Burning Midnight Oil

Many United Methodist colleagues and friends are hurting this week from painful denominational decisions. My thoughts and prayers are with these aching ones who are my companions on the journey to discover and embody justice for all of God’s people. As I have seen images of people yoked in rainbow-colored stoles standing to speak their truths at the UMC gathering and beyond, the text below from Colossians came to mind. Two years ago, some of my colleagues at Wake Forest University School of Divinity crafted an open letter in response to violence in Charlottesville. We based our reflections on this same Colossians text. These thoughts are a continuation of and expansion upon ideas contained in that letter, offered in prayerful love and care.

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Colossians 3:14

How did you decide what to wear today? Do you sport a fashion genre that says “this is me”—you know, a look so peculiar to your tastes and personality that someone might see you coming from a distance and say “that’s Jill—I can tell by the boots”? Do you have a style that other people might see in the store and say—oh, that outfit is so you? Have you ever worn something to try to “fit in”? Or to stand out? Or to make a statement? Or to hide who you are? Maybe you have decided to take on some new threads as springtime approaches—discard the old look and put on something new. A new image. A new you. How did you decide what to wear today?

The scripture verse above and the surrounding verses, written to the church in Colossae almost 2000 years ago, have something to say about what we decide to wear as we come to another spring season: Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. And above all else, clothe yourselves with love.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it. Let’s do it. I’ll take mine in bright colors…

But wait. Before we settle too easily into these often heard spiritual and theological words—before we grab them out of the closet like a pair of old jeans we just throw on without much thought because they are so familiar…

Consider the power and challenge and often uncomfortable and unfamiliar fit of this call to carry in our hearts, minds, and actions—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. What does this wardrobe look like out there on the streets where people in the LGBTQIA community fear for their safety? Or where any of our neighbors face uncertainty about their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being? Consider the power and challenge of this call to wear compassion and truth on our bodies—even as we know that there are places where some bodies are condemned and vilified, where some bodies are disregarded and abused, where some bodies are unloved and unwelcomed, where some bodies tremble with cold or fear or shame. To say “yes” to this call demands our courage, our willingness to speak truth out loud in and through our bodies in unfamiliar and uncertain places…

But we are not alone in taking up this call. God is with us, burning the midnight oil and working through the too-long hours before dawn comes to create hope and justice anew.

Perhaps that is our calling too. Yes, sometimes the call is to study or pray or toss and turn into the wee hours. And more than that—the call is this—to know that God is still working to piece together in and for you and me the courage and hope we will need to keep warm as we journey this old world’s rough and too often cold and dangerous roads. The call is this too—for us to join God in God’s creating work to stitch together a new dawn of justice and hope in a hurting and broken world.

So what are we going to wear for this justice-making work? Well—you are you. I am me. And we bring to this work the uniqueness of our own voices, bodies, gifts, stories and perspectives—created in the image of God. So whatever cotton, linen, polyester or other threads we decide to costume ourselves in as we go to class or step into a pulpit or head somewhere else to protest injustice or even sit down to eat dinner with friends—this ancient letter’s words call to us: put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience—and above all else, clothe yourselves with love. Because God’s love—carried in our flesh, in our actions—and lived out loud when we break sinful silences to speak truth—love binds everything—us—together in perfect harmony.

Above all else—clothe yourselves with love. Love. Could this be thread we need to stitch together a wardrobe of justice-making? And what is this love? I think this life-affirming, truth-telling, world-transforming love is unique to each of us and our peculiar callings—AND as community-binding as any life force we will ever encounter. 

I wrote the poem below on the occasion of my mother’s death. She often sewed through the night to complete a piece of clothing for me to wear to school the next day—that morning. Looking now on her work through those nights, I glimpse something about God’s creative work on behalf of those in our midst who with determination and courage clothe themselves in God’s love and grace.

Burning Midnight Oil

A solitary light beaconed from the distance
in the wee hours just before
dawn cracked open the darkness.

Burning the midnight oil.

The Creating One in the beginning of beginnings
—sewing and seaming, stitching
roots into the earth, fashioning fine
spring things to adorn bluebirds and bumblebees
daffodils and dandelions, embroidering soulful
soil with a smile and breathing into it a
sigh of delight.

Burning the midnight oil.

A solitary light beaconed from another window
in the wee hours just before
dawn cracked open the darkness.

Burning the midnight oil.

She, created by the Creating One
–whirring and chirring, snipping and clipping,
weary-wise fingers urging one more scrap
of this bit of blue, that piece of red
beneath the ever-marching
needle-foot of that old Singer Sewer
Model 301A she kept coaxing and
cajoling into action one more time
to fashion an Easter dress or a pair
of jeans or, one time, a man’s leisure suit.

Burning the midnight oil.

All other eyes in the house, on the street, shuttered tight
while she followed with single-hearted gaze
thread that danced and dipped beneath the
material surface, not noticing the
pale winter moon kissing her hand
as the clock ticked on until she sat back
and embroidered into a girl’s last minute
request a tired sigh of delight.

Burning the midnight oil.

A light beckons; vital
sacred strands spool on at the unfurling edge
of a new crack in a resurrecting dawn, fervent
fibers holding us together
—held in our hands—
you and I piecing together hope from
torn and tearing hearts, called by the
Creating One.

Burn the midnight oil.