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?

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.

the writing work of the people

crafting poems, prayers, and litanies for worship

What does worship sound like? What ideas, hopes, dreams, and laments do the words of worship spark or stir or set loose in our hearts and minds? What images of God swirl up out of our communal prayers and hymns to shape what we believe and who we are as people of faith? Words are powerful. How we use words in worship matters.

At Wake Forest University School of Divinity, I teach a course entitled “Liturgical Writing as Spiritual, Theological, and Prophetic Act.” One aim of the course is to encourage students to become liturgical writers, in other words to craft prayers, poems, spoken word pieces, hymn texts, blessings, calls to worship, and more. The course also invites students to explore and name what theologies they are embodying through their choices of language, images, styles, and forms for public prayers and written liturgies. In the course, students learn about elements of worship and explore historic and contemporary examples of how words and linguistic patterns are used in liturgies. Students also share their own liturgical writing efforts each week in a writers’ workshop format. My primary hopes for the course? I want students to explore relationships between the historic and traditional voices of diverse liturgical forms, their unique voices and theologies, and their roles as public prophets, theologians, and spiritual leaders. I also hope that students will attend to elements of style that support vivid and effective liturgical communication: rhythms of public prayer, use of metaphor and imagery, how form and language create atmosphere in worship.

Sometimes students are reluctant to “write liturgies.” In some cases, that is because they come from traditions where most liturgical elements are already crafted for them in denominational worship books or in other resources. Other students come from traditions where writing liturgies is not a common practice. I invite all students to experiment with liturgical writing as a spiritual discipline that can spark greater awareness of their personal theological beliefs. Liturgical writing can also instill confidence in students about the vitality of their public voices as they prepare to become worship leaders.

As students in the course take their initial forays into writing liturgical elements, I encourage them to consider what I call “place-connected” dimensions of worship. What do I mean by this? The most important thing we can do when we craft prayers, hymns, and litanies is to let our liturgies arise as we are fully present to our surroundings and to the story that is unfolding in front of us in our communities–in our places.

Sometimes students request templates to help them frame their written work. I tend to avoid using templates and instead offer students basic information and guidance about the shape and purpose of various worship elements. I want students to explore what it means to be fully present in a pastoral moment and then consider how to express what they experience through extemporaneous and written prayers and other liturgical forms.

The work of hospital chaplains provides an example of the place-connected prayerfulness I hope to encourage in pastoral leaders. Chaplains are often asked to pray at the bedsides of patients. To think theologically on my feet and shape a prayer that arises from the soul of the moment means, for me, noticing everything and every person in the room. Is there a stuffed animal in the room–where did it come from? Who is present? What stories are people telling? Is it winter outside or springtime? What is outside the window? Even the shoes people are wearing can sometimes tell you something about the narrative arc and emotional center of the praying moment.

Having connected with all that is present in the moment (including what is present in the chaplain’s own heart and body), then the chaplain can focus on an image or metaphor and allow a prayer to arise with that image at the center. I find that this gives prayers emotional color and weight that make them memorable and powerful.

Today’s ministry students and pastoral leaders encounter on a daily basis a wide array of multi-denominational and multicultural religious contexts. Ministers are often asked not only to lead in public worship but also to offer prayers for a range of situations and occasions (over family meals, at public events, and for varied ritual occasions, such as commencements, house blessings, and church dinners). As they explore historical and traditional liturgical forms and resources and attempt to craft some of their own worship words, students learn much about the dynamic and often prophetic relationship between what we pray and what we believe.

Note: In collaboration with students in two versions of this course, I have published collections of their liturgical writing. Words Made Flesh: Poems and Prayers for Worship and Uncommon Words, Common Worship; Selected Prayers, Poems, and Laments. Both were published by Wake Forest University’s Library Partners Press.

Wilderness ways

God’s Word comes today
Through brave voices speaking
In hard places
Wilderness people
Ginkgo people

Lectionary readings for the second week in Advent feature Luke’s telling of the story of John the Baptist. These reflections for our times emerged from that ancient story:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’          Luke 3:1-2

God’s Word came
To the wilderness.
Through an unfamiliar voice
In an uncertain place.
God’s Word came
To the wilderness.

Not to Emperor Tiberius
Or Pontius Pilate
Or Herod
Or regional rulers
Or even priests—
God’s Word came
To an unknown wilderness wanderer
A path-clearer and way-maker
A rabble-rousing outsider.

God’s Word came
To the wilderness.
Through an unfamiliar voice
In an uncertain place.
God’s Word came
To the wilderness.

God’s Word comes today
Through brave voices speaking
In hard places
Wilderness people
Ginkgo people

God’s Word comes today
To our wilderness places
Hopes and fears of all the years
Meeting in us;
Through our voices.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

A Prayer for people who seek hope amid tumultuous fears:

God of Advent Longings,

Prophet bards of old foretold it—
Give us courage
to embody the promise.
Give us courage
to journey into wilderness places,
Believing that in the most unexpected
Faces and voices—
The hopes and fears of all our years
Meet—learn to dance—together
Weave a cradle to birth again
Your ancient-new song of life and love.  Amen.

Summer Solstice Epiphany

I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing.

Because I do not understand their actions, I have gained even greater clarity about why I do what I do as a theological educator at Wake forest University School of Divinity.

Let me explain.

Today is summer solstice in the U.S., a day when the sun shines longer than on any other day of the year. Hostile and violent forces are at work in our world today to keep hurting people from knowing the hope and warmth of life’s light. We need these extra hours of sunlight to seek how to live God’s Gospel truth in our times. We need a summer solstice Epiphany.

What is a summer solstice Epiphany?   The ancient sages in Matthew 2, commonly known as the wise people in the Christian Christmas story, followed a God-flung orb of light to Jesus’ birthing place. Many Christian traditions have located the story of the sages’ journey on day of the liturgical year in January known as Epiphany.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “a striking appearance.” We cannot wait for another January to look for God’s light to reveal a way for the human community to journey toward justice and renewed hope. We need to ask now what the manifestation of God in Jesus means in a world where so many fear for their lives, where too many innocents are abused and slaughtered. How are we who live in a world of such harsh and immoral realities to incarnate Incarnation—right now? These questions are urgent. People’s lives and well-being are at stake.

Matthew’s Epiphany story reveals powerful wisdom for our times. The sages, upon encountering the child Jesus, went home by another way (Mt. 2:12). I am struck by two things about this story on this day in 2018 of creation’s longest light. First, the sages had a home to go to. They were people with positions of power in their contexts. They could go home. Second, the sages decided to take different, less familiar route home to resist doing what Herod asked them to do. They decided not to take a route that would perpetuate a state-sanctioned system of violence and injustice. They risked something about their own lives because of what they encountered in the faces of a young child and family. Could they have gone back to confront Herod? Perhaps they should have and perhaps they did. What we know is that having encountered the truth of who God is in the face of a child, their usual way of going was changed.

This is why I do what I do as a theological educator who is also a Presbyterian Church (USA) Minister of Word and Sacrament. I believe this is also why we do what we do at the School of Divinity. We invite students to be aware of their power as human beings and religious leaders to resist Herod by following the unexpected ways of the Gospel. We spend time in conversation, worship, and prayer across our many differences seeking God’s wisdom for how we live and learn together. We also foster in each other a capacity to discern ways to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of vulnerable others. This is work worth doing—work that must be done—in a world where too many people are denied their worth as human beings.

On this day in June 2018 when the God-flung orb of light called the sun looks out from the skies longer than on any other day of the year, perhaps our souls will be stirred anew. Now is a time for us to shine the light of Gospel truths on lies perpetuated by people who abuse their place and power. Is this stirring—this call—new? No. We here in the U.S. need to lament and atone for a history of injustices justified by people who have bent and are bending their version of the Gospel toward their own ends. We are haunted by questions today that have followed us across the landscape of our history. Have we forgotten or perhaps never understood what it means to be children of God created in the image of God?

The sages in Matthew saw God in the face of a child. Can we? Do we? Can we see God in the face of Antwon Rose, an unarmed teenager shot by a police officer in Pittsburgh this week? Can we see God in the faces of children and mothers and fathers separated by injustice at our borders and within our communities?

We need Epiphany. We need a new understanding of and commitment to what it means to be human together, created in God’s image and living in community here on and with God’s earth. I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing. I do know why I do what I do at the School of Divinity. I do what I do to encounter and be in community with students whose passion for ministry and whose deep belief in the power of Gospel Good News make me continue my vocational journey in transformed ways. I do what I do at the School of Divinity because I believe our work together changes us and sends us out, knowing that we are called as we go to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of others.

I wrote the following poem/prayer for a January Epiphany Day. I have revised it for this summer solstice call to Epiphany.

Star-watchers.
Eyes wide opened
by unexpected light
in backyard night skies,
“Bearing gifts they traversed afar” to
investigate
explore
consider.
Then—eyes wide-opened
by what they saw—
rerouted,
home by another way.

Ah, the peculiarity of Christmastide Epiphanies:
shepherds
cows and sheep and donkeys,
an angel-frightened teenager
and a dream-troubled carpenter.
sky-gazing Zoroastrians
on camels’ backs
tracing a celestial light-beam to an
unfamiliar place.

But what of the rest of the story?
Menacing messages from powerful places,
weeping of innocents,
mama and daddy,
baby held tight
fleeing
violence
death.
Did they know—
To keep their bodies safe
was to keep safe God’s Beloved Child
but only for a moment.

In all of it—
holy visits and visions and vistas
detours and deliberate stars
midnight border crossings
into unfriendly backyards
children’s cries
wailing lullabies
“Hush, little baby! Don’t say a word.”
Immanuel—-God-with-us?
In us?
Through us?
In spite of us?

Galactic light-spheres align yet again
Sacred solstice sun shines into night hours:
Burn away the fog of unknowing, O God.
Give us eyes wide-opened
by what we see.
Call us to another way
so that we risk our lives to
bring together
Life
Love
Hope

 

this is my body

I am an ordained ministry and a worship professor at a School of Divinity. This week for our Maundy Thursday chapel service, I was the preacher and communion presider. For the first time in my 30 years of ministry, I dropped half of the loaf of communion bread on the floor. Yes. I dropped the bread. I was mortified, but after an awkward silence, we nevertheless partook of the holy meal. The experience was profound for me.

That day in chapel we remembered Jesus’ last night with his friends. In the two days since Thursday, I have been remembering—all of the fallen bodies I keep reading about in the news. What a broken world this is—and how urgent it is that we remember the fragilities and possibilities of our humanity.

this is my body

no one expected
such unrehearsed irreverence
least of all me
after many and myriad
maundy thursdays of
breaking
blessing
sharing
holy bread

but there i stood
by the table
grabbing
for the bread of life as it
slipped from my hands and
with awkward acrobatics
tumbled
down
down
to the unhallowed
stony
feet-trampled
sanctuary
floor

the loaf was heavy that day
a body resisting
being broken
until—
something startled
my struggling hands and
i was left
holding half a whole
of a body
fallen

who can take
fractured tomorrows
bless them
and not bear the scars
in aching palms

i knelt down and
took up the remains
all of us
ate
together

this is my body
remember

Answered Prayers

Dr. William Barber, II, is a hero. He wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the New York Times on February 3, 2017, following the National Prayer Breakfast. I have continued to think about that letter and the powerful words he quoted from Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
*********
“These times we’re living in
call for courageous people,”
the preacher said that day.

I am not brave.
Never have been.

Bravery is something to be
read about in storybooks
where quixotic heroes
ride out on prancing
stallions to do battle,
sabers flashing in
magnificent sunlight.

Bravery is something to be
prayed for in church
where harsh living
daylights must first pass
by saintly stained-glass
sentinels of bygone years
before being transmuted
into the kinder, gentler
beams that caress Sunday
morning’s bowed heads.

Isn’t it?

Or maybe we should
pray for freedom,
like Frederick Douglass did,
walking in faith
until our legs are braver
than our thoughts.

So, in this present cloud
of unknowing, being not
brave, we resolve, if
we can find the honesty
to do it, to live on
as best we can,
stringing together each
momentary breath
like pearls of hope to
place with the gentleness
of a lover around our
fear to name its wounds
as our own and journey on
not in spite of
but with it.

For out there, where the
times we’re living in
call for courageous people,
the groaning ground that
soaked up the life-blood of
all who died unjustly just
trying to live
needs the redeeming touch
of feet determined to walk
with their fear until
their legs have learned
to move each day to the
rhythms of justice,
mercy, and love.