When Wisdom Is Silent

It’s noisy out there. And in here (in my heart). So hard to know what is real. Authentic. True.

Listening for Liturgy’s Strange Voices in Speech-Saturated Public Spaces

Note: I am giving the Aidan Kavanagh Lecture at Yale’s Institute for Sacred Music next week. This is a draft of the introduction to my presentation. Or perhaps it is a draft of the preface to the introduction, the primary word here being draft :).

Is that true? Really? Come on, now. That’s a Babylon Bee article, isn’t it?

I can’t believe I just spent that much time reading that post. 

How many views did I get? Only half as many “likes”? Why didn’t those other people “heart” my photo? 

It’s noisy out there. And in here (in my head). So much static. Interference. Meme-omic chatter.

Permutations and op-ed combinations “to infinity and beyond” (or so it seems).

Anybody and everybody talking about anything and everything on any and every platform.

Traffic honking. Politicians fili-blustering. Information speeding down super-spyways.

News headlines blaring. Guns firing. Sirens wailing. And people too.

It’s noisy out there. And in here (in my heart). So hard to know what is real. Authentic. True.

I think part of the noisiness is because so many of us are searching, hoping, longing, yearning for, even scrambling for–something. Maybe we long for what my mama used to call the “gospel truth.” Of course, she didn’t realize that her use of the phrase harkened back to a time when to tell the “gospel truth” meant to speak a “truth” as undeniably believable as, well, you know–“the Gospel.”

Let’s Google that. Google what? The “Gospel truth.” What is the “Google truth” about “Gospel truth”?

Truth that is undeniably believable? Undeniably believable for whom? And which Gospel? Aren’t there four in the biblical canon? Four perspectives. Four voices. Four contexts. Four portraits.

Gospel truth. From the Old English, God (good) spel (news) truth? Good news truth. Good tidings truth, as some dictionaries suggest. I like that. But who talks about “tidings” these days except at Christmastime?

And where do we look–or listen–for good tidings truth in today’s speech-saturated public spaces?

Thus the title for my presentation–When Wisdom Is Silent: Listening for Liturgy’s Strange Voices in Speech-Saturated Public Spaces.

I am curious–ironic, isn’t it, that “curious” is from the Latin, curiosus, or “careful,” from cura, or “care”–I am curious whether and how worship practices can infuse speech-saturated spaces with good tidings that disrupt the clang and clamor of the truth and knowledge power-brokers-that be. How can our liturgies be places where estranged voices can be heard and respected as proclaimers of good tidings wisdom?

[An aside–a comment, if you will–curious is related to curate which is from the Latin, curatus, which means “to take care of” which also means “spiritual guide or priest.” I Googled that, btw. A curate is a priest? To curate the truth is to “priest” the truth? Is that true, really? How does liturgy curate truth?]

Over many years, I have pondered the relationship between Wisdom Woman and the Strange Woman in Proverbs. They both call out in public places. One is praised; the other is vilified. Is it possible that liberating and healing truth is both wise and strange? That God is both wise and strange? And how do we have ears to hear either through the cacophonous discord of our public speech-making?

Thus ends this prefatory draft. Stay tuned. I know I am. Indeed, I wait in hope for the next words and sentences to be revealed…

Somewhere between Weeping and Joy

Where do we find the energy and courage to keep fishing through the weariness?

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
Psalm 30:5


Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” John 21:4-13

Weeping may linger for the night, but…

I can almost see the ancient poet, putting pen to paper: “weeping may linger for the night.”

Then a pause.

A prayer exhaled.

A comma. To make room–for what?

Let’s pause here ourselves before we respond to that question. Let’s pause and consider an old fishing story. A 2000 year old fishing story from the Gospel of John.

They ended up on the lake that night. What else could they do? After all, since Jesus had died, nothing was going right. When Jesus was with them, everything seemed possible. They could feed 5000 people with just a few pieces of bread. Water could become wine.

Now? They were tired. Tired of being afraid. Tired of risking it all. Very, very tired.

So it was that this bunch of bone weary dreamers ended up on the lake that night, only to find out that the one thing they used to be good at? Now, they couldn’t even fish right.

Throwing the net out. Dragging it in—empty. Every time, empty.

Trying to get my life together. Trying to find new energy. But coming up empty.

Seeking justice for the marginalized. Trying to find some way to end oppression. Coming up empty.

The hours ticked by, each moment bringing another doubt, until during those murky hours between 3am and dawn?

The image lingers. A boat on a lake. Morning fog creeping in. No fish in the net. Aching arms. Heavy eyelids. Then–a voice:

“Throw your nets out on the other side of the boat.”

The beloved disciple squinted through the fog. Who spoke this advice? Not somebody who knows much about boats or lakes or fishing. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? After all, don’t the same fish swim under the boat on both sides?

Some fishing people I know share the secret wisdom about their beloved pastime. “Fishing is one part skill and three parts mystery.”

The mystery? The hope? The two together make some people who come up empty through the night—keep on fishing…

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

The disciples gave it another try.

They threw the net out on the other side of the boat.

In this story? Just as the disciples were ready to give up–splashing, dancing up out of the watery depths, 153 fish. 153 new dreams. New chances. Too many for one disciple or one boat to haul to shore. Enough to call us to pull together as community.

And in the time it took for them to pull in the net, dawn bent its light toward the shore. The beloved disciple could now see who was standing there on the beach calling out to them.

He shouted out to the others: “It is the Lord!”

Photo by Jill Crainshaw
Weeping will linger no more–

You and I see it in nature every day, now as then. The sun fades in the western sky but then, every morning —there it is, peering up over the eastern horizon yet again. Sunrise. Every morning.

So, the psalmist, even in the midst of persistent injustices and uncertainties looked to the east and announced: “Weeping will linger no more.”

A weary-armed beloved disciple saw it too. From a fishing boat. At dawn. Jesus. On the shore. Standing there in the morning mist.

My Lord, what a morning.

But before the morning came for the disciples? Before sunrise touches our tear-reddened eyelids with the warmth of hope?

Weeping has lingered. Is lingering. For too long for too many people in too many places in our world.

Not even a whisper of sunlight on the horizon. Or so it seems in times of persistent injustices.

So this ancient poet’s talk of joy? What are we to make of it?

Psalm scholar J. Clinton McCann reflects on his encounters with Psalm 30:

While preparing to write this essay, I heard Psalm 30:5b quoted twice. First, on the morning after the 2016 Iowa Caucuses, one of the four or five self-declared “winners” commented on his “victory” by proclaiming, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Second, I heard a sermon preached on John 11:28-44 by a pastor, who was very active in the protests in Ferguson, MO following the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr., and who remains active in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Focusing particularly on John 11:35 (“Jesus wept.”), he suggested that a primary role of pastors nowadays is to weep with victims of injustice and violence in Ferguson and elsewhere. But, he added, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

J. Clinton McCann

The contrast in perspectives is striking. McCann’s observation causes me to stumble over this psalm and my own beliefs about hope and joy. The promise of joy in the morning has to be more than a fairytale told to lure listeners into a dream-empty sleep until they awaken dancing the next morning. Doesn’t it?

These verses are more than triumphalist religious platitudes, aren’t they?

I hear the psalm calling me–calling all of us–to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.

I hear the psalm calling us to live justice and embody fierce and radical kindness as we make our way through those wilderness places that are out there between the comma and the joy.

The psalm and that fishing story make me think of my dad.

Joy lived in my dad’s life but weeping lingered there too. Most people’s lives are like that, a mixture of weeping and joy. But you might say my dad’s faith leaned “winterward.” He just wasn’t one of those people to grab hold of sunny theological answers to deep weeping questions. He insisted on putting question marks on his life in place of exclamation points.

I think my dad longed for moments when he could be astonished by certainty: “It is the Lord!” But mostly he had to be content with small signs no more astonishing than, say, what an enormous size a zucchini can grow to overnight. (And that in itself is astonishing, don’t you think?)

Still, even when my dad was weary from leaning winterward, he remained faithful to what he believed–grace is God’s free gift to all of us. And grace persists even when weeping lingers. God’s grace…a gift in joy and in weeping and in all that lies between.

A whole lot of living out of the Gospel needs to happen

in that space between the comma and the “but” in the Psalmist’s song. And that is what we are called to do in the ambiguous and uncertain liminal spaces between weeping and joy.

So, we live—we live always somewhere on the shoreline between weeping and joy. Trying to find the energy and the courage to keep fishing through the weariness, the disappointment, the anger, and the pain.

Living between the verses—or living between the independent clauses of joy and weeping—takes a certain kind of trust. Trust in God. Trust in ourselves. Trust in each other. Enough trust not to give up. Enough trust to throw the nets out into the waters one more time. And we have work to do in our communities to build that kind of trust in the midst of oppression-birthed weeping.

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

So, as you and I learn to live–and believe–somewhere between weeping and joy, we lean in yet again to that old Gospel fishing tale. And we hear the voice on that shoreline calling out to us through the misty darkness just when we think we can’t keep going another minute:

“Throw your nets out on the other side of the boat.”

Don’t stop trying. Don’t stop loving. Don’t stop believing. Bend your hearts—and your actions of justice-making—toward the dawning call of God’s grace.

Weeping shall linger for a night, but…

joy comes with the morning.

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

Leadership, Artistry, and a “Sense of Place”

Like pipe organs, we learn to breathe in and with our communities. . .

I saw my neighbor, Dreama, at the community cafe this morning. Dreama is an organist. She teaches organ and provides music for Sunday worship at a local church. Dreama is an artist who is passionate about her art. Something she said about being an organist intrigues me.

“We organists are a peculiar group. We love our instrument—the organ—but we can’t take our favorite organ with us when we go out to share our work. We have particular organs we love to play, but we can only play them in the place where they live. Organs are not really transportable.”

Thank you, Dreama, for inviting me to think about how important it is that people in all professions pay careful attention to the places where we do our work. Having a “sense of place” is vital to the effectiveness of our professional endeavors. It is also vital to the life and health of the communities where we hang out our shingles, if you will, as artists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, and others.

What is a “sense of place”? Some people say a locale’s “sense of place” is shaped by the characteristics that make it unique from other locales. People are drawn to these characteristics and are connected to places over a lifetime because of experiences they have in them, whether good or bad. Communities cultivate a healthy “sense of place” when they instill in their residents an authentic sense of belonging. And an authentic sense of belonging can heal broken hearts, foster peace and inspire hope, and lead to overall communal well-being.

Dreama, as an organist, has had to cultivate an awareness of place as vital to her artistry. She plays organs in diverse locales. Each organ in each locale is unique, designed by a particular builder and then constructed, in part on site, to fit the architecture and acoustics and sometimes oddities of the space.

Author Agnes Armstrong specializes in the history of 19th Century organists and organ music. She writes that

in medieval times, a builder would move his workers and often his entire family to the site of his next organ. They might even take up residence inside the cathedral being built around them, sometimes for a year or more. There they would be devotedly occupied with building the organ. . .

Agnes Armstrong

Organs, especially pipe organs, become a part of a place’s architecture.

Organs also hold stories:

“I will never forget how I felt when I heard those first organ notes as I came down the aisle on my wedding day.”

A woman in a nursing home remembering her wedding

“I remember hearing all of Mama’s favorite pieces played on that organ for the prelude at her funeral.”

A family member’s recollection of a funeral service

Good organists develop their musical skills and expertise over their lifetimes. Amazing organists also attend to each organ’s peculiarity and to the stories, memories, and connections that are present when they sit down to accompany a choir or perform a concert.

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter, 2014.

I am grateful for the conversation with Dreama. She is an amazing organist. Her wisdom about her art reminded me to lean in to the places where I go as teacher, poet, and preacher to listen for all of the voices and stories that make a place what it is. The health and well-being of leaders and the communities we serve depends on a rich meeting or intermingling of our story and skills with the particular and peculiar stories, gifts, and challenges of the places where we serve.

Agnes Armstrong writes that “pipes in a newly constructed organ must ‘settle in’ and ‘make their own community’” within the space where they reside. We all do that when we bring our artistic and professional endeavors to a new place. Like pipe organs, we learn to breathe in and with our new communities, and in partnership with them to make music that is unique to us and that has the potential to make a difference in our world.

Burning Midnight Oil

Many United Methodist colleagues and friends are hurting this week from painful denominational decisions. My thoughts and prayers are with these aching ones who are my companions on the journey to discover and embody justice for all of God’s people. As I have seen images of people yoked in rainbow-colored stoles standing to speak their truths at the UMC gathering and beyond, the text below from Colossians came to mind. Two years ago, some of my colleagues at Wake Forest University School of Divinity crafted an open letter in response to violence in Charlottesville. We based our reflections on this same Colossians text. These thoughts are a continuation of and expansion upon ideas contained in that letter, offered in prayerful love and care.

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Colossians 3:14

How did you decide what to wear today? Do you sport a fashion genre that says “this is me”—you know, a look so peculiar to your tastes and personality that someone might see you coming from a distance and say “that’s Jill—I can tell by the boots”? Do you have a style that other people might see in the store and say—oh, that outfit is so you? Have you ever worn something to try to “fit in”? Or to stand out? Or to make a statement? Or to hide who you are? Maybe you have decided to take on some new threads as springtime approaches—discard the old look and put on something new. A new image. A new you. How did you decide what to wear today?

The scripture verse above and the surrounding verses, written to the church in Colossae almost 2000 years ago, have something to say about what we decide to wear as we come to another spring season: Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. And above all else, clothe yourselves with love.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it. Let’s do it. I’ll take mine in bright colors…

But wait. Before we settle too easily into these often heard spiritual and theological words—before we grab them out of the closet like a pair of old jeans we just throw on without much thought because they are so familiar…

Consider the power and challenge and often uncomfortable and unfamiliar fit of this call to carry in our hearts, minds, and actions—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. What does this wardrobe look like out there on the streets where people in the LGBTQIA community fear for their safety? Or where any of our neighbors face uncertainty about their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being? Consider the power and challenge of this call to wear compassion and truth on our bodies—even as we know that there are places where some bodies are condemned and vilified, where some bodies are disregarded and abused, where some bodies are unloved and unwelcomed, where some bodies tremble with cold or fear or shame. To say “yes” to this call demands our courage, our willingness to speak truth out loud in and through our bodies in unfamiliar and uncertain places…

But we are not alone in taking up this call. God is with us, burning the midnight oil and working through the too-long hours before dawn comes to create hope and justice anew.

Perhaps that is our calling too. Yes, sometimes the call is to study or pray or toss and turn into the wee hours. And more than that—the call is this—to know that God is still working to piece together in and for you and me the courage and hope we will need to keep warm as we journey this old world’s rough and too often cold and dangerous roads. The call is this too—for us to join God in God’s creating work to stitch together a new dawn of justice and hope in a hurting and broken world.

So what are we going to wear for this justice-making work? Well—you are you. I am me. And we bring to this work the uniqueness of our own voices, bodies, gifts, stories and perspectives—created in the image of God. So whatever cotton, linen, polyester or other threads we decide to costume ourselves in as we go to class or step into a pulpit or head somewhere else to protest injustice or even sit down to eat dinner with friends—this ancient letter’s words call to us: put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience—and above all else, clothe yourselves with love. Because God’s love—carried in our flesh, in our actions—and lived out loud when we break sinful silences to speak truth—love binds everything—us—together in perfect harmony.

Above all else—clothe yourselves with love. Love. Could this be thread we need to stitch together a wardrobe of justice-making? And what is this love? I think this life-affirming, truth-telling, world-transforming love is unique to each of us and our peculiar callings—AND as community-binding as any life force we will ever encounter. 

I wrote the poem below on the occasion of my mother’s death. She often sewed through the night to complete a piece of clothing for me to wear to school the next day—that morning. Looking now on her work through those nights, I glimpse something about God’s creative work on behalf of those in our midst who with determination and courage clothe themselves in God’s love and grace.

Burning Midnight Oil

A solitary light beaconed from the distance
in the wee hours just before
dawn cracked open the darkness.

Burning the midnight oil.

The Creating One in the beginning of beginnings
—sewing and seaming, stitching
roots into the earth, fashioning fine
spring things to adorn bluebirds and bumblebees
daffodils and dandelions, embroidering soulful
soil with a smile and breathing into it a
sigh of delight.

Burning the midnight oil.

A solitary light beaconed from another window
in the wee hours just before
dawn cracked open the darkness.

Burning the midnight oil.

She, created by the Creating One
–whirring and chirring, snipping and clipping,
weary-wise fingers urging one more scrap
of this bit of blue, that piece of red
beneath the ever-marching
needle-foot of that old Singer Sewer
Model 301A she kept coaxing and
cajoling into action one more time
to fashion an Easter dress or a pair
of jeans or, one time, a man’s leisure suit.

Burning the midnight oil.

All other eyes in the house, on the street, shuttered tight
while she followed with single-hearted gaze
thread that danced and dipped beneath the
material surface, not noticing the
pale winter moon kissing her hand
as the clock ticked on until she sat back
and embroidered into a girl’s last minute
request a tired sigh of delight.

Burning the midnight oil.

A light beckons; vital
sacred strands spool on at the unfurling edge
of a new crack in a resurrecting dawn, fervent
fibers holding us together
—held in our hands—
you and I piecing together hope from
torn and tearing hearts, called by the
Creating One.

Burn the midnight oil.

long-night moon

December 21, 2018. Winter solstice. The longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. This last moon phase of the year is sometimes called Long Nights Moon or Cold Moon. The gift of this year’s Long Nights Moon? A waxing full moon and a meteor shower will light up the skies tonight and over the next few nights.

For many people, this year has been a year of transitions and mournings. As rainclouds begin to dispel (finally) in my neighborhood, I celebrate the celestial gifts of light on this longest night. I also celebrate the promises of sacred light woven around the Christian season of Advent as we wait with hope even when nights are long and shadows are deep. O come, O come, Emmanuel.

long nights moon

i wonder
as I wander

if the owl that once in a blue moon sat
on the reformed church-eave next door
will weather a december damp eve
to wait with me and the tiny terrier for
the sleeping beauty of this solstice night
to lift her yellow-gold head up from
a wintry horizon and cast her spell
one more time upon a world
running away from the sun

i wonder
as i wander

if the waxing advent moon will peer
through disrobed arms of wintering trees
she who full and overflowing
pours out light like wildflower
honey over purple mountaintops
and spills silver tears onto
too-new burial places

i wonder
as i wander

if the owl will call out
across midwinter cedars
then take flight with stardust

beneath a flooding long-night moon
as the tiny terrier
throws her head back
and howls and howls




Snow Globe: A Reflection for Advent 3

Jesus is born into a real and dangerous world. Neither cozy nor glittery, the Story of Jesus’ birth is powerful and prophetic…

News stories have troubled my spirit during this third week in Advent. We celebrate God-become-vulnerable child even as a 7-year-old Guatemalan refugee dies from dehydration and exhaustion at the border. 

Jesus is born into a real and dangerous world. Neither cozy nor glittery, the Story of Jesus’ birth is powerful and prophetic in its truth-telling about who God is and who we are. And this unabridged Nativity tale is relentless in calling us–the body of Christ–to break through life-denying membranes to birth anew each day God’s justice and peace.

O come, O come, Emmanuel. . .

Reindeer perpetually landed
on the rooftop of the house
inside Aunt Julia’s snow globe.
The little girl on the road out
front never stopped
gazing with beguiled eyes
toward the festive front door,
and I never let the snow
stop rising up and falling
back down inside that dome
while the grownups’ voices
rose and fell all around me.
After all, I held the weather
in my hand and could
orchestrate a tiny
winter wonderland,
dreaming of Christmas Eve
sleigh bells chiming
merry gladness outside
my little yellow bedroom.

Cloudiness now obscures
the cheery panorama
constructed in that globe.
No more swirling snow.
Stalled reindeer.
Magic evaporated.
And the girl?
Toppled over.
Something about her
broken. I shake the globe.
Shake it again. Lie
awake. Keep vigil
for a world trapped
forever in winter.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel…

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

Old Salem Bridge, by Sheila G. Hunter

Advent is here. We are called by Advent liturgies to watch. Wait. Hope.

And yet—“the world is too much with us” (Wordsworth)—as our earth’s most vulnerable ones weep at the border…from tear gas. As too many of God’s Beloved Community fall asleep at night unsafe or uncertain even about surviving another day.

Advent is here, and what I think I fear most about the season within myself is waking up on that first Sunday in Advent to discover that I’ve stopped believing. Faltered at hoping. Lost my nerve for standing strong in faith against what I know is unjust in our world. I fear that fear is chasing away my confidence in hope. 

So an ancient carol calls to me—maybe to many of us—across the years and from a war torn West Bank city: the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee…

 

hope journeys from bethlehem by starlight
night creatures singing what they’ve heard

a woman wails then weeps then coos
her own heart birthed and beat-
beating in a straw-lined cradle

the baby is here

fear crouches at the border watching surveillance spotlights
dip and weave wind bruising itself on unmusical concertina wire

a woman wails then runs choking smoke licking at her feet
her own heart cradled
in a patch of tear-soaked blanket

the baby is here

“so we finally meet” hope reaches out a hand 
fear looks up “i am lonely and the hour is late”

a child cries forsaken into the night “i want to go home”
fear and hope be—hold each other and an almost-
forgotten lullaby falls from their lips 

the baby is here



The hopes and fears of all the years meet wherever we are most vulnerable. At borders. In killing streets. In our own hearts. In the manger. Perhaps Advent—and whatever possibilities for healing and renewal live within us—begins at these meeting places. . .