Merry Christmas to the Insignificant

Christmas among many things is a reminder that the Kingdom of God reveals itself through the weak, the lowly, and the insignificant. That Christ would come as a vulnerable and bloody newborn child, that the king of all would come from nothing is something we would do well to remember especially in a culture that seems to frequently imply that what we do or achieve determines our significance.

The birth, life, and death of Christ teach us that this embrace of insignificance is vital to the Christian life. Christ was brought low in coming to us in flesh. He lived a life of service and association with those deemed insignificant by society. Christ taught us to live like him in humility, and he pronounced blessed those who were poor in spirit, those who were hungry, and those who were being persecuted. And finally, of course, he was mocked and strung up naked on a cross.

Christmas is a time of great joy and celebration because we have a God who has come to us, who has not left us alone but has met us in our lowly estate. But it is also a time of great pain for many. Our culture places a tremendous expectation on the holiday season to be a time of familial serenity and warmth. But the reality is that for many, the holidays only magnify their own insignificance or lack of family. And for some, Christmas gatherings can very easily slip into conversations attempting to prove to ourselves and others that we have made or are making something of our lives—whether that is to hometown friends or extended family about the jobs we have, the people we are dating, the families we have, or the degrees we hold. It can quickly become about proving our own significance rather than about reveling in who has given us just that.

The ecstasy of Christmas is more keenly for those who know they can not prove themselves and have very little to their name aside from what they have in Christ. Christmas is for the insignificant. It is for those who know the pain of having very little: for the friendless, the rejected, the poor and lonely and abused. It’s for the wash-ups, the burn-outs, and those who are tired of constantly disappointing those they love. Christmas is a time which reveals—in a miraculous way—that the insignificant and significant have been reversed… The prodigal will be embraced. The eunuch will be given a name better than son. The lonely will be put in families. The barren woman will rejoice. The leper will be touched and healed. Strangers will be welcomed. The hungry will be satisfied. The slandered will be rewarded. The grieving will know relief. And those that beat their breasts over their sin will find themselves made right.

God’s power is made perfect through weakness, and his weakness has proved greater than human strength or significance. Perhaps in hindsight it should be no surprise that he met us in fragility as a baby, washed his disciple’s feet in servitude, and would then go on to a cross for us. His weakness made a mockery of what is strong and significant in the world, and his Kingdom has inverted the order. It’s a homeless baby who gets the glory rather than Herod, and it’s a man nailed naked on a cross who conquers Death and rises unto glory. 

In Jesus the seeming insignificance of our lives is wrapped up in His glory.

Merry Christmas.

Origin and Identity in the Dark Night of Space

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*This post contains some spoilers for the films: Ad AstraStar Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. 


“Deep within every man lies the dread of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the tremendous household of millions and millions. That fear is kept away by looking upon all those about one who are bound to one as friends or family, but the dread is nevertheless there and one hardly dares think of what would happen to one of us if all the rest were taken away.” – Kierkegaard


Even a journey into the depths of space cannot bear the anxieties of our origins and identities.

This last decade has been filled with existential space films, and it makes sense given that endless space is the perfect setting for finite man’s eternal and familial questions.  Many of these films—like the recent Ad Astra and the latest Star Wars trilogy—take us to some of the deepest reaches of the galaxy simply to ask questions about where we come from.

Human progress would have it that for us to go forward into the unknown we must untether ourselves—to advance we must go as those independent and unrestrained from anything that might hold us back.

Kylo Ren and Rey, the two protagonists of the latest Star Wars films, demonstrate a helpful tension. One is obsessed with finding out where she came from, the other is possessed with removing himself from the family and tradition in which he came. Without space, we would perhaps never have been given the inspiration for something as imaginative in scope as the Star Wars universe, yet it is in the scope of these cosmos that these characters are still haunted by their own origins. Both Rey and Kylo are desperate to discover who they are despite the enormous power they contain and the worlds in which they inhabit. Rey assumes she will discover herself by discovering the identity of her parents. Kylo assumes he will discover himself only by removing himself from his parents and everything they represent.

At the core of a lot of recent Sci-Fi films is an existential angst of determining who we are in the midst of an infinite cosmos.

The existential and slow-burn of a film, Ad Astra, notably sought to answer this question. Brad Pitt stars as the lonely and depressed astronaut, Roy McBride, who embarks on a mission to find his father who had previously set out to the planet Neptune. This film contains plenty of internal monologues and defies much of what we have come to expect of the science fiction genre. This is partly because this film is less interested in providing cheap human answers like human ingenuity, reason, or force-of-will to solve existential questions (cf. The Martian, Interstellar) and more about the loneliness and ennui that accompany us in the dark night of space.

Clifford, Roy’s narcissistic and belligerent father, is intent on discovering non-human life out among the stars even at the expense of all humanity. The one human at the farthest reaches of space is in no surprise the one whose antipathy towards humanity proves to be the strongest. Roy is willing to embark to this far off place primarily, it seems, because of this paternal gravitational pull. And it is not until after his eventual confrontation with his estranged father, that he concludes that life and meaning are only to be found back from where he came. It takes a journey into the unknown to settle for what was already known to him. But this quest for meaning and identity has existed far before space-travel.

The oft told story of the Prodigal Son is a fine example. The younger brother takes what is his, untethers himself from his father, and journeys deep into unknown territory only to come up short-changed and longing to come home. Roy McBride acts as an inverse Prodigal Son who attempts to find his father in far off places only to be radically disappointed by him but who realizes what is significant is what he left behind on Earth. He returns from the far-off place with the final admission, “I am looking forward to the day my solitude ends. And I’m home.”

Kylo Ren, also like the Prodigal Son, takes the gift of Force inherent to his bloodline and uses it for his own ends. In a way, both had blood on their hands for what they did to their fathers. Both wanted autonomy. Both wanted a life of their own removed from the security and seeming monotony of their own destiny. Both wanted an identity formed for themselves rather than inherited by another. But, as Rey notes regarding Kylo, “there is still a tension within him.” His umbilical severing has not left him without an internal conflict to return.

This innate longing is wrapped up in a return to relationship. And perhaps that is what is so fundamentally wrong with the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story. He is right near his father in proximity but is in his own far off place in spirit. He is in his own way hurdling through space untethered and alone but somehow convinced he is going somewhere. The primacy of our identity lies in being embraced by the father rather than just being near to him in formality. Unlike Clifford, this prodigal father goes out in search for his son and runs to embrace him—unlike Roy’s desperate and forced embrace of his father who simply demands he let him go. And like Han Solo meeting his son, he is not afraid of potential harm or disgrace.

Sometimes it is in the context of being alone and removed from what we love that we come to notice something missing. The vacuum of space can help reveal to us what we are not, but it can not in its own right tell us who we are. Rather, it is only by embrace that we can see most clearly where we have come from, where we are ultimately going, and who we truly are.

 

Augustine and a Life of Holy Longing

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A professor of mine once wrote that, “We once assumed that a great man was one who controlled his desires. Today we assume that a great man is one who indulges his desires.”[1] We live in a world which consistently hounds us to find an end to our hungers and longings as quickly, efficiently, and authentically as possible in our pursuit of final happiness. Of course, like Don Draper in the show Mad Men said, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Whether by sex, food, purchase, or endless entertainment, we always find ourselves longing for something to satiate us once more.

St. Augustine in his sixth homily in his Homilies on 1 John makes the point that one distinctive quality of Christian living is that we learn to live into our longing. As he says, “The whole life of the good Christian is a holy longing. What you long for, as yet you do not see; but longing makes in you room that shall be filled, when that which you are to see shall come.”

Contrary to popular opinion, a life lived with open hands is not a life wasted.

Augustine continues: “When you would fill a purse, knowing how large a present it is to hold, you stretch wide its cloth or leather: knowing how much you are to put in it, and seeing that the purse is small, you extend it to make more room. So by withholding the vision God extends the longing, through longing he makes the soul extend, by extending it he makes room in it.”

According to Augustine, in this time of waiting and hope, God is expanding the soul of the Christian. The withholding of the beatific vision unto his people is in some way whetting our appetites for it. In this time of waiting for the consummation of all things, Augustine reminds us that, like in the Beatitudes, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the ones who shall be filled (Matt 5:6). Like the purse analogy, this time of eager expectation is a time that often feels like stretching.

Fundamentally, to long for something is to feel its lack. It is one thing to feel hunger and know that you can walk to your pantry to eat; it is wholly another to have to hold out your hands in utter dependence and with no immediate solution—no money, no pantry, no backup plan. It is no easy thing to live a life of longing, but it is one that we are called to as Christians.

Augustine remarks on Paul’s words from Philippians 3:13: “He speaks of himself as stretching out, and following according to his purpose: he felt himself too small to take in that which eye hath not seen nor ear heard, nor hath come up into the heart of man. That is our life, to be trained by longing; and our training through the holy longing advances in the measure that our longings are severed from the love of this world.”

We are to be trained by longing, but not by the sort of arbitrary longing for this or that, here or there, but by a holy longing: a longing for “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:14). Yet, Augustine admonishes us and reminds us that these lesser longings can rob us of the training and stretching our souls need. How will our souls be stretched if we are constantly filling them with things we look to as ends in themselves rather than God himself?

“Empty out that vessel that is to be filled; you are to be filled with good, pour away the evil. God would fill you, shall we say, with honey: where can you put it if you are full of vinegar? What your vessel held must be poured away…”

All of us, in one way or another, seek to alleviate the apparent emptiness of our souls with something other than God. And of course, this isn’t to say food, romance, success, or entertainment are bad things. God has given these things to us as a gift to enjoy, yet these things were given so that we may know the Giver through them. They were never intended to wholly fulfill us, nor were they given so that we could forget the Giver. Perhaps this is why the gospel is often more easily accepted by those who feel their need (for food, for friendship, for forgiveness, etc.) all the more keenly. Like the sinful woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee, she knew that it was better to empty what she had so that she might be filled with the love of Christ. It is easier to pour out what you have when you are convinced that it will no longer satisfy you.

When we attempt to use our own goodness, wealth, relationships, or possessions to fill the purse of our souls, we rob God of what he desires to pour into us, and we rob ourselves of the only thing that can truly fill us. And what is that thing?

“Speak as we may of that which cannot be spoken, call it what we will, its proper name is—God. Even in this word, ‘God,’ what have we said? Is that single syllable the whole of that for which we wait? Nothing that we have power to name is high enough. Let us stretch ourselves toward him, that when he comes he may fill us full. For ‘we shall be like him; because we shall see him as he is.’”

[1] https://twitter.com/dandoriani/status/828633606734151682?s=20

The Misery of Distraction

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Mankind has never been a stranger to distraction. Certainly, we live in a time and age in which diversions seem nearly boundless. We turn on Netflix and find show after show catered to our interests. We scroll through social media feeds that have no end, yet this draw to disconnect is no new thing.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and theologian, once wrote that “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries” (Pensées, 171). Pascal in the section of his Pensées (regarding the miseries of life without God) makes the argument that man is drawn to distraction because he would rather not have to reflect upon things such as his mortality, ignorance, and particular sufferings. Man pursues vanity to escape unhappiness. Yet, this escape only escalates his miseries.

Pascal continues, “For it is this [draw to diversion] which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.” It is this weariness that we all seek to avoid. The weariness of our lives, our relationships, our own inconsistencies, our own failures and longings, our mortality, and yes, our own shame.

The desire to escape is alluring, yet a life patterned by distraction inevitably leads to ruin– And I would argue, not just ruin for one’s self, but also for our respective communities.

Of course, it is distraction which drives us away from contemplation of both God and self. It drives us to shirk integrity and sincerity: to not call sin sin within ourselves but to passively distract ourselves from having to make such self-evaluation. It is the desire unto distraction which would drive us more towards tweeting than prayer, more towards slander than confession, and more towards consuming beauty than delighting in it.

There is a bitterness to life that occurs when the good things here continue to dissatisfy us.

And the effects of this terrifying boredom transmits itself.

It is there in the way we shrink back from a vulnerable yet necessary conversation with a loved one. It is there in the way we blame-shift to avoid dealing with the problems that exist within. It is there in the way we pit our tribes against another in the hopes that we will defeat the source of this weariness.

Pascal mentioned that this collective, human weariness need not destroy us though. This weariness, perhaps akin to that of the Preacher’s efforts in Ecclesiastes, can help us if we were to let it spur us on to something which would ease it rather than towards that which seeks to avoid it.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval monk heavily influenced by Augustine (similarly to Pascal), wrote:

“It is so that these impious ones wander in a circle, longing after something to gratify their yearnings, yet madly rejecting that which alone can bring them to their desired end… They wear themselves out in vain travail, without reaching their blessed consummation, because they delight in creatures, not in the Creator. They want to traverse creation, trying all things one by one, rather than think of coming to Him who is Lord of all. ” (On Loving God, VII).

St. Bernard effectively agrees with Pascal. This weariness causes a longing for something that would cause us to know peace and satiety. Yet, we find this weariness impossible to deal with because its solution is beyond what we can find in other creatures.

When we have a million possible things to do within arm’s reach (or within hand’s grasp of a smart-phone), it is easier to think we can find a permanent distraction to our own weariness than trust that a solution may still be available for us.

It is no secret that both St. Bernard and Pascal saw the Triune God as the solution to such weariness. And of course it is Augustine’s hallmark phrase which they are echoing: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” No amount of distraction, no worldly pursuit or conquest will appease us.

Indeed only life eternal in communion with God can put us to ease and cause us to rest.

And St. Bernard knows what that means for us now who long for that eternal bliss: “To them that long for the presence of the living God, the thought of Him is sweetest itself: but there is no satiety, rather an ever-increasing appetite… Yea, blessed even now are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they, and they only, shall be filled” (On Loving God, IV).

For St. Bernard (and the others), to live now, is to live in anticipation: to not stoop to fulfill an eternal craving with a taste of something that may lead us from that which truly satisfies. Rather, it is to live consciously with the weariness and hunger, to feel our tongues dry for a taste of righteousness, and to acknowledge our own emptiness so that we might be filled by the God who has and will and continues to give himself to us.

 

Toy Story 4 Review: Who(se) Am I?

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The Toy Story series has an interesting philosophical premise in which you can’t separate a toy’s purpose from its creator/owner. What gives the toy its value is not what it is made of or where it came from but by and for whom it was made. And that resonates.

The latest installment to the series is certainly the most existential of the bunch. Take for example the main character, Forky—a preschool arts-and-crafts project literally made from trash. Forky is given life by being created and named by Bonnie (the new owner of the toys from the previous iterations), and he finds himself wondering throughout the film whether he belongs to the trash or belongs to Bonnie. Is his central purpose connected to that which he was made fromor for whom he was made? He feels at ease in trashcans and dumpsters and with other garbage, but is this his purpose?

Toy Story 4 cares less about the question of “Why are we here?” and more about the question “Whose are we?” But at times,  it doesn’t know how to answer its own question.

What do you do with toys whose owners no longer care for them? What do you do with those who have never had an owner to begin with? Won’t all toys eventually be forgotten? Will not all of them inevitably end up on the Island of Misfit Toys?

These are terrifying questions, and some of the most joyful and most depressing moments in this film revolve around toys finding (or not finding) an owner.

What’s a toy’s purpose with no owner? A toy is inherently created to be loved and enjoyed, so what do you do with that missing variable? Can a toy be a toy without an owner, or does it then become an antique? You could ask the same question of us, what are we without a relationship to our creator—can we find purpose aside from it? Can we fill the void of creator-creature love with creature-creature love?

Again, this film brings up huge questions and doesn’t quite know how to answer them all, but it does try its best.

Without giving too much away, the ending attempts to persuade its audience that a toy can find meaning after its owner while still recognizing that a toy’s most noble purpose is being there for a child. It can barely make up its mind though. On one hand, it makes it clear that it is better for a toy to be with an owner, yet on the other it can’t just say that toys without an owner are “trash” (as the film describes as being “Useless. Like your purpose has been fulfilled”). In some ways it does seem to say that creature-creature love can fill the void, but I wasn’t convinced.

The ending feels hollow to me. I’d like for every toy to have an owner, and for them to have one forever. I guess I’m just glad to not be some human’s play-thing, and I’m glad I don’t have to work with the assumption that my creator might one day just leave me out to dry leaving me to try to make sense of a life without him.

 

 

Hope and Incoherence

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The resurrection reminds me that there won’t always be a tension between the man I am & used to be and the man I am & wish to be in Christ.

I’m tired of incoherence. I want my body and mind to work right and for them not to constantly feel at odds with and within themselves. I want to live a virtuous life despite my many vices. Even more, I just want to be in body & soul with Jesus.

The resurrection is at odds with both presumption and despair. What I mean is that, in Christ being risen, we neither have to succumb ourselves to the despair over our own seemingly permanent inconsistencies nor do we have to try to convince ourselves that our inconsistencies can be easily untangled or explained away.

The only other option in the face of such inconsistencies is to move forward in hope.

To press forward in hope requires honesty and confession. It requires us to boldly live knowing that this life before us is not all there is. By confessing that Jesus is risen and that one day we too will rise, we imply that we do not have to sort everything out. We do not have to have all our ducks in a row. We do not have to lie about our own inconsistencies, and yet neither do we have to resign to them.

The frustrations, the disappointments, the loneliness, the illnesses, the heartbreaks, the unfulfilled longings, the persistent sins and vices in ourselves, all the things that feel so profoundly incoherent with the ways things ought to be will not ultimately have the final word.

Because Christ is risen, we too will rise like him. Someday soon we will know the joy, intimacy, and permanence of being with Him. And because he is risen, our hope is coherent.

 

 

In Fear of Finding “Us”

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** Warning this post contains major spoilers to Jordan Peele’s “Us”. I’d really, really suggest you watch the film before proceeding. ***

What if we are not who we think we are? What if we are not who we claim to be?

I believe Jordan Peele asks several of these questions in his latest film, “Us”. Peele in a recent interview remarked that his idea for this film came about as a kid when he used to walk the subways of New York and envision a person across the tunnel, standing and staring back at him, who looked identical to himself. He claims this to be a universal human terror: seeing ourselves when we know that what we see can’t really be us.

Adelaide at one scene in the film expresses to her husband (Gabe) that as a child she encountered this very terror. She saw herself and felt within her bones that that version of herself would one day catch up to her. There’s an apocalyptic vibe to this film which stands alongside its home-invasion, horror format. The first act trembles with the sense that something is coming, and that something demands to be exposed.

If you’ve seen the film then you know the conspiracy. The government has secretly been cloning humans and keeping them hidden in underground tunnels. And the cloning has not worked out as expected. Rather than creating another soul in the process, the cloning has created two bodies that can only share the same soul. These clones have been imprisoned underground being forced to live the same experiences of the originals yet in an artificial way. Denied real experience, denied real relationship, denied freedom, these clones rebel.

In the ensuing rebellion these clones savagely attempt to murder their counterparts and call it the “untethering”. At first glance, these clones seem to be the “dark-side” of their counterparts, but as the film develops, things seem to become a little more complicated than that.

One of the truly disturbing things in this film is the ways in which the two Wilson children are forced into savagely killing these dark duplicates. It comes at a point in which you can’t help but cheer them on because the things they are fighting seem like ruthless monsters.

There’s a scene though that still leaves me feeling uneasy. Upon entering into the house of their friends, the Wilson’s discover that their friends have been murdered by their respective counterparts. The Wilson parents get separated from their kids, and the kids are forced to fight ruthlessly to stay alive. At one point, Zora knocks out one of these juvenile counterparts and proceeds to bash her head in repeatedly with a golf-club. This scene felt several seconds too long. It intentionally did not fit the comedic, righteously violent mood. It felt as though a line was crossed and forced me to have to address something within myself. What at one moment was self-defense now felt like savage brutality. The family survives the incident and proceeds to drive off but not before weighing out their kill-count to each other to see who got to drive. It earned plenty of unconscious laughs. Peele’s comedy bleeds through this whole film and adds something important to it.

Peele, I think, exposes our moral masquerades. We, like the characters in “Us”, all wear masks that allow us to be who we want to be and to hide the parts of ourselves that we’d rather not have to reckon with. We can prominently display our cheery dispositions and conveniently store the things we dislike underground. Rather than face our own evil, we would rather bury it. Rather than weep over our sins, we would rather laugh them off. Peele’s humor in a similar way helps make the horror more palatable and ironically shields us from having to make moral evaluations of the “good” characters in this film.

The twist at the end of the film is the real kicker though. After Adelaide kills her counterpart (“Red”), Adelaide tells her son that everything is going to go back to normal. However, as the family drives off for what is to be a happy ending, it is revealed that when Adelaide and Red first saw each other as kids that Red forcibly switched places with Adelaide. Adelaide is unconscious of this fact up until this moment which leads us to believe that these two have been inextricably linked to the point of no longer being able to distinguish their own origin or identity. For the entirety of the film, who we thought to be good was in fact bad, and who we thought to be bad was maybe a little less bad. And this drives into question how we are to morally evaluate these counterparts if they do share the same soul as their respective originals. Since these two people share the same soul aren’t their actions coming from the same intention?

So what makes seeing ourselves so terrifying?

There’s a character in the film that stands out to me, however. Jason, the youngest in the Wilson family, appears to have the greatest self-awareness of the bunch and deals with his counterpart in a distinctly different way than the rest of his family. Each family member effectively murders their counterpart. But Jason realizes that he controls his counterpart (I personally think Jason was more in sync with his counterpart than anybody else hence his “lack of attention” and the mask he wears up-and-down throughout the film). Jason in a way realizes that he is his counterpart and leads him(self) into a fire to protect his family. Maybe it’s just the way he holds his arms up as he walks backwards, but to me this scene felt like a surrender of self rather than an attack on another.

Jason sees himself in a way that I am afraid to. I don’t want to see what’s under the mask, and I certainly don’t want to reckon with the evil within myself. I think what makes seeing ourselves so scary is that we see our inadequacies and immorality. We see what is lacking, or we see someone who knows what we know about ourselves- the sorts of things you’d rather just stuff away. Of course Jason is somewhat morally ambiguous as well, but what makes him distinct is that he sees himself honestly. One part of himself is holding the fire and another part of himself is being burned. There’s an honest conflict within Jason that is not occurring within the other characters of this film. And while the others are either fighting with or running from their shadow sides, there’s a very brief moment in which the truth of who he is exposed by just a little bit of light.

 

 

 

 

The Dust of Grace

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“…there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.
― Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

There are two common roads. The road of despair and the road of presumption. One of self-defeat, the other of self-exertion. Both roads have quite different terrains but both lead in the same direction.

This season of Lent is a strange gift of exposure. In a world of a great divide of pessimists and optimists, of the despairing and determined, our clutch for control remains.

Humanity’s pursuit for self-defined worth and self-determined meaning is a noble but ultimately futile attempt at preserving control. And the ways in which we live in functional despair are the shadow side of this. Met with failure or disappointment, resigning to life’s hardship is simply another way in which we attempt to manage. If we can’t have things our way, at least we can give up on our own terms.

But both paths are opposite the way of grace.

The road of humility is a road covered in the dust of grace. It’s a reminder that we are from dust and to dust we shall return, and a reminder that life is fundamentally a gift.

This path is a tremendously difficult one as it asks us to pause before we go onward. To receive requires empty-handedness and a confession that we ultimately have nothing to offer. It requires us to kneel on whatever path we are on to confess we are lost and that we don’t have it in us to get wherever there is. And in that confession we sit in the dust of grace.

In the dust, we see our humanity, our sin, and our lack of control, but in the dust we are made receptive to grace.

This path of grace is strange. It isn’t one we pave ourselves but has rather been paved down to us. And so we are invited to follow in the way of Jesus who has met us in the dust, sustains us in love, and (as Bonhoeffer once said) bids us come and die.