btw: it’s “app-uh-LATCH-in”

I love Dolly Parton, just like the rest of the world. That’s partly because of her genius, partly because of her music, partly because of her kindness and partly because I’ve now had three shots of a life-saving vaccine whose development she bankrolled. Dolly Parton has saved my life, no fewer than three times, now.

But I also love Dolly Parton because she sounds like my Mammaw. Hear for yourself:

(Mammaw telling me about how her daddy wouldn’t let her walk two miles each way to school)

Dolly is from Eastern Tennessee and my Mammaw was from Eastern Kentucky, and the tucked away mountain places where those two states meet far Southwestern Virginia are inscribed in my DNA. It’s not readily apparent in my accent or my behavior, these days, but I’ve got generations of Appalachian identity flowing through my veins.

Mammaw was the pipeline to all that culture. This little audio excerpt is from a recording I made of her several years ago, when I sat down and begged her to tell me all her best stories again and again. It’s a treasure to have this, now, to be able to hear her voice and double check my memory about who my great-great grandmother actually was.

Part of the swindle of white supremacy for white people is to convince us that we have no cultural identity. Whiteness is just the vanilla standard of all things and we don’t need to know where we come from or who we are in order to enjoy the privileges of existing as white in a white world. In fact, if we *do* know who we are and where we come from, if we *do* understand ourselves as descended from a particular people with particular identities, we threaten the powerful monolithic myth of whiteness itself.

Because of my Mammaw’s stories, I have always known that I came from somewhere. She and my Pappaw left Eastern Kentucky – for Tennessee, then West Virginia, then finally the bustling metropolis of Roanoke, Virginia. It was an Exodus. It changed the course of their lives and their children’s lives, and mine. There wasn’t much opportunity for work other than the coal mines, so Pappaw’s military service and then work with the FAA was a way out. They told the story as an exodus, and telling the stories about HOME was a way to keep themselves – and us – connected to mountain roots.

A few weeks ago, my mom and I sat down to sort through family photos from Mammaw’s house. There was one particularly well-documented family reunion in approximately 1980 held at the Breaks Interstate Park, one of the most beautiful, mystical places I’ve ever been. This was a large gathering of siblings and cousins and cousins’ kids. Mammaw was one of 9 siblings, so my mom has a TON of cousins. I *think* I recognize all their names, and I’ve met quite a few, but these are not cousins I know. I asked mom how many of them live outside of Kentucky, these days. There are a few in Ohio, a couple in Tennessee, and us, in Virginia and North Carolina. In other words, almost all of us are still in Appalachia.

from my visit to the Breaks a few years ago

Because of Mammaw’s stories, I know about Granny Guinn, Mammaw’s mammaw, whose husband died and left her with children to raise on her own, who sold her land for a horse & a shotgun and rode the hills and hollers delivering babies as a midwife. I know about Mammaw’s mean Aunt Belle, who begrudgingly rented Mammaw and Pappaw a little house when they were first married, but was so fickle that she insisted on planting corn RIGHT UP TO THE DRIPLINE of the porch in order not to lose any crop income. I know that my great-grandfather’s first wife died in the flu pandemic of 1918, that he re-married my great-grandmother afterward and that my Mammaw would never have been born if that pandemic hadn’t re-organized millions of marriages and families.

Because of Mammaw’s stories, I’ve read other stories, and histories, and done a little genealogical research. Because of Mammaw’s stories, I know that Appalachia is not the butt of the joke that it has been made out to be these last hundred years. I know that Appalachian poverty is the direct result of government abandonment and corporate greed. I know that Appalachian beauty is tucked into the folds of mountains and twists of people’s twangs. I know that I come from somewhere, have responsibilities for that place, am expected to learn and tell the stories. Because of Mammaw’s stories, I hope that I am a tiny little bit less likely to get swept up into the totalizing myth of whiteness as the texture-less, origin-less, monopolizing lie that ruins everything it touches.

That is probably not the narrative you hear most often about Appalachia. But I’m from Appalachia. I am an Appalachian. I was born in the mountains to generations of mountain bred people, and I’m better for it. Next time you read a condescending article or hear an insulting joke, you can think of me, and my Mammaw, and know them for the lies they are.

the messy glory of the lord

Every church worships a little differently. The more experience I have in church, the less I care for formality. After six years with my tiny congregation that, long before I arrived described themselves as “informal but competent,” I just can’t stomach much of the “production” aspects of worship. If your worship tends toward the formal and performative, maybe read these reflections with a grain of salt. Or, if you’re deep in the Advent worship planning maelstrom and not in a place to hear much critique at all, maybe skip today’s post. This is meant as confession, not criticism.

Nearly a decade ago, I worked in a church whose worship was very formal (formal, that is, for our low-church Brethren tradition) and very planned. It was *good* worship, with regular rhythms and good preaching and meaningful rituals, and I learned a TON about planning and facilitating God’s people gathering for worship in that place.

One Sunday, I was away, working at another job. I was helping to train summer ministry interns, and we were visiting a local congregation as part of the orientation week. During the service, there was a piece of special music planned – a guitar and vocalist accompanied by a beloved drummer who lives with some developmental disabilities. The drummer was poised and ready to begin, but the guitarist had lost the tune and the key. The entire congregation shifted in their pews. The drummer smiled – but was clearly annoyed at his co-musician. We all waited a few minutes as the guitarist picked through chords. I started to get anxious, even though I was not in charge of anything in the room, just a guest in the service. No one else around me was anxious, though. A woman in the pew in front of me pulled out her cell phone (WHAT!? in WORSHIP!?) and opened YouTube to find a version of the song that was to be played. She stood up, where she was, and said, “here it is,” hit play and held her phone aloft. The first few chords of the song filled the sanctuary, the guitarist nodded, the cell phone woman sat down, the service proceeded without another hiccup.

What’s notable about that experience is less what happened, although that congregation’s non-anxious worship attitude and the pastor’s complete confidence that everything would work out one way or another *are* impressive. What I remember about those moments in worship was my own startled reaction: that I would be so anxious on behalf of other people, that what I had just experienced was very unlikely to happen in the formality of the congregation where I worked, that I loved this casual, relational, confident, inclusive tone in the sanctuary. I realized, in those few moments, that I was chafing under the formality of my current worship life.

At the House for All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran congregation in Colorado, worship is very traditional and liturgical but also, somehow, informal. The chairs are in a round, and people volunteer for worship leadership duties as they enter the sanctuary. The church declares that they are “anti-excellence and pro-participation.” When I heard their former pastor use this phrase to describe how their worship operates, I immediately took it to heart. YES! Anti-excellence and pro-participation is what I want to be a part of, what I want to facilitate, where I want to be.

At Peace Covenant, try as I might, we are sort of constitutionally incapable of being planned and formal and performative in our worship. For one thing, we’re too small. Everyone sees and hears everything that happens – there is no covering up gaffes or mis-steps in the service. And the pastor is not a Master of Ceremonies – if I miss an element as we’re moving through the service, usually someone just pipes up right then and there to ask, “Oh, Dana, were we going to take the offering today or not?” I have tried several times over the years to tap people as worship leaders or candle lighters early in the week and my efforts – without fail – crumble. Every time, we revert back to the practice of calling on someone to read the scripture or light the candles when it comes time to read the scripture or light the candles.

The pandemic has pushed us even farther into this informality, and I want to tell you that it is a straight up gift and grace. Our pianist is losing her sight, so we don’t sing accompanied hymns any more. That’s actually kind of okay, because we are not the most gifted singers even if some of us bellow out lyrics heartily to cover up that lack. Instead, we have brilliant recorder music played and audio edited by our beloved Gene, whose age and distance keep him from showing up in person but who has faithfully recorded a new hymn every week for the last 20 months and emailed it to me.

(Gene’s “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” – he records both parts himself, then edits them together)

Instead of spending her week trying to read tiny notes on scores or accompany a pack of fairly bad singers, our pianist Karen now reads scripture for the week, prays on it, and lets the Spirit lead her to one of the hundreds of hymns in her memory repertoire. She plays them with a tenor and spirit that is surely unmatched.

(Karen’s “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” from yesterday’s service)

We also started using songs from YouTube, which has meant that our music in worship has ranged from 1960s rock to bluegrass to gospel. The world is our musical oyster, and we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’ll be able to reach the high notes or follow the key change. A few weeks ago, my browser’s ad-blocker stopped working and as our (slow, somber) hymn about healing ended, the YouTube algorithm launched into a commercial for PERIOD UNDIES before I could launch myself across the room toward the PAUSE button. The whole congregation laughed.

I tried to invite Advent candle liturgists and lighters, praying over my people and selecting unlikely pairings: retiree and college student! Someone on Zoom and someone in the room! No nuclear family pairings (I almost wrote an entire post about how much I loathe the nuclear family Advent candle lighting tradition because of how it marginalizes single people, childless people, folks whose families are far away or non-existent or simply don’t attend Sunday morning worship with them and how it is explicitly against the scriptural witness that folks who follow Jesus are called to leave their families and create new, kingdom ways of being community with one another…but I mostly spared you that rant, for now.). But my people are unused to being asked to do Sunday morning things before Sunday morning, and it just didn’t work. Instead, we’ve had some Zoom readers and some family readers and, yesterday, when I asked a married couple to do it together, they declined. One of them had already lit a different candle, and the other invited a college student to read along with her.

I don’t know, y’all. My seminary worship professor impressed upon us that “the Holy Spirit never neglects good planning.” And I appreciate the work and artistry that goes into a well-planned, scripturally-guided, thematic worship led by people who know how to lead worship. But actually, at this point in my life and work, I think the Holy Spirit mostly laughs at our planning – all of it. I’ve tried too much and too often to get ahead of Her, and it just never works. She will do what She will do, and I’m content, now, to show up for my part of this holy, grace-filled work and then allow myself to be stunned into awe when She shows up and blasts our faces off with the messy glory of the Lord (which never did seem to take to our human rules and formalities, anyway).

joy is not made to be a crumb

If you light an Advent wreath during this season, today is the day to light the JOY candle. Advent is an ancient season, but it’s not scriptural. And JOY is definitely a later addition to a practice that was, initially, one of fasting and repentance. “Gaudete” is the Latin beginning of one of the readings for today, from Philippians 4: “REJOICE in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Whether you observe Advent or not, meditating on joy seems like one of those things that is always appropriate. Poet Mary Oliver:

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,don’t hesitate.

Give in to it. There are plenty

of lives and whole towns destroyed or about

to be. We are not wise, and not very often

kind. And much can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this

is its way of fighting back, that sometimes

something happens better than all the riches

or power in the world. It could be anything,

but very likely you notice it in the instant

when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the

case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid

of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”

So, here are a few joyful things from my life right now:

  1. These gingerbread people I baked:

2. The little kid at yesterday’s garden potluck who, upon discovering that his hot dog was one of the sneaky, mixed in ones that had nacho cheese in the center, grinned the biggest grin I’ve seen in a while. He turned to his dad and then to me to say “I GOT THE CHEESE ONE!” Then he yelled at each of his friends by name to tell them the same thing. (This was real, pure, unadulterated joy in itself, made all the better by the fact that mixing up the nacho cheese dogs in with the regular dogs was – I thought – an unfortunate mistake on my part as I prepared the meal. Turns out, my mistake led directly to big kid joy.)

3. This paper white from the farmer’s market blooming slowly and delicately on my coffee table:

4. Playing Muriel Knickerbocker, a wind suit-wearing, mall-walking retired lunch lady who solves crimes with her fellow retired book club ladies in a tiny town in the Northeast in a role-playing game named “Murder Mavens.” This week, someone was killed by Christmas-light strangulation, and we narrowly escaped being arrested for interfering with an active crime scene investigation.

5. Donating hand-me-down furniture and buying this brand new chair (aside from my Ikea bed and mattress in a box, pretty sure this is the only brand new piece of furniture I’ve ever bought myself), which arrives on Thursday and in which I will immediately curl up with a good book. It’s GREEN!

6. Putting on sandals for yesterday’s walk on the American Tobacco Trail with Fran. The weird weather (climate change is not joyful, but sandal-wearing is) meant that I froze my fingers off in the garden on Wednesday but happily walked bare-toed in 73 degree temperatures yesterday.

7. Group text messages and Marco Polos and email dispatches that show up in my notifications and offer tiny little glimpses of daily joy arriving in other peoples’ lives: a tiny cousin singing an old camp song, kiddos crafting ornaments and gingerbread houses, a reference to a decades’ old college inside joke, more people watching silly Christmas movies, etc., etc., etc.

8: This song, stuck in my head:

healing after loss

I’m writing every day during Advent as a way of doing my own prayer and reflection, and also as a way to connect with you. This is different than writing in my journal, both riskier and more rewarding. It’s also different than writing for publication, both safer and more autonomous.

Thanks for your comments, here and on social media, and your messages. When I told people that I had a blog, I used to follow that admission up with “my readership consists mostly of my grandma!” That was true, and now it is not. Thanks for being people whose faces and lives I can imagine as I write here, into the void.

Your responses have been making me think about how universal and deep our collective grief is, right now. Not just loss of life and love – though that toll is nearly incomprehensible and keeps mounting – but loss of so much else during this time of revelation and uncovering. We have lost routines and habits and our sense of security. We have lost trust in institutions. Lots of us have lost jobs – either by choice or not. The world is shifting underneath us, and we’re all scrambling to keep up. I’d even venture to say that if you aren’t scrambling, well, you’re either very very privileged or not paying enough attention.

I’m not an expert on grief, I’m just trying to be honest about my own. There are losses I can’t write about yet, but I know that carrying them is changing how I respond and react and what I decided to say and do. I hope I can get enough words around those losses, eventually, to say something about them. But the world also keeps changing and there isn’t quite time to process last year before the new year rears its own challenging head.

Anyway: all of that is to say that your responses to these little writings are mostly “hey, I’m grieving, too” and “I also don’t really know how to do any of this” and “yeah, let’s at least be honest about where we are.”

Here’s a tiny little piece of help that I can offer: a book of daily meditations for working through grief.

A few years ago, when my friend and mentor Mary Jo Flory-Steury died, a dear woman in my congregation gifted me a copy of Martha Hickman’s “Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief.” Her sister had died a few years earlier, and this book had been a real help for her. I found it surprisingly helpful in navigating strange, weird experiences of loss. But I met several people in my travels that shared about recent losses, and ended up sending my copy away to a BVS volunteer whose grandmother had just died, and then I sent another to someone else, and then another. This is probably my 4th copy of this little book.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in here, and probably nothing you don’t already know. There are quotes from poets and healers and philosophers, and personal meditations about what it feels like to journey through grief. There are probably better resources available – the author is not an expert, just a guide – certainly much more scientific and data-driven work on grief. But the bite-sized devotional nuggets helped me name my grief and walk through it.

Maybe that would be helpful for you, too.

We have lost a lot. A lot. A LOT. But we are still here, still grieving and hoping and scrambling and weeping and healing. And even though I think one of the symptoms of grief is feeling isolated and lonely, we are not alone. Some of the most powerful gifts in my own grief have been hearing someone say “you’re not the only one.” So, here you go: in this season of loss and grief and uncertainty and fear, when the sun is setting before dinnertime and the outside world is demanding holiday cheer, when the missing people and the empty chairs are put in stark relief, when it feels like any other reality might very well be impossible…well, you’re not the only one. There are a bunch of us feeling those feelings. Maybe the best we can do is grab one another’s hands and walk through the season together.

do less

Friday is my day off. Mostly. Usually. 87% of the time.

I’m really bad at taking time off. Like, so bad that my church leadership just re-negotiated my contract for next year and requested that I put a regular, monthly tally of how many vacation days I’ve used in my pastor’s report so that they can make sure I’m taking them. Like, so bad that I only took 2 Sundays off in the whole of 2021. Like, so bad that when I took Monday off this week to finish Christmas shopping, I got to late afternoon and was at a loss for what to do with myself. I wondered, in those hours, how in the world I am going to fill an entire month of not working when I come to March’s sabbatical.

It’s not that there is really all that much work to be done – in a normal week, my responsibilities easily fit into the hours I’m paid for. It’s more about my own deeply rooted sense that my value is firmly lodged in my productivity.

This is wrong, obviously. It is anti-Christian, anti-Christ, anti-scripture, anti-grace, anti-humanity. No human’s worth is based on how much they can produce in any given day. We are worthy because we exist. We don’t have to prove anything to anyone in order to be loved and valued and have the right to live freely and with joy.

And I still end the day tallying up all the tasks I accomplished and mentally writing a to-do list for the next morning. I have a to-do list for today, my day off. I will feel annoyed and kind of useless if I don’t get the four things on the list accomplished. I’m sure that these assumptions and expectations can be traced back to some Protestant Work Ethic theology wrapped in my Anabaptist Service Oriented Identity. I know that my college emphasized Being a Person Who Changes the World for Good at every turn. It’s also true that our political economy, which tells me every day that I am not worth anything if I don’t work/pay taxes/buy local/support charities/stimulate the economy/make the world a better place factors into the ways I understand my place and worth in the world.

And, I confess, that I’m no good at countering these messages on my own. I need other people to remind me that sitting for hours over a cup of tea and conversation is valuable. I need my church leadership to chide me for not taking days off and demand that I make that a tenet of our employment agreement. I need leaders and mentors to model what value looks like outside of work. I need friends with whom to schedule implication-less, labor-free activities.

Otherwise, I’m just over here stuck in this endless cycle of not doing enough, demanding that I do more, feeling exhausted but unable to find real rest. It stinks.

I’ve been paying attention to people who are talking about this and insisting on revolution – The Nap Ministry, Anne Helen Petersen’s new book, a brand new Church of the Brethren pastoral agreement coming soon, the Bible. If you are someone who is good at not working, I would love to hear how you do it.

precious gems

Every Wednesday morning, I work from the garden. Sometimes, that means lugging wilted greens across the yard to the compost bin. Other times, it means sermon preparation. And sometimes, it just means sitting silently in the sunshine with other people. We call it garden co-working, and it has been a bright spot in my week since it began this fall.

During Advent, we had planned to use resources from A Sanctified Art to incorporate a short time of reflection at the end of our co-working time – specifically practicing visio divina with the liturgical art from the series.

Yesterday, it was gray, damp and 39 degrees. I was the only one who braved the weather to sit out in the garden, and it only took an hour or so for my fingers to go numb at the keyboard. And I was a little bummed not to get to reflect on this week’s particular piece of art with other people, because I love this one so much that I might buy it and frame it and hang it in my house:

“Harvest of Righteousness,” by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman

So, let’s do visio divina together, here; if you’re up for it.

Settle into your seat. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes and let all the worries and tasks and notifications vying for your attention fall away. Take a minute.

Then, read – silently or aloud – these words from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Take another breath. Take another minute. Then let your eyes fall to the image. What do you notice?

Take another, closer look. What did you miss at first glance?

If you can, imagine yourself inside this image. Where would you be? What would you do?

And, finally, how does this image make you *feel*?

If we were together – in the garden or, like the Lenten study I led with art last spring, on Zoom – I’d ask you to take another deep breath, and re-direct your attention back to the group. Then I’d want to hear what it was you noticed, what it was you missed, where you found yourself when you jumped into the image like Bert and Mary Poppins do in that sidewalk chalk art that ferries them into another world.

We’d talk about that a while, and then I would want to know if anything in the image connected with the scripture you read.

And I would share, after giving you a chance to share, that this image feels like someone holding a treasure chest – the pomegranate looks like jewels, and the flowers feel like royal adornments. And I would tell you that this, combined with Paul’s words to the Philippians about how he thanks God every time he remembers them, how he prays for their love to overflow more and more, reminds me of the way I used to think about my friends.

I’m a pretty solitary introvert, and it takes a lot for me to make a real friend. I think science has confirmed that the way we think about “friends” these days is totally corrupted by social media and virtual connections and, in actuality, humans are really only capable of a few intimate relationships. There’s a thing called “Dunbar’s Number” that says we can maintain around 150 stable relationships, and around 5 “close friendships.”

I don’t know whether this image grew out of my personality or that science of human connection, but I do know that for a long time, I imagined my close friendships as jewels in a treasure chest: precious, polished, small enough to be able to see them all at once. I used to imagine taking them out, one by one, and marveling at how beautiful and multi-faceted and unique they were. I spent some real time in my imagination gawking at the jewels.

I haven’t thought about that image in a long time, not until Paul’s words and Rev. Pittman’s image reminded me. I sort of miss thinking of my friends that way. But in reality, friendships aren’t priceless jewels to be taken out and polished once in a while, placed gingerly back in a case to be admired. Friendships are, instead living, changing things that require less polishing-to-a-shine and a lot more jumping in the mud and muck. It’s probably fair to say that at this point in life, the jewels that are still in the chest are dinged, cracked, cloudy – and all the more beloved, for it.

In her Artist’s Statement about this particular piece, Rev. Pittman says “all of the flowers symbolize different kinds of love: Coltsfoot flowers representing maternal love and care, Forget-Me-Nots imaging faithful love and undying memory, and Heliotrope meaning eternal love and devoted attachment. At the center of the piece, the object of the hand’s reaching is a pomegranate, bursting open with seeds. Throughout history, pomegranates have been used as a symbol for royalty because of their richness of color and flavor, and for the crown-like shape on the end of the fruit. At times, this fruit was used
as a symbol for Christ and resurrection as well. The split-open fruit with seeds spilling out represents Christ breaking out of the tomb. The hands are ready to receive the knowledge and full insight of Christ and to be nourished by the harvest of righteousness.”

All the flowers symbolize different kinds of love. As I survey all my precious jewels again this morning, I’m so grateful. Grateful for all the kinds of love that have shown up in my life, all the precious jewels that arrived in the shape of friendships, all the ways that my solitary, introverted self has been tangled up in webs of connection and care. If you’re reading this, you are tangled up somewhere in that web, too.

I thank my God every time I remember you. My prayer is that your love may overflow more and more.

a canticle in progress

I love the canticle of Zechariah and the Magnificat – songs from the Christmas stories that we read and remember during Advent. They’re both in Luke’s first chapter, and they are both songs composed by regular people who got caught up in divine situations – songs of praise and prophecy. Zechariah sings about the history of God’s salvation, and predicts peace:

By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Mary sings justice:

He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

There are a bazillion Christmas songs, some of them good and some not so good. I don’t know that we need another, but I thought I’d attempt my own canticle this morning (but now, having attempted, I am reluctant to hit publish because I want to edit and re-shape each stanza but I don’t have time. Such are the boundaries of this flash-writing practice.). So: a canticle-in-progress:

My soul searches for the Lord, and my spirit longs for liberation.

God’s movement has freed us, led us out of Egypt and through the wilderness, dried up rivers and unseated kings. God has made ways where there were no ways, fed us with manna from the sky, brought forth springs of water in the middle of arid deserts.

God’s mercy and power have kept us. She has gathered us under her wings. She has created us in our mothers’ wombs. She has counted the hairs on our heads and anticipated every word before we spoke any of it. When we fainted and faltered, She grabbed our elbows. When we were tempted to throw in the towel, She whispered words of love.

God’s wile has encircled us, carried the wisdom of Christ through Constantine and crusade. She raised up leaders and saints who took the gospel to anchorages and deserts and catacombs and hush arbors. She grew her Body in out of the way places, safe from the putrid press of power.

God’s perseverance keeps calling us, out of empire, out of violence, out of riches, out of isolation. She will come again in might and glory, but by now we should know that might and glory look like a tired, pregnant girl and a mute old priest and a tiny, helpless infant.

And us: children of the Most High God, will be asked again to prepare the way, to look toward dawn, to renounce evil and choose life, to place our feet in the ways of peace. All this according to the promises She made to Hagar and Sarah and all the ancestors and *all* their descendants, forever.

if we live, we grieve

For a pastor, grief is a professional hazard and, one might assume, a professional skill set. Hospital visits and listening to loss and officiating funerals are part of the job. They come with the territory. I dislike hospitals and funerals, but I also love the people who end up there and so have figured out how to be present for other people in times of illness and loss.

(Here is my legit, sincere offer: if someone you love dies and you/they do not have a pastor, I am available to officiate the funeral. If you’re willing to spend a couple hours telling me stories about the deceased, I’m willing to do a non-awful service. A bad funeral is one of the absolute worst things in the world.)

I can feel my way through shocking phone calls and hallway weeping, be the heavy in grief-soaked family disputes, act as a buffer for grieving people overwhelmed with well-intentioned casseroles, or be the casserole deliverer, myself. I have done all these things. The outline of what happens when someone dies – mortuary, graveside, visitation, obituary, death certificates, all the feelings held at bay while you take care of all those details swarming you when they’re finished – is familiar. It has to be, in order to do my job.

This year, though, death ran up against my professional barriers and breached them. My tiny congregation lost two powerful women – both on our Coordinating Council, both faithful, consistent, pillars of the ways our tiny community existed. Melissa died in January and Nancy died in June. Then my Mammaw, who we had just moved from her own home to an assisted living facility, died rather suddenly in July. And in October, my JoJo wound up in the hospital with several infections, including Covid, and died immediately upon discharge to the same facility where Mammaw died three months before.

I can talk or listen to you about grief and its details for a long stretch, but I am really not sure how to start talking about my own grief at all. It has plowed me under. Every one of those deaths included some traumatic element – I suppose most deaths do. Circumstances are not all mine to share, but sorting through what-ifs and how-comes and good-god-this-world-is-awfuls feels like an additional layer of loss and confusion. Each one of these women was a powerful, influential presence in my life, and each loss has left a hole in my heart.

This year has been so strange and covid-soaked that I’m still regularly surprised when I remember that one of these people is dead. Like, I’ll be wondering what Melissa would say about our new worship arrangement, and then am shocked to remember that I will never know. Or what advice Nancy would give us as we try to plan for next year’s budget, forgetting that next year’s budget is complicated precisely because Nancy – who was our long-time treasurer – is not here. I went to Roanoke for Thanksgiving and didn’t quite know what to do with myself, since I couldn’t make my regular grandma visits, which I tried to do every time I was in town. I keep expecting JoJo to comment on my latest Instagram post, or think maybe I could ask Mammaw to tell me that story I love one more time to be sure that I get it right, and none of that is possible anymore.

Grief is a universal experience – if you live, you grieve. I know this. I also know that the last two years have been so full of grief and loss that no one has been left unaffected. I know that I live a privileged life that leaves me reeling after a year that served up only four intimate deaths. I know all that, and I am aware of coping strategies, and the old aphorism that everybody grieves differently and grief has no timeline, and I trust my heart to feel what it needs to feel when it needs to feel it.

And I am also writing all this here as part of that process, part confession and part remembrance, an unprofessional and uber-human admission that I have no idea what I’m doing or what comes next. Melissa, Nancy, Mammaw, JoJo: I loved each one of these women, and I know – because they told me – that they loved me, too. And they’re just…gone.

I know so many of you are grieving losses like these, too. I preached Romans 8 no fewer than 5 times this year, and it is pretty much all I’ve got right now:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I am convinced, Paul says, as if it took some work. As if he had done some grieving, himself. As if in the midst of this life that repeatedly separates us from the people and places and work and routines and assumptions and certainties we love, Paul hit rock bottom and found that it was made up of one sure and certain thing: the love of the one that created it all. That love never ends. That we can get separated from all manner of things, but never cut off from the source of it all.

I believe that’s true, even though sometimes, some days, some years, it is a struggle to be convinced.

begin in terror

(This is yesterday’s sermon, a tiny cheat in my daily Advent writing practice.)

Zechariah’s story is the opening scene in Luke’s gospel:

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

That’s how Luke begins the story of Jesus, the Gospel, the Good News: with an old, faithful priest named Zech and his wife, Liz, who couldn’t have a baby.

Zechariah had spent his life in service at the temple and to his God. He was a descendant of the priestly order, so he’d likely known all his life that working in the temple would be his vocation. He’d spent decades training and learning all the law and prophets, and his days were filled with liturgy and sacrifice.

On this particular day, Zechariah’s priestly section was on duty and it was his turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. There was a big crowd of people praying outside the sanctuary as he entered, alone. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside, Zechariah froze: an otherworldly creature was there, just to the right of the altar. Well, maybe Zech froze. Luke tells us that this creature TERRIFIED and OVERWHELMED him, so maybe he froze, but maybe he SCREAMED, or cowered, or fainted. Whatever he did, Zechariah was horrified.

We know, from our vantage point as readers of the whole story, that this creature was an angel. But if it was an angel like the ones we see in craft stores and on the tops of Christmas trees during this season, then why was Zech so scared? A float-y, shimmering cherubic kid with wings, right? That’s what an angel is?

It turns out that angels in scripture are nothing like what we imagine. The prophet Ezekiel has some particularly evocative descriptions: wheels with many eyes; four-headed beings with multiple wings; a creature that looks like a demented moth, with eyes on every one of its eight wings. In scripture, angels are not softly lit and gently smiling. In scripture, angels are terrifying creatures. 

Now, to be fair, the angel that shows up here in Zech’s sanctuary is probably more human-like than a wheel with eyes. Gabriel is known to be the archangel of the cherubim, which, according to people who call themselves “angelologists” are angels who appear sort of super-human: gigantic, with majestic wings and overpowering presence.

And still, Zechariah was TERRIFIED.

That’s how the gospel begins: in terror.

I think that’s worth paying attention to, right now: that Luke chooses to start the story of the good news with an aging priest encountering something terrifying in the sanctuary. Just like the way angels are far more complicated and unsettling than our popular imagination tell us, the gospel is also not something that begins in a clean, safe, pastel stable. The gospel begins with things getting turned upside down.

Once Zechariah recovers from his faint, the weird angel says “Don’t be afraid!” Which, you know, feels sort of like too little too late when the being has startled him there in the sanctuary. But the angel continues: “Your wife, Elizabeth, is pregnant and is going to have a son. And you’re going to name him John, and everyone is going to rejoice! He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and bring many people back to God, and prepare the way for the Messiah, who is on the way.”

And Zechariah, sort of dumb-founded and still finding his footing in the wake of such a scare and such impossible promises, blurts out his first thought: “But I’m so OLD! That can’t be true!”

And the angel, sort of annoyed that Zech isn’t getting immediately on board with God’s plan, says “Look, I’m Gabriel, the angel. I work for God. God’s the one who sent me here, in case you hadn’t figured that out, yet, to bring you GOOD NEWS, man. But it doesn’t seem like you can handle this quite yet, so – and I really hate to do this, you know, but we can’t have you messing up the plan with your own fear and short-sightedness – I’m gonna have to take away your voice until your son is actually born.”

And then Gabriel disappears, and Zech stumbles back out into the light, and all the people are curious and concerned about what’s been happening in there, but Zech can’t tell them. All he can do is gesticulate wildly with his hands, and crouch down and start to cry.

But Zech goes home. And soon, he and Elizabeth realize that it’s true – she’s pregnant. Elizabeth is much more joyful than Zechariah had been, and raises her voice in praise. 

You know what happens next: Elizabeth’s young cousin Mary also gets a visit from Gabriel, and is also told that she’s going to experience this unexpected pregnancy. Mary visits Elizabeth, stays for three months, and they marvel, together, at this new thing that is happening to them.

And then, Elizabeth gives birth. In this family, a priestly family who has waited so very long for a child, the firstborn son would automatically be named after his father. This baby should be named Zechariah. But when he’s born, Elizabeth says, “nope. This kid’s name is JOHN.”

And everyone sort of furrows their brow and clucks at her, surely delusional in her post-birth state, and looks to Zechariah. Remember, Zech has been mute for the last nine months, unable to utter a single word. By now, he’s gotten used to this state of things and always has a tablet nearby. He grabs the tablet and writes, clearly, “his name is John.”

And, Luke tells us, the entire household was amazed. Immediately, Zech’s tongue is untied, and he starts speaking as fast as he can – not the build up of opinions and questions he’s been stockpiling for months, but an immediate, joyful, passionate song of praise to the same God who made him mute in the first place.

And, we hear, “fear came over all their neighbors.”

There it is again: fear. Elizabeth knows what is happening. She’s on board. It took Zechariah nine months of humbling himself in muteness to understand that what was happening here was not about him, or his family, or his priestly line, but about something much, much larger. He finally got it. But everyone else, all the gathered neighbors, well, whatever is going on here? It is TERRIFYING.

All this fear seems worth paying attention to. Why does Luke choose to begin the gospel with so much fear? Why include these details – that Zechariah was terrified when the angel showed up in the sanctuary and that the neighbors were terrified when they witnessed Zechariah finding his voice? Why is it important for us to know that the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth was tinged with so much terror?

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The detail of this story that captivates me is Zechariah’s nine months of being struck dumb. Gabriel recognizes that, in his terror and confusion, Zech is not going to be able to properly translate or explain what is happening. And it’s no wonder: what is happening is incredible, miraculous, out of time and place. It starts with a VERY SCARY creature appearing out of nowhere in the sanctuary. It starts with everything Zechariah thought he knew being upended. He’d spent his entire life in service to God, but he still didn’t realize that God might show up in his life like THIS.

So, instead of moving on and choosing another family to be part of this story, instead of leaving Zechariah in the dust of the gospel breaking into the world, instead of passing him and his disbelief over, Gabriel just says, well, okay, I guess you’re going to need some time to get used to this if you are really going to be the father of the Proclaimer.

There is grace in those nine months of muteness. God gives Zechariah TIME to come to terms with what he’s being invited into. God doesn’t see his fear and give up on him; he instructs Gabriel that this is the man, the father of the messenger John, and that whatever it takes for Zechariah to get on board, well, that’s what they’re doing.

Zech had nine months of watching his wife’s pregnant belly grow larger with the child the angel promised him would be a key part of God’s plan. He had nine months to sort through his own personal fear and sense of ownership over this kid. In her commentary on the passage, Hannah Garrity says “By removing his own personal and family legacy from the picture, he is truly able to give way to the greater narrative that God is calling him to participate in. This is an incredible moment of humility.”

And when Zechariah is able to speak again, when he humbles himself and consents to having a son with a God-given name and not his own, when he assents to being a part of the thread of bringing God incarnate into the world, even at the expense of his own human legacy, his first words are not explanation or question or relief; they are words of blessing and praise:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!

These are the words that begin every blessing, every “berakhat.” In Jewish practice, blessings are for every moment of every day. One ancient rabbi said that a faithful Jew would say as many as 100 blessings a day, thanking and praising God for God’s provision and joy in every moment of life.

Zechariah begins his song with words of praise, and keeps them flowing, recounting the currents of salvation that Zech now recognizes he is joining:

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.69 He has raised up a mighty savior for usin the house of his servant David,70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,and has remembered his holy covenant,73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousnessbefore him all our days.

And then, he blesses his son, setting him up on a foundation of the history of God’s salvation among God’s people:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah and St. John the Baptist. A medieval Georgian fresco from the Monastery of the CrossJerusalem.

In those nine mute months, Zechariah has been re-oriented, from fear to faith, from grief to joy, from feeling cheated and left out to recognizing himself a part of a cosmic, generational movement of God in the world.

Zechariah took a while to move from fear to praise, and that’s okay. He had nine months to get right with God. Gabriel gave him that gift. What started in terror ends in blessing.

I wonder what it is, in our own lives, that we are terrified of, right now. I wonder what it is that just isn’t making sense, that we are not able to understand, that feels like our world is being turned upside down. I wonder if any of that – any of the situations or circumstances that are scaring us or sending us all out of sorts – might turn out to be the source of salvation, of blessing. I wonder what we need to become re-oriented and shift our own fear into canticles of praise, to recognize that we, too, are people called into the streams of salvation, invited to be, like Zechariah, people who prepare the way for the Lord.

and, predictably, they fall in love

After years of turning up my nose at them, I’m watching all the Hallmark Christmas movies this year. Well, not *exactly* Hallmark Christmas movies since – even though I supposedly have access to the Hallmark channel through my Dad’s shared YouTube TV subscription, I cannot get my Roku to allow me to search for the thing I want to watch. (What a sentence.) But all the Hallmark-adjacent silly Christmas romance movies where a sad, overworked urban single person returns home for the holidays and (SURPRISE!) finds love with a sweet, burly, flannel-wearing guy next door.

Yes, I will share some reviews here. But first, let me tell you that, like all good media consumption pipelines, I came to these implication-less movies by first reading implication-less books. In what I can only really understand as an attempt to escape the worrisome reality we’re all living in, I have read SO MANY romance novels this year. Romance and mysteries are comforting because no matter what happens, you can be guaranteed that the plot will be resolved and end on a high note. Always.

I have long been a book snob, and refused to read any kind of pulp-y fiction, but my friend Carynne, who is super smart and with whom I love talking books, told me a while ago that she reads romance all the time. And then she started sharing recommendations. And I discovered that the people who write romance novels are *writers* who, unlike me, have the skill, fortitude and patience to write *entire books.* And some of those books include deftly written characters, razor sharp humor and imagined worlds where I want to live. Plus, as mentioned, they always end well.

The romances kept me reading, and rocketed my 2021 tally to over 100 books read. If you, like me, are skeptical, might I recommend “Red, White and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston or “Get a Life, Chloe Brown” by Talia Hibbert or “Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors,” by Sonali Dev. Then you can move on, like I have, to everything Jenny Colgan has written.

Like the books, the Hallmark Christmas movies are guaranteed to be what some might describe as “heartwarming.” There may or may not be complicated emotions or family dynamics, but there will certainly be a neatly resolved falling-in-love plot line. Here are my initial reviews of Netflix Hallmark Christmas movies:

  1. The Christmas Prince: apparently a widely appealing film, since it has spawned at least two sequels that I will be viewing. A young, single NYC journalist is sent to a made-up European country to cover the playboy prince who is heir to the throne and, predictably, falls in love with him. This movie is bad. Like, bad even for (what I know of) this genre. But there is a castle, and snow, and the lead wears her Converse to royal gatherings.
  2. Christmas in a Castle: new to Netflix, starring Carey Elwes! and Brooke Shields! A successful author escapes a messy divorce and writer’s block by fleeing to Scotland, where her family has roots. She meets a duke and, predictably, falls in love with him. This movie is better than The Christmas Prince. It also features a castle, plus Carey Elwes. And there are charming villagers who like to knit and drink. Still bad.
  3. Love Hard: a young professional gets catfished on an online dating app, but doesn’t realize it until she has FLOWN ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO SPEND CHRISTMAS WITH A MAN SHE HAS NEVER MET BEFORE. The guy who catfished her agrees to help her catfish *another* guy – in person this time. Bad, racist portrayal of strict Asian parents and high-achieving sons. Very creepy – dangerous – set up. Also not awful.
  4. Single All the Way: also new to Netflix. The algorithms are on to me after this first week of Christmas romance movie bingeing, and Netflix sent me an email announcing that they thought I might enjoy this new film. They were right. A recently-dumped guy travels from LA to New England to be with his family for the holidays. He brings his roommate/bff with him and, predictably, falls in love with him. This movie is one million times better than any of the others, legit funny, actually charming in some places, and reminded me enough of “The Family Stone,” one of my Christmas movie standards, that it jumped immediately to the top of the ratings in my estimation.

I’m going to keep working on getting access to the actual Hallmark Christmas Movie Universe. Until them, what else should I be watching? Or reading?