The Angels’ Song (Don’t Be Afraid)

“Don_t be afraid!” the angel said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” Luke 2.10

Perhaps you’ve read that “Don’t be afraid” is in the Bible 365 times—once for every day of the year.

Don’t be afraid

It isn’t true. It’s a nice Hallmark-worthy sentiment, but it isn’t Scripture. However, it is true that “Do not be afraid” occurs a hefty 70 times in Scripture—indeed more than any other command. That doesn’t include variations close to it—have courage, don’t be discouraged, fear not, don’t worry, etc. Simply—

Do not be afraid.

For people who tend to think of God’s commands as cumbersome, restricting, or difficult, this might come as a revelation. God’s most common commands are positive ones.

Praise him. Be thankful. Rejoice. Remember.

Not exactly cumbersome.

We might recall the words of the long-winded Psalmist who told us:

“The commands of the Lord are radiant.” (Psalm 19.8)

Where have we gotten this notion that they’re a burden?

Why be afraid?

Since God went a-calling in the garden asking Adam and Eve where they were hiding, we’ve been afraid. To be fair, there is reason.

We have failed him.

We have disappointed him.

We have chosen to run away from him.

We have caused his creation—of other humans and earth—utter destruction.

Yet his most common command is—“Don’t be afraid.”

What does it mean?
What doesn’t it mean?

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Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

It doesn’t mean “There is nothing scary out there. No worries. Hakuna Matata.” Let’s tell the truth—life is scary.

It doesn’t mean if you have enough faith, all is rosy and cheery.

It doesn’t mean you don’t have enough faith if you worry.

It doesn’t mean that if you have fears you’re a terrible Christian.

Let’s look at a few places God says it.

Exodus 14.13  But Moses told the people, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today.” (Just as the Egyptian army descends, and God prepares to part the Red Sea. No worries, people. Just sit and chill. That raging army is not scary. It’s fine. Everything is fine.)

Joshua 1.6 Be strong and courageous—Do not be afraid or discouraged. (Just before he is to lead the Hebrews into the promised land)

John 14.27 I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. (Just before he goes to the cross and leaves them)

Luke 5.10 Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” (As he begins to gather his disciples into a life-changing adventure)

Luke 1.30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God!” (As she is asked to be part of the most dangerous undertaking ever imagined)

Luke 1.13 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.” (John the Baptist, that is)

Matthew 28.5-6 Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead.” (As the world is about to be turned upside down)

Can you see a pattern here?

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Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

God is about to do something . . .

God doesn’t tell people “fear not” when there is nothing to fear. He often says it when there is a great deal to fear! In fact, a lot of the time, ‘fear not’ is followed by something God is going to do in the person’s life that’s kind of terrifying.

Fear not really means–do you trust me?

Thus we come to another song of Christmas. This time, it’s a very familiar song. It’s a song quoted by the great theologian Linus VanPelt as the most important song ever. Let’s look at the angels’ song.

Luke2.8-15 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 

And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

OK, we don’t know they sang those words. That’s tradition. But we’re going with it.

They have one job

Angels’ one job is to be messengers of God almighty—used when he wants to tell humans something important. They possess all the glory and holiness and terror that entails.

The universal human reaction is fear, and justifiably so. Yet—the angels always say—don’t be afraid.

God’s first message when he plans to enter the world is

—don’t be afraid.

What a first message. So many things he could have told us to prepare us for his coming. Yet he chose those three words—don’t be afraid. It’s as if he knows humans well.

  • He knows he holds all the cards.
  • He knows his perfection, his holiness, is scary to us.
  • He knows people are afraid of what might happen when he shows up—in their lives and in the world.

Something usually does happen!

So his first words are so often—don’t be afraid.

God’s first message when he plans to enter the world is—

The angels herald his entrance into this world with loving concern for his people. They speak to the shepherds of peace. They tell them not to be afraid of the God who comes with lovingkindness  and mercy. With a grace that knows we are deservedly scared and assures us his coming to us face-to-face is good news.

He comes with peace on earth and mercy mild. God and sinners, reconciled.

Oh, those angels know.

The angels sing the finale.

They sing the song to end, or begin, all songs.

They sing the last words before the Word is revealed.

They sing the good news to end, or begin, all good news.

But it’s old news to us

We are so used to this angels’ song.

It’s on our Christmas cards and our playlists.

But what does it tell us about the savior, and about us?

If the angels are sent to tell us the Savior is born—in a humble place, to humble people, for all people—that the God of the universe has put his life in the hands of a girl who just grew up quickly herself—what does that mean?

It means He wants to be with us.

He wants to be with you.

He didn’t send a telegram or tweet his love out to the universe.

He came.

God with us.

That tells everything.

Remember what we learned in Hebrews a while back?

“The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.” (Hebrews 1.3)

It meant that Jesus is the exact image of God—the precise imprint of his character here on earth, like a coin given from the emperor.

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Photo by Virgil Cayasa on unsplash.com

This sacrificial, humble, giving baby who only wanted to be with his creation to show it the way out of darkness and craziness and enveloping confusion is the very expression of God’s heart.

It’s who God is.

Don’t accept substitutes.

Don’t accept people telling you who or what God is or does or feels if it isn’t what you see in Jesus. Jesus, above all, shows us a God who wants to be with his people. It doesn’t matter what those people have done or believed or lived or are. None of those things matter about the person next to us, or far from us in anther country, either.

If that’s not what other people’s God looks like, their God is suspect, according to Hebrews 1. He should look exactly like the One born as Emmanuel, God with us, humbled into a tiny baby’s body to bring peace and good news.

The angels tell the shepherds “don’t be afraid.” God is on the move. He is about to do something scary–and so incredibly, beautifully merciful you will not comprehend it as long as you live. Don’t be afraid. Trust him.

Go and see. Don’t fear to see what God is doing. Don’t  be afraid to take part. Go and see. You will never be the same. That’s both scary and beautiful. Take in both. Don’t shy away from one and choose to embrace only the other. You’ll come away with neither. The angels’ message is the same to us as it was to the shepherds.

Don’t be afraid. Go and see what God is doing.

Where’s the Party?

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

I am not a party person. I am so far on the “I” side of the Myers-Briggs scale I nearly fall off it. I love being a pastor, and I love my people, but socializing with a roomful of acquaintances on a surface level feels like I imagine purgatory would feel, if I believed in it.

Nevertheless, I enjoy a well crafted party with people I love. We’ve had our share this year, with the youngest’s wedding right in the middle of 2019. A shower. A wedding. A reception back home. All of it. And all of it we crafted carefully, with their tastes and our budget in mind.

We planned themes, grew and arranged flowers, drilled holes in centerpieces and hand-letters signs that told people exactly where to put their cards and how to play the date night game. While we did much of the work ourselves, we had a dress, a caterer, and a photographer that knocked it out of the park.

We missed nothing. It was a wonderful day.

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Time to Party

As we’ve been walking through Hebrews, off and on, these last few months, we come to a passage that also knocks it out of the park. So far, Hebrews has been shopping, setting the table, making menus, crafting decorations, and sending invites. The writer has missed nothing.

Now—in chapter ten—it’s time to party.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10.19-25, NLT)

Verse 22 is the party—“Let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him.”

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

Bold Faith

We are not simply to come to the party either but to come boldly. “Go right in” is the phrase people use when they know the person invited belongs. It’s what we say to friends—come on in, and use the side door (the one for friends). You know you can walk in anytime. We don’t offer that privilege to strangers. Only those who  have our complete love and trust get the “come on in.”

Other translations use the words “confidently,” “with full assurance,” or “boldly.” Literally, it’s “free and fearless.” It means the same—go toward God as you would anyone who invited you in like you belonged there. Because you do.

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For many, boldness is not our default. When it comes to any relationships, fear predominates. Fear that we will not be accepted. Fear that we can never be good enough. Fear that we don’t deserve forgiveness. Fear that our love will not be reciprocated.

Fear drives so much, and has since Eden.

God puts that fear to rest here. If we’re told to come boldly to the one who made us, who knows us best, whom we’ve actually offended the most, but who loves us everlastingly and unconditionally, then where is the place for any fear at all? If that relationship is restored, what is there to fear in any other?

What would it be like to live free and fearless?

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

  • Relationships fail us.
  • Spouses leave, or don’t fulfilled their vows to honor us, protect us.
  • Friends betray us to move up social ladder.
  • Relatives abuse you in ways no one talks about.
  • Coworkers throw you under the bus to cover their butts.
  • Your child screams swear words at you, and you believe growing up means breaking apart.

Trust is fragile.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

If the only metric we have to measure relationships is human ones, and we are human so it is, then we project all that on God.

  • God becomes the girl who wouldn’t let us sit with her.
  • The kid who bullied you.
  • The spouse who betrayed you.
  • The relative who abused you.
  • The father you could never please.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

Two years ago, I went to a friend’s home in London for a writing retreat (I know, rough), and two of the other women voiced their life’s dream to got to Paris. They begged me to go, too, since I’d been a few times and could be a guide. So we made a day trip, and our first stop (OK, after Laduree and Berthillon) was Notre Dame. Notre Dame was my first love of buildings, and I couldn’t wait to see my old friend.

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We saw a long line near one door. Very long. One of the other women nosed around and found another door on the other side. No one was lined up there. So, maybe the other line was for the tower? Because my friend is bold, and because she has an auto-immune disease that makes standing for a long time difficult, she decided to use the door with no line. Boldly, we walked right in.

We gaped round the altar, stood in awe at the familiar rose windows, and walked the checkered floor I love so well. Yes, we cut the line, we realized later. But the door was open. And we decided to walk through it without hesitation.

That was the last time I saw my favorite place in one piece. I’m so glad we chose to go through the door.

This is the exuberant, joyful, excited boldness God wants for us when he talks about us coming near to him. Without fear, with excitement, believing this is the best dream of our lives. Because the door was opened, and all we have to do is walk in.

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We do not have to measure God by the instability of human relationships. God invites us—and he invites us as He would a friend.

Maybe when trust is hard is the time we most need this party. Not a fake it, put up a front, false happiness party—a party that says what matters will stand.

A party that defies death, decay, rising smoke and tells it all—you do not win.

Because it is finished.

Death—you have no victory.

Despair—you have no home here.

Fire and smoke—you cannot take away what matters.

Restoration is beginning. Reclamation is here. New beginnings are ready—don’t despair—come to the party.

Come boldly.

Green Lake Water

IMG_8376Continuing in the memoir/stories that create our lives vein . . .

Green lake water flushed into my nose, hit my gag reflex, and my neck automatically convulsed. My mouth opened—rookie mistake. I swallowed water, algae, and the poop of a thousand fishes, gagged, coughed, sputtered, and coughed again. I raised my head out of the water, eyes unseeing with lake water stunning them shut, legs flailing away trying to keep me afloat.

I wiped the water from my eyes, eyes that still, according to the eye doctor who handed me blue cats eye glasses when I was eight, “needed glasses to see the blackboard and play in the outfield.” Never mind I needed a lot more than glasses to ever play in the outfield.

I could vaguely see the two pier posts that marked the swim test lane, and I knew I’d barely made it halfway across.

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Refusing to put my face back in the water, I swam the rest of the lane using the unauthorized freestyle rather than the mandated crawl, still hacking up lake water as I climbed ignominiously up the ladder at the final pier.

The Girl Scout drill sergeant judging us all gave a loud sigh—louder than it needed to be I thought, though it was hard to know with water clogging my ears and my pride. She pulled her lower lip sideways in contemplation or scorn, pondered her decision a moment, then threw a literal and verbal “red cap” at me.

A red  cap meant humiliation. It meant I could swim, but barely. It was like a no-confidence vote from your camp counselors. A red cap on my dishwater blonde curls signaled to anyone who cared that I had to stay in the boundaries, and preteen girls all cared.

It meant I couldn’t swim out to the raft with all the laughing white and blue capped girls. Of course the caps were patriotic. This was Girl Scouts of America camp. That raft felt a mile away, socially and physically.

A red cap was Girl Scout camp social devastation.

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My best friend stood on the pier a few feet away as I emerged from the water. I heard the disdain in her voice when she tossed her wet hair over her shoulder and said, “They almost made you a non-swimmer. You were that bad.” She, of course, had the coveted white cap on her head. She could take off on the lake with one of the sailboats. I couldn’t. My red cap confined me to the canoes—a thing I loved that had now turned into a tool of embarrassment.

I could swim well enough with my face out of the water. I could have done a half dozen laps on my back. But no—the Girl Scouts of America decreed that the only acceptable way to circumnavigate a lake, or at least a pier, was to crawl with your face in the water. So I failed. Or nearly.

I once went postal on a doctor who threw a heavy towel on my face without warning. I one punched my husband when he leaned in to kiss me goodbye one morning, while sleep still fogged my senses. (He never did it again.) Could I not swim with my face in the water because I’m claustrophobic, or do I carry a terror of anything in my face now because of being forced to crawl across a green lake? I’ll never know, I suppose.

These days I love to snorkel, but the panic of covering my face with a confining rubber mask and submerging it in the water reemerges every time, no matter how many times I’ve done it, and I have to wrestle down the fear.

Maybe I’m replaying girl scout camp in my subconscious memory. I can fight that panic now. Then, I could only cough, sputter, and cry, wondering why a simple backstroke wasn’t proof enough that I could stay above water long enough to survive a swim to the coveted raft.

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My best friend laughed with all those other girls out on that beautiful socially upward island. She went sailing on her own. Occasionally, she got in a canoe with me, and we struck out for parts unknown, at least, unknown to two girls about to enter junior high, possibly the most unknown territory in human experience.

We fished with cafeteria bread we mushed up into dough balls and scrunched onto hooks we tied onto string. To this day, that was the only time I ever caught a fish. We jumped in the water far from the all-seeing eyes of the leaders who would tell me I bore only a red cap and so was not allowed. My friend reminded me I was not allowed, and she was—a reminder I found unnecessarily consistent.

Sherri could glide through the water like a barracuda, and I didn’t know why until one day later that summer. Her neighbors had an in-ground pool, the kind I thought only rich people put in their backyards. She swam there all summer, and she invited me over that July to play a game they played often, apparently.

The game didn’t have a name, but the rules were simple. Let the girls swim half a lap, then the boys jumped in, and if the boys caught the girls, they got to pull down their swim suit. I couldn’t swim fast. That much had been established. Something inside  my stomach flipped over and squirmed at the knowledge that she knew I’d be caught first and still invited me. I didn’t go.

We were ten.

It wasn’t the only time the neighborhood boys free-ranged bad behavior with girls. My friend’s older brother lounged on her woolen green couch with me several times that year, coaxing me to try his joint. She told me later he did it so that I’d get high and he could have sex with me. I didn’t try it.

I was eleven.

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Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

At eleven, I climbed aboard the school bus on the first day of seventh grade, confident and ready, scanning the back of the bus for my best friend so we could sit together as we had for the entire previous year. She might have lived a rougher life than I, but we were friends forever, through thick and thin. And we always sat in the back, because that’s where the cool kids aways have sat, since school busses have rolled on four wheels.

I reached her seat, met her eyes, and saw her lazily pull her right leg up on the green faux leather seat. “Can’t sit here. It’s taken.” I laughed. First day joke. I shrugged and began to lower my skinny butt and fresh notebooks into the seat, but she didn’t move. “You can’t sit here anymore. We’re not friends this year.” She side-eyed the other cool kids, and they smirked.

I stared. Seventh-grade me had no courage, nor even the facsimile of it in bravado. That was both the reasons for her rejection and the method that ensured it. She knew I wouldn’t fight. She knew I’d slink away, and I did.

I’ve never done the “walk of shame” they talk about in the TV shows. But it’s got nothing on the eternal walk all the way to the front of the bus when you’ve been humiliated and the whole bus knows it.

When the cool kids reject you, there is no middle ground. You don’t go sit in the middle of the bus. For one thing, the middle is full, with all the average kids who never aspired to cool and just want to survive. For another, they know. They may not have aspirations, but they’re not fool enough to go down with you. There is no welcome until you reach the front where the real rejects sit. They’ll take you. They have to. They know they’re a kind of dumping receptacle for the refuse of the socially upward mobile, and they accept it, and you, with a fatalism that a death row inmate would envy.

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Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

I’m swimming laps at the local health club these past couple months. My arms move slowly under the water, my legs waving just enough. No one times me; no one judges my form. Neither do I. I zen on my back, watching the  sun reflect through the tall windows, dozens of suns filling each pane. The water ripples in rainbows, and I relax into it, releasing the fear that my face is going to dunk under. I breathe deeply and push off at each end, not remembering wet wooden piers at the end of a green lake water lane. An elderly Asian couple glides next to me, slowly, graceful as a couple of jellyfish in the sea, moving their tentacle arms in a perfect rhythm only they know.

I still don’t put my face in the water. No one cares.

The Big Questions

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This is one of the things you do when you stop questioning everything. Yes, worth it.

I’m a questioner. I knew this without putting a label to it, but Gretchen Rubin, in her book The Four Tendencies, labeled it for me and offered me ratification to be what I was. Questioners are happy to do anything for anyone—but we must be assured it makes sense, first. We have to know we’re making the effort for a reason.

This annoys my obliger husband—who follows rules because the rules are there to follow.

Sometimes, though, questioners can ask too much, fear too much, make too many excuses for our hesitation. We lean, hard, toward perfectionism. If we can’t assure ourselves the next step won’t fail, we’re reluctant to take it. We always want to know if there might be a better choice.

Questioners suffer a lot from buyer’s remorse.

Read more about how I deal with buyer’s remorse (and other regrets of a questioner) at The Glorious Table now!

Ode To the Middle-Aged Mama

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We meet her first when she sends a scathing letter to her son—what JK Rowling terms a “howler.” Ron Weasley’s embarrassment makes us roll our eyes at the overbearing mother who scolds her son for all the world to hear.

Whoa, mama. take a step back.

She sends her youngest son and his best friend Christmas sweaters—enormous seeming wastes of yarn that swathe her children in embarrassment, again. (Let’s not even talk about the Yule robes.) We silently (or not so silently) laugh at the middle-aged woman who would create such things and believe they’re beautiful.

Then, we discover–we don’t know Molly Weasley at all.

Favorite Books and Favorite Heroes

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Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

While discussing books that have meant something to me, I thought a post on one of my favorite heroines might be fun. Mrs. Weasley. The quintessential mother hen. The character we instantly stereotype—a caring but essentially nonessential woman. What many teenage boys think of their mothers, we suppose. But we agree with that teenage boy, Ron. She’s a good heart, wrapped in mom jeans and irrelevant conversation.

Shows what we know.

Many years after reading Harry Potter, and after a dozen or more movie viewings, I’ve learned why Harry and Hermione don’t, after all, end up together. I’ve come to understand what it is about the Weasleys that draws them both into the family orbit.

It all centers on Molly. It always did.

Molly’s sweaters and letters show us something, if we’re really looking. We see in them, and their creator, a fierce loyalty and love for family that doesn’t care about embarrassment or anything else on its quest for insuring her offspring are safe and good people. Her love and loyalty drive everything—and they know nothing on earth that will intimidate them.

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Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

Harry is drawn to something he’s never known. Hermione Is drawn to what she intentionally gave up (in my vote for saddest scene in all eight movies). There’s something about fierce love and loyalty that cannot help but pull in whatever circles it. It’s a black hole of sorts, but in a positive way.

Love and Loyalty for the Win

“Mrs Weasley threw off her cloak as she ran, freeing her arms. Bellatrix spun on the spot, roaring with laughter at the sight of her new challenger.”

Bellatrix never imagined this middle-aged mama could bring her down. To be fair to Bellatrix, neither did anyone else. We deeply underestimated the lady. We simply never saw what drove her to knit. To bake. To open her home to anyone in need. To risk everything when those “bonus kids” she loved were in deep danger. To bolster her husband’s work in defying evil.

We didn’t see that it was a great work of its own in the fight against evil, those clacking knitting needles and that open guest policy. We didn’t realize that what she really knit together was a web so strong it held and protected so many of the “good guys” we lost count.

I’m pretty sure I whooped too loudly in the theater when she made her heroic stand to protect her daughter. I saw, in that moment, what I should have seen before it. Molly Weasley had been saying, “Not my loved one, bitch” to evil for a very, very long time. And her loved ones were many.

We simply hadn’t noticed.

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Our Story, Too

Isn’t this the story of many middle-aged mamas? Isn’t this why we love her? We feel sometimes so mundane, so overlooked and pointless. Then we see someone who feels as we do about it all—and she doesn’t hold back.

She won’t be irrelevant, and maybe, in that moment, we recognize that we refuse to be as well. We realize we never were.

Women, we are knitting those webs, aren’t we? We’re holding the forces of evil at bay, too, but often in an unnoticed way, and the glory goes to the Harrys and not to the Mollys. It always does.

Yet we keep on knitting

Maybe not literally. I can’t knit to save my life. Yarn skills evade me. But without us, women, where would the fight be?

  • What children would not have been raised who are now the good people we imagined and fought for?
  • What injustices would still be occurring if we hadn’t written that letter or volunteered those hours?
  • Who would still be in despair if we hadn’t opened our ears, our hearts, our homes?
  • What life wouldn’t have been redirected if we hadn’t spoken those words, even in a howler, if the need decreed it?
  • What need wouldn’t have been met without our constant watch at the city gates—bringing casseroles, knitting scarves, cleaning toilets, and yes, protesting on the street corners, telling the truth about sexual abuse, and loving the other?

We underestimated women have known this since Shifra and Puah, since Abigail and Ruth. Too often, we don’t believe in our own power, but God affirms it.

God credits them with the saving of lives, these middle-ages mamas of the Hebrew world. He writes boldly what others overlook. Fierce loyalty and love know no force they fear. They are the specialty of the middle-aged mama.

We’ve been saying, “not my loved one, bitch” to evil for a long time. And the older I get, the more loved ones I accumulate. They come in all colors and languages and creeds, nowadays. Maybe I can’t knit a stitch, but I can expand my reach to hold these new loved ones, too, in a fierce, protecting love. It’s our superpower, women.

God continues to affirm when we women use that superpower, that gift of grace, of love and loyalty to continue the quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) fight.

It all centers on the Molly Weasleys. It always has.

 

Who is one of your favorite heroes? I’d love to hear!