Tag Archives: Heretic School

Update from Heretic School

If you’ve been walking The Crooked Line with me for awhile, then you know that what I call “Heretic School” is more widely known in our popular culture as “Bible Study.” Maybe one of these days I’ll settle into calling it by its popular name. I did, after all, settle into calling myself a Christian after many years of running from and then wrestling with myself.

J.S. Bach

But I really love “Heretic School,” both the name and the practice of it. During the odd numbered months, at 7:30 in the morning on Tuesdays, we gather for Heretic School in the Emmanuel Room. That’s right: the God-With-Us Room. A large portrait of Bach watches over us from one wall. He looks a little like he’s sucking on a cough drop. Or a lemon. Mostly, I think his expression is a warning that the soundtrack for the path we’re on is less like the predictable, sing-songy “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” and more like the difficult, cell-rearranging Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.

Generally, the passage we discuss at Heretic School is the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday as outlined by the Episcopal Lectionary, which is a riff on the Revised Common Lectionary. For the past three weeks, we’ve been working our way through the 10th chapter of Luke, the very heart of this particular evangelist’s telling of the Jesus story.

Two Tuesdays ago, we worked on the story of the Samaritan who helps the beaten and robbed man by the side of the road. Last Tuesday, we took on the story in which Jesus appears to praise Mary at Martha’s expense.

Being the contrary Bull-girl that I am, reading these uber-familiar stories makes my brain paw the ground and snort in the face of what centuries of preaching and teaching tell us they’re about. I have no patience for how these stories, or any Bible stories for that matter, get used. What I want to know is how can the stories use me? That’s much rockier territory, and I love a good scrabble over uneven and uncertain terrain.

The reason I’ve said, “Okay, I’m in.” to Christianity is because I want my assumptions to be challenged. It occurs to me just now that the appeal of “Heretic School” for me, the reason it turbo-charges my Tuesdays in odd-numbered months, is because what I come to this particular well for is to strip away the importance of Believing so I can focus on Beloving.

What I noticed in the story about the Samaritan this year was Jesus’ reminder (from Leviticus 19) that the way to be one with Love (which is how I make sense of the notion of “eternal life”) is to show mercy by loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s not selective mercy, parceled out to people we already know or whom we already love. It’s mercy to anyone and everyone.

Far too often I’ve heard preachers talk about the story of the Samaritan and chide the priest and the Levite who pass by the beaten man. In the story of the Samaritan, yes, of course, we are being reminded to be merciful to the beaten man by the side of the road. Duh! But it’s clear to me that we are not to stop there. When Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” he means we are also to be merciful to the priest and the Levite who passed the man by and, for whatever reason, did not help. We are also being reminded to be merciful to the lawyer whose testing of Jesus gives us this beautiful story.

The words “neighbor” and “mercy” rolled around in my head all week after Heretic School on Tuesday, July 9. So when I woke up on Sunday, July 14, to the news of the Zimmerman verdict—which did not surprise or shock me but rather made me feel sick and sad—I thought, “Shit. The story of the Samaritan is challenging me to show mercy even to George Zimmerman.” Shit indeed. What in the world would it look like to show mercy to maybe the most notorious and least neighborly Neighborhood Watchman of all time? How do I show mercy to someone who believes it was God’s plan that he kill Trayvon Martin?

I turned all this over in my head and thought, “Ugh. I hope I never meet George Zimmerman.” In fact, I don’t even want to know anyone like him, much less show them mercy! But of course I already DO know people like him—people who are very afraid of others who are different from them and think that guns will protect them. Or people who are very afraid and think that mass incarceration will keep them safe (see The New Jim Crow). Or that keeping poor people out of their neighborhoods (or their churches) will keep them safe.

With all this rattling around inside me, I took the plunge today and showed mercy to a guy who told me at least 20 times that he spent 25 years in prison for things he will only hint at. He’s probably a lot like George Zimmerman—suspicious, fearful, with a violent streak (though he insists he’s “not like that any more.”) We went for coffee and I gave him some money. The whole hour we spent together felt incredibly uncomfortable and slightly crazy. When I handed him $60 fresh from the ATM to help him get through the next nine days until his Social Security check arrives, his eyes popped and his mouth fell open. He sputtered, “I promise I’ll pay you back.” I told him I didn’t want him to pay me back; I want him to help someone else out someday. He said, “But I don’t know anybody good besides you and [PW].” I said, “Well, the person doesn’t have to be good. They just have to be someone who needs help you can give.” “Yeah. Okay. Well, God bless you,” he said as he hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek (which I accepted, despite feeling queasy).

Now, I know I can’t be giving 60 bucks to everyone who begs from me (though I usually give something). But while the details of this particular mercy are not sustainable, the posture and the intent can be if I stay connected to communities that support me in it. Which is one of the reasons I go to church. I don’t know if there’s a god, but I know what it feels like to love and be loved back, and I know I feel like a better version of myself when I lean into that. And I also know that I need mercy every bit as much as the guy I had coffee with today.

Like Mary Gauthier sings:

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
And every single one of us could use some mercy now.

Like the rabbi says, “Go and do likewise.”


We moved the runner over

When I was a kid, I was pretty fast sprinter. I remember participating in only one track meet, held at the athletic fields behind our local high school on a raw, windy spring day. I was a skinny nine-year-old kid with gangly arms and legs. As I was shivering, my bony arms and legs felt like clattering wind chimes.

My parents were in the bleachers, and I guess they couldn’t bear watching me shiver, so my dad came down to the fence between the track and the bleachers and called me over. He had a bulky, corduroy coat in his hand, a hand-me-down from my older brothers. It had a big hood that zipped onto the back. Dad told me that he and my mom wanted me to wear it.

I happily put the coat on and waited for the heat of my race to be called. Seeing the other kids shivering made me even more glad for the coat. Then our heat was called. I looked for my dad, to give him the coat back, but I had no idea where my parents were sitting. I assessed the other shivering kids in the race, and knew I was much faster than all but one of them. That one kid was a stranger, so in my magical nine-year-old thinking, I figured he’d be eating my dust even with the coat on.

We got in our starting crouches. Five freezing nine-year-olds, and one perfectly warm one wearing an enormous coat. It must have looked ridiculous.

The gun went off and I hurled myself down the track, legs churning. The coat restricted my arm movements, so it was hard to find a good rhythm. And then there was that zip-on hood.

As I labored down the track, I apparently compensated for my inability to move my arms freely by turning my torso in an exaggerated manner. The result was that the hood slapped me in the face with every other stride.

I came in last. I couldn’t hold the tears back, as I saw my parents approach me. “Why did you MAKE me wear THAT COAT?!?!?” I asked incredulously. My dad smiled and said, “Well, honey, I didn’t think you’d wear it while you were running.” I blurted, barely coherently, “BUTYOU [sob] TOLDME [sob] IHADTO [sob] WEARTHECOATAAAAAAUUUUHGH….”

This was the story that was running in my head like a movie this morning as I sat on the bus and read my Facebook news feed of people reacting to the passage of North Carolina’s Amendment One.

What I want to say is enough. Enough with the shame. Shame is like that heavy corduroy coat. It restricts our movement, weighs us down, and slaps us in the face with the regularity of a metronome. Stop casting “Shame on North Carolina.” Stop wearing shame like that coat. It is shame that enables short-sighted people to win small, temporary victories like the passage of Amendment One. But shame will not overturn Amendment One. Only Love will do that.

The last time North Carolina’s constitution was amended with regard to marriage was in 1875. That lasted 96 years which, while a mighty long time, is nowhere near the forever that those amendment authors were hoping for. 

At Heretic School yesterday, one of our band of scripture strugglers referred to the passage from John’s depiction of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” as being written with a key signature of farewell. In the passage we read, the most repeated words were “you” and “love.” My friend’s lovely musical metaphor enabled me to wonder whether the “Farewell Discourse” is Jesus as musical conductor, teaching us how to sing in the key of Love.

The opportunities of shucking off the coat of shame and singing in the key of Love in the face of Amendment One are enormous. In fact, by virtue of having Amendment One on the ballot, the work of Love has already begun. Disparate constituencies have found allies in each other, conversations about justice have erupted. People are talking, openly, at a NATIONAL level about marriage between same-sex couples. That, in and of itself, is victory. It is a sign that the shame that kept queer people and our allies silent for centuries is being cast aside, right now, right here, in our lifetime. We all know how toxic shame is, which is why it’s vital to not give into our desire to cast it on others as we remove it from our own shoulders.

Amendment One is the death rattle of a species on the verge of extinction. Or, if you prefer a baseball metaphor, how about this: In baseball, a player who gets a hit 30% of the time is considered a good hitter. That player is even better when s/he routinely does little things that don’t show up in the batting average, like moving runners over, or scoring runners while making an out.

In losing the battle over Amendment One, forces of justice and equality may have made an out, but we moved the runner into scoring position. So if you need a pick me up this morning as you read the stories about Amendment One, read some of the baseball box scores from last night, along with the little news descriptions of some of the games.

Then get back out there and sing in the key of Love. Find others to sing with, too.

And whatever you do, NEVER attempt to run the 100-yard dash while wearing a heavy coat with a zip-on hood. Unless, of course, you feel your track meet needs some comic relief.

The Long, Hard, Stupid Way

This week has been thick and dense, much like the cloud cover and fog that have engulfed the city. So my post is long. If you want to read it, you might want to line your snacks up ahead of time.

This being an odd-numbered month, Heretic School is on tap for early Tuesday mornings at Emmanuel Church. Heretic School makes the fabric of my week so much more vibrant and resilient. Sitting together with people I admire, puzzling our way through texts that baffle, annoy, or outright frighten us, is such a great and generous gift of time and spirit.

Later in the week I heard a great lecture by a designer named Frank Chimero, entitled “Do Things the Long, Hard, Stupid Way.” In the lecture, Chimero tells the story of David Chang, the head chef in the wildly popular New York City restaurant Momofuku. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Chang caught his sous chef cutting a corner in preparing a dish and told him:

Just because we’re a casual restaurant, doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves to fine dining standards. We try to do things the right way. That usually means doing things the long, hard, stupid way.

Since the “long, hard, stupid way” pretty much describes the way I’ve done just about anything worthwhile in my life, this story appeals to me. It reminds me of the thing my older brother told me once, with which I ended my previous post here. It also reminds me of the time years ago that I heard T-Bone Burnett talk in an interview about how one of the things that appealed to him about Christianity was how difficult it is. These are my people, and they’re singing my song!

So all this was rolling around in my Joybrain this week when I engaged a Biblical literalist on Facebook over the Amendment One vote that’s coming up in North Carolina on Tuesday. A friend of mine had posted this great flow chart on her Facebook page:

One of her Facebook friends responded with the standard line that God made marriage for one man and one woman, “it was Adam and Eve not Steve & Tom or Mary & Joyce.” At first, I thought, no, I’m not getting into this. These types of arguments rarely go anywhere, and they often frustrate and demoralize me.

Without comment, I posted a link to a video that had interviews with a wide variety of North Carolina clergy saying what was wrong with Amendment One and why people should vote against it.

The man responded with more canned argument about how our country has gotten away “from knowing God and his word” and that we need to repent and come to Jesus or we’ll fall under the power of other countries. At that point, it was my bedtime, but I couldn’t resist responding with this before I went to bed:

I’m a Christian, lesbian, and married to my wife for the past 8 years here in Massachusetts. We have three daughters together. I read and study the Bible, go to church every Sunday, pray daily, and know that, like you, I am made in the image of God.

The work of Jesus Christ about freeing ALL God’s people from tyranny, oppression, and danger. Jesus had NOTHING to say about homosexuality, and very little to say about marriage. More than anything else, he talked about not being afraid and about the corrupting, oppressive power of wealth. If you actually read the legislation, Amendment One puts all kinds of North Carolina’s families and children at risk. Certainly not what Jesus would want for God’s people.

I would go so far as to say that Amendment One would make North Carolina look more like Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than any state in this country, which, after all, was founded on liberty for all people. I don’t normally engage with people who claim to know what God thinks, and I may end up regretting this, but I couldn’t stay silent. Silence has never protected anyone.

When I got up the next morning, I resisted the temptation to see how the man responded. I wasn’t sure I was up to what I assumed would be a lot of vitriol. As PW and I drove to work together, I told her about the Facebook thread. She suggested that I was already in the conversation, and advised that I go ahead and read his response, but with as much compassion as possible. And that if I chose to respond to him, to do so from a place of compassion, not combativeness.

His response was to tell me that he is a retired soldier, working with other soldiers, and that he has been to Iraq and Afghanistan and clearly I know nothing about the Taliban, who will kill anyone who does not believe what they believe. His ending surprised me: “May God work in you his will and glory in Christ Jesus.” It struck me as open-handed, which I’m sure was partly due to my adopting PW’s suggested posture of compassion. So I responded:

Thank you for your service, and for your ongoing support for and work with soldiers. My comparison with the Taliban has to do with a religious minority attempting to impose its world view and its rigid perception of God’s law onto a population that does not share its religious views. That is what Amendment One is all about–a religious minority attempting to write into state law its particular religious views.

I encourage you, and anyone else reading this thread, to stop and consider what we know about the universe—it is rapidly expanding and only about 15% of the matter in it is known to humans. If the universe is the work of God, and I think it is, why on earth would anyone assume that God’s only communication with us is contained solely in The Bible? If God’s ever-expanding creation is made in God’s image, then perhaps God continues to speak to us, at all times, in all places, and in ways that we can barely comprehend.

Given what the scriptures tell us, over and over, about what God wants for God’s people, I think that it is safe to believe that where justice, mercy, and love are alive in the world, that is God speaking. Where hunger, oppression, tyranny, hatred, and division are alive, that is God weeping.

I pray that all people in all places may find ways, whatever their path, to expand the realm of justice, mercy, and love, and to shake off the chains of tyranny, oppression, hatred, and division.

As I reflected on it, I realized that the key for me in this exchange was to stay invested in simply standing and representing a different view–to represent possibility, and not get invested in winning the argument, or convincing the other person. Those results would be nice, but, to paraphrase William Stafford as I’ve done before, it’s the process that’s important.

The exchange was also an excellent test of my convictions. Do I really want the realm of justice, mercy, and love to be alive in the world? Yes, yes I do. How hard am I willing to work for it? As hard as I can. Some days there’s more can in me than others. And since it’s not work that can be done alone, that’s why it’s so important to draw strength from others. I draw my strength from people in and out of church, with people I know and with people I have never met, but am connected with by a web of Love.

I know as well as anyone that to take on a label is to risk being pigeonholed by other people’s assumptions. If I’m a lesbian, I probably hate men, or I couldn’t get one to like me, or I just haven’t met the right one. If I’m a Christian, I’m probably an irrational, science-denying person incapable of critical, analytical thought. I’ve heard all that and more.

But see, for me, being a Christian (and for that matter, being a lesbian!) has meant doing things the Long, Hard, Stupid way. It is to willingly inherit an ancient legacy of stories and customs that have been misused and badly interpreted for millennia. It is to share a path with people who, at one extreme, believe me to be unworthy and ungodly purely because of whom I love. If I am to live with any amount of integrity, then I believe it’s essential for me to stand and represent the possibilities inherent in the labels I take on.

Christianity is a peculiar path for me, made all the more peculiar by the fellow travelers. It’s a long, hard way, in which you’re guaranteed to encounter stupidity. So, really, it’s a lot like the rest of life, unless you have figured out some way to live in an echo chamber of genius. In which case, I’d suggest that you’re missing out on some interesting, provocative, and challenging scenery.

This week I found that engaging the more close-minded of my fellow Christian travelers with detachment and compassion can be excellent practice for clarifying my understanding of and my thoughts about this path. It’s also an intensive cardio workout for my compassion, which both feeds my desire to be on the path and makes me better at staying on it.

GForce, age 3, in the suds

While I was taking a shower on Friday morning, I noticed that the new bar of soap was particularly sudsy. It occurred to me that I’ve never heard a singular for the word “suds.” What would the point of a single “sud” be, anyway?

Then it occurred to me that Christianity is like suds, it is inherently and essentially communal. It’s not a path meant to be traveled alone. Which is why it’s difficult. Which is why it demands companionship. Which is why it’s difficult. Which is why it requires companionship. It’s circular like that. Not the least bit efficient.

So here’s to the Long, Hard, Stupid Way. Maybe I’ll see you somewhere on the path, and we can hoist some suds to the journey and our fellow travelers. The first round is on me.

Surfing inside the library of possibilities

Sometime in my mid-to-late teens, my flanker brothers (the ones on either side of me, chronologically speaking) and I went on a float trip with my 7th grade gym teacher and her housemate, who had become friends of our family. I’m pretty sure there were other people on the trip, but my mental photos are too blurry for me to identify them.

The sharpest memories I have of that float trip are of playing in the river with my brothers. We had all been competitive swimmers, and we played in the water with an exuberance and creativity unbound by worries about things like drowning, snapping turtles, or water moccasins. Well, okay, I was a little worried about the turtles and the snakes. Drowning never occurred to me.

As I remember it, we stopped for lunch on a long beachy area right next to the river. The current was really fast along this stretch (the river was named the Current River for good reason.) My brothers waded out to the middle of the river, where the water was about chest high. They turned so that they were facing upstream, and jumped up as high as they could (getting about waist high out of the water). The current promptly seized on their legs, pulled them under the water, and carried them feet-first downriver. Then it became a guessing game as to where they’d pop back up. After doing this once, my younger brother emerged from the water so excited it was as though the outline of his body was a jagged line, like in cartoons. “It’s like surfing INSIDE the water! Except your body is the surfboard! It’s so cool! You HAVE to TRY it!”

A map of the Current River

What I remember about “surfing inside the water” was how hypnotic it felt to be carried along. Not floating on top of the current, but in the middle of it, under the surface of the water. I remember being able to feel different temperatures of the different currents interacting with each other along the length of my body. Eventually, the hypnotic effect was undercut by my need to breathe and my frantic scrambling to get back on my feet. But those moments of being carried along in the river, and how it felt, are burned into my memory.

River surfing came to mind recently when I was reading some letters in the Boston Globe speaking out against same-sex marriage, after the equal marriage victory in New York State. The “religious” arguments against same-sex marriage usually cite the same litany of scriptures that are deployed as proof that God “himself” sees same-sex marriage as unnatural, immoral, and just plain wrong.

One letter writer seemed thrilled to have come up with a whole new (to me) angle proving the religious prohibition against same-sex marriage. He cited the commandment “Honor your father and mother” as proof that God wants only families with one father and one mother. Ergo, marriage can only be between one man and one woman. The letter oozed with a kind of self-righteous “Gotcha!” The man clearly thought he had come up with an airtight argument for why God’s definition of marriage is one man and one woman.

From my perspective, people who look to scattered verses in the Bible to reinforce their unshaking certainty around issues of sexuality and marriage, they are like people who look for boulders in the middle of a river that they can use to pick their way across to the other side without getting wet. They jump from one verse to the next, as though the verses are as solid and unmovable as boulders. Meanwhile time rushes past them, flowing around the boulders. The value of the Bible to these people seems to be that it rewards their stasis. The verses don’t change, so we don’t have to either!

But here’s the thing. As PW is fond of saying, the Bible is not a book of facts, it is a library of possibilities. It’s a library full of stories of deeply flawed people repeatedly finding new possibilities, finding a way out of no way. There are also a number of stories in the Bible about God changing God’s mind. In short, it seems to me that if we don’t want to change, the last source we should cite to support stasis is the Bible!

This is why I love what I call Heretic School so much. Every other month, a group of 10-12 of us gets together early Tuesday morning at Emmnauel for the opportunity to surf inside the water of the Bible. Most of us will wade out into the passage we’re contemplating, jump up, and give ourselves over to it. Some days, some of us don’t want to be carried too far by it. Some days, some of us don’t want to be carried at all. Some days, some of us get carried almost out of sight. We all bring our own degrees of openness or resistance to different passages.

More often than not, though, most of my Heretic School-mates and I get picked up, moved, and deposited somewhere else after we spend an hour together talking about and listening to what we notice, what is speaking to us, and what might be different for us after encountering a snippet from this library of possibilities. It’s not always an easy ride. There have been some days where I felt like it took me the whole week to get my feet back under me. Other days, I walk out of the room exhilarated, wanting to approach strangers on the street by saying, “You HAVE to try Heretic School!” Sometimes it takes weeks for me to detect any shift or movement at all.

Referring to what most of the church-going world calls “Bible Study” as “Heretic School” has made it possible for me to surf inside the river of this library of possibilities with that same sense of abandon that I had that magical afternoon at the Current River. When my Heretic School-mates and I encounter one of the snapping turtles, snakes, or drowning pools in the water — you know, one of those verses or stories that gets used like a weapon against queers, or women, or non-Christians, or anyone who finds themselves outside looking in — we have a built-in buddy system for helping each other surf through it so we can emerge from it in a new place, with new understandings and possibilities.

The last thing I want to do with any work of art, which is how I would broadly describe the Bible, is to freeze it in some sort of time capsule of meaning. If I’m honoring the art, I’m approaching it with a posture of elasticity, of being ready to go with the flow. The work should have the freedom to evolve, to land differently in me, to move me differently, to pick me up and carry me somewhere new each time I approach it.

Hopefully, as John Hiatt sings it, “No two journeys are ever quite the same.”

“Maybe it’s soft inside of hard” – an Advent reflection

Ten of us met at Emmanuel Church at 7:30 am on Tuesday, November 30 for the final gathering in 2010 of what I call “Heretic School” (aka Early Morning BS, aka Early Morning Bible Study). We’ll pick up again in January, 2011. The group ranges from ordained and lay Bible scholars to those of us who are reading at the Biblical equivalent of “See Dick say unto Jane and Spot, ‘You brood of vipers!'” Well, at least that’s where I feel like I am much of the time.

Our text was Matthew 3:1-12:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

For those of you who haven’t read my previous description of Heretic School, here’s how it works. Our approach is to read the text out loud three times over the course of the hour, with a different person reading each time.  After each reading, we have a question to reflect on.  After the first reading, the question is “What do you notice?”  After the second reading, the question is, “What is speaking to you?” After the final reading, the question is, “How will your week be different as a result of this encounter?” The general consensus within the group, no matter what individuals comprise a particular gathering, is that each time someone reads the text, it is as though we are hearing it anew.

St. John the Baptist Preaching, by Auguste Rodin

Our discussion on November 30 was lively and fascinating to me. One woman said she couldn’t read the passage without seeing the image of Rodin’s sculpture of John the Baptist in her mind. I quickly searched through my mental archives and drew a complete blank.

One man said he couldn’t read the passage without hearing sections from Handel’s “Messiah.”  Immediately, the line from the aria “for He is like a refiner’s fire” began booming though my brain.

One man reminded us that Advent, which began on November 28, marks the Christian New Year. He added, “So we don’t have to wait until January for the new year. It’s already here! And not a moment too soon. I’m glad to have last year behind me.” Amen to that, buddy.

One man mentioned that he found the first half of the reading much more hopeful than the second half. That had been my response in the beginning, but by the third reading, I had completely shifted. By the end of the hour, I was feeling immense relief when reflecting on the separation of the wheat and the chaff, and the unquenchable fire. Something about the repetition had made me read the last sentence not as a reference to some of us who are wheat and some of us who are chaff, but rather as a reference to the wheat and the chaff that’s in each of us. And wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to surrender the chaffy, indigestible (and indigestion-producing) parts of myself to an unquenchable fire.

Now, I’ve burned my fingers, hands, and arms numerous times on ovens, grills, irons, steam from boiling water, etc. Once when I was about 10, on a dare from my brothers and some neighborhood boys, I held a lit smoke bomb until it got so hot that I had to drop it. When I looked down at my hand, my thumb was on fire. Yes, Internets, tiny thumb-sized flames were shooting up from the tip of it. I stubbed it out in the grass as if it were a cigar.

What I’m saying is that I have a lot of experience with minor burns. Among other things, I know that the recovery can be more painful than the burn itself. If you’re lucky, your skin grows back, but often it grows back tighter and more fragile, with varying degrees of scarring. Despite knowing (and experiencing) all this, the thought of watching my chaffy bits going up in flames seems incredibly appealing to me.

My other evolution with regard to our study text was around the whole “prepare the way” line. The conventional wisdom around “preparing the way of the Lord” seems to be that we need to make it easy for God to get to us. This makes no sense to me, but I’m willing to believe that I’m getting caught up in a semantical tar pit.

But really, this is a God who in verse nine is “able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Sooo, Mister Scripture Writer, you’re telling me that the same God who can raise up children to Abraham from the zillions of stones that litter the Judean desert, can’t manage move some of those same not-yet-children-to-Abraham-stones out of the way to get to me? What sort of Ruler of the Universe is this? I mean, even Superman can atomize boulders with his laser vision!

I’ve been listening a lot to the new album by the “supergroup” called Fistful of Mercy, formed by Dhani Harrison, Joseph Arthur, and Ben Harper. One song I’ve been riveted by is the song they named after themselves. The line “Maybe it’s soft inside of hard” has worn its own little groove in my cells, probably because I need to believe that somewhere inside this unfathomably hard year of 2010 is something soft, delicate, and new.

I’ve also been drawn to the lyric “Maybe it comes from where we are, the land of the thirsty and hungry.” Then I went to 2010’s last morning of Heretic School, and spent an hour reflecting on the advancing darkness of winter, the season of Advent, and how thirsty and hungry I am for a new year, a clean slate, a jubilee, a de-chaffing.

As I sat in that circle with ten other thirsty and hungry people, discussing the locust-eating prophet known as John the Baptist, the lyric “Maybe it’s soft inside of hard” suddenly seemed to be about preparing the way. Maybe preparing the way is a mystical Adventy euphemism for a kind of internal baby-proofing.

At the end of Advent, we celebrate the arrival of a particularly special baby with what is essentially an annual combination baby shower and birthday party. No wonder conspicuous consumption abounds. But what if the soft inside of hard is the baby in each of us that’s waiting to be born in the land of the thirsty and hungry? Maybe preparing the way has to do with making room for a soft, delicate, new baby to live within us, right there in the midst of our hardest corners and sharpest edges.

If we have the space, preparing the way can mean fixing up a whole new room, just for that new baby. But really, in the beginning at least, all we need to do is empty a drawer. And it wouldn’t hurt to lock up or dispose of our poisons, either. Or surrender them to unquenchable fire.