beginnings and endings

We begin at the end—or do we end at the beginning?

This is advent

Isaiah 11 offers a peculiar vision of wolves and lambs and leopards and goats frolicking together on God’s mountain of peculiar peace. All of this year’s Advent lectionary texts turn expectations upside down. Sprigs grow from dead stumps. Crocuses blossom in desert places. And a little child leads God’s people into a peace-land of radical love. That is a gift of Advent—God invites us to see life in new ways, and I, for one, am eager to encounter the new way of God’s upside down, inside out peace and love.

The shortest distance
between two points?

a straight line—
begin here;
end there.

But the straight way?
Not the only way.

Beginnings cradle endings—
​first drop of rain
page one of a favorite novel
hello

Endings are the womb of beginnings—
last line of a poem
one lingering summer tomato
amen

​This is incarnation.

Sharp sword edges
learn to plow fertile soil.
Lions and lambs 
choreograph a dance of peace.
Green sprigs grow from
axe-worn roots.
Tender crocus shoulders push
up through winter ground—

This is Advent. 

We begin at the end—
Or do we end at the beginning?

Or do we pause just now
held in a promise— 
God with us.

Grow, Green Sprig of Jesse, Grow

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse,
 and a branch shall grow out of his roots. . .

Another Advent Porch light poem based on Isaiah 11:1-10

PHOTO BY SHEILA HUNTER, USED BY PERMISSION

We have followed the porch light
to the house on the mountain
See the plowshares and pruning hooks?

Grow, green sprig of Jesse, grow.

“Sow life into rocky ground;
trust what is tender to be tenacious;
trust new life to shoulder up
through hard ground,
roses to break through concrete walls. 

Grow, green sprig of Jesse, grow.

The mountain house surprises weary eyes.
We gather around a stump to dine together,
to savor the sweet fruit of God’s wild hope
while wolves and lambs choreograph a song of peace.

Grow, green sprig of Jesse, grow.

God calls us to tend an unexpected root, one that emerges from life-stories that have felt the sharp cut of the axe. God calls us to see in unexpected places, God’s promises of justice and peace. 

Grow, green sprig of Jesse, grow.

Advent Porch Light

Turn on a porch light and welcome somebody home.

Where is the porch light?
We long for its steady promise
to appear somewhere out there
as we journey wintry roads.

Longing for light, we wander.

Someone has lit a lamp.
An obligato flame dances,
comforts aching eyes,
choreographs bone-tired feet.

Seeing the light, we follow.

The mountain house keeps vigil,
Watches through the night.
Waits up for heart-weary travelers
to find their way home.

Sharing the light, we wonder.

Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah offers our first image for Advent this year (see Isaiah 2:1-5):

2The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. . .[C]ome let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Isaiah 2

In the prophet’s vision, we see a mountain in the distance and crowds of people streaming toward a house on the mountain. A lush garden surrounds the house (at least as I imagine it). The garden has been cultivated by swords and spears that have been refashioned into plowshares and ruining hooks.

What does this mountain house image mean for the 2019 Advent season?

I am always glad when I come home after dark and Sheila has turned on the porch light. When I drive up and the light is on, I know that someone is waiting for me. Watching for me. When I drive up and the porch light is on, I know I am home.

I hope this year’s Advent waiting includes a porch light liturgy for those whose hearts and bodies ache for home. What do I mean by this? I hear a double call to action in Isaiah. We are called to keep seeking home—God’s home where the walls are built of justice, love, and peace. We cannot settle down and abide anything less than this. We are also called to keep vigil. We are called to watch through the night for homesick travelers who need for-now dwelling places.

We are approaching the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. People in our lives—people in our world—are bone-tired from wandering uncertain roads. One part of our Advent liturgy—of our work as God’s people—may just be to turn on a porch light and welcome somebody home.

Coming Home

Advent calls us to work together to create and be for each other home for now until all of God’s children–wandering people that we are–can rest in the fullness of God’s promised home.

Reflections on Advent 2019, Year A

Advent is about comings. In a sense, Advent is about “home”-comings. 

  • Jesus comes to earth–to God’s home? to our home? 
  • God comes into our lives–to abide with us.
  • We await a future “home”-going or “home”-coming–when people stream create a home of justice and peace together on God’s holy mountain. 

An overarching biblical theme of yearning for home enlivens our theologies. We seek what is already but not yet. We journey relentlessly to earthly home-spaces that are not quite home because we remain in both tangible and intangible ways “away” from God. As people of faith, we join biblical ancestors in seeking a Promised Land, a land where there is no weeping or crying or pain. In the meanwhile—until we arrive in that sought-after place—God calls us to do what we can to create God’s home here on earth, in our cities and towns, schools and churches, workplaces and homes.

Some are too much at home in the role of wanderer,

watcher, listener; who, by lamplit doors

that open only to another’s knock,

commune with shadows and are happier

with ghosts than living guests in a warm house.

****

The undertone of all their solitude

is the unceasing question, Who am I?

Denise Levertov


Poet Denise Levertov (1923-2007) writes in a 1946 poem about solitude of being “too much at home in the role of wanderer.” I love Levertov’s poem, though I tend to see faith as calling us to the opposite of what she describes. I hear faith calling us to be at home in the role of wanderer. Never settling for less than justice for all of God’s people. Restless for peace. Always searching for healing, hope, grace. In other words, faith calls us to be at home in the role of wanderer until we one day cross the border into God’s not yet commonplace home.

That, perhaps, is the power of Advent wisdom. Jesus’ followers can never stop seeking. Not until all of the hungry are fed and violence has been stopped and no one feels the sting of exclusion. Not until all have opened themselves to God’s love and are empowered to go out into the world and love others, freed both from arrogance and shame.

But Levertov’s poem says that we risk being too much at home in the role of wanderers. Sounds like a conundrum, doesn’t it? We are called to be justice-seeking wanderers. We are also called to be at home in God’s love. Whew!

I think God’s call to people of faith in the midst of this conundrum is to pray and work together to imagine and create home—welcoming, non-judging, nourishing—home-for-now for all people who are seeking after God’s resting places of justice, grace, and peace.

What does this have to do with Advent? The texts in Year A paint a picture of “home” that is as bizarre as any we might imagine:

  • Lions and lambs nap together.
  • Swords become plowshares and spears pruning hooks.
  • Desert soil blossoms with crocuses.
  • Weak hands and feeble knees are made strong.
  • A dead stump births new life.
  • God is born in a barn.

Advent invites–perhaps even urges–us to watch for the unexpected ways that God is with us. Advent also urges us to imagine how we can be home-for-now for those whose lives are broken, how we can be home for our communities’ strangers, how we can be home for those whose stories have left them isolated, alone, without hope.

Advent calls us to work together to create and be for each other home for now until all of God’s children–wandering people that we are–can rest in the fullness of God’s promised home.

This year’s Advent season–called Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary–immerses worshipers in what we might call “impossible possibilities” that take us beyond the world as we know it to a world of Shalom. I hear in this year’s four weeks of Advent four verbs of expectancy, and I am excited to reflect on these four verbs each week as the Advent journey unfolds.

Watch

Turn

Imagine

Be

Advent 2019

**Note: Featured image is by Sheila Hunter and is used by permission. Thank you, Sheila!

Pumpkin Season’s High Happy Day

How can we encounter eternity in daily human experiences?

Forever–is composed of Nows–

Emily Dickinson

The day is here. Halloween. The high happy day of Pumpkin Season!

I love Halloween in our neighborhood. My neighbors liven up their yards with orange and purple lights, pumpkins, and other fall decor. And when evening comes? Many people will be out and about, offering candy to trick-or-treaters and trick-or-treating with their children and grandchildren. In our neighborhood, Halloween has become a grand communal affair.

Today, if past experience is a predictor, just over 200 ghouls, ghosts, super heroes, and other characters will arrive in my neighborhood seeking Halloween treats. Many of the trick-or-treaters are children from nearby neighborhoods. Their parents seem to feel good about bringing their little ones to our community.

Sheila and I have fun sitting on our porch welcoming the treat seekers. The tiny goblins are adorable. We also look forward to seeing the imaginative costumes of the School of the Arts students who make their Halloween pilgrimages down our street.

More than meets the eye

But there is more to the high happy days of Pumpkin Season than meets the eye at sunset on October 31.

Halloween itself may be the most visible festival this time of the year, at least in my neighborhood. Perhaps less known is that Halloween is one of a trio of cultural and religious ritual observances that fall during the transitional days between October and November–All Hallow’s Even (or Evening), Hallowmas (All Saints Day), Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The histories, beliefs and practices connected to each of these days vary depending on cultural and geographical location.

All Hallow’s Even and Hallowmas

All Saints Day dates to the early 7th Century and is observed on November 1 in many Christian traditions. All Saints Day commemorates those saints, now departed, who have influenced Christian faith. Many observances of All Saints Day, especially in Protestant churches, celebrate all Christians, past and present, who have died in the last year.

Some churches commemorate local “saints” on All Souls’ Day, the day following All Saints’ Day.

The historical name for All Saints was Hallowmas–“hallow” meaning “saints,” and “mas” meaning “mass,” or Eucharistic feast. Those who observed Hallowmas held a Eucharistic feast in memory of saints of the faith. The day before Hallowmas was (and still is in some places) the Vigil of All Hallows, or what is now recognized in popular culture as Halloween.

Dia de los Muertos

In some countries, for example in Portugal, Mexico, and Spain, All Saints coincides with Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents), which is the first day of the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). On the Dia de los Inocentes, communities remember infants and children who have died.

The Dia de los Muertos is observed in varied ways in Spanish-speaking countries, and at the center of many celebrations is time set aside to visit, and in some places decorate, the gravesites of loved ones who have died. The Dia de los Muertos is a national holiday in Mexico.

Encountering eternity in daily experiences

Emily Dickinson’s famous poetic line, “Forever—is composed of Nows–,” comes to mind for me as we arrive at these October/November days of remembrance.

Time, in Christian tradition and theology, has been defined, discussed, and debated over many centuries. The history of sacred and secular calendars reflects this liveliness of human understandings of time.

What Dickinson expresses in her poem reflects one dimension of this season’s trio of ritualized remembrances. Scholars think that in the poem that contains this line Dickinson wanted to emphasize how we can encounter eternity in daily human experiences.

What does this have to do with All Hallows, All Saints, and Dia de los Muertos? Perhaps the poem and these remembrances suggest that the saints are, in a sense, with us today. And we who are alive to remember them are living eternity now.

So, on October 31–Halloween to some, All Hallow’s Eve to others–we enter into a time of remembrance. In my neighborhood, we take to the streets after sunset, laughing and talking as our flashlights dance at our feet. One of my neighbors builds a fire in a fire pit in her driveway, and people stop by to visit and warm their hands.

This year, I am imagining our neighborhood Halloween sharing as a small foretaste of God’s reign. For a few hours, we will be community together, and that “now” will become a part of an anticipated “forever” where all people are free to laugh and play together.

As I write this on Halloween Eve, I lift a prayer: Holy Spirit, dance in our midst in these autumn days and inspire us again toward creating and being your Beloved Community in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

Whose Hands?

Let the favor of God be upon us
and prosper for us the work of our hands.

Psalm 90

A 6 a.m. walk. The sun—stretching, yawning—ready to look out upon a new day. Owls, those melancholy canticlers of the night are getting drowsy, ready for robins and finches to take over the morning shift of harmonizing.

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

An edge of summer, edge of autumn walk. Days are getting shorter. Nights longer. And the stars? Just before dawn? Luminous. Incandescent. Dancing with glee on the edge of the morning then fading into the heavens’ unbounded mystery.

I walked through my neighborhood at daybreak. The earth was awakening to a new day, and what a day. The last of summer’s blacked-eyed Susies turning their faces to the heavens. Chrysanthemums beginning to unfurl their paintbrushes, eager to color the world with the oranges and yellows of autumn. In the dawning wonder of an August morning I saw–the hands of an artist, the hands of a musician, the hands of God.

Hands.

Psalm 90 speaks of hands:

Let the beauty of God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands.
O prosper the work of our hands.

Psalm 90

I hear these words and I wonder–

What about our hands? My hands. Your hands.

Whose hands will chip away the falsehoods that hide God’s wisdom?

Too many hands in our world break and destroy. Too many hands injure and scar.

Whose hands will hold broken hearts with gentleness and compassion?

Whose hands will paint the colors of God’s grace on landscapes of injustice and despair?

For me, these are the questions of faith that really matter. How do our hands—my hands and your hands—do God’s work of shaping justice and peace for all people?

Let the beauty of God be upon us,
and prosper for us
the work of our hands.

Psalm 90

Psalm 90–“Let the beauty of the Lord be upon us, and prosper for us the work of

our hands.”

When autumn comes and with it harvest celebrations, I think about the work of God’s hands. God’s hands creating beauty even in the fading and dying of summer leaves. God’s hands bringing forth from the earth good food to eat.

Photo by Jill Crainshaw



I think too of human hands—

farmers who plant and plow and harvest;
workers who process foods from the fields;
cooks whose hands prepare banquets for us to enjoy every day.

How do we serve God with our hands? What touch do we offer? What do we create?

My hands. Your hands. All of our hands—blessed and beautiful. All of our hands holding within them promises of God’s grace. Our hands—the hands of God. . .

Who Indeed?

Who will save us?

Who?

Who?

Penny and Bella have ears to hear
what I cannot—

We cock our heads
toward the tree outside the
living room window and listen
for the Monday morning cry:

Who?

Who what?

Who is that?

Who am I?

Who?

So a day in the life begins
with barking dogs and sleepy-eyed
gazes up into backyard trees—

Who indeed—

At work we wonder together
over coffee in a morning
of magical meetings,
ponder tangled tree vines
of abiding belovedness,
wander around in each other’s stories,
while time stops, just for a moment—
who are we?

Later, a different we WebEx-es to Peru;
who can save rainforests from goldrushers?
A river of life runs through those trees—
“Madre de Dios”—
who will save us?

Later still, another we
praises the power of mighty oaks
to bend down close and breathe
beatitudes into broken bodies; then we
cheer as a third-grade drum major
rehearses his moves right there
in the middle of the office floor,
tubas and trumpets and trombones
blaring out from an iPhone
plugged into the wall.
We—celebrate mighty oaks and
relish who he is,
imagine with joy
who he will become.

Home. Facebook remembers.
I do too. One year ago today
a communal we made a
pilgrimage to Temple Emmanuel.
Lit candles.
Held vigil.
Held hands. Prayed
for the Tree of Life and
for lives lost to violence.
Who will save us?

So it is night. We—Bella and Penny and I—
are waiting—

—listening.

An owl.
Settles into the nook
of a stalwart tree out back.
No cheerful aria.
Instead a melancholy cry—

Who?

Who am I?

Who are we?

Sleep comes and
with it a prayer:

Who indeed—

Note: Wake Forest University has an amazing research partnership in Peru called Cincia—Centro de Innovacionetr Scientifica Amazonica. I met the director of the program, Luis Fernandez, through WebEx today. Cincia is working with a wide range of partners, including local Peruvians, to combat deforestation in the Peruvian rainforest. Madre de Dios means “Mother of God” and is a region in the south of Peru covered by dense Amazonian jungle.