A Lenten Poem for Uncertain Days

Keep your eyes on the sparrows.

Perhaps now is our time as a human community to do what we have not done in Gospel spirit and truth across our collective history. Perhaps now is the time to learn to care for each and every person and in particular for those who have been and are most vulnerable. Perhaps now is the time to keep our eyes on the sparrows and from that vantage point wrestle with the complex moral questions that are arising out of the mist with each new pandemic-plagued day.

With Our Eyes on the Sparrows

keep your eye on the sparrow
she says as she watches my face

sparrows? 

burrowed into church eaves
nesting in the backyard camellia bush

fence picket perchers fussing in
damp dirt behind a too-full raincatcher

no stand-out solo serenades or fiery
flashes like cardinals in springtime

no soaring hawk-winged shadow puppets
sickling dew-drenched summer grass

a copper coin for a pair of sparrows
jesus said as he watched their faces

sparrows?

the creating-one knows every wing-beat
fashions and fastens every feather

delights in each hair on each head
relishes every strand silvered by winter suns

so i watched today as a plucky sparrow
sat on the deck rail and watched me

i imagined being able to fly away—
to escape sorrows gone viral

she nods a gentle blessing
i think i’ll keep my eyes on you

With Our Eyes on the Sparrows

God holds the sparrows and us–each and every one of us–in God’s eyes.

Sparrows love the camellia bush just outside our back door. The bush bloomed with extraordinary enthusiasm this spring. Maybe the sparrows just can’t get enough of the flowers’ pink lemonade. 

Whatever the reason, sparrows are bounteous and busy in our backyard. And they are quite fearless too. Just yesterday one of them landed with confidence on the deck rail and stared me in the eye. Do sparrows play chicken? 

Until my encounter with that particular plucky sparrow, I had not given much thought to these tiny, inauspicious birds. Our yard teems with them, darting from fence post to forsythia to tree limbs to lamp post, and their earth tone patchwork costuming has never inspired my eyes. 

But sparrows seem to inspire God’s eyes because they show up by name in the Gospels as luminaries in one of Jesus’ proverbs:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Matthew 10

This week I have watched our backyard sparrows with what has become a thrum of statistics and numbers and quantitative predictions rumbling in my heart and mind. How many people will test positive with COVID-19? Of those, how many will need ventilators? How many ventilators are available? What percentage of the COVID-19-positive will die? How many points will the Dow fall today? How many people will lose their jobs?

The most troubling question that has joined my heart-thrum is one implied by a political leader in Texas several days ago: How many people (and what demographic of people) should be willing to sacrifice treatment to “save the country”? 

Jesus’ choice of sparrows for his proverb was intentional and prophetic. Vendors in those times sold sparrows for people to offer as temple sacrifices. Sparrows were cost effective. Two for a penny.

And yet–Jesus sees prophetic wisdom in sparrows. Maybe that is because they delight God’s eyes with their subtle but profound diversity. Ask birdwatchers. They will tell you that the U.S. is a home for the Tree Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, House Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Seaside Sparrow, Field Sparrow and at least 30 more types. To see the feathery nuances of all of these types, watchers have to hold the sparrows in their eyes. 

An old hymn sings of sparrows: 

His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know he watches me—

Civilla D. Martin, 1905

God holds the sparrows and us—each and every one of us humans—in God’s eyes. 

Our local and global human communities face many tests in this crisis moment. A test question I consider most critical to our future flourishing is this:  Will we hold the sparrows in our eyes as we make decisions about numerical bottom lines? 

This question dwells at the heart of what I believe is the Gospel. Perhaps now is our time, as communities of faith, to do what we have not done in Gospel spirit and truth across our collective history. Perhaps now is the time to learn to care for each and every person and in particular for those who have been and are most vulnerable. Perhaps now is the time to keep our eyes on the sparrows and from that vantage point wrestle with the complex moral questions that are arising out of the mist with each new pandemic-plagued day.

In this, for me, nests our hope–that even as God cares for us, we are called to care for each other. Yes, God is calling us in these days–“keep your eyes on the sparrows.” I pray that I will have the wisdom and courage to do just that, in the name of the One who creates, redeems, and sustains us and our world.

Dear Midnight

Dark nights of the soul—midnights—offer graces and blessings beyond our most radical imaginings.

Rain chased us into the house. We just did escape her.

Then she did her saturation dance on our greening yard, our back deck, our roof—all through the night. 

I know this because I stayed up past midnight listening to her. And thinking. 

An article in Politico on Friday lured readers with this title—“Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently: Here’s How.” What the writers predict both intrigues and troubles. And I think they are right. This moment in time is changing all future moments in ways large and small that we cannot even imagine yet. 

We humans have always been more fragile than many of us realize or acknowledge as we go about our daily routines. Some of us know because of our own stories that life is a bittersweet mixture of wild wonders and wilderness wanderings, of joyous grace and jarring lament. Even so, we still don’t always wash our dishes, do our jobs, care for our children or do a whole assortment of other activities with this awareness front and center in our consciousness. 

Now, as a global human community, we are encountering with every sud that baptizes our hands and with each of our daily breaths just how uncertain life is. We are experiencing a global “dark night of the soul.”

And yet—dark nights of the soul—midnights—also offer graces and blessings beyond our most radical imaginings.

Some people in our communities have beheld and embodied these graces and blessings all along through their everyday days as they have lived with chronic illnesses or life-denying dangers in their communities or other persistent uncertainties in their lives. These people have already shown us how to embrace aliveness in the face of threats to human well-being and even human existence. We can look to them for wisdom and hope. They are too often unheard and unseen heroes and sages.

Yes, COVID-19 is changing us. Or perhaps it is awakening us to who and what we already were and are.

My prayer is that we say “yes” with courage to shaping what happens toward the love and grace of God. A former student of mine, Jesse Sorrell, is now a hospital chaplain. He shared powerful insights in a recent Facebook post:

Shift calls for response. Creation responds to decreation. Art arises from grief. What can you create right now?

Jesse Sorrell

Thank you, Jesse, for this reminder of the creativity that nests even within uncertainty and grief.

This moment in history is changing all future moments. Hmm…but doesn’t every moment in some way shape all future moments? What life-giving change can we live right now?

My poem is addressed to Midnight and wonders what we as a human community might learn in this time of uncertainty and scatteredness.

Dear Midnight,

Who do you talk to
when the wrens and robins
go quiet in a storm?
You know, when lightning
strikes every city in every land 
and ignites down deep darkness?

The tiny terrier and I
cock our heads–
She growls down deep,
suspicious at not hearing
electricity scurry
through the house.

Rain tiptoes toward us
then chases us home,
silken hair flying out behind her.
She slips inside the house as the
door slams with a sonic boom
and a splinter of light–

Silence sidles in too,
scampers off into corners
and down deep into crevices
as we all peer out the window
at a sky homesick for stars.

Dear Midnight,

Can you tell us what it all means?
You, who wander fields and forests
seeking the fierce feeble embers
of once-fiery mornings–

The tiny terrier and I
cock our heads–
and in the dripping
down deep darkness
a train whistle melts 
into the rain-slick trees 
while a beatific barn owl
queries the night. 

Daffodil Prayers

What do we do when chaos and crisis disrupt some of our most familiar and stress-settling life rituals?

Everyday rituals and rhythms anchor our lives.

So what do we do when chaos and crisis disrupt some of our most familiar and stress-settling life rituals?

Many of my colleagues–liturgical theologians and practitioners and religious leaders–are asking this question as COVID-19 ravages our communities. Is it possible that in my Christian community, we may find ourselves planning virtual Palm Sunday and Easter services? Other religious communities are facing their own versions liturgical and ritual disruption. How can we stay connected–in the marrow of our bones, if you will–while keeping the recommended social distance to protect the health of all of us?

I am impressed and intrigued by the creative and courageous efforts leaders are making to livestream worship and prayer services. I am also struck by how quickly schools, families, businesses, and others have begun to fashion new rituals of connecting, learning, working, and even playing that can serve as anchors–even if they are temporary–for people tossed about in the stormy waters of this historic moment.

We humans are a resilient bunch and can and do find ways to care for one another even from a physical distance. And I have a feeling that when we look back on these strange days, we will experience a deep satisfaction in our determination to be community to and with one another. (And those of us who are live streaming novices may experience more than a few chuckles as we remember our awkward Facebook fits and starts!)

For now, I continue to seek moments of everyday sacramentality in my own backyard–those moments when I become aware of God’s presence in daily patterns of work and rest and even in painful rituals of waiting and wondering.

I am also keeping in prayer and in mind those who are made even more vulnerable by this crisis than they already were to hunger, isolation, and violence.

I first drafted the following poem awhile ago and felt a prompting to revise it this week. This spring’s daffodils have reminded me anew of the promises and presence of God we encounter in creation’s rhythms. Perhaps as we journey through this present wilderness, we can offer up our prayers as the daffodils do, seeking each day to renew our faith in God’s grace and peace.

daffodil prayers

“Dip your aching toes
in cool waters,”
said Summer to the
wilderness
wandering
woman.

“Tease your tastebuds
with blackberries. Lay
your weary body down
on gentle meadow
grass. Breathe in the
soft sweetness of coral
honeysuckle where
hummingbirds drink
and dance.”

“Blush with pride,”
said Autumn
to the old maple tree.

“You earned it. You
shaded the little girl who
held summer stars
in her eyes
while she
sat beneath your branches
and read
and read
and read
once upon a times into
dreams into
fierce hopes for the future.”

“Bend toward hope
when icy winds blow,”
said Winter
to the fragile-seeming ones.

“Bend, but don’t break.
You are stronger than you know.
You are resilient.
You are enough.”

“To push your shoulders
up, up, up,”
said Spring.

“Up through still-cold
greening sod to
fragrance the dawn
with daffodil prayers.

Shattering Snowglobes

Neither triumphal nor cozy, the Story is powerful and prophetic in its truth-telling.

Reflections for the First Week of Christmas

shattered globe
womb-water gushes out
mingles with sacrificed innocence
in war-wilderness streets
mama and daddy
smuggle their baby
across jagged borders
feet pierced by fractured pieces
of heart-pondered dreams
escape into broken reality
birth half-remembered blessings
beneath the light of a new moon

Anna and Simeon. Their faces map all that they have seen of life. Luke tells us Anna is 84 years old. People have come and gone in her life. Life and death have danced together and then danced some more as the earth has spun and spun again on its axis. Yes, Anna and Simeon have seen and heard and felt in their bones the hopes and fears of many years. Then, when Mary and Joseph appear in the Jerusalem temple with Jesus, Anna and Simeon burst forth in a Spirit-seasoned duet of praise.

After everything they have encountered over many decades—after all that has gone awry in their lives and world—how do they know that this stable-born child is “destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34)? What recognition stirs in Simeon to release from his spirit letting-go lyrics about his own mortality, his world-weary soul settling into a serene certainty about the future as he looks into the untested face of Jesus? What story still to be sung does Anna hear in the rhythms of Mary’s pondering heart? What truth does she imagine that baby holding in those tender, tiny hands?

Perhaps many of us ask questions like these during that space betwixt-and-between December 25 and January 1. What does it mean—the Advent waiting and Christmas caroling? Because the stories we hear in the Gospels after Jesus’ birth and before Anna’s song of delight in the temple? They fracture nostalgic Christmas dreams.

The Gospel stories just after Christmas unfold as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple to be blessed. The image is moving. Anna and Simeon have waited many years to see the sacred promise they glimpse in this child’s eyes. But we cannot delight in this hope-filled encounter in the temple—or see its prophetic truth—without journeying through the nightmarish readings for December 28.

In the Fifth Century, the Latin church instituted a day (observed on December 28 in the West) to remember and lament the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. The refrain of this remembrance? “A voice goes up in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:13-23). Herod, wanting to protect his political power and fearing that the people would embrace Jesus as their king, orders the genocide of all baby boys under two years old. Jesus “grew and became strong”(Luke 2:40); Rachel wept (Matthew 2).

Rachel still weeps today, her inconsolable cries piercing our Christmas cradlesongs. Too many mamas and daddies today groan in travail for wounded sons and daughters. Too many children risk tender feet and hearts on streets littered by violence-shattered reflections of who they can—could—yearn to—be, if only…

The Gospel’s stories just after Jesus is born remind us. This is where Nativity happens—in an uncertain world where people face danger at the hands of death-dealing forces everyday—just as Mary and Joseph and Jesus did. Just as Rachel and her children did. This is where we see the live Nativity—in those half-remembered places just beyond the glow of the crèche where nightmares haunt innocent dreams.

So, the question again: what did it mean, the birth of the Christ child? What does it mean for our world today?

Perhaps Rachel’s counterpointing lament joins with Anna’s and Simeon’s duet and the three ancient voices together urge us to see the whole raw-edged arc of the Nativity. The snow globe is shattered, and Mary and Joseph and Jesus seek refuge in a real and dangerous world. Neither triumphal nor cozy, the Story is powerful and prophetic in its truth-telling. And this unabridged Nativity tale is relentless in calling us—the body of Christ—to break through life-limiting membranes to birth anew each day God’s grace and peace.

Somewhere in Our Silent Night

God is waiting to come home, home to our lives.

Note: I wrote the following for my church’s Advent choir and music Sunday. One of the pieces is titled “Somewhere in Your Silent Night,” arranged by Joseph M. Martin. That song inspired much of what I wrote and threaded through the music Sunday. Photo is by Sheila G. Hunter.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found
favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and
you will name him Jesus.”

It’s right there in Luke.
Mary says “yes” to God’s call,
and then she flees to the mountains.
To Elizabeth.
To home.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill
country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry,
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Listen. Do you hear the sounds? 
People in the mountain house,
that house whose porch light we have been following?
That house where Mary goes to find Elizabeth?
People in the mountain house are laughing.
Singing.

Yes, it could happen. She could birth a child.
At home with Elizabeth.
Her friend.
Her kindred.
At home with Elizabeth, Mary could imagine it.
And later, when she looked out upon a silent night,
she would remember it.
Birthing a dream.
A promise.
A hope.

The mountain house surprises weary eyes.
Mary and Elizabeth dance a wild dream of justice and grace
while the porch light flickers–
beckons
invites us to remember
turn and return
imagine in hope–

I guess that’s what Elizabeth and Mary talked about in the mountain house.

The Creating One–
Breaking through our resolve
Our logic
our best-laid plans.
The Unexpected One–
Breaking through all of our defenses
With love and light
to be cradled in our arms
And in our hearts—

And Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

At home with Elizabeth,
a song finds Mary.
A survival song.
A justice song.
A song of hope and light.

Mary sings. 
She sings to the night.
Even though she can’t be certain what tomorrow holds.

At home with Elizabeth–
on the mountain with her kindred–
a song of belief 
beyond belief finds her.

“And Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.”

Mary returned home,
carrying light from the mountain in her eyes,
the song of promise in her heart,
a drumbeat of new life in her feet.

Traveling alone, like every prophet before her, Mary sets out on her first journey, to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, to share her truth.  There will be more journeys: to Bethlehem; to Egypt and back; to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve; to Jerusalem when he is crucified, to a tomb—

God is waiting
to come home, home
to our lives.
To our world.
Let us join Mary on the journey home–
in the name of God who calls to us
somewhere in our silent night—Amen


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.