Sacred Soil

Monday of Holy Week: Beauty & Judgment
April 14, 2014, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Weeds

John 12:1-12

Six days before the Passover, Judas is angling for money. He’s upset that Mary has poured out a costly perfume on Jesus’ feet, when those funds could be used for the poor. Or, rather, to line his pockets.

Setting aside his true desire to pilfer that money, Judas’ question seems worth asking. Why, when there is so much suffering, should we spend our money to fill the house with the smell of perfume?

When I was a child, my mother had this uncanny ability to rent the cheapest home in the best school district. She budgeted tightly, making most our food from scratch, urging us to eschew current fashion. We lived a fairly simple life, though I’m sure there were many places for us to save money. But, for many in my neighborhood, the calculations were different. In their nicer homes, money cushioned life. Budgets were important, but things like purchasing brand-name shoes required little, if any, thought. Many never had to question why the little label at the back of their shoe was so important.

But, I remember well, coveting that little blue label on the back of my white canvas shoes. I’d even drawn it in with blue ink. My peers were not impressed.

Judas’ question carries different weight for me when asked of my mother, vs. my former neighbors. And, that’s me being a bit judgy. And if I’m honest, I want to urge Judas to keep asking when I have decided folks are being wasteful. But, I want him to lay off when he’s talking about my mom.

I could assume a bit of moral superiority here–because we know that there’s a lot of waste in the world. But, it would be short-lived. Eventually, I succumbed, using my own money to buy a pair of name-brand shoes, with a real blue label in the back. And I did it for the singular desire that my peers would leave me alone. This isn’t just a jr. high student’s strategy–over and over again, folks make choices about what they buy not based simply on their physical needs, but on what will garner respect. Because, it’s a pretty simple equation we often forget: you’re not going to be able to earn more money if folks don’t respect you when you walk in the door.

And that’s what’s so maddening about Judas’ question. It attempts to create a clear pathway: caring for the poor is right, perfume is wrong. But, the reality is that the pathway is not so clear. The reasons we purchase things are complex–and figuring out right and wrong is rarely simple. I could give you 20 examples of how we’ve attempted to “help” poor folks that have completely backfired, and I could give you several examples of how even the simplest purchases we make undermine some of our most basic values.

And, I don’t know if Mary purchased the perfume from a locally sourced artist who created the scents in small batches, selling them at a cost that allowed a modest living wage. The text doesn’t tell us that. But, I do know that the moment was stunning–the room filled with the smell, the one who would die, anointed and prepared for his dying. It was overpowering, and beautiful. Beautiful for the wholeness of the story, beautiful for the devotion and care.

It is my hope that as we enter into this Holy Week, that we would know the scent of this beauty. May this beauty prepare us as well, filling our nostrils with the intensity of it. Because Holy Week is not a time for the judgment of right practice–but a moment to behold the enormity of this beautiful story, a story that is more complex than we can imagine. A story that will leave us forever changed.

Infinite & finite
March 5, 2014, 7:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Joel 2:1–2, 12–17
Psalm 51:1–17
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

This is the night we gather to formally begin our Lenten journey. We walk through these next 40 days, marked by the cross of Christ, seeking a deeper relationship with God. This is a season that acknowledges that we let too much, far too much, get in the way of our really knowing God. And so we set aside these days to begin again. With great intentionally and hope, we wipe the slate clean and turn toward our God.

We do this near the end (oh, I hope it is the end) of a winter that has been hard. Really hard. And with the rush-hour snow this morning, I found myself longing for the simple beauty of dirt. All I want is a bare patch of ground. As the snow continued to fall, I found myself longing for the sweet smell of soil, warm and ready to give rise to crocus and green grass. But with this long winter—it feels a bit impossible to believe that spring will come. It feels like the ripe warmth of an August tomato is too much to ask.

The dust of the ground. The dirt. It is so beautiful in its possibility, in its hope.

Which is the joy of tracing that cross on your forehead tonight. In a few moments, you will be invited to come forward, and I’ll dip my finger in a small bit of dirt—dust from Palm branches long ago—and trace the sign of the cross on your forehead, saying “You are dust.” And I will rejoice in the dustiness of you, as God does even more so. God rejoices in your hope and your creativity, in your presence. Even when it seems all that is good is buried under far, far too much snow. Even when it seems hope is distant and foreign to yourself. I know that God rejoices in the dust that is you.

But it is the next phrase that catches me short. The next phrase sticks in my mouth, and I can barely bring myself to say it. Because just after I declare to you that you are dust, beautiful dust, I remind you that you will again return to dust. That you are mortal.

A friend of mine, whose father is gravely ill, said today, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… is more like a punch to the gut than a sign on the forehead when there’s a hospital bed in the living room.”

We will all return to dust. This is our human condition, and God did not take away the truth of our mortality. We live and we die.  And for all the beauty of spring, the warmth of summer, the possibility of dirt—winter will come again.

Though that does not keep me, nor, shall I say, any of us, from wanting to keep winter at bay. I’ve seriously considered taking a heater to my back yard, to see if I can kick start a little spring. It is this same impulse in me that makes it so terribly, terribly hard to trace that cross on your forehead. I don’t want to be reminded of your mortality, much less remind you of it.

But the truth is in breathing and in life, we inhale. And we exhale. Were we to idolize one, it would be our death. Neither can we hold our breath, or keep blowing out. Life rises in our lungs, and then we press out the air, so that we can keep breathing. Keep living. Keep loving.

And so we set this time, this Lent,  apart to seek a greater connection to our God. The God who wants an intimate and authentic relationship with us—not the kind that sets us apart from our fellow travelers, but a relationship that acknowledges we are dust—both infinite and finite. In our passage in Matthew, Jesus begs us not to sound the trumpets as we give money away, or call attention to ourselves as we pray, or to make everyone else miserable as we fast. No, rather the God who loves us, we who are made of dust, wants to know us as the dust we are—full of possibility, and mortal.

This is the God we seek in these 40 days.

So let us set aside those things that get in the way of knowing this God. By that I do not necessarily mean chocolate (though give it up if you must), but rather, set aside the things that make you long for those trumpets, the things that draw you to haughtiness or judgment. Set aside the things that make you forget that you are dust, beautiful and messy dust.

For this cross of ash traced on your forehead is a reminder, oh beloved child of God, that you are dust. It is at once a statement of infinite possibility, and our inescapable finite mortality. But do remember, neither can cancel the other out. For ours is the God that raised the dead to new life. Easter will come. This is a sure and certain promise.


On why Methodist clergy blessing same-sex couples are amazing…
November 15, 2013, 6:56 pm
Filed under: Weeds

115I don’t remember the date we were “unioned” in Illinois. It was sometime in June of 2011. It was a lovely little picnic for us, but nothing big and extravagant. We’d had our fantastic wedding. And it was fantastic. I’ll have to tell you about it some time. But that wedding was back in 2004, and so, the process of signing our civil union paperwork was just that, paperwork. Well, for us at least.

I’m a pastor, and my partner is a pastor, and at the time we lived in seminary housing, and all our friends are and were pastors. We were overwhelmed by the number of dear friends who could sign our paperwork, and we couldn’t figure out how to choose. So, we decided that we’d opt for the Biblical method of casting lots. We invited the eligible folks to put their name in a Solo cup, from which our daughter would draw a name.

For the Lutheran and Episcopalian pastors that day, writing their names was easy. Even joyful. They giddily vied for better luck, all hoping to put their names down on our meager paperwork. The Methodists though, well that was a different story. Writing their names on a little slip of paper meant risk. For some of them it meant risking their whole career on some sort of strange lottery, where the cost of winning was very real. Too real.

We tried to make sure our Methodist friends understood we didn’t expect them to put their names in the cup. In the Methodist tradition it is possible to be brought up on charges for presiding at union or marriage of a same-sex couple. The consequences range from suspension to de-frocking. The Lutherans and Episcopalians had nothing to fear, and indeed in our area, there might have been a bonus prize rendered in bragging rights. There were plenty of clergy around to sign, and we wouldn’t have received their lack of participation negatively. We didn’t want to ask anyone to pit their careers against our paperwork. But, they all did. And clearly, they’d all thought about it, prayed about it. This wasn’t meager paperwork for them.

And so each friend pridefully wrote down their names, trying to fold the paper in such a way that a 2 year-old might prefer their slip of paper. And then we handed the cup to our daughter, who pulled out a name. She drew out a Lutheran.

And our Lutheran friend was joyful and celebratory. She was excited, and we were pleased. I might even say relieved, relieved that our Methodist friends were able to offer their willingness, without having to endure the risk. I thought it was the best possible outcome.

That is until I looked at the face of the one who took the most risk by putting in his name. I don’t actually know what he was thinking, but I saw in his face a look of disappointment and sadness. He quickly rallied to the joy of the moment, because that is what we do at these events. But, I must say that I was extremely touched by that act of love, that act of risk, the willingness to lay down his career, his life, for his friends.

I’m glad he didn’t lose his career, because he is doing important and beautiful ministry. It’s work that needs doing. And I know that over and over again he stands up for families like mine. But, that look in his eyes at that moment gives me a sense of the love and the commitment that all the other Methodist ministers have taken on as they married same-sex couples. It is an amazing thing to provide the ministry necessary, especially when the costs are great. It is a profound act of love and generosity to offer up one’s life for the sake of their friends. And it is a rare thing indeed.

And that’s all lovely and beautiful in the abstract. But, it wasn’t abstract. This was my meager paperwork. My marriage. My family. Our dear friend determined that his career was worth the risk to bless us, to stand up for us. He was willing to take on injustice, so that we might have some justice of our own. And even these years later, I still sit in awe of that courage and love. Utter awe.

And so my heart is full, as I watch the other Methodist clergy who are standing up today, willing to take those same risks. This is no abstract act of disobedience. Indeed, it may just be that there is no greater love than this.

National Coming Out Day Eve
October 10, 2013, 7:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Esther 4:13-16
Psalm 139
John 11:39-44

I want you to take a moment to imagine a closet. Well, really, your own personal closet. The tightly bound space that you turn to when things get a difficult, when you need a moment of quiet, when you need to just close yourself against the world.

I want you to imagine this, because I want to, dis-spell the notion that the closet is, by definition, terrible. We all have closets—we need them. We need these spaces where our real and true self is truly safe. That’s what a closet is for.

So I ask you to imagine, if you would, what is your space apart, the place where you are really you. Imagine that space–complete with a door. What color is it? What are the walls like? Are they upholstered? Wallpapered? Or are the walls unfinished, exposing the lines of mud and tape. What’s the lighting like? Is there a light? Track lighting? A single compact florescent, hanging, perilously close to your head? Is there a lock on the door? Which side of the door is that lock on?

On this National Coming Out Day, we celebrate opening that closet door. We celebrate the beauty of our in-most selves. This is not a day to dispose of those spaces where our real selves reside. But a day to celebrate the beauty of humanity, and beg that our closets not become tombs.

Because it’s true, sometimes our closets are dangerous places. Filled with sharp corners. They are cramped, smelly. There is no light. No space. Barely any air to breathe. I think of these as the places where we house our skeletons and other things we wish were dead. We try to ignore these closets–shoving into them all those things we would rather deny about ourselves. All that we think is rotten and putrid.

This is Lazarus’ tomb. The place where that 4-day dead body lay, resting against the stony insides of that tomb, his death filling the air with a putrid stench. The kind of smell that you can see.

I don’t know about you, but I have lived in that closet. That stinky, dark, tomb of a closet. For a long time, I didn’t even realize I’d taken up residence there. But, my real-self felt dangerous, out of place, unwelcome in the world. And so, without even considering it, I forced that part of me, that real part of me, to live a squalid existence. I suppose part of me thought that if I merely starved the real part of me, if I smothered it with darkness, that it might die.

I imagine that some of you have lived in that closet-tomb too.

But then, by the grace of God, I met a few Esthers. Remember, Esther? She was the woman that we read about earlier. Hers is the story of a young woman married to a king—a king that did not know she was Jewish. He merely knew she was beautiful. When the scoundrels of the kingdom plotted to kill all the Jewish folks, Esther recognized that her closet had become a tomb. And that it was now time to stand up, to open that closet door, and step out. Indeed, she needed to re-arrange the furniture in her closet, and invite the king in–invite him into her own vulnerability. I wonder what her closet looked like? What that place where she was real was like? What it took her to let someone else see into that space of truth? I don’t know. But I am astounded that she did it, all so that she might save her people.

I can’t tell you that my own Esthers have been such grand heroes. I’m not sure that they even know that they served as such to me. They were ordinary people, people just like you here tonight, people who have heartbreak and hope, people who love. People who got angry. People who were occasionally obnoxious. But, there were two things about these people. Two things that mattered:
1. Through a lot of hard work, they’d begun to re-arrange and re-decorate their closets. Made them beautiful. They’d taken away the rough hewn walls, and made them comfortable and cozy. They cherished their real selves as gifts from God.
2. And, they were willing to let me in. Willing to be vulnerable enough to allow me to know their own closets.

These closets, I think of them more like a womb, the womb described in our psalm today. This is the womb where God knit our in-most being. A sacred place of forming and creation. A place of warmth and safety, a deeply connected place, with an umbilical cord to the heart of life, and yet still set apart. A place where the real-self is held and cherished. Honored.

It is these Esthers who, through their own vulnerability, showed me how to live. And on this eve of National Coming out Day, I am grateful. Profoundly grateful. Grateful that my closet door is open—that the walls are finely decorated with a beautiful green linen. The light is soft and warm. It is cozy, safe. Inviting. And still mine. Like a womb.

I think of that day for Lazarus. Remember, he had been in the tomb, dead. Smelly dead. Dead for four days. Oh, how often we have felt that kind of dead in the closet, right? Numb to the world. Cut-off from the place of life.

I wonder then, how it was for Lazarus, when that stone was rolled away. When the fresh air came pouring into the closet-tomb. When the putrid smell of his flesh rushed away, and the light poured onto him. I wonder what it was like, raising his arms up again–lifting his limbs into the light. Hearing Jesus’ words: Come Out. I wonder what it was for him to feel the freshness of the air filling up his lungs.

I wonder–because I know what that was for me. And I imagine this is true of many of you too–that moment when at long last you felt as if you were whole. That moment when you knew that your real-self was welcomed, and loved. That moment, when you knew you no longer needed to hide that self away, wishing it would die. That moment, when it became possible that the tomb might just become a womb. When the closet of death could instead become a place to celebrate and cherish the real-ness of you. The person God created you to be. It is an amazing moment. A moment beyond words. A moment of release and hope, and stunning possibility.

And it is good. But there are so many who still long to know that moment. Too many.

Which is why Jesus gives one more command to the crowd around him. “Unbind him and let him go.”

This, I think, is Jesus way of saying to all of us—all of us–do your best to be an Esther in the world. Do your best to claim your full self-for the sake of your people. For the sake of others. For your own sake. Because no one, no one, should redecorate alone.

And it is by this that we will be able to go out into the world–redecorating closets everywhere. Turning tombs into places of safety. It is by this that we will make it possible for everyone among us to claim their real-self. Their whole self. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, straight. Whole and beautiful, just as God created us.

Let it be so. Amen.

Lost & Found
September 15, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

lostLuke 15:1-10

In our liturgy most Sundays, we begin with confession and forgiveness. According to the scholars, this is an optional part of the service. Not required. To which, I say, whatever. Sure, it’s not required, because God’s forgiveness is not up to us, because there is nothing we can do to earn the love of God. But we need it nonetheless. And some days, we just need it.

We have all failed. Miserably. We have screwed things up. We have hurt each other, we have not done what we said we’d do. We have treated our bodies horribly. We have told lies, and worse. We do that individually and as a group. And so we stand up in front of each other–boldly and honestly declaring–we screwed up. And worse. We declare: we have been so lost. So lost.

In response–I get to say these awesome words. Extraordinary words, really. I get to declare to you the entire forgiveness of your sin. I get to remind you of God’s promises–how God promises to never, ever, ever, let you go. I get to tell you, God says: Come home. Come home.

The parables today are just such stories. The story of a shepherd who loses a sheep, and a woman who loses a coin. Upon finding these things, these otherwise ordinary things, they both celebrate with unbridled passion. With great joy and thanksgiving, for the one who was lost has now been found. And now, everything is different. The one that was lost has come home.

When we do confession & forgiveness–that’s what I get to declare to you–God’s overwhelming joy at welcoming you home. I’m telling ya, my job is pretty great.

But for us, well, often times, forgiveness is just too hard. We don’t want to search. It is too hard to seek. Sometimes it is so much easier to cut each other off, saying, “you are lost to me.” And sometimes, there’s good reason in this. Really good reason–especially the cases of violence and psychological harm. In those moments sometimes the best we can do is to recognize that we are human–and sometimes only God can do the work of forgiveness. And we can only move on to releasing the hold that harm has had on us…

There is this interesting thing then, about the lost sheep and the lost coin. I don’t think there was anything particularly special about either this sheep or this coin. They were one of a hundred, one of ten. Average. Normal. Nothing noteworthy. But then this one was lost, this one was gone as if it were dead. And the loss was awful, and mournful, and there was great grief. This one, this average one, became important beyond expectation, beyond reason. And upon finding it, celebration broke out, with wild abandon. The one lost, has been found. And this is how God feels upon welcoming each one of us home. And it is amazing.

And so, being God’s children, we try to do the same. As best we can. Grateful, though that we are not God.

Here’s the thing: this kind of grace is hard. Really, really hard. We who dare to live in human community–we will upset each other. And that’s putting it lightly. We will say the wrong thing, be insensitive, careless, unclean. We will be unkind, and sometimes even mean. And worse. There’s no end to the depth of human depravity. Even as we wish better of ourselves. We all get lost. We all screw up. Because we’re all sinners.

But, when we can find the grace to stick with each other, to keep searching for each other, keep seeking each other out, then, that’s when the amazing thing happens. That’s when the world is changed. That’s when we get, perhaps, a little glimpse of the resurrection. The moment when that thing that was dead to us suddenly and unexpectedly has new life.

The thing about this though is that it sounds simple. But it’s not. It is impossibly hard. As I prepared this sermon, I kept searching and searching for a story to illustrate this. And I have these stories, really several, but they’re all the kinds of stories that aren’t well suited for telling here. They’re the stories of late night discussions with my spouse, those moments when, by some miracle, we stick with each other in our disagreements even when that gets really hard. They’re stories of wonder and amazement at the relationship I can have with my mother 20 years after I left home. They’re the stories that are hard and personal and intimate, the stories of being sought, of seeking out the ones I love, and being sought by those who love me, even when that seems impossibly hard. They are stories of rejoicing, of coming home.

But, the thing is, as I thought through all these moments in my own life, there were far more stories of those moments when something was lost, and the search turned up empty. Or how often I failed even to start looking. They are stories of someone seeking me, and I refuse to be found. Too often an argument, or a disagreement meant the end. That everything is lost.

I’m sure you have these stories too. The moments when you decided it was best not to search, those times when you searched in vain. Those moments when you tried not to be found. And hopefully, a few moments when the search brought joy and celebration. The one who was lost came home. When you came home.

But, thinking through these stories, and how rare it is that I am able, that we are able, to welcome the lost one home. How rare it is that I have the strength to keep seeking. How rare it is to allow myself to be sought. It is even more amazing to me that our God keeps searching. Keeps seeking. That our God never gives up on us. Our God is longing to utter the words to us: come home. Come home.

But that’s just what our God does. Which leads to another awesome part of my job– I get to welcome you, fellow sinners, to gather with me at this table. Each one of you welcome, welcome to come home. Because God has searched and searched for you, and is overjoyed to welcome you home to share in this feast, given for you, to celebrate the one who was lost, who has now been found. And God has said to you: come home.


Friend, Come up Here.
September 1, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

This past Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It’s is an extraordinary day in our history, a day that reverberates through us even now, more than a generation later.

When we tell this story, we tell of a peaceful gathering of people, people of color who longed for dignity and freedom. Though, back then, this is not what some expected. Yet despite expectations, folks describe the day as a festival, joyful, and celebratory, as people from all across the nation gathered to dream. It is a story of people coming together to claim their place at the table. At God’s table. To at long last, claim their place of honor. It is no wonder they celebrated.

It is an incredible story of our nation’s history. A moment when those who had been humbled were exalted. A moment when those who had been made the lowest, gathered with joy and thanksgiving, taking a seat of honor at the wedding banquet.

It is a day when they celebrated God’s invitation: Friend. Come up here.

There is delight, and comfort, and wholeness in these words. Friend, come up here.

I don’t know if you’ve experienced this. Actually, I know that at least a few of you have. For those of you who have, it is your own story, decidedly different from the story of the African American struggle for civil rights. But, I know, that for some of you, there was a moment when, at long last, you finally heard the words: friend, come up here. For others of you, these are words that ache in your heart—desperately longing to be heard. And the waiting has been too long.

Perhaps it is the honoring of family, the honoring of your vocation, the honoring of your body. Far too many of us know, at least on some level, what it is to long for the words: Friend, come up here.

For me, one of those moments was an August afternoon in Minneapolis, at the 2009 churchwide assembly. This is a regular gathering to make decisions for the ELCA. (The churchwide assembly is the highest legislative body of this church.) This was the same assembly that, among other things, made it possible for folks like me to be ordained. Maddie was with me, sleeping quietly against my chest, as the vote count appeared on the screen. The room was silent. No one dared to breathe. And then to my right and to my left, I saw silent and joyful tears streaming down the faces of friends and colleagues, those who had, for too long, been denied a place at the table—now at long last hearing the words, “Friend, come up here.”

I still get chills thinking about it. That was the moment, the vote, which made it possible for me to stand up here. The moment that made it so I could say to you, from this place, “Friend, come up here.”

But I am reminded that a simple invitation to the table does not suddenly change everything. Today, the voting rights act sits decimated, waiting for an act of congress to once again protect the civil rights of our African American brothers and sisters. Families are not reunited by naïve hope. LGBTQ folks can still be fired in many states, just because of who they are. And churches like Unity are all too rare. It seems that we are constantly dividing ourselves from one another, setting ourselves apart, seeking distinction and honor. Fighting each other for it. And sometimes it gets bloody.

A great woman once taught me that when ever we gather, we should look around, and we should ask ourselves, “Who is not here?” Who is not at this table with us? And then we should ask ourselves why? As we look today, surely we can include those on vacation—many blessings to them. Of all of God’s enormous diversity, we’ve only got a small slice here. Take a moment, would you? Look around the room. Who is not here? Remember these people. Hold them in your heart. And when we pray later this morning, please, lift them up.

The table, this table, has too many empty places around it. And we are incomplete until all of creation has heard the words, “Friend, come up here.”

I rejoice that we have these amazing moments where this call is heard loudly and clearly. Where we have reached to the neighborhood and proclaimed, come. Everyone.

You said, “Friend, Come up here,” when you welcomed our PADS guests, feeding them with the finest food, and the warmest hospitality you know (BTW, Donna would like you to put your names on the sign up sheet downstairs if you can do this again).

You said “Friend, Come up here,” when, in the 1970’s you welcomed an integrated group of youth to the basement, to provide a safe place to be—even as neighbors threatened terrible things.

You said, “Friend, Come up here,” when you called me, someone who, prior to 2009, was unwelcome at this side of the table.

I am humbled, and grateful, for all the ways you have extended this invitation with grace and joy. But, as I said earlier, there are those who still long to hear this invitation, those who long to hear of God’s welcome throughout our society. And I believe we are called to carry this invitation to the world.

Here’s the thing: in that moment when the waters of baptism washed over your head, God said to you, “My beloved, Come up here.” You were invited to the table, to the feast of the universe, this banquet we all share together. You were invited to the banquet of God’s overwhelming love for all of creation.

And so, we have this story to tell. A story of God’s invitation to all people. The story of God’s invitation to the Pharisees, to the disciples, to you, and to me. This story of welcome and wholeness.

So let us go from this place, and share the good news: Friend. Come up here.

This is what privilege looks like
July 31, 2013, 6:01 pm
Filed under: Weeds

We’re a one-car family, though we do occasionally aspire to guzzle more gas. I’d like to say we’re frugal, Eco-conscious people, but the reality is that we just can’t afford another car. So, on the days when we need a second car, I find my way to the local car rental place. They know me well in the office, greeting me with a friendly handshake. They always ask how I’m doing. I feel comfortable there, especially now that they know better than to try to up-sell me.

A few months ago, I rented a car and headed on over to the the West side of Chicago for a few church supplies. When I came back out to the car, a police officer was hovering over the vehicle, ready to write a ticket. I quickly looked around, examining all the signs. I saw nothing wrong. Confused and anxious, I approached her and asked what was going on.

She was gentle and kind, noting that the registration on the vehicle had expired. She then walked to the front of the vehicle and noticed that the car was designated as a rental. She pointed at the sticker and said, “Here, this car is a rental, so the registration is not your responsibility. Hand this off to the agency and they’ll take care of it.”

I was relieved, though annoyed. This isn’t the first time I’ve rented a car with an expired registration. Now, I’ve learned to check that before leaving the lot. The company paid for the ticket, apologized, and gave me a discount on the rental.

A month or two later, back at the rental agency, I was sitting in the office waiting. I don’t quite remember why. Rental offices often involve a lot of waiting. While I sat playing with my phone, an African American woman was pacing the floor. She was agitated, worried about her schedule, wondering how long it would take the office to have a new car ready for her. She mentioned that she needed to get a new car because the car she’d rented had an expired registration.

I commiserated. “Oh, how frustrating. I’ve been there,” I told her. And then she told me the story of how it came to be that she found out about the expired registration. And then I realized, I hadn’t been there at all. I had been in the land where white skin means these things, though frustrating, are easily resolved. All it cost me was 5 minutes and a smile. It wasn’t so easy for her.

She was on the same side of town when a police officer discovered her registration expired. He then asked for the rental papers, which she had accidentally left at home. Apparently, he didn’t bother to look at the “rental” sticker, or if he had, it didn’t matter to him. He told her, “We’ve seen a lot of thefts in this area, so I need to see those papers.” My police officer never even thought to suggest such a thing to me.

And then, rather than take her to her home, where she could produce the papers, they took her to the police station where they held her for three hours. Three hours. How long does it take to call the rental office? Run by her home? How long does it take to show someone a little dignity?

What cost me 5 minutes, cost her 3 hours and a huge dose of humiliation. And then she had to return the car and get a new one.

She was mad. I’d have been mad too. She had a right to be very angry, but the young men in the office couldn’t look her in the eye. They couldn’t bring themselves to say, “I’m sorry.” They merely took the ticket and walked around her as if she were a bomb that might explode if you showed an ounce of kindness.

As they prepared to go out to the new car, she asked, “Is the sticker updated on this one?” The young man said, “Yes” with a a huff, incredulous that she’d asked. Then they both stepped outside to the car for the closing rituals. Two minutes later, he was back inside, searching for the new sticker. Apparently, she was right to ask.

When I was talking with this woman, I got the sense that this sort of thing felt “normal” to her. I suppose my experience felt “normal” to me as well. I expected that the officer would be nice, that the rental place would apologize, that my time would be valued. She expected the opposite.

This is what privilege looks like. This is what happens when the world assumes that just because I’m white that I’m not going to steal a car. The world assumes that I require an apology when I’m wronged. They assume I am entitled to a discount. I don’t think that any of these folks intended to mistreat this woman–but by responding to their implicit assumptions about who she was, and what she deserved, what should have been an apology for a careless mistake, turned into an opportunity to deny her dignity and respect.