A Lenten Poem for Uncertain Days

Keep your eyes on the sparrows.

Perhaps now is our time as a human community 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.

With Our Eyes on the Sparrows

keep your eye on the sparrow
she says as she watches my face

sparrows? 

burrowed into church eaves
nesting in the backyard camellia bush

fence picket perchers fussing in
damp dirt behind a too-full raincatcher

no stand-out solo serenades or fiery
flashes like cardinals in springtime

no soaring hawk-winged shadow puppets
sickling dew-drenched summer grass

a copper coin for a pair of sparrows
jesus said as he watched their faces

sparrows?

the creating-one knows every wing-beat
fashions and fastens every feather

delights in each hair on each head
relishes every strand silvered by winter suns

so i watched today as a plucky sparrow
sat on the deck rail and watched me

i imagined being able to fly away—
to escape sorrows gone viral

she nods a gentle blessing
i think i’ll keep my eyes on you

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. 

Somewhere in Our Silent Night

God is waiting to come home, home to our lives.

Note: I wrote the following for my church’s Advent choir and music Sunday. One of the pieces is titled “Somewhere in Your Silent Night,” arranged by Joseph M. Martin. That song inspired much of what I wrote and threaded through the music Sunday. Photo is by Sheila G. Hunter.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found
favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and
you will name him Jesus.”

It’s right there in Luke.
Mary says “yes” to God’s call,
and then she flees to the mountains.
To Elizabeth.
To home.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill
country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry,
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Listen. Do you hear the sounds? 
People in the mountain house,
that house whose porch light we have been following?
That house where Mary goes to find Elizabeth?
People in the mountain house are laughing.
Singing.

Yes, it could happen. She could birth a child.
At home with Elizabeth.
Her friend.
Her kindred.
At home with Elizabeth, Mary could imagine it.
And later, when she looked out upon a silent night,
she would remember it.
Birthing a dream.
A promise.
A hope.

The mountain house surprises weary eyes.
Mary and Elizabeth dance a wild dream of justice and grace
while the porch light flickers–
beckons
invites us to remember
turn and return
imagine in hope–

I guess that’s what Elizabeth and Mary talked about in the mountain house.

The Creating One–
Breaking through our resolve
Our logic
our best-laid plans.
The Unexpected One–
Breaking through all of our defenses
With love and light
to be cradled in our arms
And in our hearts—

And Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

At home with Elizabeth,
a song finds Mary.
A survival song.
A justice song.
A song of hope and light.

Mary sings. 
She sings to the night.
Even though she can’t be certain what tomorrow holds.

At home with Elizabeth–
on the mountain with her kindred–
a song of belief 
beyond belief finds her.

“And Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.”

Mary returned home,
carrying light from the mountain in her eyes,
the song of promise in her heart,
a drumbeat of new life in her feet.

Traveling alone, like every prophet before her, Mary sets out on her first journey, to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, to share her truth.  There will be more journeys: to Bethlehem; to Egypt and back; to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve; to Jerusalem when he is crucified, to a tomb—

God is waiting
to come home, home
to our lives.
To our world.
Let us join Mary on the journey home–
in the name of God who calls to us
somewhere in our silent night—Amen


beginnings and endings

We begin at the end—or do we end at the beginning?

This is advent

Isaiah 11 offers a peculiar vision of wolves and lambs and leopards and goats frolicking together on God’s mountain of peculiar peace. All of this year’s Advent lectionary texts turn expectations upside down. Sprigs grow from dead stumps. Crocuses blossom in desert places. And a little child leads God’s people into a peace-land of radical love. That is a gift of Advent—God invites us to see life in new ways, and I, for one, am eager to encounter the new way of God’s upside down, inside out peace and love.

The shortest distance
between two points?

a straight line—
begin here;
end there.

But the straight way?
Not the only way.

Beginnings cradle endings—
​first drop of rain
page one of a favorite novel
hello

Endings are the womb of beginnings—
last line of a poem
one lingering summer tomato
amen

​This is incarnation.

Sharp sword edges
learn to plow fertile soil.
Lions and lambs 
choreograph a dance of peace.
Green sprigs grow from
axe-worn roots.
Tender crocus shoulders push
up through winter ground—

This is Advent. 

We begin at the end—
Or do we end at the beginning?

Or do we pause just now
held in a promise— 
God with us.

First Sermon

I have been preaching for half a century.

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.”

Space Walking in Glass Slippers

Do you need glass slippers for a space walk?

Two women walked in space this week (without men) for the first time. This event was scheduled for last spring but had to be postponed when NASA discovered that they did not have two spacesuits the right size for both women.

Really?

For some reason, this detail of the space walk news story made me think of Cinderella. Yes, Cinderella.

Even as a child, I was curious about those glass slippers of hers because I knew that shoe stores where we shopped tended to have more than one pair of each size of each style of shoe. Didn’t anyone else in the whole kingdom wear the same size shoe as Cinderella? And besides that, how can a person walk in glass slippers without breaking them?

What does this have to do with this week’s space walking women? Perhaps nothing. But I am blogging every day in October, and the struggle to find daily content is real!

AND I try to write a news related poem each week to submit to Rattle.com. Rattle publishes one poem each Sunday that a poet has written in response to news stories from the previous week. This is my 69th submission and my 69th rejection.

No matter.

I still wonder about those glass slippers and how the story would have turned out if the lost slipper had fit someone else’s foot before the prince every made it to Cinderella’s house. Or what if Cinderella’s frantic flight from the ball as the clock chimed had shattered both slippers?

But Cinderella’s story is just a fairytale, and this 20th Blogtober blog is no place to unpack such philosophical “what ifs.”

In any case, I celebrate this week those space walking NASA women who heard the stars call their names—and who can now find spacesuits in their size.

Space Walking in Glass Slippers

Do you need glass slippers
for a space walk?

I’m asking for Cinderella,
the woman with the fabled foot
in that magical
once upon a time
from my childhood.

She was lucky, don’t you think,
since the prince only had
one size that didn’t fit all—
one size 
that didn’t fit 
anyone else but her
at the ball.

Yes, she was lucky,

wasn’t she?

unless she 
tumbled
stumbled
down the stairs that night
slippers shattered,
dreams
unfettered
when she heard distant stars
calling out to her: 
“May we have this dance?”

More than Friended

Jesus’ radical form of friendship can transform our world.

14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15:14-17

“I have called you friends,” Jesus says in John 15. With these words, Jesus announces a new way of being in community, not only with one another but also with God. Friends share plans and values with each other. Friends imagine and build relationships of trust and generous grace. Friends advocate for each other, even when the cost is giving one’s life for the other.

Jesus turns the master-slave system on its head in these verses by making a radical distinction between servanthood and friendship. The two do not exist together. True friendship where people abide in God’s love? The kind of friendship that eradicates oppression.

In these verses, Jesus crumbles hierarchies–divine and human–and “commands” those gathered around him to relate to each other as equal collaborators with God in the work of bearing fruit that lasts. And what is this lasting fruit? Destructive forms of relating to each other die on the vine while friendship–Jesus’ radical form of friendship–endures to transform the world. 

Jesus’ words invite us to consider anew what it means to “friend” other people. Consider. As we “friend” people in our lives, how can we do so in such a way that we embody Jesus’ call to turn oppression on its head and give birth to communities where love flourishes?

more than friended

“like” me as you would 
have me “like” you 
“friend” me

“but I have called you more than friended”

not virtually—
actually
appointed 
given to each other
commanded
freed
to spin tapestries
in place of enslaving webs
chosen
to birth and bear 
love

Note: I am grateful to my colleague, Professor Katherine Shaner, whose New Testament scholarship has invited me to read biblical texts with new eyes. Check out her book, Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018).