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.

Coming Home

Advent calls us to work together to create and be for each other home for now until all of God’s children–wandering people that we are–can rest in the fullness of God’s promised home.

Reflections on Advent 2019, Year A

Advent is about comings. In a sense, Advent is about “home”-comings. 

  • Jesus comes to earth–to God’s home? to our home? 
  • God comes into our lives–to abide with us.
  • We await a future “home”-going or “home”-coming–when people stream create a home of justice and peace together on God’s holy mountain. 

An overarching biblical theme of yearning for home enlivens our theologies. We seek what is already but not yet. We journey relentlessly to earthly home-spaces that are not quite home because we remain in both tangible and intangible ways “away” from God. As people of faith, we join biblical ancestors in seeking a Promised Land, a land where there is no weeping or crying or pain. In the meanwhile—until we arrive in that sought-after place—God calls us to do what we can to create God’s home here on earth, in our cities and towns, schools and churches, workplaces and homes.

Some are too much at home in the role of wanderer,

watcher, listener; who, by lamplit doors

that open only to another’s knock,

commune with shadows and are happier

with ghosts than living guests in a warm house.

****

The undertone of all their solitude

is the unceasing question, Who am I?

Denise Levertov


Poet Denise Levertov (1923-2007) writes in a 1946 poem about solitude of being “too much at home in the role of wanderer.” I love Levertov’s poem, though I tend to see faith as calling us to the opposite of what she describes. I hear faith calling us to be at home in the role of wanderer. Never settling for less than justice for all of God’s people. Restless for peace. Always searching for healing, hope, grace. In other words, faith calls us to be at home in the role of wanderer until we one day cross the border into God’s not yet commonplace home.

That, perhaps, is the power of Advent wisdom. Jesus’ followers can never stop seeking. Not until all of the hungry are fed and violence has been stopped and no one feels the sting of exclusion. Not until all have opened themselves to God’s love and are empowered to go out into the world and love others, freed both from arrogance and shame.

But Levertov’s poem says that we risk being too much at home in the role of wanderers. Sounds like a conundrum, doesn’t it? We are called to be justice-seeking wanderers. We are also called to be at home in God’s love. Whew!

I think God’s call to people of faith in the midst of this conundrum is to pray and work together to imagine and create home—welcoming, non-judging, nourishing—home-for-now for all people who are seeking after God’s resting places of justice, grace, and peace.

What does this have to do with Advent? The texts in Year A paint a picture of “home” that is as bizarre as any we might imagine:

  • Lions and lambs nap together.
  • Swords become plowshares and spears pruning hooks.
  • Desert soil blossoms with crocuses.
  • Weak hands and feeble knees are made strong.
  • A dead stump births new life.
  • God is born in a barn.

Advent invites–perhaps even urges–us to watch for the unexpected ways that God is with us. Advent also urges us to imagine how we can be home-for-now for those whose lives are broken, how we can be home for our communities’ strangers, how we can be home for those whose stories have left them isolated, alone, without hope.

Advent calls us to work together to create and be for each other home for now until all of God’s children–wandering people that we are–can rest in the fullness of God’s promised home.

This year’s Advent season–called Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary–immerses worshipers in what we might call “impossible possibilities” that take us beyond the world as we know it to a world of Shalom. I hear in this year’s four weeks of Advent four verbs of expectancy, and I am excited to reflect on these four verbs each week as the Advent journey unfolds.

Watch

Turn

Imagine

Be

Advent 2019

**Note: Featured image is by Sheila Hunter and is used by permission. Thank you, Sheila!

Giving Thanks for Neriah People

They embodied faith and courage when they decided to call a woman as their pastor all of those years ago.

In May of my 26th year, I headed for the Virginia hills with high hopes for my first pastorate. The year was 1988, and the church was Neriah Baptist.

Neriah has an intriguing name. The word “Neriah” is in the Old Testament and is the name of Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch’s father. Neriah means “God is light.”

Neriah Baptist Church was full of God’s light.

Annie Dillard describes churches where members haul in from their gardens each Sunday flower arrangements the size of hedges. Those were Neriah people. Larger than life spirituality. Earth-connected faith. Neriah people—they were truck drivers, teachers, sheep farmers, principals, gardeners, artists, inventors, and determined huggers. And they were people of deep faith.

Now, becoming a pastor is by itself culture shock for someone only a few months out from her last theology exam. And for a town dweller who had never seen a sheep farm and who was a best a reluctant hugger? My education to be a pastor was far from finished.

My Master of Divinity degree prepared me for much of my pastoral work. I could exegete a Biblical text. My mind was alive with theological ideas. But no seminary professor reflected theologically with me about praying for calves in hayfields–something I did in my initial weeks at the church. And giving two sermons in a homiletics course is nothing like preaching every week. Sunday comes. Pastors preach. Then in seven days Sunday arrives, then in seven more days…

So, in the unexpected 4th year of my MDiv when I was called to be a pastor? I learned that Neriah people longed to hear a Gospel word every Sunday. I also learned that the hospital was 60 miles away and that driving to and from the emergency room in the night’s wee hours was wearying and that there were meetings and phone calls and pastoral visits and that all of this left little time or energy for a whole lot of things I thought would be my Gospel work.

What I now know and believe is this: all of it, baptizing and breaking bread at the table, blessing a child moments after she comes screaming into this old world, picking green beans with a church member while he cries and cries because his wife has been diagnosed with cancer—all of it, the grand pastoral actions and the ones that seem mundane. All of it is, well, liturgy.

Liturgy. Cathedrals come to mind. And communal prayer. And Gospel choirs. Liturgy is worship.

And in the ancient Greek city-states of 2500 years ago where the word was birthed, liturgy or leitougia meant “work of the people.” Liturgy in that context was work people did at their own expense for the public good—anything from street cleaning to bridge-building.

I wonder. What happens when we put the two meanings together? Liturgy is the work of the people to praise God; liturgy is also the work of the people to join God in God’s everyday work to care for and transform the world.

Neriah people taught me to embrace all of the meanings of liturgy. They taught me to get the dirt of creation underneath my fingernails, and in doing so, they instilled pastoral wisdom in me: the things we do again and again each day because we must? These things are liturgy, and God dwells in them and in us as we take up our everyday callings one moment, one step, one action at a time.

Neriah people taught me about bold works of justice-making when against all financial odds we opened a food pantry for people in our community. Neriah people taught me how to pray at hospital bedsides and offer blessings at dinners on the ground. Neriah people taught me to be a pastor.

I think about my Neriah years and Neriah people almost every day, and I thank God for their persistent faith and their generosity in sharing that faith and their wisdom with me all of those years ago. They embodied courage when they decided to call a woman as their pastor no matter what criticism might come their way as a result. I celebrate that I was the woman they called and that I had the opportunity to live out and deepen my calling to preach while working and worshiping with them.

My prayer for these days? I pray that we may all know the mercy and grace of Neriah–God is light–in our lives as we continue to work together to share Gospel justice, hope and love in our broken world. May we find the courage and faith to be Neriah people

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.”

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.