Response to the O Antiphons

Nobody knows how or when the O Antiphons were written, but they are first mentioned in the sixth century. They are used on the days preceding Christmas Eve, December 17-23. I offer them to you now, at a time when you may be more open to them. After the rush and intensity of Advent and the Nativity, after the blessedness (and bloatedness) of celebrations, I feel the emptiness that helps me pause and pray, albeit with more yearning than in the midst of all that sound and sugar. Besides, I wrote them on those days, and could not bear to share them yet. My responses are deeply personal, not meant to speak for everyone. But I’ve been told that what is most personal is most universal, so I presume to share them with you.

I

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.  

The wide world does Your will,
every atom and ant busily doing its work,
stars and systems shaping the space
of existence.  
Original.
Obedient.
"I delight to do your will" is true of them
but not of me.
I fill the space with flotsam
of my wrecked attempts
at improving on your wisdom.
Today my heart is open to let out all the angst
and welcome in the Native Order of all things.

II

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire and the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai;
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

When I dare approach
with closed lips and open heart,
a new sense is awakened: love.
Still and real, textured with presence,
heavy lightness, true.
My ambitious mind attempts description,
finding language flimsy, blunted, small.  
Drop the constant, clumsy consonants;
avow with simple vowels resonant: Ah! Oh!

III

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.  

From the beginning You created more than things
but hid in them a seed of Your life force,
for Love cannot make only one,
embedding life in life, from life.  
You are insistent that the making
carries on, in me, in all.
If there is any doubt,
a tree stands ready
to renew my withered spirit.  

Seed calls to seed.
I am created.

IV

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel,
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

I was content in the cloister,
safe from wildness without
until the day a door was left ajar.
My heart escaped before my mind could stop it.
Now I roam in the wideness,
grateful for the walls that held me
and the opening that set me free.

V

O Dayspring,
splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.  

You call me from the city scape and hearth
to a spacious inner landscape,
horizon unobscured,
where I can watch the slow crescendo of the dawn.
The steadiness, the sweet return of morning's child,
hope's advent,
mysterious, winsome one
wins over the shadows of the night.

VI

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

There is so much more to making
than forming shapes.
There is the character of clay,
the knowing hand,
the promise of an image.
Love makes no demands on us
except to yield to her devotion
and find ourselves among her devotees,
proud citizens of her imagination
and keepers of her peace.  

VII

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Savior:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

We rode the creaking van through
rough non-streets of a squatters' suburb.
Once-villaged families sidle up to
a city that is itself more sprawling village
than metropolis.  Here it is monochrome:
red clay homes humping up from red clay ground,
hope fashioned from despair.
The mothers cling and lose their grip
from hour to hour.  Yet on they go.
Love's uneven rhythm clings to them, with arms
of the children they keep bearing.  

The jarring memory of hopelessness
since then is ostinato to my prayer
for all: O come, Emmanuel.  Ride the hills
and ruts of poverty, and take me with you,
Native Knowing One,
You, who holds the fathers and their children.  

Friends

Friends

It is a curious exercise to consider

the humanity of Jesus–

dependent

social

hobbled by the burdens of everyday life

suffering from compassion fatigue.


Little wonder that he craved camaraderie

in the school of hardship.

Lessons in the mathematics

of poverty and despair

the rhetoric of injustice

the geography of resilience. 

Stories that stayed with him

trained him

to endure the pain

and keep a sense of humor.

No such thing as extra credit

but enough to get him through.


They watched from the usual distance

with grim solidarity

when the righteous ones made an example of him.

(Little did they know what an example he was to them.)


He didn’t think it too much to ask

when the man who hung next to him

asked to be remembered.

How could he forget his friend

after sharing drinks

and swapping stories

that one night only weeks ago?

Eucharist II

The wine spills into my body

through lie-stained lips

enters my bloodstream

mingles with the

givenness of my blood

obediently nourishes

cell and soul.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Meanwhile

I carry on

like an ignorant

executioner

who occasionally wonders

how he came

to do this work. 

Summer 2019

I am sailing along the asphalt stream,

over the rolling hills,

through the softness of green

that is Iowa in summer.

I want to run my hands

across the tassel fur,

over the nappy trees,

wade in the bean rows

to penetrate their texture,

sink into the wonder.

I pass by,

but I am cleansed. 

Flow

You can

stand in the river.

Feel it caress

and flow away from you.

Mourn its indifference,

its constant leave-taking.

You can ride the river. 

Rest in your

buoyancy.

Enter the flow

caressing and baptizing

whatever is encountered.

Trust the wisdom of

its deep energy

as it carries you

on its course. 

Possum and Stump

“Possum and Stump.” Sounds like a name for a bluegrass band.

On my walk this morning I walked past a fence that used to be obscured by foliage. A couple of years ago the city decided to cut it all down. In a few cases they were too late. Some of the bushes had grown through the fence, and they couldn’t be removed without taking the whole fence down.

As usual, I see a metaphor.

There are parts of ourselves we would like to be rid of–old habits, memories, even a relationship or two. But they become part of us. Even if we manage to kill them, their effects remain. Life goes smoothly until KA-THUMP! YEOWWW! You stub your toe on that old stump.

In contemplative spirituality, we find that those old stumps are not to be ignored, but acknowledged. The least we can do is remember they are there so we can skirt around them. But eventually we can even come to appreciate them and learn from them. Ask questions like: “What did that part of my life teach me about myself? What are its gifts now that I look back on it? What does the sadness about that tell me right now? How can this actually be of use today?”

Lately I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I finally decided to face the insomnia and ask it what it was trying to tell me. (I know, sounds a little like “kondo-ing,” how Marie Kondo tells us to thank inanimate objects. Stay with me here.)

After some exploring my inner landscape for a while, I found that old stump that has dogged me off and on for years: the search for significance. When I thought about the feelings I have when I should be drifting off to sleep, they are panicky and anxious. The specter of fading away unnoticed came into the light. Of dying without having made an impact or even being remembered.

The fear of insignificance–that old ghosty, jittery critter. He usually hangs out at night. I think he knows if I get a good look at him in the daylight, he’ll get his walking papers.

He likes to show up when I’m anxious about other things, like a new job (check) or a loss (daughter getting married; change in relationship). Funny how anxieties in one area get the whole gang riled up.

So. Today I stopped to ponder the stump with a fence in it, or a fence with a stump in it, depending on how you look at it. Something moved. A ghostly possum lumbered by.

Never would have seen the possum if I didn’t stop to ponder the stump. Funny how a dead tree can remind me what’s going on inside myself.

Church, Pie, and Rachel Held Evans

I share the sadness of thousands who were shocked this month at the death of Rachel Held Evans.  The experiences she wrote about in the church and beyond the faith of her upbringing resonated deeply with me.  I attended all but one of the “Why Christian?” conferences she led with Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I sang traditional hymns alongside a thousand others at those gatherings, with tear-filled eyes.  It felt like genuine worship I didn’t realize I’d been missing, unbridled by exclusivism and dogma. 

Rachel’s struggle with loving God and the church while challenging its culture and beliefs was a public one.  She endured a lot of flak for it.  But her honesty was a balm to many of us who felt what she did as she worshiped in her beloved Baptist church: “I was surrounded by the people who knew and loved me best in the world, yet it was the loneliest hour of my week.  I felt like an interloper, a fake.”[i]

Rachel and her husband Dan left the church they had loved and supported for a lot of reasons.  Although it wasn’t the tipping point, the church’s endorsement of a proposed Tennessee bill (#368) to condemn same-sex marriage, with the banner “Vote Yes on One” (Marriage = One Man + One Woman) uncovered the dichotomy in herself that led to their departure.  She could no longer leave her heart and mind at the door and tolerate her own silence in the face of her church’s treatment of LGBT people. And here’s the thing.  Part of her struggle came from suspecting deep down that some people in that congregation would listen and engage with her about it.  But she couldn’t deal with her internal tension any more. [ii]

I get it, Rachel. 

Your integrity would not allow you to settle on a dualistic mindset.  It would be so easy to condemn the people whose minds seem closed to the new dimensions of faith you were discovering in the Bible.  Taking off the blinders of your childhood faith, you were letting the Jesus of the gospels question the assumptions you had been weaned on.  What inspired my respect was that you also let that same Jesus form your love for the people who keep uttering those assumptions like a mantra. Somehow you could still appreciate them as your spiritual parents and friends. 

Thank you, Rachel. 

It is that refusal to be defined by bitterness that has meant so much to me.  Your books explore the spaciousness of God’s reign but don’t dwell on the drawbacks of other perspectives.  I don’t know if it was intentional, but you and Nadia did not allow negativity or snark to hijack your gatherings.  It would have been so easy to take potshots at the “other side.”  But you stood fast in your commitment to the focus on God’s faithfulness and mercy that promise hope for the whole church, not just your version of it.  This is a monumental achievement in our current culture, both ecclesiastical and public.

How many times have I checked my sarcasm because you showed me how to be honest but not mean?  How many times have I not reined it in, and regretted it?  And then remembered your belly laughs at yourself for such slips and felt forgiven for my own pettiness? 

My husband and I were returning from a funeral when I saw the news of Rachel’s death.  I was heartbroken.  When I got home I was glad to have the task of mowing the yard ahead of me.  I had to muscle out my grief.  After the yard was done, I picked new rhubarb and made a pie, feeling some of the nurturing spirit I sensed in Rachel.  I chopped, rolled, sprinkled, and baked out more of my sadness. 

I brought the still-warm pie to the musicians who shared the pit that night with me in our community theater production of “Mamma Mia!”  As we did the mic checks, the aroma of lard crust with cinnamon wafted upward, and a few cast members noticed it.  They peered into our midst and asked what smelled so good.  I smiled and explained, “Sorry.  The musicians are having pie before the overture tonight.”

My growing sense of unease at some of the assumptions of my faith and my church has nagged me to the point where I, too, had to take action.  I simply could no longer tolerate living in tacet agreement with ideas and practices of my congregation and denomination.  Something told me that God is more loving and life-giving than a religion based on transactional atonement and purity rules.  I had to respond to the faint but insistent aroma of something more, something fragrant and delicious, like the pie in the orchestra pit.

I have no idea how much Rachel had to wrestle with the temptation to condemn people on the other side of today’s theological arguments.  It has taken up a lot of my own time and energy.  It seems that the sorting process of changing my thinking comes with the impulse to think in black and white terms: this is good, so the other is bad. 

But theology, biblical interpretations, even the church are not so simple to parse.  Like the many mysterious aspects of faith, ideas and practices are complicated.  There is much to appreciate (usually) even when the assumptions don’t line up with the perspective I’ve gained.  We are the church, united in the cross of Jesus (Ephesians 2.14), and we cannot condemn the way other people see that cross, no matter how much we want to. 

So I sit with my family in the church I left, whenever I can.  I also go to another church down the street, and I preach in pulpits where the diverse understandings of God are represented by the faces turned to listen.  I find the islands of common ground among us and stand on them to gently push at the assumptions about God that have proven too small and harsh for me.  I try to point out the sea monsters that threaten us all and proclaim the same kind of hope Rachel insisted upon. 

Because you have taught me to be gracious, Rachel Held Evans, I can do it with love in my heart.  Thank you. 


[i] Evans, Rachel Held.  2015.  Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. (Nashville: Nelson Books), p.58.

[ii] Ibid., p. 61-62.