I Am Not A Ghost: The Memories Our Bodies Carry

A message delivered at Earlham College Meeting for Worship on August 20, 2023

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and
said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified and
thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you
frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my
feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and
bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his
hands and his feet. Yet for all their joy they were still disbelieving and
wondering, and he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave
him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Luke 24:36-43, NRSV

If you asked me at 18 years old, I would have gladly lived as a ghost. Around that time, I read a story by Kurt Vonnegut, called Unready to Wear. It was about a future where people learned to leave their bodies, existing only as spirits if they wanted to. There were warehouses of empty bodies that people could jump into and out of at will. I was enthralled with this idea of escaping my body. It would solve so many problems that I had, and erase so much damage that had been done to me. One part of the story bothered me, though. It was completely unthinkable to me, but some people in that story chose not to leave their bodies. What possible benefit could there be to being tied to the same body with all its problems, injuries, and shortcomings for an entire lifetime?

For many of us, there are parts of our bodies’ histories that others would prefer stay hidden, or be erased entirely. Maybe our bodies challenge a norm. Maybe our bodies are a reminder of something others want to deny or forget. And so there are times we hide or deny our bodies just to survive. But sometimes when we show the signs of that history, we are demonstrating that we have power, that we are still standing, that we won’t go away. When Jesus showed his scars to his disciples, he was demonstrating that his presence was not as some abstract spirit disconnected from this world. He was present as a person, fully, with all the scars and history of the life he lived. And that they could be present to each other in the same way. But more than that, him being present with his wounds and scars proved that all the might of the Roman empire and even the grave had no power to destroy him or his people. When we carry our bodies’ histories with us, whether showing them to others or simply holding on to them ourselves, we can do the same. We can show that those who would shame us into hiding, frighten us into fleeing, or even destroy us entirely do not have power over reality. They do not have the power to erase us, or our memories.

The memories we display on our bodies can also show others new possibilities of how they can be in the world. I remember the first time I became aware that trans people could exist as real, living people in the world. I was camping with some friends. There was a trans man who was camping with a group of friends next to my group’s campsite, and he walked around without a shirt, proudly showing his top surgery scars. I can still remember flirting with him across the campfire, excited in a new understanding that my body is not an unchangeable prison I’m trapped in. My body is a part of a conversation about who I am, who I’ve been, and who I can be. When you meet new people, look for what they’re showing you about who they are and where they’ve been. You may not go the same way as them, but you may learn of other ways to be in the world than you ever thought could be possible.

We can also choose memories we want to carry with us, as well. I had a friend named Boo. In our social group I was the organized, serious one, and Boo was the one who was silly and spontaneous; the guy who would get a joke tattoo based on a cartoon we all watched just to make himself and all of us smile. He died suddenly in a car accident, and he took his smile, his jokes, and his tattoos with him. Each of us in that friend group decided to get one of his tattoos, ourselves. So now I carry that goofy clown tattoo and the memory of Boo along with me wherever I go. You may not use ink in your skin, but when you can, select some memories you want to bring along with you in an object, an image, or a habit.

Our bodies are always offering information about what we need, but they can build up new ways to communicate those needs, too. At one job I worked, I built up a stress-related injury in my right shoulder over time that eventually made it so I couldn’t raise my right arm. After several medical treatments and years of physical therapy, I have the abilities back that I lost. But from time to time that shoulder tells me when I need a break, when I need to calm down, and when the situation I’m in is doing me harm and I need to get out as soon as I can. Listen to the messages your body tells you, and try to appreciate those messages even when they’re painful.

There are links between our minds and our bodies that are so strong that when we are in the same physical conditions, we snap right back into a memory or a behavior. For you maybe it’s riding a bike, or playing an instrument, or dancing to a certain song. For me it’s that little bounce that you do when you’re holding a baby in your arms and trying to soothe them to sleep. What these examples show us is that the state of our bodies affects how our minds are working, how our memories are formed and recalled, and how we learn. In your learning spaces and in your communities, be aware of the conditions around you and the impact they’re having on your body. Don’t be afraid to ask for changes to the environment around you, and respect when others tell you how that environment is affecting them.

Our bodies carry memories that predate us. My body carries with it many different histories: English Quakers and Swiss anabaptists imprisoned and cast out for their beliefs, Irish farmers forced out of their homes: even one Irish rebel whose sister broke him out of prison to escape a sentence of death. But it also carries the benefits of settlers moving onto stolen land, the shameful history of owning other people, and the financial gain of grandparents on both sides rewarded for participation in war. Learn these histories that your own body brings into spaces that you occupy. And listen to others about the impacts those histories have on them.

In keeping with the Quaker tradition, I want to share with you some questions that I hope you’ll find useful to consider. And I hope that you’ll speak up and share about them either during this meeting time or in other places after.

-Whose bodies have shown you the ways you could be in the world?

-Which parts of your body’s history do you ignore, deny, or hide?

-Which parts of your body’s history do you embrace or show?

-When you show these memories or when you hide them, who or what does it empower, and who or what does it diminish?

As you think of these questions, as you sit in this space, as you go into the Earlham community, and as you move out into the wider world, I urge you: don’t forget to bring your bodies.

A Reflection on Micah 6:8

“Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

(Micah 6:8)

I was recently asked what it means to live a Quaker lifestyle (which for me is a Christian lifestyle), and I felt a strong pull to reflect on it more than just the casual answer that I could have given. In that reflection, I kept hearing the guidance of Micah over and over again. And each time it came up I asked myself in what ways I was living these words. Here’s an account of some of the things that came to my mind.

Do justice

On the surface, I aim to keep my word and deal fairly with others. This seems just. But that alone doesn’t do justice when I find myself in a world of unjust structures, norms, and habits. I am called to fight for justice on broader levels toward racial justice, prison abolition, and LGBT rights and dignity, among other things. I look for those mindsets in myself and others that reduce the humanity of others or promote inequality and I challenge them. Sometimes this takes the form of going out into the streets to protest the murder of a Black person by police or against an unjust law, and sometimes it means speaking hard truths or taking a stand with a family member or at a committee meeting. Sometimes it means listening and reading about ways that systems of oppression are acted out and reflecting on how I uphold those habits or ideas, even though I’d rather stay comfortable in my ways. There is also further justice to be done when harm occurs. I do justice by working to restore and make whole what is broken when I do harm or harm is done to me.

Love mercy

The clearest and most challenging way I’m called to love mercy is by showing it to others through grace and compassion. This is clear because God’s own words and presence call for it so plainly, but challenging because it’s not a trivial or shallow kind of grace and it’s by far not my first inclination. I have to work against my desires to tally others’ worth by counting what I perceive to be their wrong deeds while still setting boundaries, communicating my own needs, and speaking up for what’s right. It can’t be cheap grace or forced reconciliation that I ask of myself or of others. I have to replace my own desire to be punitive with approaches that are restorative, and I have to work to do the same in the systems around us and what I teach my children. I love mercy by working toward peace, which requires justice, not retribution.

Walk humbly

In Quaker circles, outward humility is an easy path to follow. I can dress simply and do without prestigious titles fairly easily. I can gather up fewer things. I can listen more and speak less. I can even (sometimes) be open to the fact that I may be wrong. But to walk humbly in all ways I need to look for those places where I’m raised up and others are not, and then work to break them down. Apparent humility is not enough in a world that hides so many ways in which some are built up while others are pushed down. I work to live every moment in the knowledge that I don’t earn or deserve anything on my own merit. All I have is a gift from God and God’s people.

With your God

I will admit that simply being with God is sometimes the hardest for me to do. What I was taught about God as a child didn’t make spending time with God seem like a comforting or uplifting thing to do. God made me feel shame, worry for myself, and worry for the eternal welfare of others. And sometimes I’m just not that intellectually certain about what God is or possibly could be. But now when I walk with God and live my daily life with God, I find the presence, comfort, and love are worth any ambiguity or effort.

I walk with God by spending time throughout each day listening for God’s voice and guidance in many places including the words of others and of the Bible. I open myself to feeling God’s loving presence even (especially) when I don’t feel like I deserve love. I practice staying open to that presence for longer times each day and through more settings and circumstances. I remind myself that when I encounter others, I am encountering God.

What would you say a Quaker or Christian lifestyle is like? How are you doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God?

With whom are you crucified today?

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

Luke 9:23-24

There are a variety of calls to be “crucified with Christ,” “take up your cross daily,” and generally to let go of one’s selfishness and obsession with our own concerns throughout the Bible and many other religious traditions. I think, though, that the image of Christ in these particular cases adds a layer that is important but easy to miss: Jesus does not only stand for himself, but for all who are deprived, oppressed, and looked down upon. To be crucified with Christ is not a call to a self-help style letting go of day-to-day anxieties so we can retreat from the realities of society or get back to productive jobs. It is not simply a command to get rid of the negative parts of ourselves to become some abstractly better person. It is a challenge to stand (or fall) in solidarity with those who are cast out by others.

When we consider any statement about Christ to only be about the one person named Jesus in the gospel stories, we imagine a Jesus who would have failed to follow his own instructions. He makes this clear to us time and again, that he is any person among the “least of these.” Jesus is not one man, but all people who are poor and disempowered in the dominant structures of the world. He does not call us to take up our crosses to reach some personally rewarding higher level of consciousness or to take on a purer state that will grant us entry into an afterlife. Jesus instructs us to take up our crosses so we might find our place among and work alongside those already bearing the crosses which were forced upon them.

Furthermore, Jesus did not instruct people to take up their cross as a single action, but to do so daily. It’s an act that he knew we would all be tempted to carry out once in a while when it was suitable. When we put ourselves in a more vulnerable position or respond to the needs of marginalized people over our own once in a while, we feel noble and self-important. We’ve stooped down to the level of another for a moment, knowing full well that soon we can stand up straight again and carry our riches in our pockets rather than a wooden symbol of death upon our backs. We’re called to take up our cross daily because there are always those whose crosses cannot be put down, even when they feel they can’t bear it any longer.

We’re told to carry our own cross, but not where we will find it. This is not a command to wallow in our own self-pity or to sacrifice ourselves meaninglessly to alleviate guilt, but to find the cross which we are led to carry today by the Spirit. For many of us, that may require putting aside some of the comfort and safety we’ve been unfairly granted based on race, class, gender, or other unearned privileges. It means looking for where Christ is in the world today and standing alongside him, her, or them. It means being willing to give all we have to destroy the death-dealing social structures that send some along that path to Calvary so others can walk the road to Rome. Our cross is somewhere today, but the world has built up a myriad of structures to hide it from us. We need to take up our cross, and likely someone else is already carrying it.


For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

I find myself very often obsessing over the idea of deserving. Everything needs to be earned or owed, and I feel guilty or jealous when the balance doesn’t match my estimations. As a society, we fixate on who deserves what. Do poor people deserve food or luxuries? Do investors deserve returns on their investments? We allow ourselves to be consumed with this, in spite of knowing (whether we admit it or not) that almost none of what we receive or what is done to us has anything to do with what we deserve. I feel I deserve what I have because I worked for it. But does the person who worked twice as hard and got nothing deserve what I have, instead? We get anxious when these ideas of deserving what we have are challenged, as well. Much of what I have in life has more to do with whiteness and other forms of systemic privilege than my own efforts, and it’s been a painful process to recognize that. Whether at a personal or systemic level, even a very simple examination shows us that factors well outside our control determine much of what’s granted to people in the world, and yet we hang on to this metric that continues to fail us. But there is another way.

The beauty of divine love is that it is unconditional and unchanging, and has absolutely nothing at all to do with what we deserve. Nothing we do can reduce it or cancel it out. You can no more affect the amount of God’s love available to you than you can change the temperature outside your house on any given day. You can close all the windows and doors and blow hot or cold air through the house, or do any number of other things to hide from it, but the weather will still be out there the next time you open the door. Even in spite of all these efforts, that weather still has an impact on the indoor temperature. In the same way, we can shut ourselves off from that unconditional divine love and support. We practice ignoring it. We build up systems completely contrary to it in which we can find a measure of our worth over and against others. And we get very good at these things over time. But the doors are still there, even if it takes some struggle and handiwork to get them open again

This source of love is unmarred by any action we can take, and we can return to it no matter how many times we’ve turned away. Denying or hiding from divine love won’t put us forever outside of it or cause some wrathful storm of vengeance. It’s not about coercion or threats. So why should we seek it out? Why dwell in it if we can walk away and still come back?

God’s grace is not to relieve us from some threat if we don’t comply. It is victory over death of our own individual and collective making. It brings us freedom from the harmful habits, anxieties, and various deaths both big and small we fall prey to when we live outside that love. It tells us we are loved and will be cared for, no matter what we have done. Christ gained victory over death, and cleared the path for us to do the same. It’s not only for those who deserve freedom from death. We don’t earn grace like a wage or salary. By accepting the unlimited and unconditional love of God, we move away from the system which only grants us what we deserve, and teaches (and requires) us to afford that same grace to others.

Dwelling in God’s love provides us with a blueprint for a better world. Not only do we find individual freedom, but we can build a new world centered on grace, as well. When we know we all carry that love inside us and live out our lives from that place of love, we help to build the Kingdom of God. We built it here in this world, but not based on the rules of this world. All the blessings of that Kingdom are available to all of us, like God’s love. It doesn’t require us checking others’ time cards to see if they’ve met a quota. It doesn’t require us to determine if someone has the potential to pay back what has been given to them. No person needs to prove their worth, productivity, or ability to be a member of that Kingdom. We can each rest in the knowledge that the fruits of the Kingdom do not belong to us, nor to anyone but God. And that God, working through us, will provide them to all.

There’s a new creation being made, and nothing we can do will change that. The only question is whether we will take part in its work and open ourselves to its rewards, or spend our time arguing and fighting over what we deserve.

A Listening Heart

So give your servant a discerning heart…

1 Kings 3:9

One of the things I’ve found most moving in Quaker worship is the focus on listening. I sit, whether in Meeting for Worship or on my own, and listen for wisdom, comfort, challenges, or whatever may come. It’s not always an easy task. It takes time and effort to discern what’s meaningful and what’s my own wandering thoughts or what I wish I was hearing. It’s helped me personally in a number of ways, but for now I want to focus on listening.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian faith, I was often focused to obsessive levels on speaking to God. Begging for certainty that I was saved. Pleading that people I loved who weren’t Christians would be spared from Hell. Asking for God to end the violence that others directed at me or that I directed at myself. All that desperate petitioning naturally led me to worry whether God was listening to me. It didn’t lead me very often to ask if I was listening for God.

The phrase “a listening heart” is one of the translations of what Solomon asked for in the book of Kings, when he asks God for wisdom. When I chose my first name (transgender experiences will be another day’s topic!), I settled on Sofia in part because it means wisdom. I’ve always tried to view it as an aspiration rather than a destination I’ve reached, and I think the idea of a listening heart mirrors that aspiration. It’s wisdom in active form. It needs to be practiced consistently if it’s to be useful. It acknowledges that the source of wisdom is something we have access to, but not something we own.

Solomon was far from perfect at listening throughout his life, and that’s led me to overlook him most of the time. It’s easy for me to write off any given state authority figure as evil and corrupt without much further thought, but I want to hold on to Solomon’s original request as a reminder. Of course power and wealth disconnect us from other people and from God, and I’m not likely to have that problem on quite the same scale as Solomon. My prayers growing up were never for those things, and I’ve moved on from a lot of the beliefs and circumstances that led me to lie awake whole nights dreading and praying and trying to control those particular aspects of human experience. However, I still find myself quite often feeling panicked and desperate for control when things don’t go in the direction I’ve convinced myself is right. Quaker worship gives me a chance to remember that my role is to listen and then to follow the wisdom that’s spoken to me.

Statement of Faith

Below is a statement I wrote to share with other members of my Meeting, as we worked on structure and curriculum for religious education. I hope to use it as a reference and beginning point as I develop these and other ideas over time.

There is an inherent value in everyone and everything, which can never be diminished below or increased above the value of another. I find inspiration in the framing of this as “that of God in everyone.”[1] I’m also inspired by the idea of God or the soul as a community: that our soul and/or God only exists in us, and that we each have “a little piece of a great big soul.”[2] Whether this God/soul is a literal being or a metaphor doesn’t matter much to me. What matters to me is that I use it to inform my thoughts and actions.

We can find revelation & inspiration from sources accessible deep inside ourselves, but that those individual leadings must be guided and discerned through community & tradition. That tradition includes the Bible, which has inspiration from that same source. The source of that inspiration is the same across the years, but the context we live in leads us to interpret it differently.

This source guides us to do the work that’s needed to bring about a perfect existence here in the world we inhabit. Jesus called it “the Kingdom of God.” It’s more than a physical kingdom or a far-off realm, though, and it’s our duty to bring it about. It’s both a goal we aim to create permanently and something that we can bring into being for just a few moments of perfect adherence to its values.

The values that bring about the Kingdom of God are those which respect that of God in everyone/everything: peace, integrity, protection of the world we are a part of, and solidarity with each other in times of struggle or oppression. We best practice these by opening our hearts and ears to each other and to that source inside us (which some call God), and then by doing the work of peace-making and doing the work that source leads us to together.