like time has been wasted, willing myself to just get on with it. It’s the psalmist who actually puts these words in God’s mouth for me:

God’s love is meteoric,
his loyalty astronomic,
His purpose titanic,
his verdicts oceanic.
Yet in his largeness
nothing gets lost;
Not a [wo]man, not a mouse,
slips through the cracks
— Psalm 36: 5-6 (MSG)

I do not fully understand her, but this is the God I believe in: the one who grabs my chin and says, “You are worthy of time to decide;” the one who strokes my head and says, “You didn’t know what you know now;” the one who lights a candle for me and says, “We’ll figure this out together.” I believe in a God who keeps track of my life, even when I can’t.

After a WEEK in which I am less sure of where to go from here, I am more sure that nothing is lost in our cosmic travels. No knowing is lost. No turning is lost. No time is lost. We will not be lost.

We are always in God’s orbit, as nauseating as that may be sometimes.

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I love your hard to loves.

I look at you, and I savor.

You are alive on your thirteenth birthday.

We weren’t so sure.

You remember, don’t you?—you don’t, the science says—when I curled up to your body like a comma and whispered into your ear, “You are good to go.” I meant it. You are a good dog. And it was okay if you needed to be a gone dog, too.

That didn’t make it easy. For a whole three weeks, while you were on your hunger strike, I cried. I stayed home. I dry heaved grief at four a.m., every night, season four episodes of Kimmy Schmidt the only thing that made me forget you were dying. I’d never lost anyone I loved as much as you.

Steroids saved you; other people’s love saved me.

You weren’t yourself for some time after. The medicine made you greedy—and beady-eyed. You let your tongue out a lot and didn’t like to be touched and peed on the couch more times than we could count before getting you medicine—and more medicine. You weren’t as easy to love. But you were alive.

Not everyone we love is alive now.

Now is the new normal. Your hair fell out in the furminator and grew back looking as burly as a bear. Your ears smell like old people, and your teeth are banana yellow.

You are more of an asshole than ever.

I might be more of an asshole, too, if I had to eat the same thing everyday, no treats, no exceptions. Still I cringe when you stick your butt in front of us when we try to pet Alvin instead of you. You make me mad when you get mouthy with the mail lady. And why do you sometimes actually JUKE when I move towards you? If you had your own blog, I’ve long known what it would be called: #bitchplease.

Still, I love your hard to loves because they help me to love mine.

Like, when I tell people about you, “She makes bad first impressions but she’s a sweetheart after five,” I’m telling them about me, too. The way I clam up around others’ good cheer. Or use questions as a way to curtail connection. You remind me that it’s okay if it takes a while to find the fit of my true self.

Or, like, when you refuse to do “night rounds” and instead make the kiddos come to you, nose already buried under the covers, I think GENIUS and give myself permission to drop the ball every blue moon. Sometimes, the girls don’t even mind, relishing the chance to do the tucking, the forehead kissing.

Once, you rolled your eyes at Rush and said in your Cartman voice—because you have a voice and NO, it’s not us talking for you—“You animal! You went to the grocery store in your Crocs?” And I thought, “Thank you” and “God bless you.” While I suffer from a recurring tone problem, you always tell the truth with levity. I am learning from you still.

My buddy, Steve, once said to me, after I was through thoroughly discerning some inner darkness of mine, “But, like, imagine if you were a character in a t.v. show. Don’t you think you’d like yourself more? Like, sometimes I just shake my head and go, Steve. Steve?!? That guy. What a lovable nut.”

That’s it, isn’t it? Dogs, like good friends or grimy children or sitcom sidekicks, help us see ourselves outside of ourselves. There’s something about noticing the glint others find in rough edges that helps us to love our own. It’s loving our hard to loves that allows us to accept the totality of another’s.

From the moment we got you, Amelia, you have been complicated, a verifiable world of mystery behind your eyebrow arc. This is how all beings worth knowing are.

This kind of knowing never gets old, even though you and I do.

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But what if you didn’t?

There’s nothing sexy about a stopover at McDonald’s—except for when it’s en route to a romantic weekend away and you are responsible for monitoring exactly NO ONE’s appetite but your own.

Then, an afternoon snack on a swivel stool is everything, you with your cartoonishly big Diet Coke, your date with their Gumby-long fries. It’s as if you’re playing hooky on your real life— which isn’t a thing, and which you will soon learn when you leave your cell phone in the bathroom stall.

When it occurs to you that you and your screen have been separated, you will ask your date to call it first and then, with less lilt in your voice, to look for it in the car. Even as you are asking, you are also remembering. You remember telling yourself, as you took it out of your bib overalls and placed it atop the toilet paper dispenser, “Do not forget your cell phone.” You may have even paused and blinked, as if taking a mental picture would memorialize its placement. It didn’t, and now you are an hour away, checked into a groovy hotel, with your bikini bottoms on but your button-up shirt not yet off.

After your date pulls up the Find My iPhone app and it pinpoints the location of your lover’s stop, you will know what you must do. At least, you will think you know because there is often a ready script for the SHOULDS of your life. You must go back and get it. It is the responsible, adult thing to do, even though getting back in the car means you will miss drinking sangria from a box by the pool, miss the ink from your library book rubbing off on your thighs, and very likely miss the dinner reservations you and your date made two months ago.

There will be nothing sexy about the start of your getaway, save for the fact that you once were wearing only half a swimsuit.

And so, you will take your pants to the bathroom in order to put them back on in the privacy of your own shame. You know it’s okay to make mistakes. That it’s not the end of the world. Emotional recovery is possible. You are also not okay that it was YOU who made the mistake, embarrassed to have ended if not the world then at least the MOOD, and aware that the average time span for you to “emotionally recover” is more than your anticipated round trip. You are doomed, and you can’t stop thinking it.

“I have to go back,” you will mutter to yourself.

And then another voice will answer, “But what if you didn’t?”

You will take your palms off your face and look up as if to catch who said it. But there is no one there but you and a strange calm currently settling over your insides as if someone turned off the jets in a hundred-degree hot tub.

In the quiet, your inner compass will finally turn off auto-pilot and asses. What’s more important? Reconnecting with your phone or reconnecting with your date?

It will occur to you now that you do not even like your phone. It’s greasy with makeup and turns off at will and doesn’t even give the satisfaction of a doodle-y-do anymore when you plug it in at night to take its charge. The more you play this out—the getting in the car, the sullen look on your face (there’s no getting around it), the way your date tries too hard to reassure you, not to mention getting to McDonald’s with no guarantee that your phone isn’t in someone’s pocket or someone’s toilet water—the more you know that “but what if you didn’t” is your freedom song.

You will still do right by your phone. You will call and leave a message on the McDonald’s answering machine which you are sure ZERO people check. You will lock your phone and somehow—through the miracle of technology—post your date’s phone number should anyone find it. You will pray, too, and get a little lofty with the words, swanning, “What can mere mortals do to me?” Finally, yes, finally, you will put your bathing suit top on and feel as if the weekend has begun.

By the time you towel off to get ready for dinner, your phone has been found and is being held until you can drive back through on Sunday. PRAISE THE LORD. By the time you drive back through on Sunday, you have begun hearing “but what if you didn’t?” about almost everything.

But what if you didn’t reply to that text that’s testing your boundaries?

But what if you didn’t listen to your inner critic when she cries fraud?

But what if you didn’t try to make more money and learned to live on less?

But what if you didn’t pour four glasses when you got bored?

But what if you didn’t say every small thing you were thinking?

But what if you didn’t hold back on being honest about the big stuff?

But what if you didn’t try to fix other people’s bad behavior by being good?

But what if you didn’t decide on an end time for intimacy?

But what if you didn’t settle for less than you’re worth?

But what if you didn’t do the thing you always do?

You will not know the answers to all these questions, not yet. You will only know that the question itself is an invitation into another way, in which you are not an automaton in your own life. You are its co-author.

You know that a good story cannot move forward until it changes direction.

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You’re more than the sum of your parts.

My sabbatical year started two weeks before the adoption of our foster girls became final, and in everyone else’s mind but my own the two were related. A sabbatical year, however, was not code for maternity leave. 

It was how I would become MYSELF. 

Long before I met our children, like a whole three months at least, I had begun telling people at dinner parties that retirement was “bunk” and scheming how to dedicate one year out of every seven to rest, reboot, and renew my sense of purpose. Parenting would only highlight for me that I had gone adrift trading what if’s for well done’s.

It was the pursuit of what if’s that drew us to fostering in the first place. We geeked out over co-parenting with (bio)parents and social workers. We got ready to learn from Guardian ad Litems and mental health therapists. We were game to interface with school teachers and fire inspectors. The fact that children, delightful but DEPENDENT children, were 95% of the gig somehow got lost in our imagination.

And I, after our first and final placement, somehow got lost in our three kiddos’ needs: the appointments, the relaxation techniques, the family visits, the lice combings (er, the outsourcing of the lice combings to Rush.) The retreat work I had long loved but took big brain power continued to lose its luster. The writing practice I had long prized but took major vulnerability was even more impossible. #LikeaBoss took on new meaning as I manically moved, each day, from lunch-maker to bill-payer to professional-facilitator.

I suppose that was what my sabbatical year was for—to honor the person I was distinct from the roles that I played: I LIKED my roles, liked counting eight carrots to a container, liked the feel of a pen on an old-fashioned check, even liked agendas and meetings and business speak like “per my earlier email.” I was good at these things. 

But being good is not the same as being yourself. 

A sabbatical year, in the biblical sense, is an extension of the Judeo-Christian practice of a weekly Sabbath whereby we rest in the goodness not of our work but the God who animates it. We lift our chin from common worries and make eye-contact with the world again and our place in it. When the ancient Israelites began practicing not just the Sabbath day but whole years of Sabbath living, it became common to let the land—the bulk of their productive economy—lie unplowed and allow the poor and wild animals to glean from it. 

I suppose that was another way of narrating the need for rest; I had forgotten what it felt like to be FERAL, not free from responsibilities—or children—but free for a good larger than one’s own kin. 

And so, I laid out my plan for my husband, gave my notice at work, and withdrew a year’s worth of my Roth-IRA contributions to live off. (Adoption assistance payments that continue until the girls turn eighteen were crucial to caring for their needs.) There was no guarantee that my old job would be waiting when I returned (it wasn’t) or that I would be a better version of myself when it ended (I’m not). There was only the promise of time, time to grieve the person I had been and discover the one I was becoming. 

I grieved not just the legal transition from childfree to childfull that happened two weeks after the sabbatical had begun but the fact that at thirty-four I was no longer only, wholly, simply “somebody’s child.” I grieved that I was now the attentive ADULT in the room, eyes ready to read unnamed emotions, ears alert for a knock in the dark, tongue quick to tell the truth (that is, the infinitely impossible to discern age-appropriate truth.) 

A lot of this grieving looked like wandering around the quiet house in my Glerups and following a loose schedule of Yoga with Adriene, reading books without highlighter in hand, and watching the dogs pant in patches of sunlight. My twelve-year old dog, Amelia, became a surrogate mother for me, rolling her eyes at every nascent noise as if to say, “Missy, the world can wait.” 

Once I stopped fretting over my own transition to parenthood, I began following my nose toward sustainable parenting practices for others. I wrote proposals for two paid parental leave policies, one for the staff at my local church and another for a local nonprofit. One whole month was spent preparing a guest sermon for how American Christianity is too focused on the family and one whole month on shopping for—and returning—Christmas presents for my family (Note to self: This is NOT a sustainable parenting practice.) Eleven months in, I finally found a therapist— and finally wrote something that sounded true.

My sabbatical year trickled to an end with little to show for it—though that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?—other than a quiet celebration that I am more than the sum of my parts. My (re)productive parts. My partnering parts. My parenting parts. I am, as Alice Walker so poetically put it, like the shape of water who “is always only itself and does not belong to any of these containers though it creates them.”

And so it is with each of you, on this and EVERY day. 

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Keep the wishes coming.

One of the most important qualities I look for in adult friendships is the “still gives an eff” factor.

Marks of the STAF factor vary wildly from person to person but some of my current favorites in friends include: owning at least one item of clothing that makes you blush; answering “What music are you into these days?” without citing the radio, a movie soundtrack, or weekly worship; and the regular and unapologetic celebration of your own birthday.

Personally, I have given up on the celebration of most other people’s birthdays. At some point, deep into adulthood, you have to admit that it is no longer possible to care about all of the things worth caring about, like shaving your legs or keeping house plants alive, and in order to give an eff about the right things you need to give an eff about fewer things. And so it came to be that remembering other people’s birthdays was added to the list of things I have carefully considered to care less about.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, shortly after graduating college, when I asked my mother to send me a wall calendar with every known relative’s birth date. I was young, ambitious, and still marginally interested in what it would feel like to be a good woman. But even then I did the mental math and decided I could only reasonably be expected to celebrate the birthdays of underage cousins. One year, I may have even been so smug as to add cash to each of their cards.

Eventually, though, two things happened to dissuade me from my determination: Facebook and Other People’s Children. Facebook made remembering birthdays both effortless and public—neither good looks on me—and the exponential births of Other People’s Children made my now digital birthday calendar look like a bag of Skittles exploded over my screen. I recently learned of old friends who have put a moratorium on celebrating the births of second children. We will love the lights out of your first, they have said. But if you have another, we cannot be held responsible for remembering their name.

Celebrating my own birthday has not been without its comedy of errors. One year, a friend offered to throw me a party but when I got too directive with the details decided to call the whole thing off. Another year, the first our former foster kiddos shared with us, I planned an oyster bake in the backyard that got overshadowed by their melancholy. I am so sorry you are sad, I wanted to say, but I really do not know what more I can do for you than boil hot dogs on the side.

This year, because I believe in my own birthday so very much, I dedicated one whole therapy session to deciding how I would celebrate it. This wasn’t as fun as it sounds. There was some unexpected crying, and long pauses, and once I asked how much time I had left.

Finally, at the end, my therapist asked me if she could give me a present that I was under no obligation to like or not like. I just had to notice my response to it. She calls these “experiments” and I never say no because I want to appear open—and also get my money’s worth. And so I closed my eyes, counted three deep breaths, and then opened them to find a skinny candle the color of the rainbow in her palm.

“What is it?” I asked, a laugh ready to launch from my throat.

“It’s a wish candle,” she said. “And you can have as many wishes as there is wax.” She pulled a lighter out from her pocket, lit the candle, and moved the flame toward me.

Perhaps it was because it had been so long since I had made a wish—for someone who enjoys other people who still give an eff I spend an awful lot of time acting like I don’t—but I blew out the candle faster than you could say “flatforms.”

Then, politely and more slowly—as if there was infinite time for and trust in my appetites, because there is, and God told me so, that asking is an act of love and an ode to not giving up on yourself—I wondered, “May I have another?”

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The feeling is more than mutual.

When Kathleen was a kid, she heard strange sounds, sounds that no one else could sense. A tone here. A bell there. A beeping that would ring like an “all safe” in her right ear. She found it kind of magical but the “they’s” of this world disagreed. They said it would go away. They said to quit listening.

But Kathleen couldn’t quit listening. There were seasons when the sounds weren’t so frequent. And others where it was a like a symphony of song. A great sadness grew in her, though, because she could not communicate with the sound within. She did not know how to sing back.

Finally, some years into adulthood, she found a spiritual director who affirmed her ear, the way it attuned to the world and the way it wanted to commune with others. All Kathleen had to do was listen.

Just listen. Keep listening. First and always listen.

And so she did, until one day she met the singing bowls, bell-shaped vessels hallowed out for the holy. It was the first time she heard what was happening within mimicked on the outside. She had found her medium for meaning-making. She could finally sing back to the sound of the genuine in her.

When I heard Kathleen share this story, I was in a room full of retreat facilitators who, like me, had been shaped and trained by the work of Parker J. Palmer and the Center for Courage & Renewal. We’re in the business of listening. Deep listening. Sacred listening. Listening in the company of community.

Still, I showed up at that retreat straining to hear the sound of the genuine in me. Coming off a weekend of family fullness, I did everything I knew to set myself up for the stillness. All the tricks: bringing spiritual books—always two too many—, sharpening pencils for pointed reflection, even packing one less lipstick tube for the sake of SIMPLE.

I was desperate for clarity in my listening.

What I got was quality of listening.

Quality before clarity became the motto of my meditations. How often was I going to spiritual practices in order to produce? What was the point of retreat if not a revelation? And yet over and over again God sang to me a different song. Over and over again God said, “Quiet, child. You don’t have to sing back. Listen.”

Just listen. Keep listening. First and always listen.

There’s something so human in trying to make everything mutual, isn’t there? It’s perhaps my favorite part of Kathleen’s story: she was so sad not to be able to sing back. We want to have something to show for this show of love. We want to write a thank you note for the thank you feast. But God, the universe, whatever you want to call them, is conspiring for our good, our collective good, without us even having to lift our littlest finger. There’s something totally stupid in the matchless extravagance toward us.

I don’t know what the sound of the genuine is in you—a phrase that, by the way, comes from the majestic mystic Howard Thurman. But I know that Kathleen didn’t learn hers through the hustle. She learned it by listening. Through the systematic silencing of her they’s. By being faithful day in and day out to her unique idiom.

Even if she never met her singing bowls, I believe it would have been enough. It would have been enough to have soaked up the sound of love.

And yet to see her sit in front of me on the first night of retreat, legs folded beneath her, twelve colorful vessels in front of her, two mallets in either hand, smile held longer than a whole note across her face, I knew her faithfulness had found its fullness.

After decades—decades y’all! Kathleen is not a young kitten—she can finally sing back.

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Fragile is not the final word.

I was in line at the downtown post office last week, predictably underprepared with spontaneous earrings to send. There were just enough people in front of me to scribble “Thinking of you!” on the earrings’ cardboard backing, before tossing them into a package-for-purchase and adding the words FRAGILE in big block letters, front and back.

When it was my turn, I handed the bubble mailer triumphantly to the postal worker. His floppy gray hair flopped into place as he looked up with a smile and gestured to the credit card screen in front of me. Does this parcel contain anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous?

I froze, as if I never IN ALL MY LIFE saw this question coming. Suddenly, it triggered in me a deep down desire to dress up, play pretend, minimize my clanking contents.

You see, when I was in college, I applied for a summer fellowship that I very much wanted and very much expected to get. It was tailor-made for do-gooders like me and my friends who were weighing work in the non-profit sector. Digging deep to stand out in the application, I admitted not just my hopes for helping victims and survivors, abusers and healers, but my hopes that they would help me overcome a lifelong fear of the “other.”

Shockingly, I was NOT admitted to the fellowship.

When I did the thing Dad had taught me to do—requested a follow-up interview to get feedback for improvement—the college chaplain agreed. I remember only one word from that meeting: FRAGILE. I’d been deemed too fragile for the fellowship. And what does being termed too fragile force you to do?

Cry. Shake. Snot. Check.

Furious at my own tears, and furious at the rejection, I returned to my dorm room to make sense of his summary. All I could reason is that I had said too much. I had been too candid. My vulnerability had been weaponized. (It did not occur to me that perhaps I wasn’t ready for this real-world work.) And so I did what any dramatic character in the story of her life would do. I made a VOW.

Be. more. careful.

These words traveled with me through future relationships, future job applications, future post offices, the message the same every time: pull it together, pal.

Frozen in time in this customer service line, I looked at the package with my scrambled handwriting and then back to the question in front of me. At the package, back at the question, my eyes darted. A choice to make: keep covering up or lay it on the line? Finally, I admitted, “Well, I did write fragile all over it.”

I waited for the rebuke. I waited for the alarm. In all my years, I could never remember answering yes to this question and could not for the life of me imagine the consequence.

But there was no rebuke. There was no alarm. There was only a steady gaze and this reply from a floppy stranger: “It’s okay if it’s fragile.”

I could have kissed him.

His words—a love note from God, I was sure—worked their way on me all Lenten week long. What old vows have to die so that a new shout of vows can be born? Where am I being invited to show love to my shaky places—in my writing? my parenting? my sex life? And is it really okay to be fragile in a time like this and a body like mine? Surely, there were caveats!

One such came when over the weekend I got a text from my package’s recipient. “[Sad Face Emoji] Your mailer arrived but the earrings were missing!”

Damn, postal service! I thought. See it’s not okay to be fragile! I tore into God.

But after a day or two to digest the news, I thought better. I thought deeper. I thought that maybe the message wasn’t only that it’s okay to be fragile, but that fragile is not the final word.

You can get rejected …then get rolling again.

You can bear your heart…then change your mind.

You can say something stupid…then say you’re sorry.

You can be fragile today…and fiercer tomorrow.

As for me? After sitting a few days with my sad story, I picked out a pair of earrings from my personal collection, placed them perfectly in a cotton-filled box, and wrote my intentions for where to send as clear as day.

No qualifiers needed.

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Affirmation is everywhere.

You’ve heard that hokey story about the man who prays to be rescued from a flood and God sends a car, a boat, even a helicopter when the water rises high but each time help comes the man refuses, remains comically committed to “waiting on God.” And then he dies. That’s the ending, right? He dies waiting for the answers that had already arrived.

I’m paranoid that man is me. I’m especially paranoid because for the last two months, I’ve been asking for affirmation from God, the universe, my dog, ANYONE, to tell me that I am on the right track. And despite having “heard” many times that I am, I’m behaving as if it’s a hoax. I’m behaving as if life is a Magic 8 ball that’s stuck on “Reply hazy. Try again later.”

Forgive me for my middle school foolishness.

It surprises me NOT AT ALL then that for the past three nights I have dreamt of one Jared Avers, my eighth grade crush and conduit for confidence. J.J. was that guy who knew what was up before every other thirteen-year-old goobs did. He was tall, tan, and already prickly with puberty’s facial hair by the time I started the eighth grade at a new school. A democratic flirt with a teddy bear bod, he walked the line between your best friend and your safest bet for boyfriend practice. Even though I knew he was laying down smooth lines for every soon-to-be high schooler, I took the affirmation. I catalogued the affirmation. I transmitted the affirmation to my best friend, Lia, even though she was dishing the same to me and it got a little weird at times. Still, we LIVED for it.

As I have sat with these dreams some and put on my tallest theological hat, this is what I have come to: God is like Jared Avers. He is dishing out affirmation ALL THE TIME, and even though you know he’s doing the same to every other sorry soul, it is your job to take it in, write it down, and mutual brag to your best bro or broad about it.

Do not die waiting for the affirmation that has already arrived.

Middle school spirituality is still strong in me. I still find myself hunting after affirmation in all the wrong places and assuming if it comes easy it must be suspect. (EXAMPLE: When I finished my recent Love Notes from God series, which many of you were so brave to tell me you found needed, I decided y’all were just big cheeseballs with bad taste.) I’m still enamored with the chase, to winning over the hard-to-love, to tall boys who are too cool for their own good. But this pattern of life is not affirming. It is addictive.

Affirmation is everywhere, God keeps telling me—except it’s not God, as in a disembodied voice from on high. It’s in the “thank you’s” from a weirdly wide swath of people for this writing work. It’s in the citrusy-scented hug from a new friend who lingered after church—despite her introverted loathing—for ME. It’s in the body of a small, muscly, female pastor who doesn’t just say the right things but does the next right thing by celebrating an inclusive communion that makes this cold heart quiver.

I never did have my moment with J.J. He walked me home from the bus stop one day, but when he asked to come inside to play Nintendo, I said no. Because I was also a thirteen-year-old who knew what was up.

Sooo, God is also NOT like Jared Avers.

But may we have the wits to know what’s up before we miss what’s going down.

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Please, quit using procreation to exclude others.

In a long-awaited, long-debated decision, a majority of United Methodist Church delegates at last week’s General Conference voted to double-down on the church’s historic stance against homosexuality (it’s contrary to God’s will), LGBTQ+ ordination (unless said clergy choose to be celibate), and same-gender marriage (church law will punish those who officiate).

But, then again, you may already know this. It’s been everywhere in my feeds, my ears, my home. You may also remember that I’m married to a United Methodist youth director. Or that in an out-of-character, out-of-body move, I became a member of not just any church but a United Methodist church plant last year. So when the so-called “Traditional Plan” outlined above was passed, I listened to my people’s cries, read their laments, coaxed my comatose heart to consider what may be my piece of the puzzle to add. And here it is:

For the love, can we, please, quit using procreation to exclude others?

Intent to procreate has long been used by both so-called traditionalist and liberal Christians as a measuring stick for marriage. In the former camp, the creation account in the book of Genesis (2:24) that describes the sexual union of one man and one woman has been interpreted as not just natural law but divine law. And yet progressives, too, have often used the opportunity to parent, if not procreate, within the stability of marriage as a reason for opening the sacrament to all peoples.

For example, in a recent article, a United Methodist Church elder wrote in affirmation of his gay son by arguing that the vocation of marriage requires at least openness to procreation except under extraordinary circumstances. By this account, same-gender couples who seek ways to bear and raise children are more a reflection of God’s plan for humanity than those like my husband and me who spent a decade of our marriage purposefully childfree. So, why did our unnatural union get #blessed and theirs continues to be banned?

My hunch? Procreation is a proxy argument to conceal bigger fears Christian leaders have of losing our cultural comforts, categorical certainties, and protected privileges. (Could there also be a fear of losing numbers if natalism isn’t pushed?) Because if marriage truly required literal, intentional, biological procreation, obviously, we could not allow the infertile, the elderly, or suspected baby-haters like me walk down the aisle—at least not without some unconscionable inconsistencies. 

Then there’s the serious fear on both sides that the Bible is not being read seriously enough. Just take Genesis 1:28 that commands—or blesses, depending on your perspective—humanity to “be fruitful and multiply.” Some interpret this verse as a procreative mandate for marriage. But others are “redefining fruitful” as a cultural mandate for thriving—that is, collective disciple-making, not individual baby-making is the proper emphasis.

Much of the debate about homosexuality, LGBTQ+ ordination, and same-gender marriage is ultimately about emphasis. No one in my progressive circles is denying that there are a handful of verses in the Bible that condemn homosexual practice. But many also argue that not one of them can easily be taken to condemn loving, committed, same-gender relationships as we now know them.

The “God-in-human-flesh” emphasis is the one I privilege, whereby we hold the life, death, words, deeds, and wily witness of Jesus Christ as more crucial than any other. This interpretative decision still rarely offers simple answers to modern debates, but it does remind us that in God there is no male and female (Galatians 3:24) and in God marriage matters more as metaphor for spiritual union than as cover for sexual one (Ephesians 5:32). As Eugene F. Rogers wrote in The Christian Century essay that rocked my moderate world, “Marriage, in this view, is for sanctification, a means by which God can bring a couple to himself by turning their limits to good. And no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less.” 

Jesus is the shining example of God’s plan for humanity, and Jesus did not procreate—let alone marry—nor was he ever recorded connecting procreation to the purpose of partnership. If you remember he was, in fact, rather rude in distancing himself from the biological family altogether, as I’ve written about before.

The talent or intent or desire to procreate is not an argument for someone’s sacred worth, their ability to represent God in a religious role, or their only way to enjoy a good and holy love. Having a child does not automatically make saints out of sinners, nor does remaining childfree shrivel saints into shrews.

Parenting of any kind is a crucible, for sure, but so too is giving an aging aunt a sponge bath.

There are limitless ways to love to your limit. 

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The color between black and white.

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We had known each other exactly three days before I had to reckon with what Black History Month had to do with my “brown” children. Three Mexican-American foster girls had moved in with us at the end of January and by the beginning of February they were riding home from elementary school with triumphant tales of the end of racism.

“Aren’t you glad that Martin Luther King, Jr. made it better for everyone once and for all?” our third grader asked me, minutes after I pulled away from the congested carpool line. Well, yes and no, I fumbled on the fly. Yes, I am glad but no, it’s not better for everyone. You and your people, child, are still seen in that amorphous category called “brown” in a country contrived for “whites.” 

Three years and three solemn adoptions later, I am still fumbling to educate myself and my girls–now 9, 11, and 13–on the color between black and white. It wasn’t until the lights came up on another movie about the black experience in America and another disheartened child squeaked, “Why does that have to happen to them?,” that I knew we had to keep connecting the dots with our girls, however imperfectly, between us and them. Not to diminish the impact of racism on black Americans. But to grow our understanding of its shared history with Latin-Americans. Always we begin again, echoed St. Benedictine.

And so it was that I awoke one Sunday morning possessed. Still in my pajamas, dog-hair sprouting off my hoodie, I sat on the living room floor and googled my guts out. (Because, I’m learning, that’s where white people start. By asking a white friend. Reading a book–like this powerhouse–by an ethnic minority. Hopping on the world wide web. Not by asking the first fill-in-the-blank friend we know.) What I found was a revelation in plain sight. 

I would tell my girls that millions more African slaves arrived in what is now Latin America than did in the United States, birthing the marriage of Afro-Latin history. (Mexico, then called New Spain, is thought to have had more slaves in the 16th century than any other New World colony.) I would tell my girls that seven years before the official start of the civil rights movement a Mexican-American woman led the way on desegregating public schools, winning a verdict for her district that later rippled to the entire state of California. (Caveat: nowadays, resegregation is a major problem.) I would tell my girls that Hispanics are overrepresented in traffic searches and arrests and second to African-Americans in the rate of police killings of minorities. (You know the talk Starr got in The Hate U Give? We’re giving it to our girls, too.)

It was a lot of information to take in all at once. It was for me. It would be for them. And, so, as we gathered at the lunch table later that Sunday for our weekly family meeting–our plates piled high with tuna fish and pita chips and clementines–I invited them first to draw a self-portrait. It centers my girls to color during hard conversations; it allows them to take their pain to the page and remain present. And, so, as the stories and statistics rolled off my tongue, one of the girls asked hard questions, one chewed slowly, and another drew blue lips.

We came back to those drawings at the end of our time. What did you notice? I asked. We reflected on the crayon color we each chose for our skin; I used apricot, two used brown, and two went surrealist. Race, I explained, is how these physical characteristics are perceived by others. Although race is not real, it has been used to do real harm which is why we need to know how others see and sort us. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is defined by the cultural characteristics with which you yourself identify. (So, for instance, we shared that on the U.S. Census, Latinx might identify as any one of five racial categories but could mark Hispanic or Latino for their ethnicity). You can be more than one race, just as you can be more than one ethnicity, I reminded us, but everyone is more than the sum of our parts. All of us have what the poet Mary Oliver called a maverick self within.

After a full lunch, where we still managed to talk about gymnastics and tutoring and date night in the week ahead, we all put our multi-hued hands into the center of the circle and did our version of the Bayside high-five which culminates in us shouting our family name. The only catch is we have four last names in our family. My husband kept his. I went back to mine. And we chose to keep the girls’ Spanish double last name to honor whose they are before they are ours. So, our family name is essentially a combination of the first two letters of each of our four last names. In a confusing twist, we sound vaguely Italian.

There is more work to be done as we work for justice or–as we’re defining it in the context of our faith tradition–“making it right so everyone can belong.” While this first week was focused on answering the question “What’s not right?” (education) about racism, we’re planning on spending the next few weeks asking “Where do we need help in getting it right?” (confession), “What will we do differently to make it right?” (repentance), and “How can we make it right together?” (action). These coming weeks will be crucial containers for my and my husband’s own continued work around white supremacy, “privilege“, and fragility. 

The invitation is to go slow as I learn, ask for help as I learn, and take the long view on this life of learning. But I’m also going to keep coming back to our family high-five as a fitting symbol of a spiritual mystery put simply by Maya Angelou in her poem, “Human Family:

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,

but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.