Remember That You Are Dust (and Blood and Breath): A Response to the Gospel Coalition

Recently, the Gospel Coalition posted an essay about wrestling with human sinfulness in the form of PMS. (I’m not going to link to it here and give them more clicks, but if you really want to see it, you can google PMS: The Monthly Fight with the Flesh.) The author wrote about how her period-induced sadness, anxiety, and irritability were reminders of her need to daily wrestle with “the flesh.” As one might expect from TGC, bad theology abounded.

But this morning, as I sat in an Ash Wednesday service, suffering through some particularly debilitating menstrual symptoms of a migraine and vertigo, I started reflecting on what this experience of weakness can tell me about humanity and our relationship to God.

People who menstruate experience significant stigmas, and as someone who menstruates, but is not a woman, I experience it doubly. The Gospel Coalition article does nothing to reduce that stigma. But where The Gospel Coalition fails, the Gospel succeeds.

In Galatians 3, Paul interprets Deuteronomy 21:23 as Jesus breaking the curse of “the law.” Now, Deuteronomy has more instances of the word “curse” than any other book of the Bible. One way to understand the concept of a “curse” is God’s punishment for sinfulness. But I would argue that “curse” could also be read as “stigma.”

Most scholars believe that Deuteronomy was written as a means of wrestling with the question of why God allowed what seemed to them to be the greatest curse of all: the destruction of Judah and the forced migration of God’s chosen people into Babylonian exile. The Deuteronomistic Historian (the person or group of people that most scholars credit with writing and compiling most of the material from the Deuteronomy to 2 Kings) makes it their mission to understand why God has allowed this great suffering. The answer that the Deuteronomist comes to is sin. Judah must have done something really bad against God, and for that reason, God is punishing them. In this context, the many curses of Deuteronomy begin to make sense.

In the New Testament, the disciples ask Jesus a question that I think mirrors the Deuteronomistic mindset: “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus tells them that this blindness is not a punishment for sin at all.

This is why I read “curse” as stigma: a common response to suffering sees misery and assumes that it is a punishment for sin without inquiring further. It says, “This person is cursed because of their sin,” and ostracizes them further. 

Before I proceed, let me be clear that this tendency is not specific to the Jewish Scriptures. In Acts 28, the people of Malta assume that Paul is a sinner because he is bitten by a snake, and rather than subverting the sin-consequence framework, Acts works within it to show that Paul is blameless because the venom does not harm him. The tendency to distance ourselves from pain by blaming people for their suffering is a human tendency, not an “Old Testament” one. 

If Jesus breaks curses, does Jesus also break stigmas? 

To be honest, I wish Jesus had done more to scold the crowds for their stigmatization of lepers, Samaritans, women, and disabled individuals. He interacts with these stigmatized people lovingly, and he heals many of the barriers to their inclusion, but he does nothing to upend the systems that created their societal rejection. I wish that the Bible was not so easily used to maintain, rather than destroy, stigmas. But we can see, by the way that Jesus personally ignores the societal rules for interacting with stigmatized individuals, that Jesus does not subscribe to our practices of stigma and shaming.

So what do we do with period stigmas?

I’m a biblical theologian, not an activist or a sociologist, but here are some resources that might help! And as we enter into this season of Lent, we remember that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ empower us to overcome our sinful behaviors that uphold and reinforce stigmas.

A New Ash Wednesday Theology of Periods

Today is the day on which we hear, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We remember that we are weak and made from the earth. We are not capable of living sinless lives, we are not capable of keeping ourselves from aging and dying, we are not capable of redeeming our own existences. 

When you read the story in Genesis 2, you’ll see that we are also a little more than just dust. God breathes into the dust, and the breath of God brings the human person to life. So not only are we weak, and mortal, we are animated and sustained by the very breath of God.

To be human is to live in the tension of our weakness and our dependency on the all-powerful God. When I’m bleeding and dizzy and in pain, my body keeps going even when I have no energy to tell it to keep fighting. Although of course I’m not actually dying, and science can tell me why my lungs keep filling with air, I like to think that the grace of God sustains me. Isn’t it amazing that I can lose so much blood every month and my God-formed body keep making more? And, of course, even the very blood that is leaving my body is God-given.

In Genesis 9, when God gives Noah permission to eat meat, God forbids him from eating an animal’s blood, because “it is its life.” And it’s true that the heartbeat is a telltale sign of life, but I think the symbol also reveals something deeper. Blood is symbolic of life and vitality, something that belongs to God alone. If our bodies return to dust, and our breath returns to God, what happens to our blood? Genesis 9 says that God requires a reckoning: blood cannot be consumed by any person, for it belongs to God alone. The only blood we are to consume is that of Christ, which nourishes us.

I’ve wondered for years whether there could be a spiritual significance to the blood that sheds from my uterus every month. There must be more to the monthly ritual of emptying this space in my body only to rebuild it. It has to be more than just ritual uncleanness.

At the very least, we can say that the Christian life, like menstruation, is cyclical. We follow seasons, like lent, of self-emptying as we prepare to celebrate the triumphs of Christ. We give up parts of our lives—be they meat, chocolate, or complaining—for a time as part of our preparation to celebrate the resurrection. But menstruation is not some kind of purgation or self-punishment for our sins.

The Gospel Coalition talks about the hormones we experience during PMS as part of a “fleshly” nature. Although the essay does not entirely conflate bodies with the Pauline metaphor of “the flesh,” it does place the human body completely into the category of “bad.” As I have written about here, Paul’s actual perspective on bodies was much more nuanced: the body is not merely a container for sin, nor is it exempt from it: it is the stage on which the story of redemption plays out.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ash Wednesday does not condemn our bodies or encourage us to transcend them. It simply reminds us of our weakness in body, in soul, and in spirit.

There’s a Greek word, kenosis, that describes the self-emptying of Christ when He took on flesh. You can find it in Philippians 2:6-7 when Jesus, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” and was born as a human baby. If blood is the vitality which God gives to humans, could our periods be a kind of kenosis?

I’m not sure if there is a spiritual reason for our periods, but today, uncomfortable and with burned palm leaves and oil crowning my forehead, my period reminded me of my weakness. And even in weakness, God supplies my every breath.

Redeeming the Body: A New Pauline Theology of Bodies

This essay was originally written for RELG 311 at McGill University

There is a pervasive belief in much of Evangelical Christianity that the human body is evil. This belief shapes everything from Evangelicalism’s extreme emphasis on “sexual purity” to Christian diet programs, and the fundamental message is the same in all of Evangelicalism’s messaging about bodies: resist your body and its desires. Whatever it tells you, do the opposite. I find that messaging to be inconsistent with other statements from Paul, such as “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Cor. 6:15), and so I wanted to investigate the issue further. By focusing on the Greek words σάρξ and σῶμα, I had hoped to find a clear distinction between the two that would prove flesh as something altogether different than body, therefore redeeming Paul’s concept of the body. Unfortunately, a close reading of Paul’s letters with attention to the Greek words used disproved my hypothesis. There is no clear and consistent distinction between σάρξ and σῶμα. However, Paul also does not treat the body with the unilateral condemnation that is often seen in Evangelicalism. Instead, Paul sees the body as intimately involved in the story of salvation: although the body is the location for sin, it is also an eschatological promise of redemption, and an instrument for glorifying God. I intend to provide a full Pauline perspective on bodies by exploring his treatment of σῶμα throughout his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians. In doing so, I will demonstrate that for Paul, the body is the physical location where Christ’s story of redemption plays out.

Before diving into 1 Corinthians in particular, I’d like to disproving the hypothesis with which I started my research, and demonstrate Paul’s understanding of the body as intimately connected to sinfulness. In Romans, Paul implicates the concept of σῶμα as something similar to flesh within his distinction between σάρξ and πνεῦμα. Taken apart from the rest of the authentic Pauline corpus, Romans seems to suggest a kind of mind-body dualism. For example, in Romans 7:23, Paul claims that his body is in a kind of conflict with his mind: “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind…” The word translated as “members,” μέλος, refers literally to limbs, and should be read as referring to the parts of Paul’s body (Blue Letter Bible G3196). In light of this, it seems likely that Paul is referring, at least in some sense, to his literal body. My hypothesis was also broken down by Romans 8:3, “…by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” If flesh were merely a sinful condition, distinct from the human body, then why was Jesus sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh?” The attribution of sinful flesh (σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας) to Christ shatters any possible argument that σάρξ is some kind of stand-in for some kind of sin-nature. Nor is the word σῶμα separate from sin. Romans 8:13 implicates  it in this narrative of embodied sinfulness: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the σῶμα, you will live.” However, Paul does not condemn the body as without hope for redemption, nor does he assert that it is in a state of permanent opposition to God.

Throughout Romans and the rest of his epistles, Paul affirms that the body is and will be saved by Jesus. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Rom. 7:24-25). Although the grammatical structure is not entirely clear, I would argue that v. 25 is the answer to Pauls question in v. 24. Paul uses his metaphor of flesh to offer his promise of redemption: “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you,” (Rom. 8:10-11). Although Paul locates sin in the body, he also affirms that the body does and will take part in God’s story of salvation. 

“Therefore glorify God in your body.”
-1 Corinthians 6:20

If the body was once the location of sin, and it will later be glorified and transformed, what should Paul’s audience do with their bodies in the meantime? Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6 is a tangling of physical concepts of body and a concept less tangible, but no less literal. He begins in v. 13, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” but is soon reminding his audience that their “bodies are members of Christ” (1 Cor. 6:15). Just as in Romans 7:23, the word here is μέλος, meaning limbs. Paul grounds his argument in the way that literal food belongs in literal stomachs, and then ties that reality to another claim: the individual Jesus-followers are limbs and body parts of Christ. The complete verse of 1 Corinthians 6:13 reads, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” For Paul, there is some kind of quasi-physical way in which the body is part of God––not just eschatologically, but in the present moment. The body is not merely a hindrance to God, as it is portrayed in Romans 7. The body of a Christ-follower is part of Christ in a real way.

It would be easy to separate the physicality of a statement such as 1 Corinthians 10:31 “so, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God,” from the σῶμα Χριστοῦ of 1 Corinthians 12, but as I have demonstrated, the two are very much tied to one another. Returning to 1 Corinthians 6:13, we might notice that the teleological destination of food is the stomach. Therefore, the body also finds its telos in God. I believe this verse is the key to uniting the raw physicality of food, drink, and sex with Paul’s grand theological concept of believers being part of Christ’s body.

The force that unites Christ-followers to Christ is Christ’s πνεῦμα. Although it may be easy to view this from a modern perspective, believing Christ’s πνεῦμα to be some kind of spiritual force with little grounding in the material world, Paul did not think this way. For Paul, πνεῦμα was as much a physical substance as σῶμα. According to scholar Stanley K. Stowers, πνεῦμα was understood in the ancient world as a literal, physical substance. Stowers cites Epictetus to prove his point: “When someone has a spell of dizziness, it is not the abilities and the virtues that are thrown into confusion, but the pneuma of which they exist. When the pneuma settles down, the abilities and virtues are settled,” (360). We see this physicality—and with it, a concern for the integrity of the σῶματα of Christ followers—in Paul’s anxiety over the possibility of a Christ-follower having sex with a prostitute in 1 Corinthians 6. To quote Stowers, “The same stuff makes Christ and believers contiguous. Paul means this so realistically that for a believer to be joined to a prostitute in sexual intercourse would be to join her to Christ and create that arm-body relation,” (358). If we examine this concept in terms of the value and significance of the body, we again find that the body is not insignificant or a hopeless source of sin. Paul attributes a lot of power to the body. After all, what a Christ-follower does with their body has the potential to compromise the body of Christ. 

Since the body of Christ is not just a useful metaphor, 1 Corinthians 12 is not just a separate meaning of the word “body,” but is intimately tied up in Paul’s greater theology of bodies. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose,” (1 Cor. 12:17-18). Although this passage is intended to make a larger point about the value of each Christ-follower to the whole community of believers, it also demonstrates that Paul believes the parts of a human body to be good and God-glorifying. Since God put the body of Christ together exactly as God wanted it, to God’s glory, it’s easy to see how Paul saw the human body in the same light. In 1 Corinthians 12:24-26, Paul offers that “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Again, we see that the body (of Christ, and of each person) is put together and ordered by God. We also see that the body is supposed to care for itself. Paul’s rhetoric in Romans of “body of death” (Rom. 7:24) and “our sinful passions…at work in our members,” (Rom. 7:5) could demonstrate a sense of disdain for human limbs, but 1 Corinthians 12 reveals that a person should not view their body to be bad, but should care for it.

It’s clear that for Paul, the primary purpose of the body of a Christ-follower is to glorify God. Paul argues that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,” (1 Cor. 6:19). Stowers explains this verse by tying it to Paul’s idea in 1 Corinthians 15:44 that “a fully pneumatic body will replace the fleshly body only at the resurrection,” (357-358). In the meantime, the πνεῦμα of Christ dwells in their present, physical bodies. But glorifying God is about more than just what one does or does not do with food, drink, and sex. Paul states that the life of the Christ-follower involves “carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh,” (1 Cor. 4:10-11). Here, the body is a physical sign of Christ’s resurrection. The sufferings of the body function as a kind of stage that displays the life and power of Jesus. It is a means of making Christ visible to those outside of Christ through endurance. To use Paul’s own words, the body’s weakness is a stage for Christ “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us,” (2 Cor. 4:7). As I have demonstrated, Paul’s theology of the body is not a singular, clear-cut concept of the body as good or bad. Instead, the body is the stage for Christ’s story of sin and redemption. It is the location of sin and death, and it is the future location of the fullness of Christ’s redemption. In the time between co-crucifixion with Christ (Rom. 6:6) and an imperishable body, raised with Christ in power (1 Cor. 15:42-43), the body is something that is made to glorify God. It is part of God in some material way—the place where the πνεῦμα of Christ dwells. It can be infected by sin, and it is so intimately part of God that it can spread sin to the rest of Christ’s σῶμα. It was carefully designed by God, unified in such a way that its suffering matters to the whole person. And its glorification of God does not just depend on its abstention from sinful behavior: it also presents Christ to the world through its endurance in suffering. For Paul, the body is not something hopelessly wicked as many later Christians have supposed. It is something made for God: something that will be redeemed.

Bibliography

Stowers, Stanley K. “What Is ‘Pauline Participation in Christ’?” Redefining First-Century Jewish and Christian Identities. Edited by Udoh, Fabian E., Heschel, Susannah, Chancey, Mark, and Tatum, Gregory. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 352-371.

“Strong’s G3196—Μέλος.” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, 2011. 4 October 2019. Blue Letter Bible. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3196&t=NET

Who Is My Enemy?

This was originally given as a sermon on January 24, 2020 at Montreal Diocesan Theology College. It is based on that day’s Eucharist lectionary passage for the Anglican Church of Canada, which was 1 Samuel 24:2-20.

Predictably, I started writing this sermon by farming Twitter for advice. One person suggested using the first lesson to talk about pacifism, and I immediately bristled at the idea. King David was no pacifist.

The Bible records a song, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” King David paid for his wife Michal with 100 Philistine foreskins. Let that sink in. King David killed and posthumously circumcised—which is not only corpse mutilation, but a kind of cultural genocide—100 Philistines one afternoon so that he could marry another one of King Saul’s daughters. Because one wife wasn’t enough. David’s hands were so blood-stained that God would not let him build God’s temple.

This passage is an enigma in the violent life of King David: not only does he do no physical harm to someone who is trying to kill him, he feels guilty for the social harm that he does cause by cutting off a piece of Saul’s robe. Verse 6 tells us why: Saul is the Lord’s anointed.

Numerous times, I’ve heard church leaders hold up this passage as an example of why King David was called “a man after God’s own heart”: he would not dare interrupt the God-given authority that Saul carried, and his righteousness caused Saul to repent. This way of reading the passage comes from a position of power, and does not hold up for those without it.

On Monday, the United States celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. day, and my Facebook feed was flooded with MLK quotes about “love,” and “dreams,” and “brotherhood,” shared by well-meaning Christians who enjoy a whitewashed and sanitized version of Dr. King’s legacy. Their Dr. King fought for integration through eloquent sermons and prophetic magnetism: he was not threatened by the FBI, he did not block roads, he certainly never spoke out against capitalism or the Vietnam war. His dream is fulfilled, and like King David, he accomplished his mission by treating those in authority with such honor that they saw the wickedness of their ways and repented.

But that is not the vision, nor legacy, nor methodology of Dr. King. Dr. King’s pacifism was not a deference to power. It was certainly not a belief that the powers that be were God’s anointed. Dr. Kinng affirmed the God-chosenness of all people, especially the oppressed.

King David was only concerned about the lives of those within his community. Saul was an Israelite, and an anointed Israelite King no less. Despite his injustices, he deserved the preferential treatment of one within the community. The Philistines and others who stood in David’s way were nothing. They deserved to be killed and cast aside, because they were outsiders.

Now, I don’t suspect that those in the chapel this morning have any intention of cutting off Philistine foreskins any time soon. We are far more peaceable than a blood-stained ancient king. But we all participate in the sin of King David, considering the lives of our neighbors and leaders more important than those we do not see. We may try to “love our enemies” in the Trump supporters, or the CAQ leaders advancing the discriminatory Loi 21. But who are our enemies? Are they merely those who oppose us from within our own communities and affinity groups? Do they look like us? Talk like us? Sleep in houses like our own?

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King said, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states… We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Dr. King fought segregation for the sake of his community, but he also fought against the economic injustice that plagues people of all races. He fought the needless violence of the Vietnam war, because enemies overseas were no more deserving of violence than enemies at home. Because we are all tied together. None of us is free until we’re all free.

When Jesus says to love your enemy, I believe that his vision is not that of King David, but of Dr. King. And we are not just called to love our enemies, but all people, including those we do not see as our enemies, but disregard nonetheless.

So I ask you, who are we leaving out? Who does not have a seat at our table? When we love our enemies, who are we missing? Do we love our homophobic Christian enemies at the expense of the queer community? Do we love the racist neighbors in our churches at the expense of our siblings of color? Who is suffering most? Who are we leaving out? 

Dr. King speaks of a negative peace from the moderate white churches, that merely masks injustice rather than resolving it. He chastises the white clergy who were praising the Birmingham police force: “I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.” We must not let our love for the enemies who are like us drown out the cries of those who they are oppressing.

King David is, in fact, performing an act of radical non-violence by confronting Saul. There is no doubt that his life is at risk—If Saul hadn’t repented, he likely would have killed David the moment he saw him. But this is not a “go and do likewise.” This is a call to go beyond the imperfect example set forth in Scripture, to embrace the radical call of Christ.

Let us now consider our own communities.  Who are the “enemies” within them? Who are the “enemies” outside of our communities? Who are the people we disregard, to whom we do not offer the same dignity as the “enemies” we work so hard to love? Take some time today, to think of a community who you have inadvertently or intentionally ignored. Take five minutes, and pray for them. 

Because legacy of Dr. King shows us that it is not just the King Sauls, but the nameless, faceless Philistines, those who are marginalized, those who are outside of our communities, and those who do not even cross our minds: we are called to love, not only the enemies within our communities, but we are also called to love the enemies outside of our communities, and we are called to love those who we most often forget.

When King David confronts Saul, he calls him “my father.” This should give us hope. For in Christ, we must call all people—our neighbors, our enemies who are like us, and the enemies we disregard—we must call them my father, my mother, my parent. My brother, my sister, my sibling. 

Amen.

Let Me (Re)Introduce Myself

Two years ago, I cried listening to a podcast. The host mentioned “the love of God who calls you by your true name,” and I lost it. I’m sure he meant “beloved,” or “child of God,” and not anything on a Facebook account or birth certificate, but I felt lost nonetheless. What is my true name?

Anyone who’s known me for a long time knows that I have a strange history with names.

My full name is Margaret Alexandra Griffin. My parents had planned to call me Alex. But, when I was born, they took one look at me, decided that I was not Alex, and named me Allie instead. “Wait, what? I thought your name was Maggie.” The story gets more complicated. Bear with me.

By late elementary school, I didn’t like Allie. It didn’t feel right. I decided that when I started middle school, I would change my nickname. In fifth grade, my favorite book was A Wrinkle in Time, and Meg was such a cool nickname for Margaret. I would be Meg.

I showed up to my first day of school as Meg Griffin. It was a mistake.

On the bus to school, I found out that there was a cartoon called Family Guy. About 15 seconds later, I started being teased. I went to the same school from 6th to 12th grade, and through that time, the name shaped me. The messages of “everybody hates Meg” that people would half-jokingly share seeped into my soul, and although it was about way more than just a name, I hated me too.

College would be my chance to reinvent myself. Nobody knew me, so I could be whoever I wanted. I decided that I would be Maggie. No more Meg who had never fully felt like a girl, who didn’t know what to do with that. Meg was embarrassingly silly, a bit of a weirdo. Maggie would be feminine, sweet, cool. Maggie would fit in. I got in a car and left Baltimore as Meg. I arrived in Ohio as Maggie.

Each time I’ve changed my nickname in the past, it’s functioned as a kind of escape. The previous version of myself wasn’t good enough, so I needed to become someone new. Maybe the new person would finally be worthy of love.

This time is different. I’m no longer running from who I truly am. Part of this, of course, is the maturing process. I’m no longer a self-loathing teenager. But it’s deeper than that.

I am coming out of the closet as non-binary because I am finally okay with not-quite-fitting. I am coming out because my inner-reality is more important to me than trying to fit into anyone’s boxes or either-or system. I am coming out because I like the real me, and I want others to have the chance to know that person, too.

Let me talk a bit about my gender.

As a teenager, I never really felt like a girl. This was more than just a she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts phase. It was like the things that were feminine somehow felt wrong. My body felt wrong. “Girl” felt wrong. But I wasn’t a boy either, so I did nothing.

In 12th grade, I bought a bow tie. But I was too scared to wear it.

Back then, I was too scared for a lot of things. I didn’t fit into the world, but I also didn’t fit into myself, so what else was new?

In college, I slowly got better at fitting in. I watched myself from the outside, measuring my value in coffee spoons. Did I look pretty? Was I perfectly smart, cool, talented, successful? Was the image that I made for myself what everyone else wanted from me?

T.S. Elliot describes “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, formulated, sprawling on a pin,” and those eyes were at once my eyes and the eyes of others. I willingly made myself to be “pinned and wriggling on the wall. Then how should I begin?”

I began by letting myself come out as queer.

Although I had tried to like myself, I never did until I started to discover who I was. There was something blocking me, and it just felt impossible. I spent so much energy trying to craft a version of myself that would please those around me. The image wasn’t like clothes to put on and take off. I kept on the image until I didn’t know where it ended and I began. It’s like I’d only ever known how to shower with my clothes on.

When I realized I liked girls, I started to take off the “Maggie” I’d made. At first, it was just for me, then for a few friends, then to more and more people until I was ready to come out publicly. Through that process, I learned to exist in my body, to discover who I was and what I actually wanted.

I wore a bow tie for the first time before I was out publicly, and it felt amazing. It’s hard to describe the feeling of gender euphoria, but it’s kind of like looking in the mirror and finally recognizing yourself. The day I tried on my bow tie with every collared shirt I owned, grinning ear-to-ear, I knew that something was up with my gender. But after so many years trying to avoid and suppress it, I just wasn’t ready.

As I was preparing to move to Montreal, I knew it was going to be time to address the gender question, but I didn’t realize how quickly it would come up when I got here. My first weekend in Canada, I casually told a new friend that my parents had almost called me Alex, and how I wished they had. I realized in that moment that it was something I deeply wanted.

At the end of September, I got together with my friend Noah to talk about gender, and I told them about the name Alex. When we said goodbye, they said, “See you, Alex!” and it felt right the way it does to wear your favorite sweater. Simultaneous feelings of joy and home. “Your face just lit up!” Noah said.

I wish I could say that I thought about Alex long and hard, that I chose the name to bring a full-circle, poetic closure to these disparate versions of myself. But honestly, I didn’t really think about it much at all. It just felt right.

I wore a bow tie for the first time before I was out publicly, and it felt amazing. It’s hard to describe the feeling of gender euphoria, but it’s kind of like looking in the mirror and finally recognizing yourself. The day I tried on my bow tie with every collared shirt I owned, grinning ear-to-ear, I knew that something was up with my gender. But after so many years trying to avoid and suppress it, I just wasn’t ready.

As I was preparing to move to Montreal, I knew it was going to be time to address the gender question, but I didn’t realize how quickly it would come up when I got here. My first weekend in Canada, I casually told a new friend that my parents had almost called me Alex, and how I wished they had. I realized in that moment that it was something I deeply wanted.

At the end of September, I got together with my friend Noah to talk about gender, and I told them about the name Alex. When we said goodbye, they said, “See you, Alex!” and it felt right the way it does to wear your favorite sweater. Simultaneous feelings of joy and home. “Your face just lit up!” Noah said.

I wish I could say that I thought about Alex long and hard, that I chose the name to bring a full-circle, poetic closure to these disparate versions of myself. But honestly, I didn’t really think about it much at all. It just felt right.

So here I am.

To be honest, changing your nickname and pronouns when you’re not running away from anything is a vulnerable process. You are, very publicly, announcing that you’ve changed how you see yourself, and asking others to see you in the same way. Once we leave our teenage years behind, the expectation is that any significant personal growth we undertake is a gradual, graceful process that can be better communicated through 2009//2019 photo challenges than the guts-hanging-out, seemingly overnight transition from calling your friend “Maggie” to calling them “Alex.”

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid to post this today. But it’s also exciting. I feel like I’m getting ready to be free.

If you’re a friend or loved-one, thank you for trying to use my name and pronouns. It’s incredibly important to me. I know you will mess up, and that’s okay. You show that you love me by trying anyway. As someone who’s had friends change their pronouns, I promise you’ll get used to it with practice.

If you have questions about what “non-binary” meanswhy “they/them” can be used as singular pronounshow they/them pronouns work, or how you can support me (and your other non-binary friends), I’ve linked some resources here. If you read these and still have questions, I’m happy to provide a longer reading list. And if you’re a Christian who is looking for something beyond Queer, Trans, and Non-Binary 101, I strongly recommend Transforming by Austen Hartke.

Thank you to all the lovely friends who have supported me in this journey. I love you all so much.

This post was originally published on November 30, 2019.

Captain Marvel, Coming Out, and Other Thoughts on Finding My Voice

image courtesy of IMDB

*This piece contains Captain Marvel spoilers.*

In a recent meeting with my spiritual director, she suggested that I buy an enamel pin of a middle finger. I could keep it in my pocket as a kind of talisman. It would be a reminder: I am in charge of myself, and no one can take that power away from me.

But with the exception of one uncharacteristic moment in traffic, I have never flipped someone off, so I decided against purchasing the off-color charm. In its place, I ordered a pin I can proudly display on my jacket. It is a polite but earnest expression of “take no shit” that I can make part of my public identity, a slogan from Captain Marvel: “Higher, further, faster.”

Image courtesy of MoPins Etsy Shop

I saw Captain Marvel in theaters just a few weeks before publicly coming out, and Carol Danvers’ story gave me courage as I prepared to tell my own. The first scene of the movie is Carol waking up from a nightmare, haunted, not by the facts of her past, but by the fact that she can’t remember it at all. She has no idea who she is: her character, her identity, and her memories have all been stolen from her. Her leaders take advantage of this moorlessness and leave her contstantly trying to prove herself and solidify her belonging.

For me, as for many LGBTQ+ Christians, this story is a familiar one. To survive the closet for 23 years, I had to lie to myself and forget who I was. Carol’s identity was stolen from her, but I spent my entire adolescence trying to kill mine. Even without being consciously aware of my queerness, I knew my world didn’t have space for the person I truly was. So I did everything I could to put a damper on my intensity, my emotions, and anything that would betray my idiosyncratic identity.

When I became a Christian, the Church was my chance at finally fitting in — my fellow Christians didn’t seem to care that I was a bit eccentric, they just cared that I read my Bible every day and scrupulously upheld every rule of “Christian morality.” Those were, after all, the weapons of “spiritual warfare.” So I did everything I could to separate my sexuality — an essential part of my humanity — from my sense of self and conscious awareness. I didn’t really belong anywhere else, least of all to myself, so I tried to prove that I was “spiritual enough” to finally belong somewhere.

In one of the first scenes of the movie, Carol spars with her commander, Yon-Rogg, as he berates her for being emotional and tells her that she is only as good as her ability to fight without superpowers. Just like Carol, I used to think that I was only as good as my ability to shut down my feelings and become who everyone else wanted me to be. Then everything changed.

Carol learns who she is through her best friend, Maria: “You were the most powerful person I knew, way before you could shoot fire from your fists.” My story also involves learning my identity in a moment, but it took months of facing my fears and coming out to people for me to learn my power.

When I came out, I gave up relationships and ministry roles. But I did it because as long as I was hiding this huge part of myself, there wouldn’t be a single space where my whole self could belong. Like a bat can flatten itself to the thickness of a quarter, I could contort myself to fit in anywhere, but a space that only has room for a flattened caricature of yourself leaves no room to breathe, let alone live. It was time for me to live.

Image courtesy of IMDB

When Carol finally discovers her identity, it gives her the power to break free from Kree control: the device on her neck, which she’d been told was the source of her powers, was actually a device to limit their strength. Carol removes it, saying, “I’ve been fighting with one arm tied behind my back. But what happens when I’m finally set free?”

While there’s no such thing as a gay Christian superpower, my greatest strength comes when I stand as my full self, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Coming out did not give me this strength: it merely showed me what was already there. Everything I need has been inside of me all along.

The first time Maria and Fury saw Carol in her full power, they were shocked, and told her, “You’re glowing.” This is my story too. I have heard that same phrase from friends, family, and old acquaintances over and over since coming out. As one friend put it, “I can see how happy it makes you to finally be who you truly are.”

My enemies are not aliens with blue blood, or even people. My enemies are fear, heterosexism, toxic theology, and the trauma that has led me to stifle my voice. I was once under their control, manipulated into silence and docility, but I have resolved to fight back.

My favorite scene in the movie comes when Yon-Rogg tries to manipulate Carol into engaging him in hand-to-hand combat rather than using her powers. Carol is not fooled. She strikes Yon-Rogg with a photon blast, stands over him, and says, “I have nothing to prove to you.”

The truth is that there is nothing I need to prove to anyone. Throughout the coming-out process, I felt this need to prove my faithfulness and theological soundness: if I could tell my story in just the right way, I would be safe and loved, and I would still belong in the spaces that believed my sexual orientation was wrong. But I do not deserve to have my safety held captive by my ability to prove that I am worthy of love. My safety should be — and is — unconditional. I will no longer stay in any place that does not honor my safety. I have found my voice, and I will not silence it again.

The truth is that coming out is only a small piece of finding my voice. Coming out represented an end to my self-silencing, but now I am free to ask the questions that I have long feared, face the realities to which I could never bear to open my eyes, and invite others to see the person I am rather than the image I project. I can explore my spirituality unhindered by the expectations of what it is supposed to look like. I can sift through my dreams, and find which ones are mine and which ones were planted by others. I can re-tell my story with clear eyes, unafraid to point out the darkness, because I have hope that my story is not over yet.

During the month of April, I engaged in a creative project — I wrote and posted a poem every day of the month to celebrate National Poetry Month. It was a scary thing to do, because I was essentially posting diary entries, veiled and sonorous though they may be, on my Instagram for all the world to see. Before I started the coming-out process, I would never have had the courage to engage in such a vulnerable project of self-disclosure. But now that I’ve found the power to speak boldly, I will not hide in fear or allow any part of me to be manipulated back into a closet.


A word to those, LGBTQ+ and otherwise, who are still struggling to find their voices

To the silenced soul, to the dear one paralyzed by self-doubt, take heart. You are braver than you think. The power to tell your story is already within you; you don’t need anyone’s permission but your own. There are times when you have to stay silent to keep yourself safe, and that’s okay, but know that you won’t have to stay quiet forever. Speak out when you’re ready. You are a hero, hiding in a utility closet, as the villains pass by. Silence is not your home, just a convenient hiding place from which you can move on as soon as the coast is clear. In the meantime, sit and be present with yourself. Find the strength in your body and the power in your breath. Let the stillness reveal your true self, and in time, courage will come. Soon, you will be ready. And soon, you will speak.

Love, 
Alex

This post was originally published on July 6, 2019.

No More Closets

I’ve been thinking about how to tell this story for a long time. I’ve told it to friends over and over, and in doing so, I’ve slowly gained the confidence to share it publicly. At the beginning of this process, my head knew the truth that every part of me is fully loved by God, but I didn’t feel beloved — I felt afraid and alone. With each person I’ve told, I’ve felt stronger, braver, safer in my own skin. Even the less-than welcoming responses have taught me that I am okay, and I can continue my journey even when some of my loved ones cannot come along.

So let me tell you a story.

One Saturday afternoon in September, I had to run by Sierra Trading Post and Marshalls on my way home from work. I don’t remember what I was looking to buy, and whatever it was, I never bought it.

I was headed into a store, when I saw someone who looked like a familiar face––a girl in my graduating class at Kenyon who was a talented writer. Only, instead of thinking to myself, “Oh, that looks like a girl from one of my creative writing classes,” or, “That looks like (insert name here),” I said to myself, almost aloud, “That looks like a girl I had a crush on in college.”

And then, “Wait. What the fuck did I just say?”

I wandered around Sierra Trading Post for about thirty minutes without buying anything, panicking. And as I did, all the memories patiently waited in line for my attention: when I was 11, I saw a girl on TV, and I just felt something. I asked, “Am I gay?” but I was afraid, so I decided to never think about it again. When I was 17, a girl with sandy hair and freckles was unlocking a dressing room for me, and when she smiled at me, I felt my breath turn shallow. But I was still afraid, and I decided to never think about it again. Many times in college, I asked myself, “Am I gay?” but immediately responded, “No, couldn’t be,” and threw the question away like someone might throw trash out the window of a moving car. The farther I got get away from it, the better.

I already knew that God accepted me.
What I feared was God’s people.

But at the same time, I’d been making gay Christian friends and discovering that the Bible wasn’t nearly as clear on LGBTQ+ inclusion as I’d originally thought. By the time I was stress-pacing around Sierra Trading Post, I’d already believed for several years that it wasn’t a sin to be gay. I’d done my hermeneutical work: having wrestled with the Greek New Testament, read Biblical scholarship from all perspectives, and prayed extensively, I believed that God blessed the lives and relationships of my LGBTQ+ friends. So as I drove home that night with every muscle in my body clenched in terror, I was not afraid that I would go to hell, or afraid that I would be forced to remain celibate for the rest of my life. I already knew that God accepted me. What I feared was God’s people.


Ever since I was a child, I’ve lived with this overwhelming sense that I am only safe if everyone approves of me. In school, it led me to become the teacher’s pet in almost every class. I did everything I could to please the Girl Scout moms, camp counselors, and teachers.

When, at sixteen, I gave my life to Jesus and became an Evangelical Christian, my striving-to-please became even more pervasive. As it turned out, the Creator of All Things had a very specific list of desires for me, and he would approve of me if only I stopped cussing and never watched R-rated movies.

Those of you familiar with Evangelical theology might object to this concept as a distortion Evangelical ideals (and there were subtle differences between what was preached and what I believed), but you have to understand that if only I could be good enough, I believed I would finally be safe.

They had come to stand for the voice of God in my life:
telling me I was loved when I found that so hard to believe.

As I matured in my faith, I discovered that God was far more concerned about love and faithfulness than my occasional use of the word “fuck,” but the Christians around me were still the arbiters of God’s approval. They had come to stand for the voice of God in my life: telling me I was loved when I found that so hard to believe.

I was never going to be able to contort myself into exactly the right shape to fit an ever-changing conception of “enough.”

In turn, I strove to please them as much as possible: learning to believe, think, do, even feel the right things, and staying silent when I didn’t. My spiritual family loved me when I was happy, so I learned to be a beacon of light. I filtered every thought and threw out the ones they wouldn’t like. I shoved aside grief, ran from difficult emotions, and let no speck of doubt cross my mind. There came a point when I was more “Good Christian Girl” than I was me.

When I figured out that I was gay, I finally had to give up. I was never going to be able to contort myself into exactly the right shape to fit an ever-changing conception of “enough.”

No More Closets is not just about my sexual orientation. It is a declaration and a prayer that I will not live in closets anymore. I will no longer shove pieces of myself into boxes and hide them under the bed in order to be everything everyone wants from me.

The first time I ever came out to someone, I could breathe in a way I never had before. I felt like I belonged in my body––I could finally relax after spending so much mental and emotional energy keeping my sexuality repressed. Later that afternoon, as I was journaling and basking in my newfound freedom, I heard God whisper to me, “you were made to be free.” In that moment, what I knew in my head about God’s acceptance became something I knew with all my heart.


I’d like to end my announcement with thankfulness for all the people whose love and faithfulness have brought me to this point.

To the people of Harcourt Parish Episcopal Church: thank you for loving and accepting me from day one, for having grace for me as I’ve changed and grown, and for being the most supportive, affirming church community I could possibly dream of.

To Zane and Jenn Sanders: thank you for forming my faith while we were at Kenyon, and thank you for continuing to affirm me from afar. You are like family because wherever we are, theologically and geographically, I know you will always be in my corner.

To the people of Journey Church: thank you for continually surprising me with the reality that I am loved when I show my true self. You loved me, closets and all, and you still love me as I’ve stepped out of them. You show me that family still stands and still loves, even in our differences.

To Rachel Kessler: I don’t know where I would be without you. You teach me that faith, cynicism, hope, and doubt can all have a place in the house of God, but more than that, you show me that I have a place in the house of God. Because of you, I know that embracing all of myself can be worship. Thank you.

To my online community: thank you for making spaces for me to be unapologetically out when I could not do so face-to-face. Thank you for answering DMs from random people you’ve never met, and responding with reactions like, “Absolutely love. We gotta stick together.” (Joshua Hundl, I’m looking at you.) Thank you to the Liturgists Community Singles group for the space to be fully myself, to my girl gang for being here to process all my massive feelings, and to #faithfullylgbt Twitter for teaching me what’s possible.

To the Beale family: thank for teaching me to know Jesus. I know you’re not going to like this new part of my journey, but thank you for giving me Jesus. I love you guys, and I’m more in love with God than ever.

To my therapist: thank you for holding space for me to question, wrestle, get angry, and grow.

To my spiritual director: thank you for continually convicting me of my belovedness, and for making space for God to do the same.

To all my friends (you know who you are) who have welcomed this new part of me: thank you. I love you.

A word about theology

I purposefully did not go into the Biblical and theological reasons why I’m LGBTQ+ affirming. To me, that question has been settled for several years; but also, I am here to tell my story, and my story is not up for debate.

If you are curious about how I arrived at this conclusion, I would be happy to talk with you about it, but I ask that you do some basic reading first. I recommend you begin with either Torn by Justin Lee or God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines. The Reformation Project has a fantastic collection of affirming resources, including YouTube videos, events, and even a Brief Biblical Case for LGBTQ Inclusion. Similarly, Queer Grace has a easy-to-read articles explaining the intersection of LGBTQ identities and faith. Lastly, Kevin Garcia has a great video series on how to talk on the Bible and LGBTQ inclusion.

This post was originally published on April 9, 2019.

Why I Love Advent More than Christmas

In our capitalistic American culture, Advent is a season where Christmas songs (which have been playing in stores since Halloween) are finally acceptible to the scrooges among us, and children eat daily chocolate candies to count the days from December 1 until Christmas. Let me clarify: this is not the Advent season that I love.

In traditional liturgical Christianity, Advent is a time of prayer and reflection designed to prepare our hearts to celebrate the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. Unlike our commercialized culture that tries to shoehorn everything Christmas into the category of “merry and bright,” Advent is actually a darker, more solemn season. It is a time of recognizing our deep need for the presence of God and longing for the coming of Christ. In Advent, we yearn not only for our annual celebration of God putting on flesh, but also for another coming of Christ, when our sorrows will be no more.

The first time I really connected with the message of Advent, I was driving “home” from college for Christmas break, but the home where I’d grown up had been destroyed in a fire just a month before. What was once my home now looked like a haunted house: the whole place was blackened, there was a cold white sky where the ceiling should have been, and everything that the fire didn’t take was destroyed by smoke, water, and firefighters.

Losing a home in such a sudden, traumatic way can make it difficult to be at home anywhere, even in your own heart. And that day, I was leaving everything I still owned in a 10×10 dorm room to go spend Christmas––which for me had always been a holiday about home––in a sterile white hotel room.

It started out as expected, “Do you see what I see?/Do you hear what I hear?” But the words of the old hymn changed:

“It’s a song, a song breaking through your night,
It’s a song, a song breaking through this fight”

The words broke through all the false cheer I was trying to manufacture, and all of a sudden, I was crying while zooming through the mountains of West Virginia at 70 miles per hour.

I had tried so hard to be joyful. But I left each attempt more empty-handed and hopeless than before. I felt like I was supposed to move on, to get over it, to be okay. That’s what God wanted, right? For me to “keep my eyes on him” when my world was crashing down around me? And wasn’t that supposed to mean that I shouldn’t feel any pain?

“It’s a song, a song breaking through your night,
It’s a song, a song breaking through this fight”

The song brought me back to the dark night that I was experiencing. It broke through the numbness and all the “I should”s that that were holding me in saccharine falsehoods. For the first time, it felt like God was looking at my sadness with compassion in his eyes. It felt like my pain mattered to him.

As soon as I stepped into my reality, God was there, as if he’d been in the middle of my pain all along, waiting for me to show up and find him. So I stepped into grief and loss and sadness, and in doing so, I stepped into hope.


One of my favorite liturgies to pray during the Advent season is listed in my Book of Common Prayer as “An Order of Worship for the Evening.” The church begins in darkness, and the leader blesses the people gathered, “Light and peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Scripture is read, prayers are said, and then someone lights the candles on the altar. The service continues into Evening Prayer. We face the darkness as we move into light.

This is why I love Advent. It’s a whisper in the dark, “hope is coming.” Advent invites us to face the darkness inside us and around us as part of the process of moving into the light. It holds space for us to feel sad, confused, and disappointed; not in spite of the coming light, but because of it.

This post was originally published on November 29, 2018.

I Went Down to the River to Pray… And Wound Up Going Swimming

At the very end of Ohio’s State Route 308, U.S. 36 spreads out on either side like a child’s arms when she says, “I love you THIS much.” Across from the stop sign is nothing but a field and a little white barn. Every evening in the summer and early fall, the sun turns the tips of the green grass gold, and the whole field seems to glow.

There is a feeling that comes in these moments, that feels like lavender tastes. It’s like sticking your face in a laundry basket of warm clothes, getting still enough to watch a rust-colored leaf twirl in the wind and land on your shoulder. It is a feeling to be savored, as if you could pour it into a mug, breathe in its aroma, smile, sip slowly, warm your chilly hands. It is this stockpile of sunshine-happiness and warm hugs that leaves you smiling on a cold, rainy morning a few days before November. I could call it gratitude, but even that falls short.

The truth is that I cannot explain this feeling, but I wake up in the morning bathed in the sunshine of knowing that I am loved. From that place, the chaos slows down and anxiety can knock at the door for hours before I answer. The shadows of self-doubt start to run out of places to hide, and the unwanted tenants of “I am not enough” and “I am too much” begin to find eviction notices in their mail.


The first Tuesday in October, I took the three girls in my Bible Study down to the edge of the Kokosing River to spend thirty minutes in silence. I told them, “it might be hard, it might be easy; both are normal.” I lied. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t want them to be nervous.

After directions had been given, the time of silence had been prayed for, and a timer had been set, I stuck my foot into the chilly river and looked out over the water. In front of me, there was a tall concrete barrier, left over from some previous construction, covered in green overgrowth, cracking at the edges. Absolutely unremarkable when I looked straight at it. But in its reflection on the surface of the river, it became a boulder, much like the one upon which Lucy saw Aslan appear to her in Prince Caspian. I could almost see Him in the the river’s reflection. He was staring at me.

Aslan roars, “Well done.” I gasp. “Well done. Well done.” I squirm. “Have I done well?” my doubts brazenly retort. He does not answer them, but keeps staring with the same furious affection, shouting, “Well done.”

I do not know how to answer him. He comes closer. It is as if He is staring me in the face and shouting, “Well done! I am pleased! I delight in you! I delight in you! I DELIGHT IN YOU!” Eventually, I give in, and let Him be right. “I delight in you! I delight in you!”

It’s a common expression to say “my heart is full,” but in this moment, my heart was being filled. It was as though the river somehow rose up and poured its love into my heart as if it were a cup. Or a jar of clay.

It felt like sunshine-happiness, but deeper, and more solid. Like a foundation was being built, or the roots of love were reaching so far into the soil of my heart that they scraped the bedrock. It almost tickled.


Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen yourself the way someone who actually loves you would?

You see your smile, your glasses still dripping from having washed them with dish soap, your bright eyes, your comically sparse eyebrows, your hair sticking out in four directions, and think, “How cute. She’s kind of great.” You catch yourself, are surprised, and smile, because for a moment, you saw yourself through gentler eyes.

Of course you still see your face; there are so many things you could dissect, prod, and harass; for heaven’s sake, your hair is sticking out in four directions. But for once, you don’t. You just smile in a gentle sort of amazement, while, for a fleeting moment, there is a kind of magic transforming your reflection.


Suddenly, the reflection is broken up by the paddle of a kayaker. The meditative hush is shattered by “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” I smile back, not wanting to break the silence in order to inform the kayakers that we are practicing silence.

The kayakers pass, and I can still feel the rays of heaven’s smile shining on my cheeks. Later, I will write a song from the story: “In the quiet place/You look me in the face/And You say well done/And it takes my breath away.” I linger a few minutes longer, basking.

My timer buzzes, and once more, my trance abruptly ends. The sun is setting, and it is getting cold.

I turn to the others: “Congratulations. You just spent thirty minutes in silence. How did it go?” They admit that it was hard. I admit that I knew it would be. But the more you do it, the easier it gets.

I tell them about Aslan. They know me, their wild, mystic Bible Study leader, well enough that they are unsurprised. It’s not that I’ve seen Aslan before, or even that I saw him, but this is hardly the strangest thing that’s happened to me, hardly the strangest story I’ve told.

I don’t see visions so often as the term mystic might imply, and when I do, they are painted on my mind rather than my corneas. But I talk to God, and He talks back. I usually hear Him in what 1 Kings 19 describes as a still, small voice. A thought appears with such a resonant weightiness that I just know. God’s voice radiates warmth and buzzes with the electricity of something absolutely true.

Sometimes, His voice comes as an interruption, loud enough to be heard over the noise of my soul. Other times, it is so soft that I can only hear it when I get very quiet and still. That day, keeping silence with my Bible Study, it seemed like He was just waiting for me to get still. The moment I became a captive audience, He started to speak.

But before the silence, and before the wandering around looking for a place to sit, even before the leaves — now scattered across the rocks — had started to fall, I had another wonder-filled moment in this exact same place. I did not tell my Bible Study, because I did not want them picturing it while they were supposed to be praying, but this exact spot was where, about a week before, I went skinny dipping.


Inspiration struck on a Friday afternoon in late September. I had gone to spend time with God and write a song, and I guess God had some extra plans He hadn’t thought to let me in on, because I wound up going swimming in my clothes and getting my favorite jean shorts soaked and smelling like river water. Walking back to my car sopping wet, I texted my friends, “wanna go skinny dipping this weekend?” I took a selfie of my dripping, beaming face. I captioned it, “I went down to the river to pray… and wound up going swimming.”


The whole week had been unseasonably warm. It should have been well into fall, but instead, it was too hot to even wear long sleeves. I was thrilled. The sunshine felt like a blanket on my bare arms, the heat like a warm bath. I had waited excitedly all week for Friday afternoon, when I would walk down to the river, sit with God, and write a song.

I arrived at my usual spot on the covered bridge, guitar on my back and journal in hand, with an excitement like driving down the dusty lane that leads to your summer camp. The moment felt like a luxury, and yet, like coming home.

I set everything down, took off my sandals, opened my journal, and wrote, “playful, adj. |play•ful|.” I looked up the definition (“happy and full of energy: eager to play, showing that you are having fun and not being serious”) I copied it onto the page, savoring the words. Then, I placed a leaf on the other page and took a picture.

In the photo, the wood of the bridge looks like a boardwalk, a fitting backdrop to my meditation on playfulness. Behind my journal are my sandals: a reminder to “remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground;” to slow down, not to let the holy moments slip from your grasp unnoticed. My guitar waits in the space between my journal and sandals, ready to help me translate the holy stillness. I pick up my guitar and begin to strum.


A little later, I leave the suspended space between river banks and climb down the steep slope to reach the water. I set down my journal and guitar on the pebbly shore. They are my instruments of remembrance, but some things cannot be mediated, they just have to be experienced. I leave my sandals at the very edge of the shore and wade in.

The stones beneath my feet are slippery, uneven, some a bit sharp. I cannot see them clearly through the clouded water, but soon I abandon all caution and give in to the current of playfulness that sweeps me away. I skip stones, splash, giggle, dance. Eventually, I go all-in: I make sure to dunk every part of my body in the shallow water.

My hair drips and the leaves glow with the delight of early-evening sunshine. The moment is saturated with a holy presence, but there is a levity to it. It feels like Jesus is splashing and playing in the river alongside me. My friend Jesus is not so serious that He minds getting a little wet. In fact, I think when He looks back on this moment, He smiles and laughs at the ridiculousness of the scene.

Suddenly, an idea appears: I had always wanted to go skinny dipping in the Kokosing. Was this not the perfect weekend for it? I ask God, “Can I really do this?” He seems to smile back, as if to laugh at me, then give His blessing.


We didn’t want to get caught, and we wanted to be the only ones there, so my friends and I decided to go in the quiet of the night after all the parties had ended and the world was asleep. We all went to bed early Saturday night to get a few hours’ sleep before our 3 a.m. adventure. I could hardly sleep I was so excited. When it was finally time to get up, I skipped all the way to our meeting-place, like a child on Christmas morning. My boisterous excitement interrupted the still, dark night.

We piled into a car, drove down to the river, and wandered out just far enough that we couldn’t be seen from the street. Early in the planning process, we had made a rule that no guys were allowed; we didn’t want to be nervous when we stripped. We turned off our flashlights, took off our clothes, and waded into the chilly water.

It took a little while to get used to the cold and the vulnerability, and to stop panicking every time a car passed by on the highway above. But no one could see us; it’s too dark.

I am the first to float on my back and look up. Framed by the dark woods, the stars fill every inch of the sky. They are so bright. They spread across the sky like a freckled smile. Heaven is laughing at us. I stare, momentarily silenced by Heaven’s smile.

“You guys. Look at the sky.” We all look up, and peace spreads through the group; the nervousness of “what if we get caught?” and “oh my gosh I’m naked,” are no longer as bright as Heaven’s twinkling laughter.

As the spell fades, we frolick, swim, and dunk our heads under the water, comfortable in nothing but our skin. Finally, someone says, “It’s cold,” and someone else says, “it’s late,” and we giggle, find our clothes, and return to the normalcy of being covered up and warm.


Celtic Christians wrote of “thin places,” where the fabric between Heaven and Earth grows so slight that they almost meet. It’s in thin places, thin moments, that the stars become overwhelmingly bright, and the voice of God becomes a near-audible whisper, and the story that undergirds it all— the cosmic love-letter written in the sky, and in the dirt, and in the eyes of everyone you meet — becomes so real you can reach out and touch it.

To find a thin place, people will do almost anything — take pilgrimages halfway across the globe, wait all year for that moment on Christmas Eve when the whole church is lit by just one candle, spend weeks fasting and praying in a monastery — all for that one ephemeral moment when life itself glows like a field at sunset.

Thin places are like bridges suspended between the shores of the world we occupy and the shore of the one where God is. My favorite explanation that I’ve read comes from Eric Weiner in the New York Times: “Travel to thin places… disorient[s you]. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world… Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

In Weiner’s mind, unmasking is a more accurate description of transformation. To me, they are two separate steps, but they belong together: you cannot have one without the other. Thin places remove the heavy clothing of everyday life. They take away everything we use to hide ourselves. In thin places, we are ultimately and essentially vulnerable. We can be caught naked. God can choose not to show up. We could spend thirty minutes in silence only to find that we’ve done nothing but stare at meaningless leaves. But without vulnerability, there is no transformation.

In thin places, we find our hearts stripped bare: every artifice is stripped away, and there is nowhere to hide. It’s a disorienting experience, as for a little while, we are no longer the ones in control. It’s like a dream, but we wake up new. There’s a magic at work.

The Kokosing Farewell, a song essential to Kenyon College lore, attributes the Kokosing with “some strange spell,” and it keeps shifting, and I remain its captive. The pages of my journal are filled with spells that worked only once: glimpses beyond what is seen that unmask me, disorient me, and when I wake up, something in me is new.

In my journal is a notecard, glued to one of the pages, its yellow shining on the thick journal paper. It is an apology note from a classmate. It had surprised me, because I didn’t know how much she cared. Above it in my journal, I penned the words, “That’s the great surprise, isn’t it? That it’s all a gift.”

In the thin places, I can see.

This post was originally published on February 14, 2018.