“Dance with Me”

I spent my summer (2021) in summer school, teaching Language Arts to “almost fifth graders.” One day the teacher, seeing the kids needed a “brain break,” put on a dance video featuring some very cool dancers who brought their audience along with their very cool hip-hop moves. Have I mentioned I’m not a dancer? No, I’m the type that slips with dramatic awkwardness on wet sidewalks and crashes painfully and repeatedly into doorframes and kitchen cupboard handles. But, in an effort to get the class involved, I gamely hopped out of my chair at the back table and busted out my dance moves—much to the delight of a group of ten-year-old girls who mercifully addressed my humiliating display with giggles rather than scowls. The next day one of those girls, nigh overcome with giggles, summoned me to her desk to read the sentence she’d crafted with one of the vocabulary words I’d just taught them: “When Mrs. Ellison was dancing we were captivated.” Ah, yes.

So, this week my theology school chaplain invited us to “Engage Spiritual Depth” by hearing an invitation each time we engaged our course readings: “Come dance with me!”[1] What would our readings become? she asked. “Disastrous,” I answered with an eyeroll. And in a way this was a great answer, a perfect beginning. Because somehow—by approaching God, the Bible, a Primer of Biblical Greek, the history of a thesis topic I haven’t quite pinned down, and interpretations of Romans from Origen through NT Wright—by owning the impending disaster, I’m relieved. Relieved of any hope for perfect performance. Relieved of rigidity. Relieved of punishing sobriety. Is this going to look awkward? Yes. Might it be “captivating” in all the wrong ways? Most definitely. But… “Shall we dance?” Yes. Let’s do it. Let’s move, explore, lead, follow, slip and fall, get up, try again, spin out of control, leap, sway, feel, stretch, pull a muscle. Let’s do it together. And, definitely, let’s giggle a lot along the way.  


[1] From Daniel Ladinsky’s poem:

 Every child has known God.

Not the God of names,

Not the God of don’ts,

Not the God who ever does anything weird.

But the God who only knows

Four words.

And He keeps repeating them, saying:

“Come dance with me.”




Acquainted with Grief

See the source image

One December evening my four-year-old daughter snuggled into my lap for her bedtime story. Opening our children’s Bible, I contentedly, almost absent-mindedly, began to recount the familiar Christmas story: Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men…and Herod.

“Wait!” my daughter stopped me. She looked up, confusion and distress reflected in the tears already filling her big, brown eyes.
“He…killed all the babies?”

Her question jolted me from complacence to clarity. I suddenly realized how many times I’d read that story without saying, “Wait!” Without stopping to contemplate the horror of Herod’s decree, or weep with those mothers and children. The radiance of the story’s miracles had blinded me to the background of pain, obscured the fact that the “glad tidings of great joy” for some had precipitated anguish for others. I’d completely missed the paradox Matthew acknowledges: that in this life miracles inevitably coexist with divine restraint, hope with despair, salvation with destruction, joy with heartache, and meaning with emptiness.

I wanted to shield my little one from the terrible reality I’d inadvertently exposed her to. I wanted to backtrack, minimize, redirect—like the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who, concerned that images of slaughtered children might diminish the joy of Advent, had artists paint over the most disturbing scenes in Bruegel’s “Massacre of the Innocents,” leaving a sanitized portrayal of marauding soldiers and women weeping over livestock and cheeses.[1]

But Jesus came to open our eyes, not close them, for eyes that cannot see lead to hearts that cannot feel.[2] Hence, his purpose was not to shield us from grief, but to acquaint us with it; not to distract us from sorrow, but to turn our faces toward it, that seeing, we might “perceive” (Greek: horaó), that is, discern intellectually, comprehend spiritually, partake of experientially.[3] Painting over the pain of others may help us feel “happier,” but it also denies the truth Reinhold Niebuhr noted, that sometimes things “much better than happiness…are attainable.”[4] Vision, for example. Empathy. Compassion.

So that night my daughter and I paused to restore Bruegel’s masterpiece, to uncover the pain, view the agony, feel the loss. Mother and child, weeping for other mothers and children bereft of heavenly peace. It was better than happiness. It was a holy night.


[1] Michael Austin, https://bycommonconsent.com/2019/12/07/the-massacre-of-the-innocents/

[2] John 9:39; Matt. 13:15

[3] Isaiah 53:3; Mark 4:12; Strong’s Greek: 3708. ὁράω (horaó) — to see, perceive, attend to (biblehub.com)

[4] Selections from Emerson, Essays on American Civilization

Bringing the Far Off Near

Born in France to Tunisian parents, the artist eL Seed grew up at the confluence of two cultures,  which informs his art—a blend of Arabic calligraphy and urban street art he calls “calligraphiti”–and his mission—to “[tear]down walls by painting them.”1 Adding a logical follow-up metaphor (dismantled walls open the way for travel) he declares art, “the shortest path from one [person] to another and a bridge between nations.”2 We could use more paths and bridges these days.  

But first those walls have to come down, and that’s a challenge, because walls, whether personal or political, serve a purpose: to preserve and protect what’s inside against external threat. Tearing down your own can seem foolish, frightening, even traitorous; tearing down another’s, a declaration of war. So, absent a can of spray paint and artistic talent, how can we, resisting the inclination toward “separation” and “exclusion,” participate in the social and religious imperative to “[break down] the dividing wall of hostility” and bring the “far off…near?”3 

Mixing metaphors may help. C.S. Lewis once wrote that we must “hatch or go bad,”4 which shifts the focus from destruction (of walls) to development (of what’s inside). Protective barriers, his metaphor suggests, are important at times—for maturation and growth, or rest and recovery. But those walls which keep us secure also keep us contained, limiting vision and restricting mobility. Too much time sheltered inside, and we risk social, psychological and spiritual decay. Emergence, however, enables evolution.   

Having broken down, and broken out of, our own dividing wall, we are prepared to bring the far off near, by bringing ourselves to the far off. Like some of eL Seed’s works which require a literal journey to comprehend—a stroll over the Pont des Artists in Paris, for example, or a hike up a hill in Cairo—meaningful human connection calls us to cross those metaphorical paths and bridges. 

Not to start a war. Not to collapse others’ walls with overwhelming noise, like Joshua conquering Jericho.5 But “to listen, to pay close attention with a quiet heart, with a waiting, opened soul, without passion, without a wish, without judgment, without an opinion.”6  To “sit at the feet” of another7, as we would before a work of art, acknowledging its singularity, appreciating its beauty, open to its potential revelation. 


1 https://2016globalthinkers.foreignpolicy.com/2016/profile/el-seed?3fa4cfa909=&1fea5800af= 

2 Quoting André Malraux, “Art is the shortest path from one man to another and a bridge between nations” (https://scenearabia.com/Culture/Art-is-the-Shortest-Path-Tunisian-Artist-eL-Seed-Creates-Collaborative-Zoom-Collag?M=True

3 Ephesians 2:12-14 NRSV, NIV 

4 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 169 

5 Joshua 6:1-27 

6 Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, p.74 

7 Drew G.I. Hart, “The Bible, Race, and White Supremacy,” The Bible for Normal People Podcast 

Let Live–or Give?


Shirley and Dwain
My grandparents, circa 1944

I’ve always tried to follow the adage, “Live and let live.” I’ll mind my business, you mind yours, and we’ll all get along. I’m starting to believe, however, that “letting live,” practicing a kind of benevolent indifference, isn’t the consummate virtue I thought it was. Maybe it’s only a beginning. Maybe life deserves more.  

When Jesus said he came “that they may have life,” he was offering more than mere being. He was declaring his intention to give of himself that others might enjoy physical and spiritual vitality, providing an opportunity for them to make good use of a blessed existence. “My purpose,” he affirmed, “is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” Abundant life.1   

Life may (or may not) continue as we ignore it in pursuit of our own interests; but abundant life—life overflowing with joy, hope, privilege, security, love and meaning—doesn’t just happen. It is a blessing we give each other, a gift of self, a conscious contribution to the richness of another’s existence.   

One spring morning, shortly before his passing, my grandfather showed me what this looks like. As we walked through the garden, he stooped to pluck a snail from a leaf, then gently slipped it through a knothole in the fence. To my amused inquiry regarding what seemed an unusual, and probably futile, pest control strategy, he offered only a shrug and a smile, both playful and knowing.   

I began to understand when, after his death, I read the journal he’d kept on another spring day, as a sailor in the Pacific in 1945.  Here he recorded the “hell” of the Battle of Okinawa, observed through “clouds of smoke, dirt and flame” from the deck of his ship. Those days, which he described in haunting understatement as “nerve wracking” and “trying,” culminated in a visit to another ship where survivors told of “hours putting out [fires], tripping over their own dead.” Among his final entries he wrote, “I don’t want to see more.”  

Having seen more than anyone ought of death and devastation, he opened his eyes to the beauty of life. All life. From safely transporting ants out of the house into the yard, to dissolving a business partnership rather than comply with racist policies, he did more than “let live.” He saw, he noticed life, even that disregarded or unappreciated by others. He saw its value, and he saw himself in proper context, not as superior, but as servant. At the cost of his own time, profit and convenience he acted to protect, preserve and bless life. He moved beyond tolerance to delight in it, once opening a letter to my son, “I am writing because I have some important bug information to let you know about!”  

Interestingly, my grandfather’s life exemplified the philosophy of a man whose passion for a blessed humanity emerged out of the same war, but from the opposite side. Japanese philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, entreats, “Let us give something to each person we meet: joy, courage, hope, assurance, … a vision for the future. Let’s always give something.”2    

Let’s always give something. Life deserves it.  



1 John 10:10 NLT, KJV; word studies and commentary from https://biblehub.com/greek/4053.htm 

2Cited in talk by Herbie Hancock, Buddhism and Creativity, Harvard Lecture #5.  https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=herbie+hancock+video+buddhism&docid=608047634030330144&mid=E76503D1FE715FA914E0E76503D1FE715FA914E0&view=detail&FORM=VIRE 

It Is My Place


“My dad will help you.”
It was the second time in as many days that my two-year-old granddaughter had uttered this sentiment. “My dad will help.” Her dad, unfortunately, was in Hawaii vacationing with my daughter, which was why I was there in the first place, battling—and losing to—the Diaper Genie. The first time she’d said it, was the evening before while we read bedtime stories. The little pig in the book was clearly distraught, tears shooting in great arcs out of both his eyes.
“Aww, he’s sad,” I narrated. “His kite is stuck in the tree.”
She met my sympathetically woeful expression with reassurance. “My dad will help him.” 

Now, sitting there amidst Genie parts, a “diaper sausage,”1 and a long string of unused bags, her repeated message led me through frustration into contemplation. My train of thought flowed something like this: Wow, my son-in-law is an amazing dad! She knows he’s always there to help. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had someone like him in life? Am such a person? A recollection of my response to a recent petition for help bluntly answered that question.   

Victor Hugo pegged me in his reluctant curate who, when asked to comfort a condemned prisoner demurred, “That is no affair of mine. I have nothing to do with that unpleasant task, and with that [scoundrel]: I…am ill; and besides, it is not my place.” You can almost hear the sputtering. A bishop, loftier in status and bearing a greater weight of responsibility, yet more humble, replied, “’Monsieur le Cure is right: it is not his place; it is mine.” Then, “he went instantly to the prison.”2  

“It is not his place; it is mine.” No selfishness, no rationalization, no disengagement. Instead, ownership, compassion, action. Imagine the good we could do, the positive change we could effect by adopting this philosophy: “It is my place.” It is my place to respond kindly to anger. It is my place to protect the weak. It is my place to feed the hungry. It is my place to speak to the lonely. It is my place to bridge the gap. It is my place to be “father or mother, brother or sister, friend.”3  It is my place to be a “refuge and a present help in time of trouble.”4 It is my place to uphold, to rescue and honor.5 It is my place to answer when someone calls.6 It is my place to say, “Fear not … I will help you.”7 


1 This is the technical term! Apt but disgusting. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaper_Genie 

2 Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, p.25 

3 Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, p.25

4 Psalm 46:1 

5 Isaiah 41:10; Psalm 91:15 

6 Psalm 91:15 

7 Isaiah 41:10 

Show Me Your Power


Near the village of Ain Dara in Syria lie the ruins of a remarkable Iron Age temple. Its most distinguishing feature is a set of giant footprints at the threshold, the mark of a colossal god entering his or her sanctuary. We mere mortals often feel small in the face of life’s challenges; it’s comforting  to believe there’s someone out there who’s bigger than us, wielding awesome power in our behalf, someone who can control what we cannot control, who understands what we do not understand, who can change what we cannot change.

The current global pandemic has brought on, suddenly and shockingly, many of life’s challenges, including isolation, illness, unemployment and, perhaps most difficult, uncertainty. I’ve listened to friends and family describe their feelings: anxiety, fear, paralysis, self-doubt, uselessness, despair, depression, helplessness, hopelessness. Feeling small, we reasonably look to someone bigger than ourselves—God, government—for help and healing.  And they are doing their parts, no doubt.

But we small ones have a part to play as well, and more power than we sometimes realize.

When my daughter commands,  “Show me your power!” her two tiny children stop whatever they’re doing and strike a pose. Amusing, yes. And  lately, inspiring. It’s as if this crisis is accompanied by a silent invitation: Show me your power! Stop whatever you’re doing—worrying, panicking, hoarding, retreating—and, just for a moment, show me your power. Leave behind a loaf of bread for the next person; post something funny; tell someone, “We’ll get through this together.” Believe that the “ineffectual”—say, a song sung from a balcony—is not “meaningless.” “A completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word … has value.” [1] Has power.

It is the meek, said Jesus—those with the smallest footprints—who will inherit the earth.[2] Perhaps because they are so instrumental in saving it.









[1] George Orwell, 1984, p.136

[2] Matt. 5:5

I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me

“In Matthew 25,” I asked my husband, “who do the ‘sheep’ help?” Barbara Brown Taylor says she’s noticed that people often leave out one particular group; [1] I expected my Ph.D.-in-religion husband to defy her prediction.
“Let’s see,” he responded thoughtfully. “They feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, clothe the naked…and visit the sick and the prisoners.”
Sure enough! like the rest of us of us tend to do, he’d forgotten the stranger.

But the problem isn’t failure to perfectly recall a scripture; it’s when we actually overlook, ignore, or even disdain those who are different, people we are obligated to welcome, include and love:
“You are to love those who are foreigners.”[2]
“You shall treat the stranger…as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”[3]
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”[4]
And of course, Matt. 25:35: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Quite some time ago, as a friend and I strolled through our religiously conservative neighborhood, we passed a home where a gay couple had recently moved in. She lowered her voice and asked suspiciously, “Have you met our new neighbors?” Her question, and her tone, alerted me to my negligence. I had overlooked and ignored my neighbors, who, in this particular community, were probably keenly aware of their “stranger” status.

So soon after, when I saw the men working in their front yard, I walked over to say hello—and learn a lesson in Christian hospitality. After introducing myself I pointed to our house. “I live right there.” Their response surprised me. “Oh! Are you Lizzy’s mom?!” Well, they already knew where I lived so there was no denying it now.“Yes…” I replied, wondering what my impish six-year-old had been up to. “How do you know Lizzy?”
“She rode by on her bike while we were moving in,” they began, now with obvious delight. “She noticed we were hot and sweaty, so she brought us popsicles!”

I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was hot, and you brought me popsicles.

Jesus, says Taylor, “smuggles himself into our midst…showing up as a stranger in need of welcome”[5]—and often, like the “wondrous little stranger”[6] of long ago, appearing dismissably ordinary, even undesirable.[7] If we look too hard for Him then, we may, like the surprised goats of the parable, with eyes firmly fixed on the kingdom[8]—miss Him in others, and thus miss Him altogether.

Looking for Jesus this Christmas? Don’t forget the stranger.





[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, p.290

[2] Deut. 10:19 NIV

[3] Lev. 19:33-34 ESV

[4] Heb. 13:2 ESV

[5] Taylor, p.290

[6] Hymn: “With Wondering Awe”

[7] Isaiah 53:2

[8] Matt. 25:41-45

Triumphantly, Happily Human

My little model of humanity

“Let’s race!” challenged my foster daughter. I plodded up our steep driveway, dragging the blue recycling bin behind me. She whizzed past, swinging the green trashcan into its nook in the garage. “I win! You lose!” Victory dance. My life was fraught with these micro-competitions—not just trashcan races, but finishing meals, locating items at the grocery store, getting to the car—everyday activities turned rivalries. Triumph or be shamed. I’d like to say I handled this with childlike playfulness, or at least patient indulgence. Instead I generally opted for detached annoyance or cutthroat competitiveness resulting in, for example, a gloating text to another daughter about how I’d come from behind to “crush” a 12-year-old at Triominoes. At times I’ve found competition motivating, even fun, but I quickly find myself tumbling head over heels down the slippery slope of dissatisfaction, animosity, jealousy or smugness.

The drive to assert our superiority seems ingrained in human nature. The first couple was enticed to break the first commandment by the insinuation that God only gave it to keep them from rising to His level; the first murder was committed when Cain chose to be his brother’s competitor rather than keeper.[1]

Yet George MacDonald wrote, “The thing most alien to the true idea of humanity is the notion that our wellbeing lies in surpassing our fellows.”[2] Human nature and humanity, it seems, are at odds. Human nature entices, “Compare, compete—mourn when others succeed; rejoice when they fail.” Humanity urges, “Connect, bless—mourn with those who mourn; rejoice with those who rejoice.”[3] Human nature views others as threats to our egos or steppingstones to power. Humanity sees “someone…who shall augment our love,” add to our happiness.[4]

My 10-year-old daughter’s first basketball game ended in a crushing defeat, magnified by the fact that her one breakaway score was in the other team’s basket. As the final buzzer sounded I steeled myself for this sensitive girl’s tears, but anxiety melted into admiration as I watched her enthusiastically congratulate each member of the other team. Then she skipped up to me, ponytail swinging cheerfully behind her, and exulted, “Mom! Thanks for letting me play basketball! That was so fun!” She didn’t care what the score was. She probably didn’t even know what the score was! She was happy just to play the game.

Imagine if we all lived life like she played that game: forgetting to keep score, contributing to others’ success and celebrating each other’s victories—triumphantly, happily human.







[1] Genesis 3 and 4

[2] George MacDonald, The Baron’s Apprentice, p.199

[3] Rom. 12:15 NIV

[4] Dante, Paradiso, Canto V, lines 105, 107


Visit with Sara and Jen 04
We’ve been lighting up each other’s lives 1980

Driving down I-70 through Colorado, I saw several road signs warning, “Cell phones down! Eyes on the road!” Cell phones?? I thought. If you want to eliminate distracted driving, you’re going to have to do something about those trees! Towering granite mountains blanketed with dark evergreens were seasonably splashed with flaming yellow aspens, ignited by sunlight—the mountains breaking forth into singing, all the trees clapping their hands and singing for joy![1] I laughed aloud at their contagious delight.

The next morning when I read, “Christ will shine on you,”[2] I remembered those trees. Beautiful in themselves, the sunlight made them glorious. Christ’s light, shining on the beautiful human soul, glorifies it—exalts, honors, dignifies, enobles, beautifies, lights up brilliantly[3]–and “Everything that is illuminated,” writes Paul, “becomes a light itself.” Our glory, like that of the trees, is meant to be contagious. Christ shines on us so that we will shine on each other.

There is beauty all around[4], but sometimes only those who shine recognize it. “I passed two young fellows on the street the other day,” remarks the Reverend Ames. “They work at the garage. They’re not churchgoing…just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes….They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me.”[5] Grimy, rascally, wicked…beautiful boys.

Yesterday morning I dashed out of my house in a baggy sweater and messy bun. My bangs were a little bent. I hadn’t showered and if there was any makeup on my face it was smeared leftovers from a couple of days before. After accomplishing some stressful tasks on an empty stomach I popped into Kneaders. “I’ll have the veggie avocado on honey wheat,” I stated. The girl at the register gave me a pensive look. Oh gosh, I thought, she knows me. I searched my memory for her face and wished I’d taken more care for my appearance. What she said completely blindsided me. “You…have such a natural beauty!” The unexpected direction of the conversation, along with the surprising compliment left me at a loss for words. Responding to my bemusement, she elaborated: “You know how sometimes a place just feels like home? You’re like that, only with your beauty. You are beautiful, like home.” Well. What does one say to such beauty shined into an average day? I thanked her and tried, unsuccessfully, not to cry. She came around the counter and gave me a hug. When I sat down at a nearby table to wait for my sandwich the elderly lady also waiting there said, “Looks like you ran into an old friend!” “I’ve never seen her before in my life,” I answered wonderingly.

“I am the light of the world,” says Jesus. And, “You are the light of world.” Light it brilliantly.




[1] I Chronicles 16:33; Isaiah 55:12

[2] Ephesians 5:14

[3] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/glorify

[4] Love at Home, hymn composed by John H. McNaughton (1829-1891)

[5] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, p.7

The Space Between Us


It seems we’re headed for a collision. The “smashup” between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies is due to occur in about 4.5 billion years.[1]  The word “smashup,” however, is somewhat misleading. Watching computer simulations I find it hard to believe, but it turns out the extreme distances between stars make the odds of them actually smashing into each other very low. All we’re likely to notice from Earth is a newly configured night sky.

I wonder, is it the same with people? Do we collide without connecting? Is the distance between us so great that that we pass, barely apprehended, through each other’s space? Gilead’s Reverend Ames, struggling to comprehend a friend’s self-destructive lifestyle, posits, “In every important way we are such secrets from each other….We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.”[2]

This image of humanity’s lonely journey through the universe leaves me melancholy. And yet, there is gravity, that perpetual resistance to distance, insisting on the potential for connection—a representation, perhaps, of God’s hope and intention that those who are “far away” be “brought near.”[3]

Because separation is painful. After a final farewell, my oldest daughter watched her best friend walk out our front door, heading for a new life in a different state. Then, standing alone in the living room she bowed her head and began to sob. At that moment her little sister sauntered into the room. Though unaware of the preceding scene and ignorant of what had precipitated this consuming heartbreak, spontaneous empathy overcame her. She froze, wilted; then, bursting into tears, ran to her sister and embraced her.

When Jesus said to “become like a child,”[4] maybe this is what he had in mind, this intuitive responsiveness to others’ needs, this innocent yielding to the gravitational pull of compassion. “Heaven,” he said, “is made up of people like this”[5]—people both bold enough, and humble enough, to traverse distances others see as untraversable—distances imposed by age, lifestyle, language, religion, politics—people willing to believe that the space between us really isn’t so vast after all.




[1]Mike Wall, “We Finally Know When Our Milky Way Will Crash Into the Andromeda Galaxy,” Feb. 8, 2019, https://www.space.com/43267-milky-way-andromeda-collision-later.html

[2] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, p.197

[3] Eph. 2:13

[4] Matt. 18:3

[5] Matt. 19:14 Holman Christian Standard Bible