Day 9: When All Evidence is Hidden

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.

Luke 1:39-40

If you have never read the conception of Jesus as a queer story, it’s probably because Mary seems straight–and straightness was always enough for you. But there are ways to read queerness in the annunciation story, and queer people do. Mary’s immaculate conception draws parallels for lesbian couples using artificial insemination. Mary’s run to Elizabeth can be read as a lesbian love scene. The angel Gabriel can be read as a genderfluid or intersex messenger. 

You could argue this is poor biblical interpretation, since there’s no evidence of queerness in the Advent stories. But the lack of evidence is precisely why we read these stories as queer stories: all evidence of queer love has been erased from the Bible (with the possible exception of David and Jonathan). Most likely Mary and Elizabeth were not lesbian lovers, but if Mary stopped to visit her lesbian lover on her way to Elizabeth, she would have “held these things in her heart,” as she did throughout these events. We read queerness back into the heterosexist stories we received because we are confident that God loves queer people and that their presence in the narrative is critical to our collective salvation. 

Amidst all the criticism of Qatar’s treatment LGBTQ+ people, not much has been made of the fact that are no openly gay players among the 830 or so footballers competing in the tournament. Compare that to 38 out players in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. We can recognize the reasons why male athletes may have a greater pull to conceal their sexual orientation. But we cannot, in good faith, believe that there are no gay players in the tournament in Qatar. Instead, it appears that all evidence of gay players has been erased. 

In moments–touches between players on the sidelines, the occasional gesture during a goal celebration–I imagine certain players are gay. But I cannot say for sure; instead, I read queerness where I can in the World Cup. FIFA locating the World Cup in Qatar signals to these men that they must continue to uphold traditional masculinity. They must continue to hide all evidence. Even straight players in solidarity are forced to hide evidence of allyship

Yesterday, the US Men’s Team posted several photos of brokenhearted players embracing their girlfriends. Their sorrow was public and sympathetic only in the context of heterosexuality. What would it take for a gay player to come out, even on the national team of a country that is in the process of enshrining gay rights into law? 

Perhaps, if we are lucky and if we create a safe world, the week after the tournament one or two players (most likely on the championship team) will come out. Perhaps, a generation from now, we will still be reading queer fictions into this tournament because the evidence remains hidden. If so, that would be a sin against the God who created and called each of these players.

Day 8: Highly Favored & Highly Tokenized

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.”

-Luke 1:26-28

Today, American referee Kathryn Nesbitt is scheduled to assistant referee the England vs. Senegal Round of 16 game. She’s had a high profile this year as one of the six female referees officiating for the first time at the men’s World Cup.

The whole subject of female referees weighs me down. While I’m delighted to read about these female officials, I’m also chagrined by some of the media coverage that trumpets their uniqueness. I’m tired of celebrating women’s “firsts.” 

I want to normalize female referees, not exceptionalize them. The paradox of women’s representation in historically male spaces is that a woman wants to be recognized for who she is as a woman and to be taken seriously as a human being, regardless of gender. This paradox exists for nonbinary people as well. 

When I saw the first all-female referee team in a men’s World Cup game last week (Germany vs Costa Rica), my heart broke a little bit. I worried the tokenizing media coverage allowed FIFA to check a box of representation and claw back moral high ground without actually making systemic changes to respect and promote the many, many talented female referees in the game. My heart broke even more when I learned that Stephanie Frappart, the center ref, was also the first woman to officiate a women’s World Cup final in 2019. That is the year of our Lord 20-today-minus-three-years. 

When the angel Gabriel (who is male because Greek is a gendered language) comes to Mary, it is not so much that God is recognizing her exceptionalism in spite of gender as that the male writers of history are. When Gabriel invites Mary into a clinch role in God’s salvation, I want to shout, “Yes! Her!” And I also want to shuffle on and say, “Of course, all genders, always, in God’s kingdom.” In our flurry to resolve gender discrimination in church, Mary sometimes becomes a prop for reinforcing gender bias. As if the whole Bible can be redeemed of its patriarchy if she carries it on her back. 

What a thrill to be highly favored. And what a curse to be tokenized. No one should be impressed that FIFA is using baseline workplace nondiscrimination policy as proof of morality. In this Christmas season, let’s avoid Mary-as-proof-text-for-gender-equality, whether in sermons or music or Christmas party trivia about the FIFA World Cup.

Annunciation, by Leonardo da vinci, c. 1472.

Day 7: The Victimized Tyrant

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

-Matthew 2:1-3

The sixth time the camera cut to FIFA President Gianni Infantino–on his phone, always on his phone–I thought: There is King Herod

King Herod is powerful, cunning, curious, insecure, throws great parties (sometimes with the decapitated heads of his enemies), and is perpetually a victim. Sure, he oversaw the deaths of a few hundred baby boys in Jerusalem (or a few hundred? thousand? migrant workers in Doha), but this was merely the necessary cost of progress.

King Herod is not, in fact, a very powerful king; he is the Jewish puppet king installed by and at the mercy of the Roman Empire. He is the representative of Julius Caesar. His job is to make the Roman Empire look both attractive and undefeatable. King Herod is simultaneously asserting power and abdicating it, and he plays this role very well, better than Infantino and his teen diary-esque monologue.

King Herod is frightened at the news of the child king. If there is a child in the world who is King of the Jews, then it means the delicate system Herod upholds is moot. If the Judean people do not need the Roman Empire, Herod’s wealth and dynasty collapse. 

Imagine that a player arose from the margins of World Cup teams–Messi, Mane, Suarez, Marta, take your pick–and rose to prominence as the greatest player in the world to never play in a FIFA tournament. Imagine this talented player moved as a teen through a prestigious academy training, built a rabid fan following, then left abruptly to travel the world playing pick up soccer, teaching ball skills to impoverished teens and providing them with the food and healthcare to make their neighborhood tournaments as compelling as professional tournaments. Imagine all of it was free. Infantino would absolutely be releasing the snipers to protect his monopoly. 

Throughout the Christmas story, watch how Herod chameleons from omnipotent tyrant to helpless middle manager. Watch how his attitude becomes a template for aspiring conflict-avoidant bureaucrats. 

And another thing: when Infantino hunched over his phone, he was never “checking the scores of the other game,” as the announcers apologetically explained. He was checking on the comfort of those to whom he has pledged allegiance.

If you think Gianni Infantino is persecuted now, wait until his daughter asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 5: The Confession of Football in a Mennonite Perspective

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

-Matthew 5:3-5

I always thought that I loved soccer because it was in the air. It was what we lived and breathed as children in the Pacific Northwest in the 90’s, like Lunchables or Captain Planet. Only now am I recognizing that soccer was woven into my religious practice and identity as a Mennonite. 

Mennonites love soccer. Maybe it’s the globalism of the sport, or its pointedly less-violent-than-American-football ethos, or its simplicity. It fits Mennonite theology, and is the top Mennonite game (or, at the least, neck-in-neck with Dutch Blitz).

Growing up, we often wore our uniforms–right down to the shinguards–to church, so we could sprint to our Sunday games. My church had both a co-ed and a women’s soccer team (which eventually morphed into a mother-daughter team). At my Mennonite college, there was no football team, and where we gathered on Friday nights was in the stands for the school’s men’s soccer games. I have watched the World Cup at 6am in cafes with Mennonite Voluntary Service workers;  in airports on the way to Mennonite conventions; on actual airplanes with youth groups; on my Mennonite host family’s small TV in the rural village of Cuatro Cruces, Costa Rica. Watching World Cup with Mennonites is as central to my faith as the Beatitudes I was required to memorize. 

In the 2002 South Korea/Japan World Cup, my mom would wake us up at 2 or 3am to drive across town to watch the games with a family from church. They purchased a cable package for a month and left their front door unlocked on game days so everyone would have a place to watch (cheap and communal–classic Mennonite). 

The Christian faith–and Anabaptism in particular–has a legacy of body/mind dualism, an inability and unwillingness to locate the sacred in the human body. Soccer was our path into embodied theology. It was how we found the sacred in the body, whether watching in communal gasps or playing in unharmonious shouts. It filled a gap in our Christian theology; it wove together all of our beliefs about community, hospitality, loving enemies, and letting actions speak louder than words. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. All blessings that came through soccer.

Two Mennonite pastors play beach soccer on the day in 2014 when Germany destroyed Brazil in the World Cup semi-final, winning 7-1. (Photo Credit: Leslie Hawthorne-Klingler)

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Day #3: A Way in the Desert

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Isaiah 40:3-4

We don’t know how many workers–mostly if not entirely immigrants–died constructing the stadiums in Qatar. The Guardian cites 6,500 migrant worker deaths in the country since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2012; officially, only 37 of those are linked to World Cup construction. The exact number of World Cup-related deaths is unclear, but what is clear: the number is staggering.

When I ask the question, “What am I to do?” it feels too big. I respect and admire the boycott movement, but from where I write in the United States, it also feels over-simplistic. There’s morality in the boycott, but not moral purity. Washing my hands of the World Cup disguises the fact that the global supply chain is predicated on disposable humanity. I am overwhelmed by all the other things I have consumed–from fast fashion to cell phone batteries–that other humans have died for. 

When I can’t answer, “What am I to do do?”, I ask another question: “Where is God?” Where is the God of the suffering, the God in solidarity, the God working out salvation, in this moment? This Advent, I imagine Joseph and Mary as laborers in Qatar, being served ice so they would drink less water. I imagine Jesus birthed not at an inn, but under the hulking shadow of Al-Wakrah Stadium (which is, weirdly, shaped like a vagina).

I imagine the players who play on the sidelines bowing their heads not asking God to win, but in reverence for the bodies and lives of migrant workers. I do what I can to sing the refrain of justice: to demand FIFA pay restitution to the families of all injured workers. I consider where I can make restitution for my own role in the global supply chain, as a consumer in the most-consuming country in the world.

Perhaps one of the strangest juxtapositions of a World Cup during Advent season is how our tangible consumption of goods is coupled to the intangible consumption of entertainment, bodies, sport. There are so many ways to wall ourselves off from God by consumption. 

We struggle to level the playing fields, much less lift up the valleys and make the mountains low. But we are called to prepare a way for God in the wilderness. How shall we prepare?

If you think it looks like a vagina in the daylight, you should see it at night. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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Day #2: What Will Never Love You Back

“A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon… the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.”

-Revelation 12:1-4

Here is the thing people get wrong about the book of Revelation: we remember it as a great battle between good and evil, but it’s more about how evil permeates the lives of the good and the evil. The good—the woman and her baby—run away. The dragon chases them, and eventually bestows his authority to the beast. The beast is charismatic and sexy and powerful and so the people submit to the beast, whether they are good or evil. Revelation is about the banality of evil, and how evil is all-consuming. You can run from it or submit to it, but submitting will not spare you. When it comes to evil, no one ever wins.

I’ve watched teenagers fall in love with the beautiful game, I’ve watched them train and tryout and compete and break and submit for love of it, some of them at a very high level. In this World Cup, I’ve eagerly watched the early upsets of the group stages. I know developing countries are getting better at beating European powerhouses because the Europeans are drafting and training their children younger and younger. It reminds me of the advice Tressie McMillan Cottom gave to Black people navigating academia: “the institution cannot love you…. Just get your hugs where you can and let them have their institution.”

No matter how much children love the game now, we are marching them to the wolves. It is nearly impossible to teach them to love the game without teaching them to contort themselves for the institution. I wish I could tell the teenagers I’ve mentored that the institution will never love them back, no matter how well they perform, no matter how far they make it. It’s something Lionel Messi and I both learned recently, at almost the same age: he at FC Barcelona and me within the institutional church. Maybe this is why I still wear my #10 Barcelona jersey.

The individuals love you, but the institution will never love you back. Being good and talented and charming does not spare you. Even if you thrive in the institution, it will try to destroy you. Souls can only flourish in the streets, in the pick up games, where two or three gather without uniforms or straight-edged fields or capital investment firms.

The banality of evil is that we know the institution will not love us back. But we still try to love it.

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A sympathetic millionaire who the institution cannot love.

In the Fields by Night: Daily Advent Devotions for a World Cup Season

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by the Word, and without it not one thing came into being….

-John 1:1-3 (NRSV, modified for nongendered pronouns)

Anyone who has been following the news for even a moment of the last decade, and happens to be watching the largest sporting event on the globe, begins with a disclaimer: “Well, FIFA can eat a dick, but I’m here for the beautiful game.”

More or less, but not necessarily, in those words. It’s a strange collision of events that the World Cup falls over the Christian season of Advent. As I prepare for the birth of Christ this year, I have never felt closer to the world in which Christ was born. A world in which we are all either sell outs or captives of the Empire which claims global loyalty and dominance. That is to say, I have never found a better metaphor for the Roman Empire than the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

But FIFA is not just a parallel for the government and culture that attempted and finally executed the murder of God’s Son. FIFA is also a direct descendant of the secularized, patronizing, self-aggrandizing form of the European church that formulated the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. Perhaps a milder form, but nonetheless a new force for justifying European economic and spiritual dominance. And so FIFA is also an apt metaphor for the modern institutional church, the necessary evil that we tolerate—or don’t—in search of a spiritual home.

In the beginning was the Word. A Word that preceded institutions and corruption and colonialism. In the beginning was the beautiful game. Like many, I fell in love with soccer as a kid who fell into sync with the rhythms of the ball, the players, and the satisfying whirr of a goal. I found something divine which I still believe lives somewhere within the institution.

A friend said recently that soccer is a religion, and he didn’t mean it kindly. He meant soccer fans treat the World Cup as though there can still be salvation in an institution that disregards humanity—we insist our paltry efforts to reform it justify our participation in it. I am guilty as charged.

This is why I am creating a daily devotional series for this Advent. As a former pastor who was shredded and burned out by the institution of church. As someone who returns to the pitch every week in search of a divine spark. As a person who stands in the fields at night and hears angels but is uncertain what they mean.

This Advent, I am searching for the Christ child who will be destroyed by the Empire. I am searching for ways to live faithfully as someone who has not yet been destroyed by the Empire. Join me through this World Cup and Advent for reflections on faith, hypocrisy, compromise, and—always—hope.

The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1834, with apologies to Thomas Cole.

Are Sermons are a Tool of White Supremacy Culture?

During the years I pastored, I loved writing sermons. But I was also haunted by a feeling that that sermons undermined the goals of the church. A sermon was just a chance for one person, typically someone who was paid to read and research Scripture, to monopolize as much as 30% of the worship with an extended and often scripted monologue, lecturing members with a single voice and few visual aids (except, perhaps, a slideshow), for the purpose of bestowing their knowledge on a captive audience.

It seemed to me that sermons were a coin flip on whether or not the presence of God would come down on any given Sunday. I’ve experienced many good sermons, but I’ve also heard—and written—many sermons driven by the expectation that worship requires monologues.

Too often, the sermon is a practice that privileges the voices of those already in power and exerts influence over those with less power. It is an overused habit that does not advance the church’s goals of building relationships and creating Christ-centered lives. It’s even an expression of white supremacy culture.

Tema Okun defines white supremacy culture as a set of principles that, when accelerated and overemphasized, reinforce hierarchies that privilege whiteness, incentivize homogeny, consolidate power, and subjugate those with identities outside the white, able-bodied, masculine norm. Among the characteristics of white supremacy culture, she identifies worship of the written word; objectivity; power hoarding; only one right way; quantity over quality; and individualism.

The sermon reflects many of these characteristics. It elevates the authority of written scripture and glorifies polished (often formal or academic) language. The speaker’s view is, by nature of the amount of space the sermon takes, authoritative and objective. The length of the sermon and the tendency to place the preacher in other significant parts worship, such as the prayer, benediction, or serving communion, hoards power in the preacher’s body. The centrality and normalization of the sermon implies that it is the only way worship can occur. Our frequent use of sermons also suggests that maintaining its structure should be prioritized over the quality of the worship time together. The single presenter’s centrality and the audience’s silence makes worship an experience of individualism.

Sermons are more than a chance for this guy to make you feel guilty. St. Augustine, by Philippe de Champiagne.

The sermon is an ancient practice that existed long before modern construction of racialized power. Preaching is central to the biblical story. Jesus and the evangelizing disciples of the early church were eloquent and sometimes long-winded preachers. These sermons were not inherently reinforcing hierarchy, and they were often accompanied by concrete actions (ie., the feeding of the 5000 or the healing of individuals) that nurtured community connectedness. However, the sermon grew up in the consolidation and expansion of the Western church, and the sermon as we practice it today is steeped with a legacy of patriarchy, racism, power, and control.

As the early church discouraged female evangelists, the sermon became an exclusively male  space. Through centuries of low literacy, sermons consolidated the power of interpretation in the bodies of leadership. In the Middle Ages, the sermon exerted control, entertained, enforced norms, and motivated behavior. Celebrated church fathers such as Bernard of Clairvaux preached extensively about the crusades and actively used the pulpit to build military momentum for anti-Islamic crusades in the 12th century. Still today, Bernard’s anti-Islamic teachings are treated as a dismissible quirk of a great spiritual thinker.

I am not calling for an end to all sermons, but rather a thoughtful examination in local congregations about whether the sermon is advancing the goal of spiritual growth. The pulpit we inherited systematically disenfranchise huge swaths of the church. Too often, because our legacy of male preachers, our implicit bias leads us to call on men to preach first. Because preaching is viewed a highly skilled task, it is neither designed for nor influenced by adolescents and children. Many people who are not auditory listeners find it incredibly difficult to absorb sermons, but feel a sense of shame or fear around saying so.

Congregations can and should explore alternatives to sermons that dismantle power structures and center marginalized voices. Worship Committees can support this through annual inventories of preachers—how many women preached last year? How many people of color? How many queer preachers? How many people under 18? If worship planners are struggling to find a preacher, just remove the sermon from worship.

Churches explore different models of sermons, such as inviting people to ask questions after hearing the scripture; following the sermon with a response from a designated “listener;” creating sermons that invite or require listeners to move; or incorporating congregational volunteers in embodying key concepts. The Anabaptist practice of sharing time, where congregants reflect on the morning’s worship, is another way of dispersing the power of the sermon. There are also many alternatives to sermons, such messy church, wild church, and Quaker meeting. For congregations that continue to meet via Zoom, why not replace sermon time with break out rooms that nurture community connections?

Lastly, congregations can redistribute the power of the sermon by actively teaching the skills of preaching. Few people even have a clear grasp on what makes the genre of sermon distinct, even if they’ve preached before. Nurture a culture of biblical interpretation and empower everyone to see where Bible stories can be interwoven with our own lives.

Let’s stop assuming the sermon is somehow inherently unquestionable or essential for experiencing God.

In order to dismantle white supremacy, it’s healthy to question our use of the sermon: Does the sermon feel obligatory or rote? Does the sermon obstruct a spirit of worship? Does it consistently engage and center the voices that already have significant power? Are groups of people tuning out or disengaged during the sermon? Does the sermon control the service, creating an undue burden for those involve in worship preparation or pressure to uphold the practice for the sake of upholding the practice?

If so, change it. There are many ways to worship.

Easter: Happy Skunk Cabbage Day

When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!)
Mark 16:4

You didn’t think it was over at Day 40, did you? It was—technically, we’re all off the Lent hook now. But, whatever your discipline was, Lent isn’t intended to be a one-and-done. We return to old routines changed. We create new routines, maybe not with the strictness we adhered to during Lent (goodbye waking up at 6am to write the next day’s reflection!), but we carry who we’ve been these 40 days into who we become from here. The stone is rolled away. This morning, we put on our Easter dresses and sing and feast. As a teenager, I loved picking out my special Easter outfit, always anticipating warm weather and bare legs. April’s gonna be April, though, and more often than not I spent Easter morning digging through my closet for tights or sweaters. We didn’t think resilience would look like this. It seldom meets our beauty standards.

For some of these posts, I used a picture of an early spring bud: a skunk cabbage flower.

skunk cabbage centeredThe flower bursts up early, even before the crocuses. It generates its own heat, even to the point of melting the snow, and it also smells terrible (which attracts the flies that pollinate it). It’s a fitting image of resilience: heat-generating, life-giving, and funky-smelling. The beautiful and the rotten, not glossed over, held in a balance that favors life and makes the unpleasant tolerable. The beauty of resilience might also be a little smelly. What Easter brings is rarely what we expected or anticipated. Prepare to be surprised by your own healing. Let your resilient self astound you.

Skunk Cabbage bloomed

 Takeaway: So we release the need for the future to look exactly how we planned. We release the stipulations we demanded before healing. We let resilience open us to what we’d never considered possible.

Take a listen to this song by Rising Appalachia, called “Resilient.” Carry it with you as you move from Lent into the season of Easter, as you sit with who you’ve become and who you still are to become: “I am resilient/I trust the movement/I’ll show up at the table/again and again and again.”

Day #40: Integrity

Everyone from Judah who is living in the land of Egypt will die by the sword and by famine, until all are gone. 28 Those who actually survive war and return from Egypt to the land of Judah will be very few.
-Jeremiah 44:27-28

Not everyone gets a happy ending. The resiliency gospel is not the prosperity gospel—there is no promise of wealth and happiness here. So the ending returns to the beginning. This series began with a passage from Jeremiah, where the prophet bought a field in a collapsing nation state, with a near-defunct currency, to create a deed that wouldn’t be honored. To prove that there is still hope in destruction. By the end of his life, Jeremiah has been dragged to Egypt on a fool’s errand with some refugees trying to avoid war. War comes to Egypt, and most of the people Jeremiah accompanied to Egypt don’t make it out. Jeremiah dies in Egypt, although we aren’t told how. Meanwhile, in Babylon, where the other half of the nation was deported, life gets marginally better but it still sucks. And then the story ends. It doesn’t get better.  Jeremiah remains resilient as he can through war, national crisis, and bad decisions. He has integrity. But it doesn’t get better. He just tries to bring his best self to a world getting worse.

Takeaway: Resilience is a sexy word in pop culture. It was so trendy I was reluctant to make it the center of my Lenten practice. But actual resilience is not very sexy, because it’s an admission that things might not get better. Life could get harder than it is now. Tomorrow, Jesus will resurrect, but he won’t stay, God won’t stay in flesh on earth. This embodied hope we came to count on—the friendship and mentorship of the kindness of the universe—it doesn’t stay as close as we wish. Resurrection is hope, but it’s not resolution. We still have to make a way in the world with hope standing at a distance. When I think about climate change, the American economy, the institutional church, I realize: it might not get better. But I want to bring my best self to the worst times, even if the worst of times go on and on and on. Several times during Lent, I’ve read “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road,” and it summarizes best the resilience I want to embody. It’s the integrity of hope in all circumstances. Ada Limón writes of the Great Blue Heron as a symbol of hope, and says “I think even if I fail at everything,/I still want to point out the heron like I was taught.” Read “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road.” What does it look like to point toward hope, even if you fail at everything?

 

Gathering the Stones is providing 40 days of reflections on resilience during Lent. Check back for new reflections every day (except Sundays).