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.

Dear Midnight

Dark nights of the soul—midnights—offer graces and blessings beyond our most radical imaginings.

Rain chased us into the house. We just did escape her.

Then she did her saturation dance on our greening yard, our back deck, our roof—all through the night. 

I know this because I stayed up past midnight listening to her. And thinking. 

An article in Politico on Friday lured readers with this title—“Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently: Here’s How.” What the writers predict both intrigues and troubles. And I think they are right. This moment in time is changing all future moments in ways large and small that we cannot even imagine yet. 

We humans have always been more fragile than many of us realize or acknowledge as we go about our daily routines. Some of us know because of our own stories that life is a bittersweet mixture of wild wonders and wilderness wanderings, of joyous grace and jarring lament. Even so, we still don’t always wash our dishes, do our jobs, care for our children or do a whole assortment of other activities with this awareness front and center in our consciousness. 

Now, as a global human community, we are encountering with every sud that baptizes our hands and with each of our daily breaths just how uncertain life is. We are experiencing a global “dark night of the soul.”

And yet—dark nights of the soul—midnights—also offer graces and blessings beyond our most radical imaginings.

Some people in our communities have beheld and embodied these graces and blessings all along through their everyday days as they have lived with chronic illnesses or life-denying dangers in their communities or other persistent uncertainties in their lives. These people have already shown us how to embrace aliveness in the face of threats to human well-being and even human existence. We can look to them for wisdom and hope. They are too often unheard and unseen heroes and sages.

Yes, COVID-19 is changing us. Or perhaps it is awakening us to who and what we already were and are.

My prayer is that we say “yes” with courage to shaping what happens toward the love and grace of God. A former student of mine, Jesse Sorrell, is now a hospital chaplain. He shared powerful insights in a recent Facebook post:

Shift calls for response. Creation responds to decreation. Art arises from grief. What can you create right now?

Jesse Sorrell

Thank you, Jesse, for this reminder of the creativity that nests even within uncertainty and grief.

This moment in history is changing all future moments. Hmm…but doesn’t every moment in some way shape all future moments? What life-giving change can we live right now?

My poem is addressed to Midnight and wonders what we as a human community might learn in this time of uncertainty and scatteredness.

Dear Midnight,

Who do you talk to
when the wrens and robins
go quiet in a storm?
You know, when lightning
strikes every city in every land 
and ignites down deep darkness?

The tiny terrier and I
cock our heads–
She growls down deep,
suspicious at not hearing
electricity scurry
through the house.

Rain tiptoes toward us
then chases us home,
silken hair flying out behind her.
She slips inside the house as the
door slams with a sonic boom
and a splinter of light–

Silence sidles in too,
scampers off into corners
and down deep into crevices
as we all peer out the window
at a sky homesick for stars.

Dear Midnight,

Can you tell us what it all means?
You, who wander fields and forests
seeking the fierce feeble embers
of once-fiery mornings–

The tiny terrier and I
cock our heads–
and in the dripping
down deep darkness
a train whistle melts 
into the rain-slick trees 
while a beatific barn owl
queries the night. 

Wilderness Wanderings and Wonderings

I feel in the marrow of my liturgical theologian’s bones an acute awareness that the end of quarantine will not, even must not, mean “getting back to normal.”

Quarantine.

The word has surged into our everyday parlance. What are its origins? And what can we learn from those origins about our use of the word today?

“Quarantine” is from the Italian “quadrants giorni” and means, literally, “space of forty days.”

The number 40 and spaces of forty days hold depths of meaning in many religious traditions. For example, Scripture tells us that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the Judean desert. The Christian liturgical season of Lent encourages 40 days of reflection leading up to Easter. The New Testament book of Acts marks a period of 40 days between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

My wondering for today is this: perhaps “quarantine” in these COVID-19 crisis days, as worrisome and even frightening as the reality is for so many of us, can hold unanticipated (if unsought) spiritual meanings and awakenings.

One reality has become clear. We have entered into a time of unwanted sabbath from our usual way of doing things, and that is causing anxiety, uncertainty, and even danger for some people in our communities. Also, unlike the liturgical season of Lent, we don’t know when this particular 40 days will end.

Some Jewish scholars say that the biblical concept of “40 days and 40 nights” actually means “a really long time.” Uncertainties like those we are facing today can make each day seem like “a really long time.”

I dare not suggest what spiritual meanings “quarantine” may hold for any person or community. What I seek for myself is a mustard seed of wisdom for life and faith that might take root during this imposed Sabbath “space of 40 days.”

In the meanwhile, my prayer is that we seek ways to be present for each other even in the midst of isolation, and my hope is rooted in the wonders of a Gospel story that promises resurrection and new life when the sun sets not only on the last of the 40 days but on each and every day in between.

Of course, even as I write these words, I feel in the marrow of my liturgical theologian’s bones an acute awareness that the end of quarantine will not, even must not, mean “getting back to normal.” Just as the Christian resurrection story meant nothing about humanity or even creation was ever again the same, so, too, with this historic moment. We cannot get back to normal because normal was not and is not life-giving or hope-sustaining for so many people.

We need transformation.

We need resurrection.

I pray that it may be so.

Daffodil Prayers

What do we do when chaos and crisis disrupt some of our most familiar and stress-settling life rituals?

Everyday rituals and rhythms anchor our lives.

So what do we do when chaos and crisis disrupt some of our most familiar and stress-settling life rituals?

Many of my colleagues–liturgical theologians and practitioners and religious leaders–are asking this question as COVID-19 ravages our communities. Is it possible that in my Christian community, we may find ourselves planning virtual Palm Sunday and Easter services? Other religious communities are facing their own versions liturgical and ritual disruption. How can we stay connected–in the marrow of our bones, if you will–while keeping the recommended social distance to protect the health of all of us?

I am impressed and intrigued by the creative and courageous efforts leaders are making to livestream worship and prayer services. I am also struck by how quickly schools, families, businesses, and others have begun to fashion new rituals of connecting, learning, working, and even playing that can serve as anchors–even if they are temporary–for people tossed about in the stormy waters of this historic moment.

We humans are a resilient bunch and can and do find ways to care for one another even from a physical distance. And I have a feeling that when we look back on these strange days, we will experience a deep satisfaction in our determination to be community to and with one another. (And those of us who are live streaming novices may experience more than a few chuckles as we remember our awkward Facebook fits and starts!)

For now, I continue to seek moments of everyday sacramentality in my own backyard–those moments when I become aware of God’s presence in daily patterns of work and rest and even in painful rituals of waiting and wondering.

I am also keeping in prayer and in mind those who are made even more vulnerable by this crisis than they already were to hunger, isolation, and violence.

I first drafted the following poem awhile ago and felt a prompting to revise it this week. This spring’s daffodils have reminded me anew of the promises and presence of God we encounter in creation’s rhythms. Perhaps as we journey through this present wilderness, we can offer up our prayers as the daffodils do, seeking each day to renew our faith in God’s grace and peace.

daffodil prayers

“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.

Sacred Scatteredness

Living by faith in such a time as this is perhaps more a radical exercise in lavish broadcast sowing than in precise and planned row by row planting.

Listen! A sower went out to sow.

Matthew 13:3b

As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom . . . 

from The Didache, First Century, CE

I decided to plant radish and lettuce seeds this week. Nothing out of the ordinary about that for me. Sheila saved seeds from last year and ‘tis the season. What makes this ordinary activity extraordinary this spring is the backdrop scenery of spiraling graphs and avalanching news reports and stumbling spirits as COVID-19 raids our individual, communal, and global lives. 

Often during crises, a sanctuary for troubled hearts is an actual church sanctuary. Many people in my Christian tradition as well as in other spiritual traditions find solace in gathering together in person to pray, worship, sing, laugh, and lament. We experience strength in numbers, hope in the embodied knowing that we are all in this together—

except the embodied knowing–meeting together in physical church buildings
–is not a safe option for everyone when a virus like COVID-19 is on the loose in our midst. 

So we are scattered. Sunday sanctuaries are empty. Many preachers are preaching to empty pews or peering as they pray through digital looking glasses to connect with their communities. 

I celebrate the persistent creativity of so many pastoral leaders who sought on Sunday to offer a hopeful word through social media resources. I am also aware of how isolated and even afraid some people feel as public health leaders urge us to flatten the Covid-19 curve through social distancing. (Even these terms are novel to our everyday vocabularies.) 

We are scattered. 

Seeing this sentence on a friend’s Facebook feed on Sunday sparked a memory for me. In 2011, then Dean Gail R. O’Day spoke to graduating Wake Forest University Master of Divinity students about sowing seeds. She based her remarks on The Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. The image she lifted out from this ancient story has stayed with me:

A farmer, or an urban or suburban gardener, fills a bucket with seeds, reaches into the bucket and grabs a handful of seeds, and then scatters those seeds broadly and widely across the terrain. 

from Gail R. O’Day’s remarks at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity diploma ceremony, May 2011.

That commencement day, Dr. O’Day focused not on the soil in the parable (as so many interpreters do) but instead emphasized the radical generosity in the sower’s actions of broadcast sowing.

Jesus calls disciples to imagine the kingdom of God as  a landscape planted by a lavish, generous sower—who is unstinting in her broadcast sowing of seeds that may grow to new life.  The kingdom of God is shaped first by the unrelenting determination to sow seeds of new life . . . 

“Ministry,” Dr. O’Day said, “is the ultimate exercise in broadcast sowing.” The ministry we all have to offer is “to reach down into the store of gifts that we have received. . . and throw seeds of hope and possibility out into the world where they can grow to new life for all.”

We are scattered because of an unexpected virus. But we are not alone. We are connected, interwoven as a human community in ways we perhaps never before realized or imagined. What if there are equally unexpected possibilities sown into these days. What if our lives–our persistent faith and kindness during these days–are God’s seeds, God’s hope and grace, being broadcast across diverse media throughout our towns and cities.

I am praying in these uncertain days for those in our communities most vulnerable to the virus. Economic inequities and other vulnerabilities become even more accentuated in times like these. I pray, too, that God will give me the wisdom to look for and embody in my actions what Dr. O’Day called “the joyous surprise of an unexpected glimpse of the kingdom of God” during these days of scattered sacredness. 

Living by faith in such a time as this is perhaps more a radical exercise in lavish broadcast sowing than in precise and planned row by row planting. Maybe I will forego my usual radish and snow pea plumb lines and broadcast some seeds this spring. And as I do so, I will offer up to prayers for communal and global recovery and healing. 

Beneath Our Feet; In Our Hands

Jack Frost is curled up,
Napping in my bones.
Backyard grass crunches,
Frozen beneath my feet.
Summer sunflowers hibernate,
Silent in my heart.

Could it be—
When I hold this dried out husk
Springtime rests on wintertide fingertips?
Infinitesimal harbinger of arugula and radishes;
Holder of stories–fields plowed,
Dirt collected under ungloved fingernails.
Death—in autumn–
Birth–in spring–
When tender-strong seedlings
Unfurl from soil-stained shells,
And push up through the earth
Hungry for the sun—

Dirt weeps sometimes too,
And calls to us: We are stronger than we imagine.
Justice—in wilderness places—
Freedom—in a kernel—
An orchard redeemed—blossoming
Sweet succulent promises of life overflowing.

So we take our shoes off to
Absorb holy ground nutrients
Beneath our feet.
And we water with salt-seasoned tears
This garden we hold in our hand.

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.