Many contemporary realities sparked this poem. Increasing homelessness in many cities. Failing churches purchased by real estate agencies and transformed into apartment buildings. Domestic violence. Nostalgia. Hope. And the awareness that human stories meet, overlap, clash, and sometimes heal.
“Don’t dwell on the past,” they said When her fingers flew unbidden To touch nostalgic eyes; Yes,
She would — remember — to forget — If she could. Swipe away the wetness Sliding down her face; worried It might seep between her lips, Unseal them so she breathed out A salted stench of yesterday’s news: “Don’t dwell on it.”
She had no dwelling anyway, Door bolted; key flung away. Windows boarded up. Rendered Unfit for human habitation. Hands curled, fists pounded, demanded entrance; Fear said “no,” misguided sentry keeping out Everything even shriveled up tendrils of Purple deadnettle that trying to crawl Through the cracks: “No-dwelling Zone.”
They moved in last Saturday, 129 U-Haul boxes crammed full of life. “We’ll put grandma’s dining table Here,” she said. Did she know They would taste springtime strawberries and snow peas there, bare feet on the hallowed ground under that table where a body was broken, blood poured out?
They sat, sipped grocery store wine, Dwelling in the past.
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…
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…
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!”
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.”
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.
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.
But wait. Am I misrepresenting the season? Am I on the verge of doing a terrible disservice to the noble pumpkin that hales from the Cucurbita genus and is therefore a great aunt to cucumbers, melons, and squash?
Yes, I can almost hear the exasperated eye-rolls of the pumpkin season deniers and pumpkin purists. The 65,900 acres of pumpkins harvested in the US in 2018 (according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service) were not grown in soil seasoned with cinnamon and cloves. None of the more than 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins that turned those acres orange last fall tasted or smelled anything like a latte.
That’s because pumpkin and pumpkin spice products are connected in name only, right?
A Matter of Taste
Five spices make up the addictive (at least to some people) flavors in the famous (or is it infamous) “Pumpkin Spice Latte” (PSL): cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice. These spices, mixed together in various proportions into coffee or cake batter or ice cream, somehow make some of us think “pumpkin.”
And I have to admit that even to a pumpkin season devotee like me, this is something of a curiosity. Like my friend says, “Pumpkin itself has no taste—lots of nutrients—but no taste.”
Well, I suppose the whole debate over Pumpkin Season actually is a matter of taste. And I have to admit, while I think pumpkin does have a taste, a pumpkin picked from my backyard garden and baked in my kitchen oven doesn’t taste or smell like a PSL.
Over the Harvest Moon about Pumpkin Spice Everything
So—what ignited the pumpkin spice craze that led to over $80,000,000 worth of PSL sales in 2018? Why are so many people so over the harvest moon about pumpkin spice everything? And, as an aside, if you will, who is buying that Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Beard Oil I saw on my newfeed? (Even this pumpkin fan was surprised to discover this addition to the seasonal offerings!)
A 2015 BBC News Magazine author, Vanessa Bradford, sought answers to these questions. She interviewed food scientist, Kantha Shelke, who offered this insight:
“Pumpkin is not a favourite food. Children and many adults often avoid pumpkin as they do rutabagas and some root vegetables. But many of us believe we should be happier (and nicer and more giving) during the holidays and pumpkin-spice products are just one of those things – like juniper and pine and wood burning stoves and fireplaces – that can change our frame of mind.”
Does this mean we can attribute skyrocketing pumpkin spice everything sales to nostalgia, marketing, and social media hype along with a rather bittersweet (which is not a PSL flavor) desire for a particular mind-and-heart-set?
The Great Pumpkin Theory
I, for one, am eager for transformed hearts and minds. But I don’t really think PSLs or other pumpkin-y products are a necessary variable of transformation. (What the necessary variables are is subject matter for another post that in a stroke of irony has to do with “seeing Jesus in a mocha“–not a PSL.)
I have a different theory altogether about the origins of manufacturers’ efforts to pumpkin spice the world at the start of each September.
Do you remember back in the 1960s when Charles Schulz wrote and produced the animated TV special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? In the show, Linus gives up trick-or-treating on Halloween night and stays awake into the night waiting for the Great Pumpkin to come to his “sincere pumpkin patch”?
The Great Pumpkin never shows up.
My theory? Those of us in my generation (I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide who that is) who sympathized with Linus have spent the last five years filling the void left by the no-showing Great Pumpkin with, well, the spice of pumpkin that doesn’t require an actual pumpkin or even the pumpkin patch.
Spicing Up Life and Sowing Seeds
I love Pumpkin Season. Yes, I know that my frame of mind and my shopping during said season are probably being shaped by the advertising and marketing powers that be. Even so, I relish the first day of Pumpkin Season (September 21 for me, my birthday) and the way it spices up my life rhythms with the promise of autumn.
I also relish the opportunities Pumpkin Season provides for me to sit down in a favorite coffee shop with a friend, enjoy a sip ‘o the season, and delight in the delectable spices we contribute to each other’s lives.
And in those moments of sharing, perhaps we sow seeds (and not pumpkin seeds) that have the potential to transform hearts and minds.
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.
I long for authentic dreams that come like moonglow to illumine dark nights.
you sit in the night cafe
sipping lukewarm coffee
from a plain white ceramic mug
a half-eaten slaw mustard and chili
cheeseburger and three fries
on a discarded plate in front of you
i saw you there last night too
and the night before that
a neon sign out front beckons
“always open” except for the “o”
that blinks and blinks trying
to stay awake to the promise
what ambitions do you harbor in that limbo of artificial light or are you just one of the many chasing sleepless daydreams of an illuminated life forgetful that dreams that come true are nocturnal pollinators drawn to blossoms that reveal their mysteries only to a midnight moon
A word about the poem: Artificial light has been in the news in recent days alongside Greta Thunberg and her bold words about the climate crisis. Several articles last week explored how artificial light and light pollution are affecting the earth and our future. I happen to be reading Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries these days, and in G Is for Gumshoe (1990), Grafton’s main character describes her experience in a nursing home by asking “what ambitions” can people harbor in that “limbo of artificial light”? The question has stayed with me as I have thought this week about the climate crisis and about light pollution. Grafton’s description also makes me think about the artificial light that persists through the actions of many U.S. leaders, an artificial light that threatens the future of our country. I long for authentic dreams that come like moonglow to illumine dark nights.
Even when evil does its strongest work to silence faith, Christian communities are often resilient and prophetic in their commitments to rise up singing. . .
Some Christian communities “bury the alleluia” on the last Sunday before Lent or on Ash Wednesday. The tradition originated in the 5th Century when Western churches began to omit the singing and speaking of “alleluia” during Lenten liturgies. Today, some churches still bid farewell to or physically hide or bury the alleluia during Lent and resurrect it during the Easter Vigil to announce with singing the joyous news that Jesus is alive.
Three historically black churches in southern Louisiana and Notre-Dame de Paris were destroyed or damaged by fires during this year’s Christian liturgical season of Lent. This weekend, many churches across the world will observe an Easter Vigil to conclude Lent, carrying the vigil flame into darkened sanctuaries. The violent and tragic church fires are the context for this year’s Easter Vigil fires. The prophetic message? Even when evil does its strongest work to silence faith, Christian communities are often resilient and prophetic in their commitments to rise up singing as they keep watch through Easter Eve for the morning sun to rise yet again.
a weary sister walks among the ruins sweeping cold ashes into a dustbin for next year’s lenten initiation she says bending again over the priceless residue
“remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”
the preacher said just 40 days ago while pressing ashy imprints of mortality on furrowed foreheads
nobody saw it coming— unholy tongues of fire stripping altars bare
out of sync with high holy lenten processions where expectant worshipers catch sparks from an easter vigil flame and carry them into silent holy saturday sanctuaries
she puts a hand on her tired back and when she lifts her face toward the pinking sky a wayward bit of wind stirs the gathered ashes
and even with all other words smothered by smoke and tears she tastes alleluia on her dry lips