Words Made Flesh

No more speeches or spin doctors, debates or diatribes—

Words.

Matter.

In us.

God’s love
made skin and bones
muscle and marrow
hands and hearts
God’s words.
Matter.
In us.

No more speeches or spin doctors,
debates or diatribes—no–
God’s nouns, adjectives, verbs
alive
welcoming
respecting
embracing
incarnating
belonging
in us.

Words
made
matter,

planted in salvaged soil
reclaimed
restored
valued
savored
saving
hope
in us.

Dwelling Place

She would remember to forget–if she could. . .

Many contemporary realities sparked this poem. Increasing homelessness in many cities. Failing churches purchased by real estate agencies and transformed into apartment buildings. Domestic violence. Nostalgia. Hope. And the awareness that human stories meet, overlap, clash, and sometimes heal.

“Don’t dwell on the past,” they said
When her fingers flew unbidden
To touch nostalgic eyes; Yes,

She would — remember — to forget —
If she could. Swipe away the wetness
Sliding down her face; worried
It might seep between her lips,
Unseal them so she breathed out
A salted stench of yesterday’s news:
“Don’t dwell on it.”

She had no dwelling anyway,
Door bolted; key flung away.
Windows boarded up. Rendered
Unfit for human habitation. Hands
curled, fists pounded, demanded entrance;
Fear said “no,” misguided sentry keeping out
Everything even shriveled up tendrils of
Purple deadnettle that trying to crawl
Through the cracks: “No-dwelling Zone.”

They moved in last Saturday, 129
U-Haul boxes crammed full of life.
“We’ll put grandma’s dining table
Here,” she said. Did she know
They would taste springtime
strawberries and snow peas there, bare
feet on the hallowed ground under that table
where a body was broken, blood poured out?

They sat, sipped grocery store wine,
Dwelling in the past.

By the Jabbok

What blessings do we crave?

Held and Holding on

It was night.
And they wrestled.
By the Jabbok.

Jacob. Heel-grabbing birthright stealer. He spends a lifetime outsmarting challengers and dodging confrontations. And he is good at both. When he arrives at the Jabbok, he counts his blessings, names each camel and wife and servant one by one. There are many.

But then he sends them on across the river. Everything that defines him. Everything that hides him in a shroud of self-unknowing.

Tomorrow Jacob will cross the river. To meet his estranged brother, Esau, whose anger has had 20 years to stew in the birthright bowl.

But tonight, Jacob is alone. By the Jabbok.

Jacob’s all-nighter

Was it river canyon wreslemania with backbreakers, chokeslams, and an Undertaker smackdown? Did their feet sink into the mud as they prowled around each other? In Rembrandt’s painting of this scene, a shape-shifting androgynous angel holds a wounded Jacob in an intimate embrace.

Jacob. Holding on and held. Changed. In the marrow of his bones. By the Jabbok.

Preacher and poet James Weldon Johnson imagines such a river. “Up from the bed of a river God scooped clay. And there–this Great God–toiled over a lump of clay until he shaped it in God’s own image. Then he blew into it the breath of life.”

Could that be Jacob? Scooped out of the mud. Created again. By the Jabbok.

But clay sometimes resists

And Jacob had been resisting all of his life–resisting being born second in a system that privileged first-borns (sons, that is), resisting anything that held him back.

So as the sunrises kisses the dust they have kicked up–Jacob is still resisting.

But now, Jacob–changed–resists letting go until he receives a blessing.

What blessing do we crave?

Perhaps wrestling by our lives’ Jabbok has taught us. God, like manna and sea-parting winds, comes to us in the night, when we can’t see what is right in front of us, when answer we had never thought to question come undone.

What takes hold of us then, when illusions about our own strength have been stripped away?

God’s grace. Not manageable grace we can maneuver but wild, fierce, fearless grace stirred up–by the Jabbok.

Perhaps wrestling by the Jabbok has shown us. Though we have prevailed in some things, holding onto those accomplishments means little unless we open ourselves to be held by divine love. Love that might come to us as a stranger. By the Jabbok.

Perhaps wrestling by the Jabbok has taught us–

Jabbok is the struggle to get up in the morning when sorrow has tethered our feet to the night.

Jabbok is twilight tossing and turning to understand or to forgive or to stand up in the face of what we know is wrong.

Jabbok is Ferguson

and Flint.

Jabbok is Mother Emmanuel and Black Lives Matter.

Jabbok is a lifelong nighttime of struggles against injustices.

And Jabbok is also the way home

And Jabbock is also the way home-

Jabbok is the place where we wrestle with an embodied faith that is not fragile. It is where we find courage to speak out against harm done in God’s name.

Jabbok is where we decide to stay in the struggle until God has

unearthed us
created us again
breathed into our bones–life–
by the Jabbok
a heel-grabber becomes a wrestling one who prevails.

Jacob becomes Israel. And we become called ones who whisper into the night who we are and hear breathed out over the river’s tintinnabulation–yes, you are that and more.

As day breaks–

Sunlight might cling to dust stirred up by the midnight mayhem. Jabbok mud may stain our feet for a life time. But that is gift. Because Jabbok could be our road to Emmaus.

Jabbok could be our Pentecost Eve when Spirit winds blow through nailed-shut windows and stir up heart-fires. We dare not forget the night. Or keep our hearts shut off from the blessing that comes in the morning–

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

In the morning, when we cross to the other side of the river: “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept” (Genesis 33).

There is always another river to cross

No permanent dwellings by the Jabbok. Wounded spirits and broken bodies are out there on the other side. And we have learned things by passing by this way that give us endurance to hold vigil with others as they wrestle and joy to dance with them when they arrive home in the morning.

That is the blessing. There is always another river to cross–and on the other side–unexpected, even estranged Holy Others. And there is also the wisdom the God-wrestler speaks through grace-seasoned tears: “To see your face was like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33). Toiling over a lump of mud and breathing into it the breath of life. By the Jabbok.

Note: Former Dean Gail R. O’Day gifted me with a print depicting the story of Jacob and his dream of ladders and angels. That print was hung in my office today. I have been thinking about Jacob’s complex life as I admire the print.

Saying Good-bye to the Night

A ritual devised to meet the needs of a beloved aging dog had become a sacred nighttime gift.

I named my blog domain for a beloved Jack Russell terrier Sheila and I adopted. He grew old as he, Sheila and I journeyed life together for a decade or so. His name was Deacon. I blog at DrDeaconDog.com.

Sheila said Deacon was an apt companion for a liturgical theologian like me because he was devoted to rituals. Deacon was committed to “the way we do things every day,” from getting up at the precise getting-up hour to walking each morning without fail, to eating at the same time every day, to sitting together in our favorite chair at the appropriate time every evening.

As Deacon grew older, he needed more assistance with his last trip outdoors before going to bed. This required a change in our nightly bedtime ritual. Now, instead of sending Deacon out the backdoor into our fenced yard just before settling in to sleep, I suited him up with his harness and leash and walked with him up and down the sidewalk out front.

Much to my surprise Deacon embraced with his usual ritual fervor this change in our nighttime habit.

I was less enthusiastic.

“You’re a liturgist,” Sheila said when I complained about the new bedtime outings. “Can’t you turn this into a meaningful ritual? Maybe you can think of it as saying goodbye to the night. Don’t you liturgical theologians love that sort of thing?”

Sheila had a point. I began to consider how Deacon was teaching me to pay attention to the night. As I became more intentional about saying goodbye to each phase of the moon, a new orientation to the gifts of eventide seeped into my bones and recalibrated how I embraced the final hours of each day.

Over time as Deacon and I wandered up and down our neighborhood sidewalks, I began to reflect on the happenings of the day as I looked up into the expanse of a sometimes clear, sometimes muted, night sky. In spite of myself I began to experience wonder in my heart and in the soles of my feet—in the marrow of my bones.

A ritual devised to meet the needs of a beloved aging dog had become a sacred nighttime gift.

Photo of Deacon Dog by Jill Crainshaw

A nighttime goodbye chant began to emerge as autumn gave way to winter and our walks continued. I was surprised that as the chant emerged from the womb of the evening, its arc stretched from sunrise to sunset and across the human and canine life span.

I was also surprised to realize that the chant was the first poem I had ever written. It was a hymn of praise and petition lifted to an unexpected additional companion–a Holy Other—who met me and Deacon each night and walked alongside us.

When the sun lifts its head in the eastern sky,
And the birds begin to sing,
We give thanks, O God, for the dawning light,
And the symphony of hope it brings.

Fill my feet with the joy of the morning.
Tune each tendon to the sounds of your grace.
Let each step I take through the streets of the city
Be a note in this hymn of praise.

When we say our farewells to another day,
And the stars begin to shine,
We give thanks, O God, for the moon at night,
And its promises of rest sublime.

Fill my dreams with the hopes of tomorrow.
Lay me down to sleep and give my soul your peace.
Restore my hands; bless my feet; calm my restless thoughts.
May the worries of the day begin to cease.

When age takes its toll on my body
And my hands become feeble and frail,
I will lift them up to give thanks to you
And I’ll pray for the strength to sail

Over the river Jordan
Under your stars and your light.
Please guide my boat to the other shore
As I say goodbye to the night.

Note: A version of this post and the poem appears in my recent book, When I in Awesome Wonder: Liturgy Distilled from Everyday Life, Liturgical Press, 2018.

Broken and Spilled Out

“Call for the mourning-women. To come.” Jeremiah 17

A reflection for World Communion Sunday, 2019

So many people today are disconnected from the necessity and power of lament. We resist facing into the reality of pain, unable or unwilling to acknowledge that being honest about the suffering we have caused or the suffering we have experienced is a vital step toward healing. 

When the daily news is as filled stories, essays, and editorials about violence and needless deaths as it has been in recent months, I yearn for the rediscovery of individual and communal lament. We need to mourn. To be honest about our humanity. To confess our sins against the humanity of others. 

Many Christian churches around the globe will observe World Communion Sunday this week. We will break bread and remember the story of the violent death of Jesus. We will remember how Jesus shared bread, stories, hopes, dreams, and desires with his friends just before he he was crucified. We will share bread around the Lord’s Table with our friends. Maybe as we remember that bittersweet meal Jesus shared we can take time to lament our communities’ sins and the wrongs perpetuated as a result. I hope this poem invites that. 

Broken and Spilled Out

Call for the mourning-women to come; send for
the skilled women to come;
let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
Jeremiah 17

Intending to comfort
(or is it to avoid lament)
they utter pedestrian platitudes
(with unconvincing certainty).

Don’t you hear the weeping?
(Really—how can they not?)
The wailing?
(This is no ordinary pain, if
there is such a thing
as ordinary pain.)

We gather around a table
to break bread,
to pour out wine
in remembrance of—

(Name them, the devastated ones.
Name all of them. No matter
long it takes. The ones we too
quickly forget. The ones we
don’t take notice of. Even the
undeserving ones? Even
them. Especially them.
Because of them.
Because of us.)

Hearts mangled.
Souls ruptured.

Bodies crucified.
Blood spilled out.

Bread.
(Wounded.)

Remember.

chasing artificial light

I long for authentic dreams that come like moonglow to illumine dark nights.

you sit in the night cafe
sipping lukewarm coffee
from a plain white ceramic mug
a half-eaten slaw mustard and chili
cheeseburger and three fries
on a discarded plate in front of you
i saw you there last night too
and the night before that

a neon sign out front beckons
“always open” except for the “o”
that blinks and blinks trying
to stay awake to the promise

what ambitions do you harbor in
that limbo of artificial light or
are you just one of the many chasing
sleepless daydreams of an illuminated life
forgetful that dreams that come true
are nocturnal pollinators
drawn to blossoms
that reveal their mysteries only
to a midnight moon

A word about the poem: Artificial light has been in the news in recent days alongside Greta Thunberg and her bold words about the climate crisis. Several articles last week explored how artificial light and light pollution are affecting the earth and our future. I happen to be reading Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries these days, and in G Is for Gumshoe (1990), Grafton’s main character describes her experience in a nursing home by asking “what ambitions” can people harbor in that “limbo of artificial light”? The question has stayed with me as I have thought this week about the climate crisis and about light pollution. Grafton’s description also makes me think about the artificial light that persists through the actions of many U.S. leaders, an artificial light that threatens the future of our country. I long for authentic dreams that come like moonglow to illumine dark nights.

unburied alleluias

Even when evil does its strongest work to silence faith, Christian communities are often resilient and prophetic in their commitments to rise up singing. . .

God’s Acre at Old Salem, photo by Sheila Hunter.

Some Christian communities “bury the alleluia” on the last Sunday before Lent or on Ash Wednesday. The tradition originated in the 5th Century when Western churches began to omit the singing and speaking of “alleluia” during Lenten liturgies. Today, some churches still bid farewell to or physically hide or bury the alleluia during Lent and resurrect it during the Easter Vigil to announce with singing the joyous news that Jesus is alive.

Three historically black churches in southern Louisiana and Notre-Dame de Paris were destroyed or damaged by fires during this year’s Christian liturgical season of Lent. This weekend, many churches across the world will observe an Easter Vigil to conclude Lent, carrying the vigil flame into darkened sanctuaries. The violent and tragic church fires are the context for this year’s Easter Vigil fires. The prophetic message? Even when evil does its strongest work to silence faith, Christian communities are often resilient and prophetic in their commitments to rise up singing as they keep watch through Easter Eve for the morning sun to rise yet again.

unburied alleluias

a weary sister walks among the ruins
sweeping cold ashes into a dustbin
for next year’s lenten initiation she says
bending again over the priceless residue

        “remember that you are dust         
and to dust you shall return”

the preacher said just 40 days ago while pressing
ashy imprints of mortality on furrowed foreheads

nobody saw it coming—
unholy tongues of fire stripping altars bare

out of sync with high holy lenten processions
where expectant worshipers catch sparks 
from an easter vigil flame and carry them 
into silent holy saturday sanctuaries

she puts a hand on her tired back and
when she lifts her face toward the pinking sky
a wayward bit of wind stirs the gathered ashes

and even with all other words
smothered by smoke and tears
she tastes alleluia on her dry lips