Preparing for Winter

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.

First Sermon

I have been preaching for half a century.

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.”

Pray with me

“Thank God I am not like that Pharisee. . .”

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.”

which 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.’

Luke 18:9-14

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.

David Lose

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?

Daffodil Prayers

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. “Daffodil, with Scars”

“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.

A Water Jar Left Behind

And she goes on her way to proclaim God’s Gospel truth—to preach.

“I think the church is caving in to women preachers.”

Well-known pastor, John MacArthur, spoke these words this past weekend at a celebration of his 50th year in ministry. Speaking on a stage with two other men (no women), MacArthur made other negative, dismissive and derisive comments about evangelical women leaders and the #MeToo movement. https://religionnews.com/2019/10/19/accusing-sbc-of-caving-john-macarthur-says-beth-moore-should-go-home/

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.

Amen.

Draw deep, pour out, preach

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

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.

Space Walking in Glass Slippers

Do you need glass slippers for a space walk?

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.

Really?

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.

No matter.

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,

wasn’t she?

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?”

More than Friended

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).