I often cross myself in worship especially when the bread and wine of Christ are re-membered in me. The gesture is an affirmation of who I am and whom I follow. Today the cross is smudged on my face for all to see how poorly I reflect his cross I claim as my own. It is out of focus, lacking the crisp outline even a shadow can cast. My feeble attempts at following in his way make my cross indistinct. And so I turn again, accept the invitation to come closer, slowly, to the cross made dim by distance until its texture and detail draw me in, fill my vision, and define me.
This poem came to me as I as cleaning the guest room, after Christmas and the pleasure of hosting family from far away. We took a calculated risk with COVID, since several of us had already had the virus.
They have vacated the room where I make the bed, unhurried, unwilling to disturb their presence that lingers in the quiet. They slept beneath the quilt my mother made. My child-adult and her husband, the soul mate and lover she awaited, yearning for the one who yearned for her while the patchwork of her life came together. Granddaughter of a stitcher of longings, a practical woman of vision, and prayer. Daughter of the one who watched the pattern come together and now makes the bed again, runs her hand over the storied, precious handiwork, in lambent, loving benediction.
Only you could merit a name that is a dawning a promise daily kept hope hinting slowly reassuring yes, I am here never rushing, yet insistent letting the dark take its rest. You let it sigh and set while you make yourself known calling my attention not to yourself but to the trees’ winter branches who nevertheless pen their delicate praises upon the blue of you.
The angel visits Mary; one virgin is being prepared. In a haunting parable (Matt 25.1-13) about the end times, there are ten virgins, five of whom are properly prepared.
I am captivated by the sonnets of Malcolm Guite. He also masterfully crafts poetry anthologies, including his Advent/Christmas collection, Waiting on the Word, which includes John Donne’s “Annunciation.” The richness of this tribute to Mary is unpacked expertly by Guite, and my own slow reading of the piece yields precious insight. The incarnation is mystery enough to behold for a lifetime, if only by pondering the last line:
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
My imagination juxtaposes Gabriel’s announcement to Mary with the parable of the ten virgins. I have always understood the oil in their lamps to be a symbol of preparation for the Day of the Lord. Be faithful. Be alert.
But what is involved in preparation? The lamps must be refilled. The wise young women brought oil with them, but they only had enough for themselves. The foolish ones had to find another source elsewhere. They missed out on the advent of the bridegroom, because they did not have enough oil.
Oil in the Scriptures is both a staple and a sign of God’s provision and blessing. It is used for healing, for lamps, for anointing, and refreshment. Where there is oil there is life and goodness.
A journal entry from a couple Decembers ago reads: “I am in a season of life that is not unlike Advent, so the mood of Advent itself feels especially intense this year. For some months I have sensed a preparation for something that is to come. God’s Spirit seems to be painting provocative designs on the walls of my imagination. My prayers are often wordless yet profound. I feel a great potential stirring. A parable about oil lamps being refilled resonates. Poems and images of Mary bearing a secret touch a deep cord.”
The gospel images of preparation and potential are helpful. Mary seems to be like the virgins who are prepared. There is the oil of life, and also the image of the seed, which in Mary is the beginning of God’s “new thing.” (Isa 43.19) The small seed of God’s inbreaking needs time in the darkness, time to germinate. It must take in the nutrients required. There is no need to hurry; indeed, pushing it to yield its fruit too soon will spoil it.
We bear a secret, disciples of Jesus Christ. We share Mary’s role as Theotokos, God-bearer to the world. The substance of the secret is the Love that formed the universe. As such, it is not only se’creted (hidden) within us, it is also secret’ed (generated or released) from us in myriad ways. The “immensity” of God is borne into the world in the tiniest of ways, by a thought or a glance, a soft touch, a word fitly spoken.
My mind moves to the story of another Mary and her secrets. She poured oil on Jesus’ head (Jn 12.3) at a dinner given in his honor. Judas objected to the extravagance. He could not see that her gesture came from a deep place, where love had been pulsing and expanding until it had to find expression.
The precious secret is revealed in the manger. But it also exists inside us, where the oil of God’s life fuels our love for Jesus Christ. Our love for him lights the way of hope, at Christmas time and always.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also...‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:1-3, 25-27)
A Message for You This Holiday Season
We are approaching the shortest day of the year in December. For many of us, it has felt dark for a long time, since the beginning of the pandemic at least. Of all people, you who have lost loved ones this year are among those suffering the most from the restrictions of the pandemic. It seems that there are deeper levels of darkness we never dreamed of visiting, yet here we are.
Every year in December we get into conversations about how Christmas gets co-opted or watered down by materialism. We don’t like to see it become just another reason for over-indulgence and profit. We feel as though we have to strive to stay focused on the “real meaning of Christmas.”
Yet this year you may suffer from a different problem. The merriment surrounding Christmas feels hollow, even painful, when you are in the throes of grief. Family celebrations highlight the absence of the person you love, introducing sadness into your cherished traditions. Perhaps you even feel disloyal celebrating the holiday at all, because that special someone isn’t here to share it with you.
With all these tangled emotions, we can find ourselves sinking even deeper into grief. It is hard to find comfort when others around you want to feel joy. But you can’t. You just can’t.
This is the reality of being human. There are times of darkness, and times when the darkness is made even more profound because of the circumstances of the world around us that put our suffering in stark relief.
Yet here, too, we have a reason to turn to God, for God has plumbed the depths of our humanity and made all of it sacred—every part of it—with His presence and love. Yes, there is love there in the depths with you, because God is there.
God sees you and will love you through the worst of it. Meanwhile, you need to be gentle with yourself and do what you need and nothing more. It is all right to let go of or simply tolerate any part of this season that obscures your experience of that divine, healing love you need so much.
I hope you can hear the good news I want to tell you: God embraces both you and the one you have lost. Nothing and no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.
Despite all the glitter and celebration surrounding Christmas, we know that Jesus was born in poverty and obscurity. He knew what it was to be exploited, unseen, hopeless. To observe the happiness of others while unable to experience it himself. He withdrew often from the company of others to be fully in his father’s presence. The love of the Father was his comfort, his strength. That fierce love enabled him to show us that his love could not be snuffed out, not even on a cross. I believe he died there not only to atone for our sins but also to prove that divine love does not die. It cannot be killed.
Neither can your love for your spouse, child, parent, friend. It lives on. And their love for you lives on too. This is not a wistful notion. It is the deepest truth in the universe.
As you gaze into the manger this year, I hope you will see the one who knows your pain and asks only to be held close to your heart for your healing. He will do that. He came precisely for that reason. Jesus will heal your heart, sooner or later. Whether you feel his presence or not, he is with you, now and always. Believe this truth, and know the peace that only he can give.
Luke 14:1-6…..On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ And they could not reply to this.
Jesus accepts their invitation to dine as though he were not walking into the jaws of a trap. Ready to love always ready to eat the food of his detractors, metabolize their suspicion into compassion. He knows how little boys who play in the streets lose their native joy at the feet of their elders. The guest directs their attention to a man crippled by his swollen limbs, as ignorant of their careful constructs as they are of his pain, and heals him. The magician snatches their protestations from the air, and opens his hand where there appears a cool, damp rag. He offers it like a mother to wipe away the crust of judgment from around the mouths of their little-boy faces, rendering them silent.
It was early autumn, a nip in the air. I arrived at the soccer complex 45 minutes before my grandson’s game. After positioning my car near the mini soccer field, I took off for a quick walk to get my exercise for the day, heading for the bike trail that lines the east side of our small town.
It took me south past the agency on aging and a warehouse, over the railroad tracks, past the high school baseball and football fields. Once I reach the county park and turn around to head back, I see a man approaching. He is pulling a wagon with a child in it. My automatic smile and greeting are ready, since I recognize him, although we aren’t friends or anything.
But then I spy his daughter in the wagon behind him. Four, maybe five years old, half reclined and calmly focused on something in the distance. She is dressed in a witch’s costume, but not a black one. This one is iridescent, dazzling.
The encounter instantly transforms my obligatory greeting, and I offer my fondest grandma-smile, knowing and delighted. He smiles back.
I think of his mother Margaret, a nurse. She embodies a higher calling, having mastered the trick of being both professional and winsome at the same time. Each of her patients receives a tiny rubber duck perched on the tray table of their hospital room. The tiny ducks have various costumes molded onto them: police officer, nurse, fairy, surfer dude. A playful little gesture to bring a smile in an otherwise anxious time. A small connection that communicates care.
Margaret also sings to her patients if they need and want it. Her generous, playful nature inspires me to let my own version of playfulness have free rein. Do I dare? Her granddaughter might not know it yet, but she is carrying on her grandmother’s legacy. With her shiny pointed hat and shimmering dress, she is wearing her fierce self on the outside, where it shows. Just like Margaret, who wears her love and joy naturally.
Her daddy seemed quite content in letting her wear what she wanted for their outing. Well, he is his mother’s son.
He and his little witch-in-a-wagon unwittingly cast a spell on me. She made me restless to wear my fierce, creative self on the outside, where it might not dazzle, but at least it shows.
Winsome little witch, may I borrow your pointed hat to propel me up and up, to pierce the weighty pall, the fear that I mistake for atmosphere? I promise I will hold on tight. I will give it back once I find my own wings to fly above and underneath as I used to do when I was small too.
The fender bender probably didn’t help.
I reached a low point in my COVID-coping consciousness that weekend. On Friday, I didn’t see a woman approaching from my right at an intersection near my home as I turned left into her path. I was startled by the impact of hitting her driver’s side door, because I had not seen her at all. Having looked both ways before turning, I neglected to crane my neck to see around the column separating windshield from side window, and as I turned, the Jeep was still partly obscured.
The woman whose beautiful, shiny vehicle I smashed was very calm and kind under the circumstances. (She friended me on Facebook!) Nevertheless, I felt ashamed and upset for several hours afterward.
Not only was my car damaged (and hers), my ego also suffered a blow.
So when I struggled yet again on Saturday evening with getting the worship service recording to work before uploading it to the church’s YouTube channel, I was running low on confidence. No problem. I could record the early service on Sunday as a backup.
My tension mounted as I set up the equipment. By the time everything was connected, I was disconnecting internally, ready to pitch the laptop and camera out the window.
I sat in the front pew to pray and get some calm. Instead, I began to weep.
I was done.
Done with the stupid pandemic, done with becoming a video producer and preacher rolled into one. Done with expecting to get good at it after weeks of trying to fit the pieces of technology and common sense know-how together.
The congregational president and his wife were the first to arrive. He discovered me in the front pew. I suppose he was alarmed, because he offered to help with the readings for the morning. It was a kindness, but I told him that leading worship was the easy part.
I pulled myself together, as we pastors often have to do at a moment’s notice. I put on my pastor face, and made it through two services.
But I felt fragile for several days.
The feeling was familiar. It had been like this when I was burned out in ministry four years ago. I reached out for help. I lowered my expectations for the near future. I was gentle with myself and got the rest I needed.
Eventually I was able to focus and acknowledge what it feels like to “deliver” worship to parishioners over the internet. For the first time, I felt angry that I have to keep pouring myself into creating quality worship services, with faithful preaching of the gospel and accompanying liturgy and prayers, record them, and post them up there along with all the YouTube influencers and silly videos. One among many. If mine doesn’t upload successfully, or if church members see the length and don’t want to spend the time, they can search and find another, shorter, worship service in under thirty seconds.
It makes me feel cheap. Like a hack. Like the vocation into which God has called and equipped me, in which there have been countless holy moments in worship, with grieving families and preschool Bible school classes, in hospital rooms and wedding receptions, the vocation that has taught me to deeply trust God’s faithfulness, is no more than a video delivery service.
Thankfully, I got to lead parking lot worship for several weeks this summer. To be honest, even after having returned to in-person worship with precautions in place, that time out on the driveway with people honking their “amens” has been the most rewarding time of this entire pandemic. Standing out in God’s creation where we paused to listen to the birds and the wind in the trees. Singing hymns as the organist’s music came through the radio transmitter. Grinning with people about the silliness and joy of worship like this on a summer day.
I was still recording worship for the people who weren’t in the parking lot. But that makeshift situation was fun, and holy, and good.
Reaching my breaking point was healthy in retrospect. I have let go of my expectations to meet the challenge with confidence and skill. Despite good advice—online and otherwise—this still intimidates me. Nobody else in the congregation has the expertise either, and they are probably reluctant to try. I don’t blame them. Somebody should try anyway. Maybe that’s another weakness I have to admit: not persisting to find help.
It’s not fair, I know. Fairness doesn’t seem to be relevant right now. Nobody knows how to navigate this strange reality, and the people I serve have their hands full already. They are kind, and faithful. They are ready to help when they know how to do it. I am grateful that they seem to understand and empathize when I tell them how hard this is. Their lives are hard right now too.
Like everyone else this year, I will keep slogging forward with the tools and skills at hand. I like to think we are all doing our best to be faithful and productive. The worship videos will appear like clockwork on the church YouTube channel, with thumbnail graphics I enjoy creating to signify each week’s theme.
For their part, the listeners keep showing up too. I give them credit for that. It would be easy for either of us to turn inward and abandon the enterprise.
So we are partners in it. Even though it is hard, we have to keep hope alive by meeting together, held by the love of God who will not abandon us. The God who sometimes uses silly videos to make me laugh, so I can endure.
Thank you, God, for the makers of silly videos, for those who fashion worship videos, and those who watch them.
Jesus seemed to have a fondness for small things. Mustard seeds, cakes of yeast, a little trust, scruffy kids. He marveled at growth as much as I do, stunned every summer by the size of a corn stalk whose beginning was one yellow kernel. Not every small thing that grows is good though (I protest) weeds, hate, a deadly virus. Let them grow up together, he said. Wheat and weeds. Maybe he should stick to teaching since he’s not much of a farmer. But maybe he was onto something. A microscopic virus spreads out of control and we feel choked, displaced, entangled. But Jesus keeps planting seeds to grow up alongside. Seeds of love, hope, sunrises, pain, silly memes, somber songs. Let them grow together, he says. Let me worry about what comes next.
This is the last in a five part series, “Unexpected Treasures in the Desert.” It is a sermon series for the congregations I am serving, known collectively as Prairie Faith Partners. This series is provided to help you navigate the COVID-19 epidemic “wilderness” we are experiencing together.
For each sermon I am writing my own reflections on the texts, which I like to do in free verse (below). To read the sermons, you can go to my “Lectionary Sermon of the Week” page, even though these aren’t on the lectionary texts. I’m afraid this page will change every week, so you might want to view the messages on the PFP YouTube page. (The message begins at time stamp 6:55.) I would appreciate your comments in this space. Thank you for visiting!
O God, I have such faith-less eyesight unable to make out any shape of hope in this desolate place, assuming that the lack and the obstacles that throb and crowd my thoughts are all the future holds. I want to be like Joshua, his faith-full eyes taking note of the giant, fearsome natives in our promised home, yet captivated more by his inner sight, insistent that you, Holy One, are enough.