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.

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.

Maundy Thursday: Reflections

Mabry Mill Upside Down
“Mabry Mill Upside Down,” by S.G. Hunter

Bread.
Sourdough.
Pumpernickel.
Rye.
Old standbys—wheat and white.
Bread.
The stuff of life.
We break it, eat it, think almost nothing of it.
Golden-crusted loaves seasoned by the smell of the earth
Passed from me to you to the stranger.
We cannot live without it—
The bread or the sharing.
Grace.

Green grapes
“Green Grapes,” by S.G. Hunter

Wine.
Poetry bottled and decanted.
Kiss of sweet grace on thirsty lips.
Wine.
Remembrance seasoned by the taste of the earth.
Spilled out between us,
For us,
You and me and the stranger.
We cannot live without it—
The sip of mystery or the sharing.
Grace.

Passerby
“Passerby” by S.G. Hunter

Water.
Trickling.
Surging.
Moaning.
Water.
We bathe in it, fear it, plunge its murky depths.
Washing over weary feet,
Soaking chafed hands.
We cannot live without it—
The brooding Spirit,
Sea-lapped promises on sun-singed shores.
Grace.

Bread. Wine. Water.
The earth.
Broken.
Poured out.
Stirred up
In us.
Remembering that does not forget
Hungry, wilderness people
In neighborhoods, towns, cities.
Bread. Wine. Water.
Our hands
Baking, pouring, washing.
Gifts of God for the people of God.
Grace.

Lent 4: Laughing Matters

Red Doors

“Church is no laughing matter,” some may say. “Indeed, church is serious business.” And many of us might agree that the state of the world right now is no laughing matter. Too much violence. Too many troubles. Too much injustice. The season of Lent can’t last long enough for our introspection even to make a dent in this ole’ world’s difficulties much less to make us aware of the part we play in them.

And yet, this Sunday, March 15, is the fourth Sunday in Lent, called in some traditions “Laetare Sunday” or Laughter Sunday.  Laetare means “rejoice.” To some, this may sound peculiar. Why is there a “Rejoicing Sunday” in the midst of Lenten introspection, fasting, and austerity? The exact midpoint of Lent is the Thursday of the third week of Lent; thus, the fourth Sunday of Lent was viewed throughout much of Christian history as a day of celebration. Linked to an ancient mid-March Roman festivals called the hilaria (related to the word “hilarious”), Christians viewed Laetare Sunday as a day when the somber disciplines of Lent were lessened. Laetare is also known in some places as Refreshment Sunday or Holy Humor Day and liturgies include moments for recalling the joy of the Lord in the midst of Lenten penitential pilgrimages. Some churches that observe Holy Humor Sunday even begin the worship service by telling jokes to invoke and perhaps provoke laughter.

Now I, for one, have never been much for jokes. I forget the punchline when I tell jokes, and I often don’t “get” the punchline when others tell jokes. Perhaps that is my problem with Holy Hilarity Sunday. I have not yet gotten in the marrow of my bones the sheer hilarity of God’s liberating creativity that is working even when we don’t “get” it to create a world of radical carnival. And that may just be what we can laugh about even in the midst of Lenten times that seem to stretch beyond Lent’s official 40 days. God breaks in, breaks open, and breaks forth into the world in unexpected, even peculiar, ways that can, if we are paying attention, make us giggle like children or guffaw out loud as we proclaim: “You’re kidding!” Or “that’s too funny!” Or “how hilarious!”

God’s Gospel story turns the world on its head and can turn our lives upside down. Our response? When we allow the peculiar promises of the Gospel to get inside of our bones, perhaps the best response is to laugh, to release, if but for a moment, our lament into God’s cosmic and ironic rendering of a world redeemed. But wait. The world’s a mess. How can we laugh?

A response emerged—or erupted—at church one Sunday during the “moment with children.” Three-year old Michael is not an introvert. His mouth was moving as fast as his feet as he ran to the front of the sanctuary with the other children. The leader sat on the floor with Michael and the others and began to talk about birthday parties. “What do you like about birthday parties?” she asked. “Cake,” Michael said as his hand shot into the air. “Balloons,” Rhonda said. The children all had answers—and one said the magic answer: “Presents!” That was the leader’s signal to ask the second question—the one that she was headed for to make her point. “And what do you say when someone gives you a gift and you unwrap it?”

Now—I cannot read the minds of folks in church, but I suspect that every adult in worship that day had an answer to this question scurry to the tips of their tongues. And then, just when I was ready to smile at the nice work the leader had done to teach the children about gratitude, Michael prophesied. He witnessed. He proclaimed. Well—he blurted out the answer that rose up out of his young heart. “What do you say when someone gives you a gift and you unwrap it?” “Oohhh!” Michael said.

And we all laughed, that “caught-off-guard” laughter of those made wiser by a child’s prophetic insight. “What is the second thing you say?” the leader then asked. But now the children were in sync with each other and with the dancing of God’s spirit in our midst. “What is the second thing you say?” “Wow!” Rhonda exclaimed and giggled.

Church continued on its usual course that day, but my heart and mind had been invited down another road by the children’s wise exclamations. What if—what if this is where we begin to fashion communities that transform lives—that offer justice and hope and healing. What do I mean? Michael’s response to the imagined birthday present was not the polite response of one schooled in gift-receiving etiquette. Rhonda’s response was not based on whether or not the birthday wrappings contained the long-desired or asked for expected gift. Their responses bubbled up out of the possibilities of gift-giving and receiving and their authentic expectation of delight.

And we laughed. Perhaps that is the point of the Gospel after all. God’s response to the world’s pain and brokenness is not at all what we expect. Jesus is not what people expect. Jesus’ responses to the world’s suffering and cruelty are not what people expect. But here and there, now and then, we get it. Something happens to release us from the too often oppressive limits of expected religious etiquette, and we laugh, not at the world and its hurting people but with each other because we care about and trust each other. We laugh that caught-off-guard kind of laugh that surprises us and sets us free to join God in God’s peculiar, if not, hilarious plan to redeem the world.

 

 

 

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Ashes.
I scatter them. They slip away from cold-numbed finger tips. It is winter. Nothing grows in winter—does it?

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

But the kitchen fire warms my hands.
Its ashes make nutritious things grow.

We are ashes;
our lives seem sometimes to slip through our fingers.

We are also formed from good, dark hummus—the earth.
We are dust.
P
laced in God’s garden “to till it and to keep it.”

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The season of Lent in Christian traditions is a time to reflect on rhythms of feasting and fasting and feasting again in our world, our churches, our spiritual lives. To   what fasts can we commit ourselves during this season that will teach us how to fashion a redemptive and life-giving  relationship with this earth we call home?  What can we plant in the ashes and dust of Lent’s Great Fast that will bear nourishing fruit for Easter’s Great Feast?

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, our foreheads smudged with charcoaled Palm branches from last year’s now-cold feast, we are reminded:

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Until you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.     Genesis 3:19

Life is fleeting and fragile. Yet Lent calls us to work–by the sweat of our brows–to embody the Christian Gospel’s Easter promises of abundant feasts for all people. This is perhaps the most palpable outcome of a holy Lent: people of faith considering what it means to live lives of meaningful sacrifice and redemptive service and then taking steps to do just that.