The berries are like Mama’s shade-shifting lipstick.
Autumn is here. Sheila says our backyard holly tree is in panic mode over whatever winter weather is to come. The holly is ensuring that all who are hungry will have berries aplenty for the cold months ahead. She has prepared a winter feast.
Holly’s berries were green then pinkish orange, color deepening now with each day that the sun sleeps longer. The berries are like Mama’s
shade-shifting lipstick, I think, waxy green in the tube, transformed to candy apple red on her lips. “Don’t you think you’re overdoing it,
a bit?” I asked Holly. I have never seen so many berries. She must be getting tired from wearing all the jewels summer has draped over her spindly arms.
Her only response is to blush in the autumn light while mama wren sticks her head out from the inflamed branches and offers up a scolding winter prelude.
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
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.”
God calls us to come home to our most authentic selves and then to be home for others who are seeking.
Photo by Sheila Hunter
My friend told me this story.
She was hiking down into the Grand Canyon on a rather warm day. A family passed by her going the opposite direction–out of the Canyon.
My friend overheard the young girl in the family lament to her mother:
“Mom, I want to go home.”
Her mom answered. “We will be home soon. When we get to the top–just up there–we will go back to our hotel and eat and rest.”
The girl’s response?
“No, Mom. I don’t want to go to the hotel. I want to go home-home.”
Being or finding or going home is difficult and painful for many people. This is the case for all sorts of reasons.
Consider the woman who moved for a job or a relationship and is struggling to get connected to a new community;
Or the teenager who ran away from a house that was never really home.
What about the family that escaped across a border of some kind and now can neither go back not see a way to go forward?
What about those people who can’t seem to feel at home in their own lives or even their own bodies?
Longing for home
Strangers in a strange land. Wandering. Seeking. So many people in our world today, at some time in their lives, long for home, even if they are not sure what home means for them.
For some of these people, faith communities become home. Or faith communities become home-like staying places, in-the-meanwhile dwelling places, for people whose lives are on the way to—well to many, often unknown, somewheres.
Or faith communities perhaps can become a for-now home. I long for this to be so.
“Not going home”
An unexpected image of “home”–along with the refrain of “not going home”–has gone viral on my Facebook feed this week. People who support women who preach have found in the phrase, “not going home,” a prophetic digital way to respond to and resist evangelical leader John MacArthur’s recent statement telling evangelist Beth Moore to “go home.”
“Home” also stands out to me in this week’s lectionary text, Luke 18:9-14. At the end of this parable that features a tax collector and a Pharisee, the tax collector goes”down to his home justified.” Read other insights about this parable in yesterday’s post and see the full text of the parable at the bottom of this post.
These two accounts–the ancient parable and the trending Facebook post–are coinciding or colliding or perhaps colluding this week to stir unexpected thoughts for me about “home.”
What I am considering as a result of this collusion is this:
What new and life-giving theological possibilities for our times can we discover in images of “home” and “going home”?
At home in the role of wanderer
In the parable, the tax collector goes home from the temple “justified.” Having sought God in humility–in deep recognition of his humanness–he is grounded anew in God’s care and mercy for him. The tax collector goes home with a new sense of belonging within God’s love and grace. He may still be regarded in contempt by those who deem themselves more righteous than they think he is, but he can dwell in his own life knowing that he is a beloved child of God. He can go home justified.
And yet, even that profound image of going home contains a bittersweet reality. “Home” for people of faith is, in large measure, a life of seeking and wandering and wondering.
Perhaps faith calls us to be at home, if you will, in the role of wanderer. Restless for justice. Always searching for healing, hope, grace. At home in the role of wanderer until we one day cross the border into God’s not yet commonwealth.
That, perhaps, is the power of Gospel 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 from both arrogance and shame.
But Levertov’s poem says that we risk being too much at home in the role of wanderers.
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.
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.
This is not easy work. It takes courage. And a whole lot of grace.
Called to be home-home
But the call remains. We are called to be home for those whose lives are broken. To be home for our communities’ strangers. To be home for those whose stories have left them isolated, alone, without hope. We are called to be home for now until all of us–wandering people that we are–finally can go “home-home.”
In the case of many amazing and prophetic women I have been blessed to know? They are at home in the role of preachers. Their home-home is in a pulpit. By saying “yes” to God’s call to be proclaimers of God’s justice, love and grace, they have embraced something central to their identity. And they have come home to themselves as Gospel proclaimers, justified by God.
Come home free
I am reminded of an old time version of a kids’ game—hide-and-seek. Maybe some of you remember the “song” that goes with the game? “Ollie, Ollie oxen frei.” This is what those who have been found sing out to the one who has been hiding the longest—to the one not yet found: “Ollie, Ollie oxen frei.”
An approximate rendering of the German phrase is this: The game is finished. All is forgiven. You can come home free.
We are all to varying degrees both Pharisee and tax collector. We are also neither tax collector nor Pharisee. We are human. We are exalted dust. And a God who never stops seeking for us calls us every day to come home to our most authentic selves–
I pray that we can remember and live this wisdom.
By God’s grace, let us be places where restless and yearning wanderers, found by God’s grace, can come home-home free.
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.”
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.’
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.
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?
This idiom is alive and well in many communities—congregations, institutions, families, neighborhoods. We live, I think, in betwixt and between times, experiencing all of the uncertainties that arise in the midst of transitions.
Many things are up in the air all around folks these days. Some people are in between jobs or discerning how to respond to tough questions about their lives. Others are in the midst of changes in their families. And others face bitter and painful realities of transitions caused by forces beyond their control.
As a divinity school professor and interim dean, I am reminded every day that theological education is in the midst of change as religious landscapes across the U.S. shift and as people from many different religious backgrounds redefine how they understand spirituality. The dust of religious identity in the U.S. is unsettled, and when dust is unsettled, it can be hard to get a clear view of the future.
I offer here a few words of hope in the midst of unsettled dust.
A dusty story of creative hope.
Dust tells a story. Dust tells our story as human beings created in God’s image.
The Genesis creation story depicts God forming human beings from dust–from humus, the soil of the earth. As a religious image in biblical and Christian liturgical traditions, dust is referred to as the stuff of which humans are made and stuff to which humans return upon death. I explored this image from a different perspective in an earlier post.
As I think today about unsettled dust, the biblical and religious images of dust and creation remind me that human beings are in their very physicality part of the earth and with that reality comes a responsibility for care for the earth and its communities. Dust, even the unsettled kind, fertilizes the future, if you will. We, as creatures of dust, are the soil in which the future is planted.
Called to authentic dusty-ness
The reality of unsettled dust also invites us to rethink the meaning of “humility.” This week’s Revised Common Lectionary text is Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
Much more can be said about this text and has been by biblical scholars and preachers (and will be said by yours truly in a sermon this Sunday at Sedgefield Presbyterian Church). For this post, the last phrases of the parable are striking to me:
“. . . for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18: 14
What do I hear in these phrases? Again, the word “humus” comes to mind. Humus, humanity, humility—all three words share a linguistic relationship and a theological one.
Authentic humility is about recognizing our dusty-ness and remembering that God breathes life into us each and every day. God also calls us each and every day fully to be our dusty selves and out of that earthy authenticity to love each other and care for all creation.
Waiting for the dust to settle
When we are betwixt and between, we are tempted to be impatient for the dust to settle, for things to get back to an imagined and mythic normal. The danger? We might settle those things in our lives or our communities that need to remain unsettled until justice can be done or until healing can occur.
Also, if we are honest, we have to admit that most of life and living happens betwixt and between. Perhaps if we embrace the ambiguity of human life and recommit ourselves to relying on God’s grace and mercy, we can begin to unsettle “settled certainties” that perpetuate oppression and injustice.
Life is never settled—not really. But the promise of God’s love for us is. Because of that, we are called never to settle down or settle in until all people can share in the good gifts of God’s justice and peace.
Dancing with dust
So, I offer a word of encouragement to those of us who find ourselves in a swirl of unsettled dust. Perhaps if we lean into the ambiguity of unsettling times we will hear God creating and calling. And perhaps, if we are willing to take the chance, we will learn to dance and swirl with unsettled dust and in doing so prepare the soil of our lives and communities in the belief that Gospel justice and peace beyond imagining await us in the days ahead.
“Dip your aching toes in cool waters,” said Summer to the wilderness wandering woman.
“Tease your tastebuds with blackberries. Lay your weary body down on gentle meadow grass. Breathe in the soft sweetness of coral honeysuckle where hummingbirds drink and dance.”
“Blush with pride,” said Autumn to the old maple tree.
“You earned it. You shaded the little girl who held summer stars in her eyes while she sat beneath your branches and read and read and read once upon a times into dreams into fierce hopes for the future.”
“Bend toward hope when icy winds blow,” said Winter to the fragile-seeming ones.
“Bend, but don’t break. You are stronger than you know. You are resilient. You are enough.”
“To push your shoulders up, up, up,” said Spring.
“Up through still-cold greening sod to fragrance the dawn with daffodil prayers.