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Thoughts on Kairos and Epiphany, the ‘unbidden and unexpected’

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I’ve been reading and loving my newest happy discovery, In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice. Its author, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, is a theologian and the book is a straightforward theological teaching on the things we’ve been talking about around here. She’s a mother who believes the Church has missed its opportunity to honor the spiritual formation that can arrive out of the mess of everyday parenting. Often we’re taught that in order to encounter God we need to step out of the dailyness of life with children. Miller-McLemore, instead, holds up Christ’s own mother (and all that pondering she kept doing!) as our mother-hero of the faith.

Miller-McLemore is sharp and dryly witty and her insight is fantastic. I’m having this problem where I’m underlining every other paragraph and drawing lots of hearts and exclamation points in the margins, as well as phrases like: “Ordinary Awe!” and “Live graciously WITHIN time” and “Mysticism of Everyday life—-> Ignatius.” If all that doesn’t prove it to you already, this book is right up my alley.

So, on this Monday morning following a weekend with four trips to the airport, one night of watching New Girl episodes and eating Vietnamese food with my sister-in-law on the couch, one soccer game, four emotional breakdowns from August, one 93 degree/shadeless soccer game (with a back sunburn to prove it), and two bags of popcorn, I’m going to share some of my favorite words of Miller-McLemore’s so far.

Seriously, I can’t get enough of this stuff.

Just when my six-month-old fell into a predictable sleep pattern and I thought we had it all together, he grew and changed and we had to adjust…

The profoundly interminable and shifting nature of the work of parenting is both its challenge and reward. More than this: many parents would agree that in this practice of attending, they must learn, change and develop or the child will not thrive. For decades, modern psychology presumed that parenthood required little or no change in the already existing mind-set of the parent … Only recently has it begun to dawn on us that birth and rearing children a powerfully transformative for parents an children alike.

If I attend well to my sons over time, there is opportunity, however irregular, for astonishment … Children’s author Judith Viorst has learned , from watching her three sons, that “it is possible to find delight in us hanging around the kitchen while one kid is making a chicken salad sandwich and the other is tossing a napkin into the trash and missing.” It is just this potential for joy int he most mundane moment, pondered and attended to with care, that leads her to conclude, “Family life is better than most any other thing going on in the universe.”

Recently, a pastor who is also a father admitted to me apologetically that family devotions fall by the wayside in his household…

Here’s what I wish I could have said. Although family prayer has its important place … prayer and scripture reading do not alone determine faith. Faith is not one more thing to check off the list. Family prayer; check. Bedtime prayer; check. Ritual for dead hamster; check. It is not something set aside outside regular time. It is what we do in time and space, with our bodies and through our movements. The practices of this man’s family—playing with the children after school, interacting around dinner, greeting and parting, attending and pondering—these practices are formative of faith…

There is no ultimate solution to the dilemma of enacting faith in families in time. One cannot control kairos or schedule an epiphany … This is precisely the gift and bane of kairos and epiphany: such moments come unbidden and unexpected.

In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, 2007 Josey-Bass, 56-57, emphasis mine.

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{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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A ‘Mother Letter’ for the Mamas

Dearest Mamas,

When I was pregnant with my first child, my friend Emily (one year ahead of me in the baby-making) gave me a piece of advice: Have grace with yourself, she said.

She was talking about those first moments when I’d hold his tiny squirming flesh to my breast: When I expected fireworks of passionate mother-love and instead felt afraid, overwhelmed and happy, exhausted and adrenaline-rushed. She said, “Don’t expect the love you feel in that moment to be enough. You love your kid as you learn them.”

Have grace with yourself.

I carried her words over into those first weeks and months of exhaustion. The long nights, the moments of fury at this little thing whom I loved desperately but who was wreaking havoc on my brain and my body. I learned to have grace on myself when my friends were reading their 4-month-olds books for 30 minutes a day and helping them progress in their development and I still felt like it was all I could do to get my baby to sleep and eat and stare at me every day, much less be faithful to my calling and career.

Grace: Such a word for such an act. It’s love, yes. But it’s love that offers free kindness, freedom, acceptance. Jesus gives me that kind of reality. It’s not an act that allows me free reign to ruin myself. It’s an act that draws me in with loving kindness, that sets me up to use my gifts and my heart and offer to the world what’s good that’s already been placed into my hands.

Have grace with yourself, my friend said to me. She knew what I would feel some days: The temptation during your baby’s first year to long for her success, to judge yourself in light of her advancement, to value her in light of what the world values: appearance, physical impressiveness, signs of intellect. How often did I compare my kid with another? How often was I the one bragging of some sign of my child’s superiority?

Have grace with yourself.

When it’s your kid who is screaming on the airplane. When every person around you seems to think they know the answer. When you determine to trust your instinct despite his rage, despite your tears and the bite marks and the passengers who are tweeting about the horrible child and his incapable mother they were stuck with on the flight.

Have grace with yourself.

When every one at the park is obsessed with getting their almost-two-year-olds into language-immersion classes, when your friend’s three-year-old already knows how to read, when your strong-willed child is achingly sweet at home but yelling at the Sunday School teacher at church. When you’re afraid no one but you understands him.

Have grace with yourself.

There may be a day when someone you love questions your parenting choices. There may be a day when you stare at your tear-soaked face in the mirror and ask, “When my kids grow up, how will they remember my failures?”

But motherhood is not a series of situations that have a wrong and right answer. It is a relationship. How many times have I described Jesus that way to one of the high school or college students I’ve ministered to? Jesus is not religion. He is relationship. Engaging with him requires our hearts and our minds and souls and our strength because it involves living, not simply rule-adherring.

Have grace with yourself, Mama. This thing is complicated. You will hold that newborn and you won’t know how to love him but you will and you will wonder is this enough? and it may never be but he needs you any way.

See that’s the secret: You are his only mother. The only mother he will ever know. He loves you desperately. He needs you to love him back, to gather him when he crumples, to jump in the pool when he sinks, to snatch him up when the other kids are picking on him, to trust yourself to know when to protect and when to let him find his way.

So gather her and love her. Laugh and cuddle and read and make choices. And trust that in spite of your imperfections, God is making all things new: even you, even your child.

There is refreshment in that grace: the chance to begin every day, the chance to learn and change, to stick by convictions and let some of them float away on yesterday’s balloon. You don’t have to be the same mother you were last year. You are being refined.

Once, another friend said: Stop being so ferocious with yourself.

I’ll say the same to you, friend. God has given you to your child and your child to you. And every gift you own combined with the strength of God’s Spirit is enough to do this beautifully.

You may not be the mom who speaks two languages in the home. You may not perfectly balance work and mothering. You may not feel secure in the complexities of discipline and correction. You may receive every kind of judgment over the way you sleep-train your baby.

When it’s all too much, promise me this: Walk your stressed little (okay, let’s be honest, probably not-so-little) hinny to the bathroom, look in the mirror. Breathe deep. Look in the mirror again. Imagine Christ’s hand on your head, let his peace wiggle in to those brain wrinkles. And say: “I am loved. I am loved. I am loved.”

Because sometimes, Christ’s love is the only thing that gives us strength to love completely the little ones who have been given to our care.

Linking up with The Mother Letters ProjectRead about it then join your “Mother Letter” to the conversation. And get your copy of the Mother Letters ebook here.

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{Practicing Benedict} Offering the Child

“If parents who are from the nobility want to offer to God in the monastery one of their children, who is too young to take personal responsibility, they should draw up a document like that described above and, as they make the offering, wrap the document with the child’s hand in the altar cloth…

Poor people may make the offering of a child in the same way. If they have no property at all, they simply write and offer the child with the document in the presence of witnesses.”

The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 59

What does it mean to offer a child to the work of God?

When I first read this chapter two years ago, I was taken with the image of a child’s hand grasping the document written by his parents, promising him to the community, to the life of monasticism, and making a covenant he can’t possibly understand, his hand wrapped in the altar cloth.

Of course, the thought of what parents chose to do in the 6th century—offering a child’s life to a monastery, giving up rights to that child, both as a kind of tithe, but also as a way to feed less mouths and gain religious “approval” (from God? from the church?)—is disturbing. From our free-thinking, individualistic society, we can’t possibly grasp the culture of the Benedict’s time, what it meant to live in poverty. Or, what it meant to live under the authority of the church.

So I won’t really go there. When I read this passage, I just kept seeing my boys holding the life (the promises) my husband and I are writing for them, their boy hands wrapped in the altar cloth.

Both my boys are blankey types. They would prefer to have their blankets with them wherever they go. Although August is able to go to school and church without it, if there’s a new, scary event happening for him, you bet his “Bup” is in hand and it’s the only thing keeping him from an emotional breakdown. Brooksie has loved his blanket since he was five months old and every time he sees it, he throws his body into it, rubs his face in it.

You know I’m moved by images. Sometimes I stare past the moment I’m in with my kids and I see the eternal: Those two boys crawling and falling onto the couch cushions, laughing and rolling; the three of us on the rocking chair: August hugging my neck from behind while Brooksie sits in my lap and holds the book. What am I writing for them? What is the commitment I’m offering the Lord on their behalf?

Last Saturday night while Chris and I ate dinner at some supercool hipster French bistro (records playing through the speakers!), we talked about the boys, and I whispered across the table the secrets my heart prays for them, what I hadn’t mentioned to Chris till then. I’m convinced that we are always writing the document, this desperate offering to God on our children’s behalf.

The question I’m asking myself is what promises I’m making with the life I’m living in front of them. Am I writing for them a future of compassion, of community, of love for the most broken and most vulnerable? Or am I writing a future of the love of comfort, of success, of self-obsession? Am I teaching them to love things more than people? Am I teaching them to live in fear of the approval of others?

This is picture I keep seeing: As their little tired bodies lie back against their sheets, as their eyes roll backward, their cheeks relax, as they sink into the secret place their minds go in the darkness, they hold in their hands the words I’ve written for them that day: the commitment I’m making on their behalf to the God I serve. And in their hands, the blankets they love, wrapped around their hands, like altar cloth.

See, on the altar is the sacrifice, the grace offered from a merciful God. Yes, each day I write for them a future: some of it sweet and good; some of it broken and failing. But covering their hands, covering my attempts at mothering, at committing those sweet lives, is the grace that covers my hands as well, my tired body pressed into my sheets at the end of the day, the future my parents wrote for me and the promises I’ve made and broken and continue to walk in. All of it grace; all of it wrapped around our hands.

All of it sealed on the altar where Jesus breaks and pours out again and again.

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A Letter to my second-born son, on his first birthday

Brooksie, this year has taught me a lot of things about being a mom, about making a family out of individual people, about cultivating joy in the daily and in the difficult, about brothers and their fathers and what it might mean to raise a boy into a man.

You are named after two second-born sons. My brother and your dad’s brother. I like to think you’ll be taking the best of your namesakes: Brooks’ humor and tender-heart, his compassion for the unloved and his commitment to friendship; Andy’s bright mind and his passion for using his brain to create, his kindness and sensitive spirit. Your second name (the name we call you most of the time: “T-Rexy” as your cake will say at your party or “T” as we call from across the room) was given to you by your big brother, long before we saw your face. So many brothers surrounding you, little guy.

Really, it’s your brother who is teaching you most about the world. How to pretend, how to receive a good story, how to run, how to laugh, how to eat heartily. And it’s that same brother who is teaching you the injustice of the world: that sometimes you get knocked down for no reason at all, laughed at, told on. Sometimes you are the bugger and sometimes you are the one being bugged. I’m convinced younger siblings know a lot more about the world by the time they get to kindergarten than older siblings. In some ways learning early makes it easier, I hope.

Yesterday morning, when you woke up on your 364th day of life (ok, 365th, it was Leap Year)–that last day before the world gives you a number to define your life’s span, your development–you woke up angry and hungry. Your dad picked you up out of your crib and you signed “eat” and grunted. Then I walked in the room and you reached for me, signed “eat” again and hit me in the face. Your dad said, “Oh no, T! That’s mean.” And I said, “Owww, baby,” and you frowned the sweetest sad face I’d ever seen and stared at me. You’re learning that you can hurt people. You’re learning that your choices have consequences. And you know how to love me, how to love your brother and dad.

Tuesday night, after I got you into your pjs and you kissed your dad and August, you and I went into your room, where I nurse you before bed in the dark. Behind the whoosh of the sound machine, you could hear the faint giggling of your brother and dad. They were on the couch tickling each other and wrestling. You nursed like normal for a minute or so until you realized what was going on, what you were missing out on, and you let go of me, sat up, grunted and got yourself onto the floor in your dark room. I watched you in the glow of the night light make your way across the room in your stiff legged baby walk, open up that cracked door and leave me for the party. You walked all the way to the living room and found yourself welcomed into the pile of boys.

That’s what this is, my love. This is the welcome into boyhood. It’s a small one, but one that acknowledges that you, my (so-far) laid back, left-handed, tender-hearted, quieter but people-loving second born, are an independent soul. I’m still here. I’ll be your mama for a long time, but I know what happens to little boys when they discover how to jump on their daddies, how to roll around on the floor with their big brothers. I know about growing up.

So today, I’ll try not to be the weepy woman you’re used to. Today is for celebrating. Your feet have hit the ground and you’ve got a lot of world to explore, baby.

Happy first birthday, T.

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{Practices of Parenting Carnival} In Which I Believe in Family Dance Parties

EmergingMummy.com

My family had one living area in our three bedroom ranch house. It had a shiny brick bench in front of the fireplace. It was a perfect place for a stage and served as one pretty faithfully for this girl obsessed with her own performance skills. Most of my best moves were done while I happened to be alone in that living room, Amy Grant’s newest cassette on the tape deck and my back to the audience, arms rising at my sides, hands jazz-spread. I only turned around to sing the words at the last possible moment, “Angels Watching Over Me!” belted to the couch full of stuffed animals.

By that point, I was alone in my performances. I was the youngest and my brothers–three and five years my seniors–had long moved on to the more important things that 12-year-olds and 15-year-olds think about. But, long before my solo career, we performed as a trio, late (at least it felt late to me) Saturday nights, with Mickey Mouse Disco on the record player, my parents moving around us for what felt like the entire record: just us dancing and laughing and singing at the top of our lungs. It was 1984 or 1985 and I was five. My brothers were heroes even then, skinny goofballs with dances I’d never seen before (they’d learned them at school, no doubt). I was mesmerized by those boys, but we were still equals in our shared home, raised one at a time onto our father’s shoulders while my mother gasped in fear. And running from one side of that room to the other where a pile of pillows and blankets made for a perfect diving pit.

That’s what I think about when my boys are cozied into their jammies, the baby scooting along the coffee table in his little footies, the preschooler running from the door to the carpet for a knee slide (how does every boy instinctively know how to knee slide from the moment he turns three?).

See, I’m imperfect. And, even more shockingly, my husband is not quite perfection either. And there are days when all I’ve been is the worst version of myself: snappy and frustrated and envious of all the people in the world who have perfect children (it’s only on those days that I think perfect children exist somewhere). I have yelled when I didn’t want to. I’ve cried on the toilet. I’ve eaten an entire bar of dark chocolate during nap time. And I’ve found myself rolling my eyes at the pile of laundry as if it’s the laundry’s fault for existing.

It’s on those days that I absolutely must turn on the music after bellies are fed and teeth are brushed. I know, you’re not supposed to rile your kids up before bed. I know, it’s supposed to be time for quiet and gentle nudging toward sleep. But, sometimes, your husband gets home from work and you stuff pasta into everybody’s bellies and you find yourself sitting on your bed asking God to remind you that your life is the most beautiful of all: That your life is a miracle of grace. That these children came from your body…but before that, they were secrets in the heart of God. That your husband just showed up that night in Ithaca, New York. He just showed up at that random house you visited with your barely-friends before the acapella concert and he walked with you up the road, in the dark, both of you bundled under sweaters in November night. And in that reminder of grace: your body sitting on the bed is filled magically with light, as if you were finally your true self for the first time that day. The boys are whining in the bathroom, getting their teeth brushed by that man you loved first that night in 2002 and now you see him scrubbling their teeth, his eyes older, his jaw stronger and better than before and you know it’s time.

There’s only one thing to do:

Find the Katy Perry Pandora station. Hit play. That’s when August runs from across the room and dives and you dive with him. That’s when Brooksie rides on your husband’s shoulders and you gasp a little and then release your breath and out of your mouth comes all the lies you believed that day: about your worth, about what’s lacking.

And here, right here, this moment, when Usher is singing about the dance floor and the baby is squealing, you recognize the truth. And you spin in it holding your son and you both laugh because all is forgiven; all is new.

Linking up with one of my very favorites Sarah Bessey at Emerging Mummy for the “Practices of Parenting Carnival.” (And using her signature, “In Which…” style in her honor.) You should link up too!

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{Practicing Benedict} The greatest possible concern

“As for the abbot or abbess, they must show the greatest possible concern with great wisdom and perseverance to avoid losing any one of the sheep committed to their care. They should be well aware that they have undertaken an office which is more like the care of the sick than the exercise of power over the healthy. They should be anxious to avoid the Lord’s rebuke to the shepherds through the Prophet Ezekiel: you made your own those you saw to be fat and healthy and cast out those who were weak. They should follow the loving example of the Good Shepherd who left ninety-nine of his flock on the mountains and went off to look for the one sheep who had strayed. So great was his compassion for the weakness of that one erring sheep that he actually lifted it onto his sacred shoulders and so carried it back to the rest of the flock.” (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 27, emphasis mine)

My son peed his pants at school yesterday. He still hates using the potty anywhere but at home, and he refuses to do it out and about unless Chris or I are there with him. So, the teacher called me 15 minutes before I would have left to pick him up to let me know he was “having a rough day.” I could hear him sobbing hysterically in the background. But he didn’t want to talk to me. He just wanted me to come…now.

They’re so fragile, these children. So new to the world. I remember August’s new pink skin smoothed out and puffed up in his babyhood. I remember staring at it wondering what would happen to him in this world that would break that skin open, toughen it, stretch it, wear it thin.

When he was eleven months old, he reached for a cord and pulled a curling iron down on the back of his hand. Oh, how he cried, how I cried, how his caregiver cried. The heat burned his skin, peeled it free of his body. Isn’t it amazing how that can happen? I was working at a camp that month and he was with me there, being watched by Ms Amazing, who did everything to prevent his being hurt. Yet there she was holding my boy, his face in panic, her face in panic. It was early morning, 7 am. And he and I walked together, clinging to each other around the lake as the sun rose and burned off the dew. I sang songs until he calmed. The camp doctor sealed that skin with potion, and he recovered.

Some days I look across the table at breakfast and I see his scar, an unhappy, imperfected circle of once-melted skin, and I sigh. I know what once was there, how fragile it all is: our beating hearts, our soul’s ability to feel and see and live.

So yesterday all I could see was that little boy who didn’t want to pee his pants but did, who is still learning to understand this world and his body in it and what is required socially and emotionally and physically. I brought him his blankey. By then, he was already smiling again dressed in clean clothes, blissfully disconnected from the emotion of twenty minutes prior. But I could still see him in his wandering and ache.

St. Benedict speaks in this because we are all the Abbess, we are all shepherds, perhaps to our children, to someone else’s child, to the friends in our lives, to the broken we pass by on the street. What is whispered when I see my son in all his vulnerability is the calling to an “office which is more like the care of the sick than the exercise of power over the healthy.”

How fragile we all are. How tender and new. How soft and untouched our skin.

Oh, Lord, that we might see with eyes of the Good Shepherd, those who groan in their weakness, who weep over their embarrassment, their shame, those who cannot stand on their own and need our hands under their arms so they can shuffle their lead feet.

Oh, that we might see the one sheep in our midst, the one wandering, begging to be found. That we might choose other than to be taken with the “fat and healthy” and instead run after the frailest with tender compassion.

Let’s be Abbots and Abesses, my friends. Let’s rescue.

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