“Can’t,” I say as I try to keep her from joining me, “You’re not athletic, you’re slow, and on top of that, you’re a girl. You can’t play with us.”

“Yeah stay inside,” my friend chimes in, “You’re terrible at football.”

Even her mom joins the chorus of voices campaigning against her: “The boys want to play by themselves. You don’t belong out there with them.”

Nevertheless, she persisted and after a while, we grudgingly give up. She joins us, but it’s not like we give her the ball or anything: she can’t catch, can’t throw well, and can’t play defense. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t keep up, and we burn her deep for touchdowns play after play. She ignores our repeated jokes about her incompetence as though she isn’t hurt by them.

She can’t let us know the truth.

We head inside to warm ourselves with hot chocolate, which sits in a kettle on the hot stove. She tries to grab some, but is pushed aside. “Wait your turn! You can’t go until all of us have gone first.” She rolls her eyes, sticks out her tongue, but silently takes her place in the back of the line.

My friend whispers in my ear, “I can’t believe she tried to cut in front of us.” I laugh and respond in a slightly louder tone, “She can’t understand that we don’t want her around.” I see her eyes twitch, so I know she heard it, but she stares unflinchingly ahead as though nothing has been said.

It isn’t like she hasn’t heard all of this before.

She is the last one to join us in the living room, so she takes her rightful place on the floor in front of the couch. She tries to sneak her way onto the cushion, but she is pushed to the floor to the sound of jeers and laughter. “Oh, lighten up. It’s just a joke!” I say as her face shows a moment of irritation. She smirks, but the rest of her face betrays her intended façade: her eyes turn ice cold and her nose wrinkles just a bit.

How can she smile if she can’t even sit where she wants?

I don’t know why she stays: it is clear that she doesn’t fit in here. We are all young men, yes, all men, and she is the only girl. Sometimes her friend shows up, but that doesn’t change anything. She is the target of our humor and the object of our criticism no matter who is in the room. She can take it, but can’t dish it out. She can try to speak up, but will just get shut down.

She’s embraced the role because she can’t escape it.

“Hey, get over here,” Her mom commands as she enters the room, “You can’t mess around anymore. You’ve got work to do.” She tries to contest, but her mother increases her volume, “You will fall behind in school. You can’t afford to mess this up.”

She sighs, but knows that she has no choice. As she drags her feet toward her room, my friend snickers, “She needs to study because she’s too stupid to understand it in class.” I cover my mouth, but too late as the laughter escapes in spurts through my closed lips. She shoots us a look, which only enhances the enjoyment of the moment, before turning her face toward the rickety old steps she has to climb. We all grin at each other and move on, as though our entertainment for the evening was harmless and innocent.

I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.

“Can’t,” she says as I try to get her to join me.

I stand on her porch in the middle of winter and look into her icy blue eyes. She doesn’t try to fake anything with me anymore: her disgust paints her face grey in the dim light of the late afternoon. She can’t accept the path I have chosen to take.

I plead with her to see my position and to try and understand why I’ve changed. I explain that I live differently now because of who I believe that God is. “To me, God is no longer the tyrannical overlord that I was afraid of disappointing, but God is a merciful and compassionate king who forgives his enemies as they kill him. This truth has changed not only the way I view the world, but also the way I act towards people. Can’t you see the way I’ve changed?”

“Can’t,” she says as she rolls her eyes.

I keep trying, for I see the pain she is in and know that this is the way to healing. I hear the agony in her voice, though I think that she has become deaf to it. She accepts this life as normal, this one filled with pain and sorrow. Her friends have left, most of them anyway, and they aren’t returning. With each passing day, she grows more alienated from those she grew up with. She feigns apathy, but I see the defeat.

Her persistence remains, but it’s directed towards acceptance, not change. She has tried to escape on numerous occasions, but she could never follow-through with any of them. All of the things she used to claim, all of her hopes and dreams, have been replaced by bitter observations of reality. If she has hope, she doesn’t show it. If she has dreams, they can only be nightmares.

I understand why she stays: where else can she go? This is the only place where she is secure, despite all the chaos surrounding her. She knows what to expect here; she knows how to roll as the punch line of every demeaning joke. She has been told for so long that she is unable to become what she wants. She has been consistently reminded of every shortcoming and failure in her life – from a bad grade on a project to her physical appearance. She is genuinely disliked by many, and all of us, yes, all of us, have spoken evil of her at some point.

Of these, I am the greatest sinner.

Me. The one who preaches love at all costs. The one who says to lay down our weapons in compassion for our enemies. The one who claims that all are made in the Image of God. The one who believes that women should be championed and not discouraged.

I have been the perpetuator of abuse and the tool of destruction that I now so adamantly fight against. I have mocked one who needed encouragement. I have used my place of power and authority to crush her under my words. I have failed to look like Jesus in the times it was most needed.

As she turns to go back inside, I open my mouth to keep her from returning. I want to tell her that I see her sorrow and that there is a peace beyond understanding where I am. I want to say I’m sorry for all the times that I have ignorantly inflicted her with pain. I want to give her the joy that has found its place in my heart.

I want to tell her that she is beautiful. I want to tell her that she is smart. I want to tell her that is gifted and talented; that she is not abandoned, alone, or helpless. I want to tell her that she is loved, that she is precious, and that she is sacred. I want to tell her that she is worth it. I want to tell her that she CAN.

But I can’t.