The berries are like Mama’s shade-shifting lipstick.
Autumn is here. Sheila says our backyard holly tree is in panic mode over whatever winter weather is to come. The holly is ensuring that all who are hungry will have berries aplenty for the cold months ahead. She has prepared a winter feast.
Holly’s berries were green then pinkish orange, color deepening now with each day that the sun sleeps longer. The berries are like Mama’s
shade-shifting lipstick, I think, waxy green in the tube, transformed to candy apple red on her lips. “Don’t you think you’re overdoing it,
a bit?” I asked Holly. I have never seen so many berries. She must be getting tired from wearing all the jewels summer has draped over her spindly arms.
Her only response is to blush in the autumn light while mama wren sticks her head out from the inflamed branches and offers up a scolding winter prelude.
I have been preaching for 50 years. Half a century. At 57 years old, I am a virtual stranger to myself if I am not a preacher. A woman. A preaching woman.
The poem below recalls my early preaching years. I practiced as a child on a captive congregation of Barbies, G I Jerrys and other dolls. The poem was published in *82 Review several years ago. My calling came early, and I have been sustained over many years as a proclaimer by God’s love and grace.
I preached my initial sermon to an ecumenical throng of listeners gathered on my childhood bed in that little yellow room in the house at 243 Winston Lane. I was six years old.
Mrs. Beasley, wire-rimmed glasses askance. She never stopped smiling. Barbie and Ken side by side. (They arrived in their pink convertible, top down.) G.I. Jerry (I named him after my dad) in full fatigues. He came packing but left his semi-automatic at the foot of the bed. Brownie Scout doll, missing her beanie and one sock, winked a single eye at Little Red Riding Hood. “I know my way around the forest.” Red said nothing, stared straight ahead. Indomitable. Wooden. Madame Alexander, her expression plastic, kept her eyes fixed on the conventicle of purple-and-yellow haired trolls. Howdy Doody looked eager, but I was not fooled. His commitment has never been more than mere lip service. A bride showed up, costumed in wedding day white. She was alone and kept her story to herself. The Liddle Kiddles created the biggest stir spilling out of their house and onto the bed in a disorderly pile of teeny tiny arms and legs and teeny tiny accessories galore. My congregation was gathered. I preached.
Perhaps all were saved that day or maybe none at all. We all needed saving: wars and rumors of wars hunger violence brokenness of every kind imaginable. But then, as now when a word is proclaimed to some assemblages, no sign of response could be seen or heard until the preacher without intending it pulled Mrs. Beasley’s string and she said what was on her mind: “Speak a little louder, dear, so Mrs. Beasley can hear you.”
two praying-people went into the church— i saw them there
one stood alone intoned settled certainties about life and faith
the other stood far off stuttered and stumbled unsettled about all things certain of no things
“God, I thank you that I am not like that one.”
two praying-people went into the church– a pharisee and a publican
i am neither i am both
i am dust
pray for me
pray with me
This poetic reflection arose as I explored a parable in the Gospel of Luke:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Many things strike me about this parable. I noted in yesterday’s post my curiosities about humility in these verses.
Today, I feel myself wanting to say: “Thank God I am not like that Pharisee.”
But doesn’t that make me like the Pharisee?
Isn’t it just like Jesus to tell a story that turns something–that turns our hearts and minds–upside down or inside out? I hear Jesus asking me in this parable to complicate how I see both of these praying-people and how I see myself.
Biblical scholar David Lose says this about the parable:
Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side. Read this way, the parable ultimately escapes even its narrative setting and reveals that it is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart.
The other thing that I notice in particular about the parable today is that both praying-people are alone in the temple.
Don’t we need to pray together?
Thus arises out of the parable what for me is one of the hardest questions of all for our context today: How do we cultivate both the empathy and the humility to pray with each other across those things that divide us?
“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.
I began preaching the Gospel in 1987 as a pastor in the mountains of Virginia. Now, 32 years later, I am honored to teach ministry students every day at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Many of those students are women, and they are called to preach. I have heard their voices. They are astounding, insightful, passionate, and prophetic preachers.
The best way I know to respond when comments like MacArthur’s make news headlines is to do what God called me to do—preach. I offered the following sermon at one of our school’s new student orientation services several years ago. The sermon text was John 4, a story that carries the familiar title, “The Woman at the Well.”
Called to preach
Thirst. High noon. A well. And a water jar left behind.
They meet at Jacob’s well. A well that holds stories. Maybe even secrets.
Jesus is on his way somewhere else. She is collecting water. As she does everyday. Alone. At noon. To survive.
They meet. And when they meet? So do their personal stories. And the realities of their lives. A Jewish man. A Samaritan woman. And a long history of cultural, political and religious clashes between their peoples. A long history of too many assumptions. Too many prejudices. A long history of conversations never shared, of possibilities and mysteries never set free.
They meet. And when they meet. Something happens.
Don’t be fooled by the misogynist veneer too many sermons have put over this story. Sometimes we are too quick to think and act like we know the woman in this story—what she lacks and what she needs. And yet—we don’t even know her name. How can we know what she needs if we haven’t gotten close enough to her even to know her name? And Jesus? We think we know about Jesus too…and yet…
They meet. And when they meet? A conversation. 26 verses. The longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Gospel of John. Not one of those kinds where one person is a submissive listener while the other waxes eloquent with spit-shined but unsubstantiated advice. This is a real conversation. Not small talk. A lively dance of words between two thirsty people. Words that dip and weave around complex theological topics—living water, worship, spirit, truth, salvation, the identity of the Messiah.
The woman? She is wise in her life-weariness, and she asks questions, insists on clarifications, offers her opinions. She is bold. Fearless, in a way, too. Because she chooses to have conversation with him. In spite of who she thinks he is and in the face of all that other people have assumed she is.
And Jesus? Even as he talks about living water he is bone tired, thirsty, vulnerable—dependent upon her hospitality because he has no bucket and she? She has the water jar she carries with her everyday, and she offers hospitality—the thirst-quenching water in her jar mingling with water offered by Rachel and Zipporah and countless other women right here at Jacob’s well…
They meet. And when they meet? Something happens. Jesus—talks about living water and invites her to look again at what she thinks she knows about water. About life. And Jesus—the thirsty one who has no bucket—could it be that as she offers him water, he sees her? And sees in her the spirit and truth she bears with courage to that well everyday? Does he see in her something he needs to know about himself?
She sees him. He sees her. Shared vulnerability. Mutual regard. No distancing stares or objectifying gazes. She sees him. He sees her. Both are changed. Redeemed somehow. Jesus claims his identity as Messiah—in her presence. She is the first person in the Gospel to whom Jesus makes a bold statement of self-revelation. She is a witness. And she goes on her way—to proclaim new truth. To preach.
Draw deep, pour out, preach
Are we the woman with the water jar, bent on the chore of the moment, intent on survival, weariness living in our bones, thirst for God drowning in the business of the day?
She is strong, physically strong enough to carry that jar of water. Maybe we can understand that. What it means to be strong— but not so strong. Sure—but not so sure. Seeking—
Then—in the noonday lull— A tired stranger with no bucket. Drawing deep. Pouring out. She is changed. Jesus is changed. We are changed. Drinking water becomes living water. An everyday chore becomes Gospel vocation. An encounter with a stranger becomes a call to preach.
Her witness lives on today. The empty jar. A well of daily comings and goings. Called.
“Draw deep.” ”Pour out.”
Preach Gospel news In the name of the One who Creates, Redeems, and sustains.
Two women walked in space this week (without men) for the first time. This event was scheduled for last spring but had to be postponed when NASA discovered that they did not have two spacesuits the right size for both women.
For some reason, this detail of the space walk news story made me think of Cinderella. Yes, Cinderella.
Even as a child, I was curious about those glass slippers of hers because I knew that shoe stores where we shopped tended to have more than one pair of each size of each style of shoe. Didn’t anyone else in the whole kingdom wear the same size shoe as Cinderella? And besides that, how can a person walk in glass slippers without breaking them?
What does this have to do with this week’s space walking women? Perhaps nothing. But I am blogging every day in October, and the struggle to find daily content is real!
AND I try to write a news related poem each week to submit to Rattle.com. Rattle publishes one poem each Sunday that a poet has written in response to news stories from the previous week. This is my 69th submission and my 69th rejection.
I still wonder about those glass slippers and how the story would have turned out if the lost slipper had fit someone else’s foot before the prince every made it to Cinderella’s house. Or what if Cinderella’s frantic flight from the ball as the clock chimed had shattered both slippers?
But Cinderella’s story is just a fairytale, and this 20th Blogtober blog is no place to unpack such philosophical “what ifs.”
In any case, I celebrate this week those space walking NASA women who heard the stars call their names—and who can now find spacesuits in their size.
Space Walking in Glass Slippers
Do you need glass slippers for a space walk?
I’m asking for Cinderella, the woman with the fabled foot in that magical once upon a time from my childhood.
She was lucky, don’t you think, since the prince only had one size that didn’t fit all— one size that didn’t fit anyone else but her at the ball.
Yes, she was lucky,
unless she tumbled stumbled down the stairs that night slippers shattered, dreams unfettered when she heard distant stars calling out to her: “May we have this dance?”
Jesus’ radical form of friendship can transform our world.
14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15:14-17
“I have called you friends,” Jesus says in John 15. With these words, Jesus announces a new way of being in community, not only with one another but also with God. Friends share plans and values with each other. Friends imagine and build relationships of trust and generous grace. Friends advocate for each other, even when the cost is giving one’s life for the other.
Jesus turns the master-slave system on its head in these verses by making a radical distinction between servanthood and friendship. The two do not exist together. True friendship where people abide in God’s love? The kind of friendship that eradicates oppression.
In these verses, Jesus crumbles hierarchies–divine and human–and “commands” those gathered around him to relate to each other as equal collaborators with God in the work of bearing fruit that lasts. And what is this lasting fruit? Destructive forms of relating to each other die on the vine while friendship–Jesus’ radical form of friendship–endures to transform the world.
Jesus’ words invite us to consider anew what it means to “friend” other people. Consider. As we “friend” people in our lives, how can we do so in such a way that we embody Jesus’ call to turn oppression on its head and give birth to communities where love flourishes?
more than friended
“like” me as you would have me “like” you “friend” me
“but I have called you more than friended”
not virtually— actually appointed given to each other commanded freed to spin tapestries in place of enslaving webs chosen to birth and bear love
Note: I am grateful to my colleague, Professor Katherine Shaner, whose New Testament scholarship has invited me to read biblical texts with new eyes. Check out her book, Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018).