Category Archives: Broken

{Practicing Benedict} Compassion and Sober Judgment

“The abbot or abbess, once established in office, must often think about the demands made on them by the burden they have undertaken and consider also to whom they will have to give an account of their stewardship. They must understand the call of their office is not to exercise power over those who are their subjects but to serve and help them in their needs. They must be well-grounded in the law of God so that they may have the resources to bring forth what is new and what is old in their teaching. They must be chaste, sober and compassionate and should always let mercy triumph over judgment in the hope of themselves receiving like treatment from the Lord. While they must hate all vice, they must love their brothers or sisters. In correcting faults they must act with prudence being conscious of the danger of breaking the vessel itself by attacking the rust too vigorously. They should always bear their own frailty in mind and remember not to crush the bruised reed.” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 64, emphasis mine)

There are a few things the past ten years have taught me about myself:

  1. Left to my own devices, my brain wants to devour itself and then complain about how bad it tastes.
  2. We are all weak. We are all capable inflicting great pain upon each other.
  3. I really believe that the Spirit of God brings healing. But healing doesn’t come easy; it requires self-honesty. And, usually, the self is the most difficult person with whom to have an honest conversation.

This past weekend I heard another story in the long tale of the broken Church. A friend explained how, during her divorce, she was no longer allowed to take communion in her church. It was a terrible time for her and instead of the church being a supportive place, it was a place of judgment and exclusion. It just so happens that while she was removed from the table, a founder of the church took communion weekly, all while secretly involved in a six-year extramarital affair. We are poor judges of each other.

“They should always bear their own frailty in mind…” What would happen if we actually recognized our own frailties and treated others’ weaknesses with a sober understanding of our own?

Correction in the church is rightfully a scary topic. We’ve all seen that process fail. We’ve all seen people in positions of authority dishing out rebukes while they’re the ones hiding the darkest secrets. Who is worthy to judge?

I keep thinking about this in terms of parenthood. (Shocker!) I’m asking myself how I know when I’m making the right call in terms of correcting my kids. I’m also asking myself when I most believe in the need for justice in the world. You know when? When the kid at the park is purposefully throwing sand in my kid’s eye, that’s when. You want to see someone claiming authority and judgment? See a mama protecting her baby.

Protecting. We are all weak, but we are called to protect each other, protect the body of Christ. And there’s nothing more important to protect than the most vulnerable among us. There are places and moments where we have to take a moral stand, especially when it comes to people in a position of leadership whose choices are harming another.

Judgment is a tricky business, but it is necessary because people deserve protection.

Disciplining your kid is tricky business too, isn’t it? There is a line for behavior that is tolerable. There is a line for behavior that is intolerable. But where is it? And how come no one can seem to agree on it?

I have friends who spank. I have friends who time-out. I have friends who despise time-outs and only believe in time-ins. I have friends whose hairs stand on their necks to even consider that I might have friends who spank. And I have friends who roll their eyes at all of it. We’re all trying to raise kids to live well in this world. How do we make those judgment calls? How do we choose well, respond well, love well, protect well?

I’m starting to believe that it begins in a simple place, whether we’re talking about “discipline in the church” (doesn’t that phrase just make your insides cringe?), discipline for people in positions of authority, or discipline in the home. How do we draw lines, hold out consequences, love well?

I’m convinced that St. Benedict’s words are of utmost value to us right now in this generation of the Church, in this culture of Mommy-wars.

We must be “chaste, sober and compassionate.”

We must “let mercy triumph over judgment.” (That, by the way, is much more complicated than taking the easy way out and not confronting the problem. Think Jesus and the woman caught in adultery—John 7-8.)

We must always “bear [our] own frailty.”

I’m thinking that maybe before I spit out discipline for my kids, I’d better examine my heart. Maybe parenting a stubborn child who deliberately drops his pasta on the floor with a look of rebellion in his eyes should remind me my own rebellion toward God. Parenting should always be changing my view of God and my understanding of mercy. When I’m willing to see it, my children’s sin inevitably points back to my own.

And when I consider such an idea on the grand scale of the Church, I sigh. How beautiful would it be for pastors to be the most vulnerable of all of us? How powerful if every time a pastor was confronted with the sin in her congregation, she were forced to examine her own heart, to find her own faithless wanderings there, to find her own deep need for mercy?

The power of repentance is that God did not create it to be an individual task. He created us to need each other, to draw repentance out of each other, and to walk humbly with each other, always recognizing our own deep needs.

So, let us parent and minister and serve with chaste, sober, compassionate judgment. And let us always see, at the forefront of our lives, our own frailty. Then we can dream to be the Church that loves in the fullest expression, the Church that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes … never fails” (1 Corinthians 13).


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Holy Saturday

"Buried" Copyright © 2012 Jan Richardson Images. All Rights Reserved.

The Last of the Brooding Miserables

by Mary Karr

Lord, you maybe know me best
by my odd laments: My friend
drew the garage door tight,
lay flat on the cold cement, then
sucked off the family muffler
to stop the voices in his head.
And Logan stabbed in a fight, and Coleman shot,
and the bright girl who pulled a blade
the width of her own soft throat,
and Tom from the virus and Dad
from drink–Lord, the many-headed
hurts I mind.

I study each death
hard that death not catch me
unprepared. For help I read Aurelius,
that Stoic emperor who composed
fine Meditations in his battle tent.

Surely he overheard at night
the surgeons chopping through his wounded soldiers’ bones
and shovels of earth flung down
on blue faces, and near dawn,
the barbarian horses athunder.

Still, he judged the young man’s death
no worse than the old’s: each losing
just one breath. I would have waded
the death pits wailing
till I ruined good boots with lime–
a vulture for my dead too long,
or half a corpse myself.

Lord, let me enter now
your world, my face,
dig deep in the gloves
of these hands formed
to sow or reap or stroke
a living face. Let me rise

to your unfamiliar light,
love, without which the dying wouldn’t bother me one whit.

Please, if you will, bless also
this thick head I finally bow. In thanks.

for James Laughlin

-Mary Karr, from Viper Rum, Penguin Poets, 1994


“Today we think about Jesus lying dead in the tomb. His bruised and lacerated body, hastily wrapped, rests on a stone slab, cold and stiff in the darkness. Correspondingly, our hearts remain quiet. Yet in the spiritual realm, all is not quiet. A doctrinal tradition going back to the earliest era of the church declares that Christ, in the time between his death and his resurrection, descended to the dead, that is, to the precints of hell itself, in order to liberate a throng of people. The “harrowing of hell,’ it is sometimes called. This doctrine is stated in the creeds–“He descended into hell”–and depicted in icons. Many Protestants dispute or downplay it because of the ambiguity of the scriptural texts. But whether Christ “recaptures” captives (see Eph 4:7-10) or simply proclaims the victory of the cross, some momentous event in the grand drama of God’s redemption takes place on this holy sabbath. Christ’s redemptive power plumbs the darkest depths before ascending to the brightest heighs. Holy Saturday recognizes this wondrous mystery and invites us, quietly, to enter it.”

-Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year (182)

Psalm 31:1-5

In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!

For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord,
faithful God.

On Holy Saturday, I walk up the hill to the cemetery and I meet old Fr. Gall walking stiffly toward me, dressed in a black suit, a narrow, European cut decades out of fashion. He twirls his walking stick and says, brightly, “Ah, you have come to visit those who are in heaven? You have come to seek the living among the dead!” The air is full of the anticipation of snow, a howling wind. Words will not let me be: In cold and silence you are born, from the womb of earth, the cloud of snow yet to fall. And from somewhere in the liturgy: What has been prepared for me?

From The Cloister Walk  by Kathleen Norris (181)

“In the end, no white light shines out from the wounds of Christ to bathe me in His glory. Faith is a choice like any other. If you’re picking a career or a husband–or deciding whether to have a baby–there are feelings and reasons pro and con out the wazzoo. But thinking it through is–at the final hour–horse dookey. You can only try it out. Not choosing baptism would make me feel half-assed somehow, like a dilettante–scared to commit to praising a force I do feel is divine–a reluctance grown from pride or because the mysteries are too unfathomable.

In the back of a dark church on Holy Saturday, I sit between Dev and Toby. In the pews, everybody holds an unlit candle, and the priest comes in with the altar’s mega-candle. Stopping at the back row, he touches its taper to the charred filament on either side of the aisle. The flame’s passed one to another until we’re all holding fire in our hands.”

From Lit by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, 2010 (351)

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Trade in Hope

“What is it about the human spirit that we believe we can rise again, become more than our former self told us we could be? I believed…”

Those are the first words of a documentary teaser for Trade in Hope, a story about human trafficking filmed in Austin, Texas. Yes, that’s right, a documentary about modern-day slavery in the US, in my hometown.

Did you know that twelve is the average age of of entry into prostitution in the US? When I was twelve do you know what I was doing? I was reading A Wrinkle in Time and worrying about my math test and talking about the cuteness of Hunter Samberson and wishing my mouth wasn’t so huge. I was a little girl.

Twelve years old.

Please watch this video. Seriously, if you don’t do anything else today, watch this video.

Trade In Hope Teaser from Trade In Hope on Vimeo.

There are some injustices that feel far away from us. Starvation in Uganda, child labor in the Phillipines. But, how often do we drive past the building labeled “Girls Girls Girls”? And how often do we consider that those “Girls” might be actual children who have been taken from their homes, their childhoods, who have been forced by pimps into the lives they live, who keep none of the money they earn in their forced daily life?

Twelve years old and taken by a man she trusted, a man who said he loved her…

Slavery is real and it’s under our noses. It’s there in your city.

If you live in Austin, please join me at Trade in Hope’s benefit Showcase this Saturday night, March 24 from 7 to 10 at the For the City Center. The night will include a silent auction, and interactive art experience, and an exclusive screening of a short film from Trade in Hope. Proceeds from the night will support the Trade in Hope feature film. See more information here.

If you’re not in Austin but want to do something about sex trafficking in the US, take a look at Trade in Hope’s website.

And if you have read all the way through this post and haven’t yet watched the video, do it. It’s that good.


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World AIDS Day: Turn it Red

Ten years ago, as a 22 year-old, I returned home from one month in Kenya and South Africa. That month I studied African cultures and religions, Liberation Theology, and generally got my mind blown by a Baptist theologian in Nairobi who looked like Yoda.

Dr Waruta spoke things to me that I’m still processing. He planted the seeds in my heart that have led to almost every theological shift I’ve embraced in the past ten years. The depth of his wisdom allowed me to realize that even though I felt alone in my doubts, there were real Christians in every part of the world working through the same questions I was asking.

I returned home from witnessing the depth of suffering in the slums of Nairobi, the broken destruction of the tens of thousands of street children in that same city, high on glue to keep their hunger at bay, begging me for bread, then ripping it from each other’s hands after I’d offered it. They were the victims of AIDS: the children left alone after the wicked disease had taken every adult in their lives. I had seen the terrible damage done by colonialism, become aware, for the first time, of my white privilege. And I witnessed in South Africa the darkness of racism, how Apartheid broke the future of an entire race of people, how God was using the brave to redeem all that brokenness.

So, when I returned to my apartment in Abilene, Texas and sat with my roommate/dearest friend at our kitchen table, unwrapping my burrito from Taco Bueno, Molly looked into my eyes and said: “You seem sadder, older.”

It was true and I knew there was no going back. In Nairobi at a stoplight a woman my age had tapped on the window. When I met her gaze, her eyes fixed on mine. She had a baby, maybe nine or ten months old strapped to her back. She held her hand out to me. Her baby held his out as well. Ten months old. He didn’t speak but he knew how to beg.

And isn’t that the brokenness of this world? If a mother is hungry, so is her child. If a mother is dying of AIDS, her child is losing his life as well: whether that’s the literal contraction of the same disease or the loss of parents, the loss of a home, of food, of caretakers, of order, of safety.

Maybe that’s what changed me the most deeply 10 years ago, something I now only understand as a mother. There was nothing safe for those children who tore the bread from my hand. No cozy blankets to hold when afraid. No place to lay their heads. No protection from the weather. No protection from the dangers of the world. Parents protect. Mama kangaroos stick their babies in their pouches. When a disease rips the adults from the children, their vulnerability is too difficult to watch.

So you cry and you pray and you say, “Lord, let me never forget.” And then you return to your home country and meet a boy and marry him and live in a house and have babies and every once in a while something in your 8 month old’s face reminds you of that baby holding out his hand, begging you for something you both can barely understand. And that baby would be ten years old now. You wonder, is his mother alive? Is he? Is he alone or in a pack of hungry boys, sniffing glue in old water bottles?

And you stare at your baby and he smiles. And you remember that it’s Advent and you’re waiting for Jesus. That same Jesus whose mother strapped him at 10 months onto her back and traveled, hungry and fearful, with her husband to Egypt. Travelers and beggars. Jesus with his palm open.

Today is World AIDS Day.

AIDS is a heartless thief. And children are its victims. And nowhere is there more suffering than in Sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of the 33 million people in the world infected with HIV reside*. We can all read this and sigh and say, “Isn’t it a shame?” Or we can do something. Today.

Will you join me and “Turn it Red”? Wear red today in support of the people, the mothers, the children of the Nairobi streets where I walked? Will you join Blood:Water Mission in the work they are doing to educate, treat, and support those who suffer from the disease? Will you click on the links to read Kabale’s, Peter’s, and Leah’s stories? And will you pray and give during this season when we eagerly await the coming of our Savior, the one who came to rescue the world, the helpless baby strapped to his mama’s back…

*Information taken from blood:water mission’s website.


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What we know

There are some things that are simply born in us.

This weekend my baby found a music box train in his basket of toys. He looked at me with his 8 month old eyes and I knew his request. I wound up the toy until it began that metallic box sound of “I’ve been working on the railroad.” Brooksie smiled his wide mouthed smile (the one that takes up the whole half of his face) and began to rock back and forth looking to me for approval.

I clapped my hands. “You can dance!” I said and he continued to hold his mouth wide open in a smile, so proud of himself. It seemed he’d been planning to show me his moves for a while now.

Babies know that music is important. They know their bodies are supposed to rock back and forth to the sound. They are drawn to beauty.

In the car on Friday, August wasn’t demanding his own music, so I took the opportunity to listen to my own. August was happy with Mumford and Sons and, as usual, surprised me by how close he was listening to the lyrics when they sang: “But please don’t cry, you liar…”

“Why doesn’t he want his friend to cry?”

“Because he doesn’t want him to be sad,” I said. “You don’t want your friends to cry, right?”

“Ummm,” he thought out loud. “But why does he say: ‘You liar’?”

“Well, his friend was mean to him and lied. And it made him sad. Do your friends ever make you sad?”

“Yeah. When they’re mean.”

“Yeah, that’s how this guy feels.”

“But why did his friend lie to him?”

“Because he believed The Terrible Lie like the rest of us.” (I’ve been using the language of The Jesus Storybook Bible with him. In it, Sally Lloyd Jones describes sin as believing “The Terrible Lie” that God doesn’t really love us. Really, doesn’t all brokenness grow out of the thought that what God has said or done isn’t trustworthy, that his love is not enough?

There’s something else that’s built in to our hearts: a longing for things to be as they should be. August kept asking me that afternoon in the car, “But why? Why did his friend lie?” And all I could answer is that sometimes we don’t believe God really loves us and so we’re mean. Sin exists no matter how much our guts tell us that it shouldn’t. That’s why for people like me, the idea of individuals undone by sin is a relief. At least there’s a reason for the fracture between what my heart says the world should be and what it actually is.

Sunday morning I checked the newspaper after having spent Saturday and Friday night happily oblivious to the goings on in the world. That’s when I heard about the officers who pepper sprayed protesting students at UC Davis. Then I read the beautifully written opinion piece by Robert Hass (a poet I’ve long admired) in The New York Times. He wrote about the beatings he, his wife, and his colleague (all poets and professors at UC Berkeley) received when they showed up at the Occupy UC Berkeley site to try to protect their students from the physical response of police with clubs in their hands.

I hate watching the news. I actually stopped a couple of years ago and I only read or listen to it now. I don’t like to watch violence (especially since my kids were born). But I made myself sit through this video of the students being pepper sprayed because I felt it was important. Then I cried in my kitchen with Brooksie in his high chair. I cried spooning pureed black beans into his mouth, because whatever you believe about these protests, whatever your stance on the Occupy Movement, violence is always brutal. The bad guy is always the child of a mother and the good guy is as well. We are all broken: those of us with pepper spray aimed down our open throats and those of us making a point through another’s suffering.

And all of us know we don’t belong in either position. That’s why my grandfather has spent his whole life recovering from the violence he witnessed and suffered in World War II. That’s why we weep when the once-abused reminds us in the wake of the Penn State scandal that it’s our job to tell our children where adults can touch them and where they can’t.

This is not the way God intended our world to be. Friends are not supposed to lie. August knows that. Music is meant to be danced to. Brooks knows that. Beauty is worth directing the gaze upon. We know that. But then we believe The Terrible Lie. We believe that God is not enough. We believe that God is not good. We miss the good gifts. We miss the grace.

Thankfully, grace has always been offered to everyone broken by The Terrible Lie: good guys, bad guys and everyone searching for beauty in between.


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