Dwelling Place

She would remember to forget–if she could. . .

Many contemporary realities sparked this poem. Increasing homelessness in many cities. Failing churches purchased by real estate agencies and transformed into apartment buildings. Domestic violence. Nostalgia. Hope. And the awareness that human stories meet, overlap, clash, and sometimes heal.

“Don’t dwell on the past,” they said
When her fingers flew unbidden
To touch nostalgic eyes; Yes,

She would — remember — to forget —
If she could. Swipe away the wetness
Sliding down her face; worried
It might seep between her lips,
Unseal them so she breathed out
A salted stench of yesterday’s news:
“Don’t dwell on it.”

She had no dwelling anyway,
Door bolted; key flung away.
Windows boarded up. Rendered
Unfit for human habitation. Hands
curled, fists pounded, demanded entrance;
Fear said “no,” misguided sentry keeping out
Everything even shriveled up tendrils of
Purple deadnettle that trying to crawl
Through the cracks: “No-dwelling Zone.”

They moved in last Saturday, 129
U-Haul boxes crammed full of life.
“We’ll put grandma’s dining table
Here,” she said. Did she know
They would taste springtime
strawberries and snow peas there, bare
feet on the hallowed ground under that table
where a body was broken, blood poured out?

They sat, sipped grocery store wine,
Dwelling in the past.

Somewhere between Weeping and Joy

Where do we find the energy and courage to keep fishing through the weariness?

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
Psalm 30:5


Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” John 21:4-13

Weeping may linger for the night, but…

I can almost see the ancient poet, putting pen to paper: “weeping may linger for the night.”

Then a pause.

A prayer exhaled.

A comma. To make room–for what?

Let’s pause here ourselves before we respond to that question. Let’s pause and consider an old fishing story. A 2000 year old fishing story from the Gospel of John.

They ended up on the lake that night. What else could they do? After all, since Jesus had died, nothing was going right. When Jesus was with them, everything seemed possible. They could feed 5000 people with just a few pieces of bread. Water could become wine.

Now? They were tired. Tired of being afraid. Tired of risking it all. Very, very tired.

So it was that this bunch of bone weary dreamers ended up on the lake that night, only to find out that the one thing they used to be good at? Now, they couldn’t even fish right.

Throwing the net out. Dragging it in—empty. Every time, empty.

Trying to get my life together. Trying to find new energy. But coming up empty.

Seeking justice for the marginalized. Trying to find some way to end oppression. Coming up empty.

The hours ticked by, each moment bringing another doubt, until during those murky hours between 3am and dawn?

The image lingers. A boat on a lake. Morning fog creeping in. No fish in the net. Aching arms. Heavy eyelids. Then–a voice:

“Throw your nets out on the other side of the boat.”

The beloved disciple squinted through the fog. Who spoke this advice? Not somebody who knows much about boats or lakes or fishing. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? After all, don’t the same fish swim under the boat on both sides?

Some fishing people I know share the secret wisdom about their beloved pastime. “Fishing is one part skill and three parts mystery.”

The mystery? The hope? The two together make some people who come up empty through the night—keep on fishing…

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

The disciples gave it another try.

They threw the net out on the other side of the boat.

In this story? Just as the disciples were ready to give up–splashing, dancing up out of the watery depths, 153 fish. 153 new dreams. New chances. Too many for one disciple or one boat to haul to shore. Enough to call us to pull together as community.

And in the time it took for them to pull in the net, dawn bent its light toward the shore. The beloved disciple could now see who was standing there on the beach calling out to them.

He shouted out to the others: “It is the Lord!”

Photo by Jill Crainshaw
Weeping will linger no more–

You and I see it in nature every day, now as then. The sun fades in the western sky but then, every morning —there it is, peering up over the eastern horizon yet again. Sunrise. Every morning.

So, the psalmist, even in the midst of persistent injustices and uncertainties looked to the east and announced: “Weeping will linger no more.”

A weary-armed beloved disciple saw it too. From a fishing boat. At dawn. Jesus. On the shore. Standing there in the morning mist.

My Lord, what a morning.

But before the morning came for the disciples? Before sunrise touches our tear-reddened eyelids with the warmth of hope?

Weeping has lingered. Is lingering. For too long for too many people in too many places in our world.

Not even a whisper of sunlight on the horizon. Or so it seems in times of persistent injustices.

So this ancient poet’s talk of joy? What are we to make of it?

Psalm scholar J. Clinton McCann reflects on his encounters with Psalm 30:

While preparing to write this essay, I heard Psalm 30:5b quoted twice. First, on the morning after the 2016 Iowa Caucuses, one of the four or five self-declared “winners” commented on his “victory” by proclaiming, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Second, I heard a sermon preached on John 11:28-44 by a pastor, who was very active in the protests in Ferguson, MO following the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr., and who remains active in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Focusing particularly on John 11:35 (“Jesus wept.”), he suggested that a primary role of pastors nowadays is to weep with victims of injustice and violence in Ferguson and elsewhere. But, he added, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

J. Clinton McCann

The contrast in perspectives is striking. McCann’s observation causes me to stumble over this psalm and my own beliefs about hope and joy. The promise of joy in the morning has to be more than a fairytale told to lure listeners into a dream-empty sleep until they awaken dancing the next morning. Doesn’t it?

These verses are more than triumphalist religious platitudes, aren’t they?

I hear the psalm calling me–calling all of us–to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.

I hear the psalm calling us to live justice and embody fierce and radical kindness as we make our way through those wilderness places that are out there between the comma and the joy.

The psalm and that fishing story make me think of my dad.

Joy lived in my dad’s life but weeping lingered there too. Most people’s lives are like that, a mixture of weeping and joy. But you might say my dad’s faith leaned “winterward.” He just wasn’t one of those people to grab hold of sunny theological answers to deep weeping questions. He insisted on putting question marks on his life in place of exclamation points.

I think my dad longed for moments when he could be astonished by certainty: “It is the Lord!” But mostly he had to be content with small signs no more astonishing than, say, what an enormous size a zucchini can grow to overnight. (And that in itself is astonishing, don’t you think?)

Still, even when my dad was weary from leaning winterward, he remained faithful to what he believed–grace is God’s free gift to all of us. And grace persists even when weeping lingers. God’s grace…a gift in joy and in weeping and in all that lies between.

A whole lot of living out of the Gospel needs to happen

in that space between the comma and the “but” in the Psalmist’s song. And that is what we are called to do in the ambiguous and uncertain liminal spaces between weeping and joy.

So, we live—we live always somewhere on the shoreline between weeping and joy. Trying to find the energy and the courage to keep fishing through the weariness, the disappointment, the anger, and the pain.

Living between the verses—or living between the independent clauses of joy and weeping—takes a certain kind of trust. Trust in God. Trust in ourselves. Trust in each other. Enough trust not to give up. Enough trust to throw the nets out into the waters one more time. And we have work to do in our communities to build that kind of trust in the midst of oppression-birthed weeping.

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

So, as you and I learn to live–and believe–somewhere between weeping and joy, we lean in yet again to that old Gospel fishing tale. And we hear the voice on that shoreline calling out to us through the misty darkness just when we think we can’t keep going another minute:

“Throw your nets out on the other side of the boat.”

Don’t stop trying. Don’t stop loving. Don’t stop believing. Bend your hearts—and your actions of justice-making—toward the dawning call of God’s grace.

Weeping shall linger for a night, but…

joy comes with the morning.

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

well, not really, but God’s Spirit was present in that mocha moment. . .

Note: I first wrote this post in June 2015. My mother has since died, and on Sundays I often think about her and our mocha moments. I revisited this piece for #blogtober. As I reread and revised it for today’s post, I realized—many people are hungrier than ever for a glimpse of the sacred, in particular when it is revealed through justice-making and shared hope.

“Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha.” Can’t we picture such a headline in our news feeds? We have seen announcements like it before: “‘Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese’ Sells for $28,000.” The now-famous grilled cheese was reported to have an imprint of the Virgin Mary’s face on it. It had been stored in a baggie in a bedroom dresser for ten years before we heard about it in the news in 2004.

$28,000? Are we that hungry for a glimpse of the sacred?

Social media outlets have been abuzz recently about churches in survivor mode. Statistics paint a grim picture of the future of institutional Christianity. What are churches offering that people aren’t buying? 

What are we hungry for today?

A mocha stirred up these thoughts for me. You see, I have been seeing something that looks a whole lot God’s Spirit swirling about in a mocha I have a date with each week. 

The mocha itself is at best mediocre. I get it for free from one of those institutional coffee machines you find in hospitals or convenience stores. I press one of six buttons–hot chocolate, mocha, cappuccino (regular or decaf) or coffee (regular or decaf). The machine ponders my choice. Then it grinds and sputters and spits my beverage into a 6-ounce cup.

This particular machine resides in my mother’s senior adult apartment community. When my mother moved to my city, I was glad that the transition was not as difficult as other parental moves I had heard about. My mother pared down her stuff and moved with some ease from her house of 45 years into a studio apartment. The ascetic quality of her new space suits her just fine. 

More difficult was the change her move sparked for me. Overnight my schedule became tied to hers. My mother’s life became less cluttered, mine more cluttered.

That is how the mocha machine came to dispense more than just a mocha. I organize my mother’s medications every week. I also do her laundry. Once these tasks are done, she and I go downstairs to wait for her lunch hour. While we wait, I sip on a mocha.

I have never been a devoted mocha drinker, but the day the mocha machine was “out of order,” I was too. I had come to anticipate drinking that Styrofoam-seasoned, somewhat chocolate flavored drink.

I sat to wait with Mom the day the mocha machine was on the fritz. The stories and conversations went on around me as usual, and I found myself laughing and joining in. The weekly mocha had helped me in those initial months of transition to sit and listen and hear the wisdom-infused storytelling of my mother and her new friends. It had offered Spirit-sweetened seasoning to my caregiving activities.

Now, even without the mocha, I was connected somehow. Perhaps what many churchgoers seek is not unlike what I seek as a caregiver: moments when God’s Spirit sneaks in to stir up and transform.

If people go to church at all, they go seeking moments when their life stories are heard and held with care. They go wanting to experience something about their place in the human community. They go to encounter and even join forces with a God who is working to end injustice and heal our world. Neither exacting doctrinal analysis nor sentimentalized sacramentality will accomplish these things.

But perhaps cultivating holy “mocha moments” can. Coffee shops are popular these days. Many people love to grab a cup of java with friends over breakfast biscuits. Others go to coffee shops to drink their favorite roast at a solo table while working on their laptops. But even those of us who drink our coffee solo at coffee shops are not alone. Not really. We notice, we regulars, when Susan is not at her usual corner table. 

Could it be that we humans seek everyday community-making rituals and sometimes even embrace them as everyday sacred? Hmm … and could this mean that God is already loose and at work in the world? Does it mean that churches don’t have sole (or even primary) responsibility for naming and managing God’s presence beyond their walls?

I say “yes” to all of these questions.

Churches need to think about how their public and spiritual identities can be born again for our hyper-connected, coffee-shop-community times. Churches also need to pay attention to gifts already present in their worship traditions.

I learned as a child to look for Jesus in a bit of bread and a sip of drink. Before I started partaking of communion or learned anything about communion’s theological intricacies, I watched when folks in our church tipped their heads back to drain those tiny cups. I noticed that when my father returned to our pew after communion he had a different smell. I wanted to taste that drink. I wanted to smell different like he did. I also learned as a child that God loves me and others no matter what. God’s grace is about these things.

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

Churches that will thrive in the future will fling open their doors not only to let God’s Spirit in but also to share physical food and drink with hungry people. They will also offer with determined joy God’s gifts of radical welcome and fierce generosity to all people.

Perhaps to the extent that we learn to welcome all—friends and strangers—to our church tables we make possible more of those everyday grace-filled moments when people glimpse something that resembles Jesus, even in a mediocre mocha.

chasing artificial light

I long for authentic dreams that come like moonglow to illumine dark nights.

you sit in the night cafe
sipping lukewarm coffee
from a plain white ceramic mug
a half-eaten slaw mustard and chili
cheeseburger and three fries
on a discarded plate in front of you
i saw you there last night too
and the night before that

a neon sign out front beckons
“always open” except for the “o”
that blinks and blinks trying
to stay awake to the promise

what ambitions do you harbor in
that limbo of artificial light or
are you just one of the many chasing
sleepless daydreams of an illuminated life
forgetful that dreams that come true
are nocturnal pollinators
drawn to blossoms
that reveal their mysteries only
to a midnight moon

A word about the poem: Artificial light has been in the news in recent days alongside Greta Thunberg and her bold words about the climate crisis. Several articles last week explored how artificial light and light pollution are affecting the earth and our future. I happen to be reading Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries these days, and in G Is for Gumshoe (1990), Grafton’s main character describes her experience in a nursing home by asking “what ambitions” can people harbor in that “limbo of artificial light”? The question has stayed with me as I have thought this week about the climate crisis and about light pollution. Grafton’s description also makes me think about the artificial light that persists through the actions of many U.S. leaders, an artificial light that threatens the future of our country. I long for authentic dreams that come like moonglow to illumine dark nights.

Summer Solstice Epiphany

I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing.

Because I do not understand their actions, I have gained even greater clarity about why I do what I do as a theological educator at Wake forest University School of Divinity.

Let me explain.

Today is summer solstice in the U.S., a day when the sun shines longer than on any other day of the year. Hostile and violent forces are at work in our world today to keep hurting people from knowing the hope and warmth of life’s light. We need these extra hours of sunlight to seek how to live God’s Gospel truth in our times. We need a summer solstice Epiphany.

What is a summer solstice Epiphany?   The ancient sages in Matthew 2, commonly known as the wise people in the Christian Christmas story, followed a God-flung orb of light to Jesus’ birthing place. Many Christian traditions have located the story of the sages’ journey on day of the liturgical year in January known as Epiphany.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “a striking appearance.” We cannot wait for another January to look for God’s light to reveal a way for the human community to journey toward justice and renewed hope. We need to ask now what the manifestation of God in Jesus means in a world where so many fear for their lives, where too many innocents are abused and slaughtered. How are we who live in a world of such harsh and immoral realities to incarnate Incarnation—right now? These questions are urgent. People’s lives and well-being are at stake.

Matthew’s Epiphany story reveals powerful wisdom for our times. The sages, upon encountering the child Jesus, went home by another way (Mt. 2:12). I am struck by two things about this story on this day in 2018 of creation’s longest light. First, the sages had a home to go to. They were people with positions of power in their contexts. They could go home. Second, the sages decided to take different, less familiar route home to resist doing what Herod asked them to do. They decided not to take a route that would perpetuate a state-sanctioned system of violence and injustice. They risked something about their own lives because of what they encountered in the faces of a young child and family. Could they have gone back to confront Herod? Perhaps they should have and perhaps they did. What we know is that having encountered the truth of who God is in the face of a child, their usual way of going was changed.

This is why I do what I do as a theological educator who is also a Presbyterian Church (USA) Minister of Word and Sacrament. I believe this is also why we do what we do at the School of Divinity. We invite students to be aware of their power as human beings and religious leaders to resist Herod by following the unexpected ways of the Gospel. We spend time in conversation, worship, and prayer across our many differences seeking God’s wisdom for how we live and learn together. We also foster in each other a capacity to discern ways to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of vulnerable others. This is work worth doing—work that must be done—in a world where too many people are denied their worth as human beings.

On this day in June 2018 when the God-flung orb of light called the sun looks out from the skies longer than on any other day of the year, perhaps our souls will be stirred anew. Now is a time for us to shine the light of Gospel truths on lies perpetuated by people who abuse their place and power. Is this stirring—this call—new? No. We here in the U.S. need to lament and atone for a history of injustices justified by people who have bent and are bending their version of the Gospel toward their own ends. We are haunted by questions today that have followed us across the landscape of our history. Have we forgotten or perhaps never understood what it means to be children of God created in the image of God?

The sages in Matthew saw God in the face of a child. Can we? Do we? Can we see God in the face of Antwon Rose, an unarmed teenager shot by a police officer in Pittsburgh this week? Can we see God in the faces of children and mothers and fathers separated by injustice at our borders and within our communities?

We need Epiphany. We need a new understanding of and commitment to what it means to be human together, created in God’s image and living in community here on and with God’s earth. I do not understand why some of our nation’s leaders are doing what they are doing. I do know why I do what I do at the School of Divinity. I do what I do to encounter and be in community with students whose passion for ministry and whose deep belief in the power of Gospel Good News make me continue my vocational journey in transformed ways. I do what I do at the School of Divinity because I believe our work together changes us and sends us out, knowing that we are called as we go to risk something about our own lives for the sake of the lives of others.

I wrote the following poem/prayer for a January Epiphany Day. I have revised it for this summer solstice call to Epiphany.

Star-watchers.
Eyes wide opened
by unexpected light
in backyard night skies,
“Bearing gifts they traversed afar” to
investigate
explore
consider.
Then—eyes wide-opened
by what they saw—
rerouted,
home by another way.

Ah, the peculiarity of Christmastide Epiphanies:
shepherds
cows and sheep and donkeys,
an angel-frightened teenager
and a dream-troubled carpenter.
sky-gazing Zoroastrians
on camels’ backs
tracing a celestial light-beam to an
unfamiliar place.

But what of the rest of the story?
Menacing messages from powerful places,
weeping of innocents,
mama and daddy,
baby held tight
fleeing
violence
death.
Did they know—
To keep their bodies safe
was to keep safe God’s Beloved Child
but only for a moment.

In all of it—
holy visits and visions and vistas
detours and deliberate stars
midnight border crossings
into unfriendly backyards
children’s cries
wailing lullabies
“Hush, little baby! Don’t say a word.”
Immanuel—-God-with-us?
In us?
Through us?
In spite of us?

Galactic light-spheres align yet again
Sacred solstice sun shines into night hours:
Burn away the fog of unknowing, O God.
Give us eyes wide-opened
by what we see.
Call us to another way
so that we risk our lives to
bring together
Life
Love
Hope

 

While Not in Other News

For the last six and a half weeks, my 81 year old mom has been undergoing radiation treatments for tongue cancer, cause undetermined. She finishes on Friday a “tour of duty” of 33 treatments. Her mouth is raw; her throat is swollen; she is weary. The doctors told her she would need a feeding tube to make it through the therapy. She said “no tube.” Her friends at her senior independent apartment complex, the generous cook in the kitchen of that complex, the kindness of an assortment of drivers, amazing doctors, nurses and technicians at our local hospital, and her desire to keep on doing what she does every day–eating with 102-year-old Lenora and her other friends in the dining room and watching her soap operas–has kept her going. She has grit. Now, with one treatment to go, she has lost 6 pounds instead of the 25-30 the doctors predicted. No feeding tube.

Many headlines have splashed across the news waves this week. I celebrate in this poem news that does not make the Times but that does make a difference. My mom said today what I think is true about life in the midst of so many troubling headlines: “Things happen to us. We are human. We just do the best we can.”

“Egyptian Air Plane Crashed into the Mediterranean”
the week the doctor phoned to break the news:
“Biopsy Is Positive for Cancer”
A life sentence, headliner understated,
one of many.

Eighty percent survival rate;
Eighty-one year-old woman with an
eighty two year life expectancy.
so the doctor said.

Stubborn senior citizen
expectant of everyday life until death
is escorted on the arm of a shiny blue walker
into iron man battle.

Thirty-three excursions down Radiation Way;
Thirty-three high dose zaps to the tongue;
Thirty-three days of taste wasting away.
“Pulse Nightclub Massacre: 49 Dead”
“Zika Arrives in the U.S.”
“Alton Sterling Shooting Sparks Protest”
“Five Dallas Police Officers Fatally Shot”
“Summer Olympics Begin with
Uplifting Spectacle in Gritty Rio”
and Tina in the kitchen
down at the Cypress Gardens
apartments for senior adults
stirs up milkshakes three times a day
even though they are not on the menu
or in her job description
so mom, boosted up, loses six pounds
instead of the 30 they all said she would
with no feeding tube against all life expectancies.

Fortified by 102-year-old Lenora,
91-year-old Doris,
91-and-a-half-year-old Ruth,
and 70-year-old Mary and her 2001 Buick LeSabre
with the extra-capacity trunk,
determined octogenarian perseveres
while doctors and nurses cheer, amazed.

“Hillary Broke the Glass Ceiling” last week;
while not in other news
mom shattered expectations, gained 1.8 pounds,
four more tours to go:
“I’m with her.”

‘Twas the Night

Silent night,
(pause)
holy night.
Stars whisper:
the earth is pregnant.

All is calm,
(pause)
all is bright.
Beneath indigo skies,
scurrying insects
quiet restless feet;
lowing cattle
lift ruminating heads;
blue-black night birds, wide-eyed,
scan the darkness.
Listen:
The earth is pregnant.

Silent night
(pause)
holy night.
We stop
wait
breathe
wonder
confess, perhaps.
Then–
a filling moon
overflows.
We sing.