By the Jabbok

What blessings do we crave?

Held and Holding on

It was night.
And they wrestled.
By the Jabbok.

Jacob. Heel-grabbing birthright stealer. He spends a lifetime outsmarting challengers and dodging confrontations. And he is good at both. When he arrives at the Jabbok, he counts his blessings, names each camel and wife and servant one by one. There are many.

But then he sends them on across the river. Everything that defines him. Everything that hides him in a shroud of self-unknowing.

Tomorrow Jacob will cross the river. To meet his estranged brother, Esau, whose anger has had 20 years to stew in the birthright bowl.

But tonight, Jacob is alone. By the Jabbok.

Jacob’s all-nighter

Was it river canyon wreslemania with backbreakers, chokeslams, and an Undertaker smackdown? Did their feet sink into the mud as they prowled around each other? In Rembrandt’s painting of this scene, a shape-shifting androgynous angel holds a wounded Jacob in an intimate embrace.

Jacob. Holding on and held. Changed. In the marrow of his bones. By the Jabbok.

Preacher and poet James Weldon Johnson imagines such a river. “Up from the bed of a river God scooped clay. And there–this Great God–toiled over a lump of clay until he shaped it in God’s own image. Then he blew into it the breath of life.”

Could that be Jacob? Scooped out of the mud. Created again. By the Jabbok.

But clay sometimes resists

And Jacob had been resisting all of his life–resisting being born second in a system that privileged first-borns (sons, that is), resisting anything that held him back.

So as the sunrises kisses the dust they have kicked up–Jacob is still resisting.

But now, Jacob–changed–resists letting go until he receives a blessing.

What blessing do we crave?

Perhaps wrestling by our lives’ Jabbok has taught us. God, like manna and sea-parting winds, comes to us in the night, when we can’t see what is right in front of us, when answer we had never thought to question come undone.

What takes hold of us then, when illusions about our own strength have been stripped away?

God’s grace. Not manageable grace we can maneuver but wild, fierce, fearless grace stirred up–by the Jabbok.

Perhaps wrestling by the Jabbok has shown us. Though we have prevailed in some things, holding onto those accomplishments means little unless we open ourselves to be held by divine love. Love that might come to us as a stranger. By the Jabbok.

Perhaps wrestling by the Jabbok has taught us–

Jabbok is the struggle to get up in the morning when sorrow has tethered our feet to the night.

Jabbok is twilight tossing and turning to understand or to forgive or to stand up in the face of what we know is wrong.

Jabbok is Ferguson

and Flint.

Jabbok is Mother Emmanuel and Black Lives Matter.

Jabbok is a lifelong nighttime of struggles against injustices.

And Jabbok is also the way home

And Jabbock is also the way home-

Jabbok is the place where we wrestle with an embodied faith that is not fragile. It is where we find courage to speak out against harm done in God’s name.

Jabbok is where we decide to stay in the struggle until God has

unearthed us
created us again
breathed into our bones–life–
by the Jabbok
a heel-grabber becomes a wrestling one who prevails.

Jacob becomes Israel. And we become called ones who whisper into the night who we are and hear breathed out over the river’s tintinnabulation–yes, you are that and more.

As day breaks–

Sunlight might cling to dust stirred up by the midnight mayhem. Jabbok mud may stain our feet for a life time. But that is gift. Because Jabbok could be our road to Emmaus.

Jabbok could be our Pentecost Eve when Spirit winds blow through nailed-shut windows and stir up heart-fires. We dare not forget the night. Or keep our hearts shut off from the blessing that comes in the morning–

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

In the morning, when we cross to the other side of the river: “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept” (Genesis 33).

There is always another river to cross

No permanent dwellings by the Jabbok. Wounded spirits and broken bodies are out there on the other side. And we have learned things by passing by this way that give us endurance to hold vigil with others as they wrestle and joy to dance with them when they arrive home in the morning.

That is the blessing. There is always another river to cross–and on the other side–unexpected, even estranged Holy Others. And there is also the wisdom the God-wrestler speaks through grace-seasoned tears: “To see your face was like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33). Toiling over a lump of mud and breathing into it the breath of life. By the Jabbok.

Note: Former Dean Gail R. O’Day gifted me with a print depicting the story of Jacob and his dream of ladders and angels. That print was hung in my office today. I have been thinking about Jacob’s complex life as I admire the print.

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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.

Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

well, not really, but God’s Spirit was present in that mocha moment. . .

Note: I first wrote this post in June 2015. My mother has since died, and on Sundays I often think about her and our mocha moments. I revisited this piece for #blogtober. As I reread and revised it for today’s post, I realized—many people are hungrier than ever for a glimpse of the sacred, in particular when it is revealed through justice-making and shared hope.

“Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha.” Can’t we picture such a headline in our news feeds? We have seen announcements like it before: “‘Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese’ Sells for $28,000.” The now-famous grilled cheese was reported to have an imprint of the Virgin Mary’s face on it. It had been stored in a baggie in a bedroom dresser for ten years before we heard about it in the news in 2004.

$28,000? Are we that hungry for a glimpse of the sacred?

Social media outlets have been abuzz recently about churches in survivor mode. Statistics paint a grim picture of the future of institutional Christianity. What are churches offering that people aren’t buying? 

What are we hungry for today?

A mocha stirred up these thoughts for me. You see, I have been seeing something that looks a whole lot God’s Spirit swirling about in a mocha I have a date with each week. 

The mocha itself is at best mediocre. I get it for free from one of those institutional coffee machines you find in hospitals or convenience stores. I press one of six buttons–hot chocolate, mocha, cappuccino (regular or decaf) or coffee (regular or decaf). The machine ponders my choice. Then it grinds and sputters and spits my beverage into a 6-ounce cup.

This particular machine resides in my mother’s senior adult apartment community. When my mother moved to my city, I was glad that the transition was not as difficult as other parental moves I had heard about. My mother pared down her stuff and moved with some ease from her house of 45 years into a studio apartment. The ascetic quality of her new space suits her just fine. 

More difficult was the change her move sparked for me. Overnight my schedule became tied to hers. My mother’s life became less cluttered, mine more cluttered.

That is how the mocha machine came to dispense more than just a mocha. I organize my mother’s medications every week. I also do her laundry. Once these tasks are done, she and I go downstairs to wait for her lunch hour. While we wait, I sip on a mocha.

I have never been a devoted mocha drinker, but the day the mocha machine was “out of order,” I was too. I had come to anticipate drinking that Styrofoam-seasoned, somewhat chocolate flavored drink.

I sat to wait with Mom the day the mocha machine was on the fritz. The stories and conversations went on around me as usual, and I found myself laughing and joining in. The weekly mocha had helped me in those initial months of transition to sit and listen and hear the wisdom-infused storytelling of my mother and her new friends. It had offered Spirit-sweetened seasoning to my caregiving activities.

Now, even without the mocha, I was connected somehow. Perhaps what many churchgoers seek is not unlike what I seek as a caregiver: moments when God’s Spirit sneaks in to stir up and transform.

If people go to church at all, they go seeking moments when their life stories are heard and held with care. They go wanting to experience something about their place in the human community. They go to encounter and even join forces with a God who is working to end injustice and heal our world. Neither exacting doctrinal analysis nor sentimentalized sacramentality will accomplish these things.

But perhaps cultivating holy “mocha moments” can. Coffee shops are popular these days. Many people love to grab a cup of java with friends over breakfast biscuits. Others go to coffee shops to drink their favorite roast at a solo table while working on their laptops. But even those of us who drink our coffee solo at coffee shops are not alone. Not really. We notice, we regulars, when Susan is not at her usual corner table. 

Could it be that we humans seek everyday community-making rituals and sometimes even embrace them as everyday sacred? Hmm … and could this mean that God is already loose and at work in the world? Does it mean that churches don’t have sole (or even primary) responsibility for naming and managing God’s presence beyond their walls?

I say “yes” to all of these questions.

Churches need to think about how their public and spiritual identities can be born again for our hyper-connected, coffee-shop-community times. Churches also need to pay attention to gifts already present in their worship traditions.

I learned as a child to look for Jesus in a bit of bread and a sip of drink. Before I started partaking of communion or learned anything about communion’s theological intricacies, I watched when folks in our church tipped their heads back to drain those tiny cups. I noticed that when my father returned to our pew after communion he had a different smell. I wanted to taste that drink. I wanted to smell different like he did. I also learned as a child that God loves me and others no matter what. God’s grace is about these things.

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

Churches that will thrive in the future will fling open their doors not only to let God’s Spirit in but also to share physical food and drink with hungry people. They will also offer with determined joy God’s gifts of radical welcome and fierce generosity to all people.

Perhaps to the extent that we learn to welcome all—friends and strangers—to our church tables we make possible more of those everyday grace-filled moments when people glimpse something that resembles Jesus, even in a mediocre mocha.

Broken and Spilled Out

“Call for the mourning-women. To come.” Jeremiah 17

A reflection for World Communion Sunday, 2019

So many people today are disconnected from the necessity and power of lament. We resist facing into the reality of pain, unable or unwilling to acknowledge that being honest about the suffering we have caused or the suffering we have experienced is a vital step toward healing. 

When the daily news is as filled stories, essays, and editorials about violence and needless deaths as it has been in recent months, I yearn for the rediscovery of individual and communal lament. We need to mourn. To be honest about our humanity. To confess our sins against the humanity of others. 

Many Christian churches around the globe will observe World Communion Sunday this week. We will break bread and remember the story of the violent death of Jesus. We will remember how Jesus shared bread, stories, hopes, dreams, and desires with his friends just before he he was crucified. We will share bread around the Lord’s Table with our friends. Maybe as we remember that bittersweet meal Jesus shared we can take time to lament our communities’ sins and the wrongs perpetuated as a result. I hope this poem invites that. 

Broken and Spilled Out

Call for the mourning-women to come; send for
the skilled women to come;
let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
Jeremiah 17

Intending to comfort
(or is it to avoid lament)
they utter pedestrian platitudes
(with unconvincing certainty).

Don’t you hear the weeping?
(Really—how can they not?)
The wailing?
(This is no ordinary pain, if
there is such a thing
as ordinary pain.)

We gather around a table
to break bread,
to pour out wine
in remembrance of—

(Name them, the devastated ones.
Name all of them. No matter
long it takes. The ones we too
quickly forget. The ones we
don’t take notice of. Even the
undeserving ones? Even
them. Especially them.
Because of them.
Because of us.)

Hearts mangled.
Souls ruptured.

Bodies crucified.
Blood spilled out.

Bread.
(Wounded.)

Remember.

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.

On Rekindling Your Passion

Some passions keep luring us back into their embrace. Or is it their clutches?

for writing (and other callings to creative work)

I wrote my first novel–well, started writing it–with my best friend in fifth grade, Sandra. Sandra and I lived in the same neighborhood and spent many days after school hanging out together.

We didn’t start out to write a novel on that afternoon when we came up with the idea. For a few days, we had been curious about a vacant house down the road from where Sandra lived. Of course, we didn’t know any facts about the house or its occupants. All we knew was that one day tricycles and a Buick were parked out front and the next day they were replaced by a “for sale” sign. Something sinister must have happened, we surmised.

Our imaginations took over from there. After several days of conjecture, we decided to write a mystery novel featuring the now empty house and its departed inhabitants.

I don’t remember why we chose to record our unsubstantiated theories about the house in a novel. Looking back, that seems like an odd undertaking for a couple of ten-year-olds.

Both of us were devoted fans of 1970s teenaged sleuths–Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchock’s three investigators. Our love of reading those mysteries may have inspired our own writing aspirations. We were also avid watchers of “Dark Shadows,” a soap opera that we found to be funny and scary all at the same time. The story we began to imagine about that house down the street was scary–and hilarious–to us. We giggled as much as we wrote as we huddled around the typewriter on those after school afternoons.

I am certain the novel was a success. That, too, is unsubstantiated if success is determined by the quality of the writing or the quantity of books sold. We did not sell or even show the novel to anyone, and I have no idea what happened to the draft we created.

We typed our story on a portable Sears typewriter using typewriter paper we had cut to the size of novels we had checked out from the public library. Those typed sheafs of paper are long gone as is my memory of the plot and characters. Sandra might remember more than I do, but she and I lost touch over 40 years ago. I have a vague notion that she might be a pharmacist now–and maybe a writer, too?

Writing that novel ignited a passion within me. That is why I consider it a success. Ever since those afternoons of pounding out a plot on that manual typewriter on Sandra’s family’s carport I have loved to write.

In the years since I collaborated on that first mystery, I have written sermons, lectures, essays, academic books, blogs, poems, and stories. I have even co-written and published a full-length novel–Come Home Free–with a new writing partner, Sheila Hunter. None of my projects have made bestseller lists. Most of them have been read by only a handful of dedicated fans. Fame and fortune do not characterize my artistic endeavors. But over the years, I have continued to enjoy the writing craft and my identity as a writer. I love imagining myself to be a writer. I love being a writer.

On those days when my imagination has run dry or when I wonder if writing is worth the agony it causes (yes, writing is sweet agony most of the time), that debut novel that never debuted comes to mind. Or it should.

How can any of us rekindle our passion for creative work in the face of manuscript rejections, lack of readers, or just plain old loss of motivation? Three remedies come to mind.

First, we can take some time to remember what first sparked our artistic passions. One day after school Sandra and I jumped in and started writing a novel. We didn’t know how to do that or even have a good strategy for our efforts, but we had great fun spinning that fanciful yarn of ours. Those feelings of desire and enjoyment have never dissipated and have the power bring me back to the keyboard even on days when apathy threatens. Sometimes we need just to dive in and write.

Second, we can reignite our curiosity about the things we encounter in our everyday lives. We might even stoke our imaginations by observing and brainstorming with another artist or friend. I think such brainstorming sessions should always involve a certain amount of giggling.

Third, we can continue to create through the dry spells. It took me a long time to add “writer” to my resume. Through writing, I have developed my voice and gained clarity about what I believe and value. Writing connects me to other people and the world around me. Writing gives me space to follow paths that lead me away from emails and calendars. Sometimes I even write myself down unexpected trails where adventure lurks around the bend. I am a writer. Writers write. And writing itself can rekindle our passion.

I wish I still had a page or two of that childhood novel. I am curious about the voice and imagination of the ten-year-old me. I am also curious about what sort of tale Sandra and I decided to tell about that vacant house down the street. I am sad that those pages are gone. But a few manual typewriters are still around. The next time I hit a writing wilderness–when all else fails–maybe I will sit down at an old Sears and see follow whatever plot my fingers remember.

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

If I Could Write a Viral Blog

What if someone told me that my next blog post would go viral, no matter the topic or content?

what would I write about?

The world is chaotic. Crazy-making. Even frightening.

What if someone told me that my next blog post would go viral, no matter the topic or content? What would I write about if I knew my words would be viewed and maybe read by 10,000, even 100,000, people?

This question has been wandering around in my mind for the last few days. I attribute this to several things. Gifted with some time to read, reflect, and write this week, I have found myself pondering the purpose of my wordsmithing. Do I write to express myself? To create? To live out a calling? Or do I write to stir the hearts and minds of readers, to make a difference of some sort?

I write for all of these reasons and more. I also write to connect a yearning within myself to yearnings within potential readers.

And the world is chaotic. Crazy-making. Even frightening.

Because the world is all of these things, none of the above reasons for writing are adequate. If I could write a blog that was fiery or clever or beautiful or lyrical or philosophical or something else enough to catch the attention of readers I do not know and will never meet, what would I want to say to them? Do I have anything to say—to wordsmith—that speaks to the chaos and uncertainty of our times?

Blogger Nicolas Cole quoted a mentor about some writers’ desires to “go viral”: “They want fireworks. They don’t want to build a constellation.” Some readers and publishers prefer fireworks, too. I understand that. I have read viral blog posts that amaze, astound, and inspire. I respect the writers of those posts and admit to some amount of envy. I want to be a good, even great, writer, but I don’t think I am one of those writers who crafts posts that go viral.

Maybe the gift I have to offer—the gift all of us have to offer—to most situations is consistency of authentic and generous presence. This is what writing and blogging and my life as a professor are teaching me. My friend Sam comes to mind as an example of consistency of presence. He shows up for people. I see him everywhere—at celebratory events, city-wide gatherings, one-on-one lunches, countless committee meetings, funerals. Sam shows up and his presence matters. Over time, I have grown to count on Sam’s presence. Respect him for it. Cherish it and him as prophetic and vital parts of my community.

Perhaps the way I can become a consistent presence as a writer is to keep writing. Perhaps the way I can respond with wisdom to the uncertain and too often frightening realities of our times is to show up over time with the most substantive and honest words I can muster—and then back those words up by striving to be a consistent, caring, and authentic presence wherever my daily journeys take me.

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter

This summer I went to quite a few minor league baseball games in my city. Friday nights are fireworks nights at the baseball park. One Friday night, I was walking to my car as the final fiery waterfall filled the evening sky. I stopped to watch, and as the glittering lights faded, I noticed behind the smoke the glow of a cluster of stars.

Fireworks can be breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Fireworks are also momentary. In our chaotic world, much of what we thought was reliable or certain has been shown at best to be fleeting and at worst to be undependable. Perhaps a stabilizing message I can express across my lifetime—including across my life as a writer—is the hopeful and mysterious promise of the stars.

So, another blog post ends. Tomorrow I will attempt to write again. And again the next day. My aspiration? To create a constellation of words, images, poems, and stories that offer a steady presence of wisdom-seeking in an uncertain world. And when I push “publish,” I will go out and try to embody the words I write.