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.

Deep Wells in Desert Places

Many fears and feelings swirl around us and our communities as COVID-19 reeks havoc on our lives and communities. We may wonder—where is God? Where is hope? Are we going to be okay?

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

John 4:13-14

A reflection for The third sunday in lent

Note: I wrote a version of this reflection last fall as a part of new student orientation at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. The lectionary text for this Third Sunday Lent is from John 4:5-42 and narrates the story of Jesus meeting a woman at Jacob’s well. I revised my reflection as I thought about this ancient encounter in light of the COVID-19 crisis that continues to unfold in our communities and across the globe.

Thirst. High noon. A well. And a water jar left behind. 

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 at Jacob’s well. A well that holds stories. Maybe even secrets.

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.

Many fears and feelings swirl around us as COVID-19 reeks havoc on our lives and communities. We may wonder—where is God? Where is hope? Are we going to be okay?

Perhaps we can become witnesses to Gospel hope as we encounter our humanity in unexpected ways in these uncertain days. Indeed, perhaps Gospel hope for our communities—for our world—can be found in our capacity to recognize our shared vulnerabilities and then offer to each other thirst-quenching, healing, life-restoring hospitality and care.

Jesus and the woman at Jacob’s well shared the depths of their humanity with each other the day of their unanticipated encounter. The outcome? Because of what she and Jesus shared, the woman saw something in herself she had never seen before. A new strength. A story to tell. A word to proclaim—-

May we know God’s healing presence and peace in these days. And as we come seeking water in wilderness places, may we encounter in each other the mysteries and wonders of our own fragile and beloved humanity and share with each other God’s grace and love.

Coming Home

Advent calls us to work together to create and be for each other home for now until all of God’s children–wandering people that we are–can rest in the fullness of God’s promised home.

Reflections on Advent 2019, Year A

Advent is about comings. In a sense, Advent is about “home”-comings. 

  • Jesus comes to earth–to God’s home? to our home? 
  • God comes into our lives–to abide with us.
  • We await a future “home”-going or “home”-coming–when people stream create a home of justice and peace together on God’s holy mountain. 

An overarching biblical theme of yearning for home enlivens our theologies. We seek what is already but not yet. We journey relentlessly to earthly home-spaces that are not quite home because we remain in both tangible and intangible ways “away” from God. As people of faith, we join biblical ancestors in seeking a Promised Land, a land where there is no weeping or crying or pain. In the meanwhile—until we arrive in that sought-after place—God calls us to do what we can to create God’s home here on earth, in our cities and towns, schools and churches, workplaces and homes.

Some are too much at home in the role of wanderer,

watcher, listener; who, by lamplit doors

that open only to another’s knock,

commune with shadows and are happier

with ghosts than living guests in a warm house.

****

The undertone of all their solitude

is the unceasing question, Who am I?

Denise Levertov


Poet Denise Levertov (1923-2007) writes in a 1946 poem about solitude of being “too much at home in the role of wanderer.” I love Levertov’s poem, though I tend to see faith as calling us to the opposite of what she describes. I hear faith calling us to be at home in the role of wanderer. Never settling for less than justice for all of God’s people. Restless for peace. Always searching for healing, hope, grace. In other words, faith calls us to be at home in the role of wanderer until we one day cross the border into God’s not yet commonplace home.

That, perhaps, is the power of Advent wisdom. Jesus’ followers can never stop seeking. Not until all of the hungry are fed and violence has been stopped and no one feels the sting of exclusion. Not until all have opened themselves to God’s love and are empowered to go out into the world and love others, freed both from arrogance and shame.

But Levertov’s poem says that we risk being too much at home in the role of wanderers. Sounds like a conundrum, doesn’t it? We are called to be justice-seeking wanderers. We are also called to be at home in God’s love. Whew!

I think God’s call to people of faith in the midst of this conundrum is to pray and work together to imagine and create home—welcoming, non-judging, nourishing—home-for-now for all people who are seeking after God’s resting places of justice, grace, and peace.

What does this have to do with Advent? The texts in Year A paint a picture of “home” that is as bizarre as any we might imagine:

  • Lions and lambs nap together.
  • Swords become plowshares and spears pruning hooks.
  • Desert soil blossoms with crocuses.
  • Weak hands and feeble knees are made strong.
  • A dead stump births new life.
  • God is born in a barn.

Advent invites–perhaps even urges–us to watch for the unexpected ways that God is with us. Advent also urges us to imagine how we can be home-for-now for those whose lives are broken, how we can be home for our communities’ strangers, how we can be home for those whose stories have left them isolated, alone, without hope.

Advent calls us to work together to create and be for each other home for now until all of God’s children–wandering people that we are–can rest in the fullness of God’s promised home.

This year’s Advent season–called Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary–immerses worshipers in what we might call “impossible possibilities” that take us beyond the world as we know it to a world of Shalom. I hear in this year’s four weeks of Advent four verbs of expectancy, and I am excited to reflect on these four verbs each week as the Advent journey unfolds.

Watch

Turn

Imagine

Be

Advent 2019

**Note: Featured image is by Sheila Hunter and is used by permission. Thank you, Sheila!

Pumpkin Season’s High Happy Day

How can we encounter eternity in daily human experiences?

Forever–is composed of Nows–

Emily Dickinson

The day is here. Halloween. The high happy day of Pumpkin Season!

I love Halloween in our neighborhood. My neighbors liven up their yards with orange and purple lights, pumpkins, and other fall decor. And when evening comes? Many people will be out and about, offering candy to trick-or-treaters and trick-or-treating with their children and grandchildren. In our neighborhood, Halloween has become a grand communal affair.

Today, if past experience is a predictor, just over 200 ghouls, ghosts, super heroes, and other characters will arrive in my neighborhood seeking Halloween treats. Many of the trick-or-treaters are children from nearby neighborhoods. Their parents seem to feel good about bringing their little ones to our community.

Sheila and I have fun sitting on our porch welcoming the treat seekers. The tiny goblins are adorable. We also look forward to seeing the imaginative costumes of the School of the Arts students who make their Halloween pilgrimages down our street.

More than meets the eye

But there is more to the high happy days of Pumpkin Season than meets the eye at sunset on October 31.

Halloween itself may be the most visible festival this time of the year, at least in my neighborhood. Perhaps less known is that Halloween is one of a trio of cultural and religious ritual observances that fall during the transitional days between October and November–All Hallow’s Even (or Evening), Hallowmas (All Saints Day), Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The histories, beliefs and practices connected to each of these days vary depending on cultural and geographical location.

All Hallow’s Even and Hallowmas

All Saints Day dates to the early 7th Century and is observed on November 1 in many Christian traditions. All Saints Day commemorates those saints, now departed, who have influenced Christian faith. Many observances of All Saints Day, especially in Protestant churches, celebrate all Christians, past and present, who have died in the last year.

Some churches commemorate local “saints” on All Souls’ Day, the day following All Saints’ Day.

The historical name for All Saints was Hallowmas–“hallow” meaning “saints,” and “mas” meaning “mass,” or Eucharistic feast. Those who observed Hallowmas held a Eucharistic feast in memory of saints of the faith. The day before Hallowmas was (and still is in some places) the Vigil of All Hallows, or what is now recognized in popular culture as Halloween.

Dia de los Muertos

In some countries, for example in Portugal, Mexico, and Spain, All Saints coincides with Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents), which is the first day of the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). On the Dia de los Inocentes, communities remember infants and children who have died.

The Dia de los Muertos is observed in varied ways in Spanish-speaking countries, and at the center of many celebrations is time set aside to visit, and in some places decorate, the gravesites of loved ones who have died. The Dia de los Muertos is a national holiday in Mexico.

Encountering eternity in daily experiences

Emily Dickinson’s famous poetic line, “Forever—is composed of Nows–,” comes to mind for me as we arrive at these October/November days of remembrance.

Time, in Christian tradition and theology, has been defined, discussed, and debated over many centuries. The history of sacred and secular calendars reflects this liveliness of human understandings of time.

What Dickinson expresses in her poem reflects one dimension of this season’s trio of ritualized remembrances. Scholars think that in the poem that contains this line Dickinson wanted to emphasize how we can encounter eternity in daily human experiences.

What does this have to do with All Hallows, All Saints, and Dia de los Muertos? Perhaps the poem and these remembrances suggest that the saints are, in a sense, with us today. And we who are alive to remember them are living eternity now.

So, on October 31–Halloween to some, All Hallow’s Eve to others–we enter into a time of remembrance. In my neighborhood, we take to the streets after sunset, laughing and talking as our flashlights dance at our feet. One of my neighbors builds a fire in a fire pit in her driveway, and people stop by to visit and warm their hands.

This year, I am imagining our neighborhood Halloween sharing as a small foretaste of God’s reign. For a few hours, we will be community together, and that “now” will become a part of an anticipated “forever” where all people are free to laugh and play together.

As I write this on Halloween Eve, I lift a prayer: Holy Spirit, dance in our midst in these autumn days and inspire us again toward creating and being your Beloved Community in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

Giving Thanks for Neriah People

They embodied faith and courage when they decided to call a woman as their pastor all of those years ago.

In May of my 26th year, I headed for the Virginia hills with high hopes for my first pastorate. The year was 1988, and the church was Neriah Baptist.

Neriah has an intriguing name. The word “Neriah” is in the Old Testament and is the name of Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch’s father. Neriah means “God is light.”

Neriah Baptist Church was full of God’s light.

Annie Dillard describes churches where members haul in from their gardens each Sunday flower arrangements the size of hedges. Those were Neriah people. Larger than life spirituality. Earth-connected faith. Neriah people—they were truck drivers, teachers, sheep farmers, principals, gardeners, artists, inventors, and determined huggers. And they were people of deep faith.

Now, becoming a pastor is by itself culture shock for someone only a few months out from her last theology exam. And for a town dweller who had never seen a sheep farm and who was a best a reluctant hugger? My education to be a pastor was far from finished.

My Master of Divinity degree prepared me for much of my pastoral work. I could exegete a Biblical text. My mind was alive with theological ideas. But no seminary professor reflected theologically with me about praying for calves in hayfields–something I did in my initial weeks at the church. And giving two sermons in a homiletics course is nothing like preaching every week. Sunday comes. Pastors preach. Then in seven days Sunday arrives, then in seven more days…

So, in the unexpected 4th year of my MDiv when I was called to be a pastor? I learned that Neriah people longed to hear a Gospel word every Sunday. I also learned that the hospital was 60 miles away and that driving to and from the emergency room in the night’s wee hours was wearying and that there were meetings and phone calls and pastoral visits and that all of this left little time or energy for a whole lot of things I thought would be my Gospel work.

What I now know and believe is this: all of it, baptizing and breaking bread at the table, blessing a child moments after she comes screaming into this old world, picking green beans with a church member while he cries and cries because his wife has been diagnosed with cancer—all of it, the grand pastoral actions and the ones that seem mundane. All of it is, well, liturgy.

Liturgy. Cathedrals come to mind. And communal prayer. And Gospel choirs. Liturgy is worship.

And in the ancient Greek city-states of 2500 years ago where the word was birthed, liturgy or leitougia meant “work of the people.” Liturgy in that context was work people did at their own expense for the public good—anything from street cleaning to bridge-building.

I wonder. What happens when we put the two meanings together? Liturgy is the work of the people to praise God; liturgy is also the work of the people to join God in God’s everyday work to care for and transform the world.

Neriah people taught me to embrace all of the meanings of liturgy. They taught me to get the dirt of creation underneath my fingernails, and in doing so, they instilled pastoral wisdom in me: the things we do again and again each day because we must? These things are liturgy, and God dwells in them and in us as we take up our everyday callings one moment, one step, one action at a time.

Neriah people taught me about bold works of justice-making when against all financial odds we opened a food pantry for people in our community. Neriah people taught me how to pray at hospital bedsides and offer blessings at dinners on the ground. Neriah people taught me to be a pastor.

I think about my Neriah years and Neriah people almost every day, and I thank God for their persistent faith and their generosity in sharing that faith and their wisdom with me all of those years ago. They embodied courage when they decided to call a woman as their pastor no matter what criticism might come their way as a result. I celebrate that I was the woman they called and that I had the opportunity to live out and deepen my calling to preach while working and worshiping with them.

My prayer for these days? I pray that we may all know the mercy and grace of Neriah–God is light–in our lives as we continue to work together to share Gospel justice, hope and love in our broken world. May we find the courage and faith to be Neriah people

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?