slogging through

Pandemic fatigue: I’m in it. I was doing so well, I thought, and for so long. I cooked, I read, I walked, I hiked, I got outside. I kept up with regular Zoom calls with friends and prayer meetings with church people and generally appreciated the safety of my own little routines. I clean on Fridays. I get takeout for lunch on Tuesdays. Worship, staff meeting, fellowship time, book studies, monthly gatherings with colleagues and community kept the calendar moving.

I knew that January and February would be hard and I tried to brace myself. I walked 100 miles in January and shifted to a goal of yoga every day in February. That turned out to be a good decision, since it has rained nearly every day this month. Cold, dreary, nasty rain, too. More people died, more people got sick, more events got cancelled and my routines are wearing thin. I’m tired of having to feed myself every day – to make all the small decisions that lead to sating my own hunger: what to cook, how to do it, when to go to the grocery store, which store to go to, whether or not to finish the leftovers that are SO FREAKING boring or get takeout…again, the weight of knowing that no matter which decisions I make in all these tiny ways, I will still be eating the meal alone in my empty house.

I’m annoyed with my schedule, annoyed with my co-workers, even – for the first time in our five year relationship – annoyed with my DOG. I am short-tempered and exhausted. I resent my to-do list, even when it is filled with things I LOVE to do.

I mean, who gets ANNOYED at that face?!

I am not depressed (don’t worry, my therapist agrees). I am not hopeless. I understand that the vaccination campaign and the new administration and the impending spring weather and the lessons learned over the last year all have immense potential to usher us into a new kind of wholeness, TOGETHER (thank God).

But I am TIRED. And so very angry. I dreamed last night that I was in Florida, soaking up the sun’s warmth. I want the sun to return, and the virus to disappear. I want to be somewhere other than my living room. I want to go eat breakfast in a diner, a southern waitress re-filling my coffee mug and calling me “hon,” surrounded by the sounds of silverware clinking & conversations rising and falling.

There’s no reason to be writing this, other than my lenten commitment and straight honesty. The sun will return, we’re on the way to defeating the virus. I think my favorite diner will survive and I hope to go eat scrambled eggs and bacon sometime this summer.

But there are still weeks, maybe months, to slog through. I’m committing myself, again, to the things that have carried me this far: prayer, hiking, connection, sharing stupid memes, Tuesday takeout, Sunday worship, and cleaning the house on Fridays. What’s your slogging-through plan?

the art of dying

As we emerged from the last few months of 2020, my congregation felt a pressing need to start the new year thinking about death and dying. It sounds sort of awful, doesn’t it? That we would emerge from a year so full of grief and pain and decide “hey, you know what we need? MORE of this kind of reflection!” I expect that most of us were just trying to limp toward January first, praying for something better, using every possible distraction to avoid the pain and grief of the last months.

But not my tiny, intense congregation. Nope, they walked together through the death of beloved parents and siblings and friends, watched the world miss funerals in order to keep everyone else alive, felt around the edges of their own grief and pain and said: “we need to talk about this.”

Have I mentioned, lately, how much I love my congregation?

They asked me for resources on advance directives and living wills. They watched loved ones make impossible decisions as the people they loved died, and wanted to know how to avoid putting their own partners and children in the same situation. Death has been hovering around us, all year, and my people wanted to confront it.

So, we planned a winter series called “The Art of Dying.” Our resident hospice chaplain helped shape the sessions. A long-time family friend from Roanoke who spent her life founding & starting one of the Valley’s first hospice efforts joined in a Zoom call and walked us through documentation, important things to talk about with loved ones, and wisdom won from decades of being face to face with death.

A full-time hospice chaplain in our congregation led an intense and lament-filled hour talking about what life has been like for folks working and living in nursing homes this last year, especially those places that have been sites of COVID outbreaks. The way he expressed the grief of so many of us being forced to die alone hit us deep down in our bones.

And then, last week, a PhD student in our congregation led us in a conversation as part of her research around VSED: Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking, which is an end-of-life possibility for those who are facing terminal diagnoses without hope of cure or significant easing of suffering. How did we react to this possibility, she asked us. Why did we think what we did? What would we do if a beloved member of our congregation asked us to accompany them in this kind of journey?

In the midst of this series, one of our congregation’s strong leaders, one of the folks who had been most insistent about confronting death and making her own plans, someone who had spent 2020 doing a lot of her own grieving, someone who I loved very deeply and who I know loved me, too…died.

She wasn’t sick for long, and she did not suffer much. Her death was quick. She didn’t have time to fill out the forms we distributed about advance directives. In the end, she didn’t need them. She didn’t get her funeral wishes on paper, but she did start talking to her husband and to us. We knew, because she told us, that she was not afraid of dying. We knew, because she told us, that she understood death as an indescribably beautiful reunion with the God who had saved her again and again over the course of her life.

We miss her.

(Melissa’s in the middle)

Yesterday, on the first day of Lent, I drove up the driveway of the Methodist church down the road, rolled down my window and closed my eyes as my Lutheran friend imposed ashes on my forehead. “Dana, remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” she said.

Christians have this strange ritual of imposing ashes on our foreheads and being reminded of our mortality in part because we are so prone to forgetting about it. We do not like being faced with the truth that we are created and contingent creatures whose lives here on earth had a distinct beginning and will endure a distinct ending. It’s the age-old psychological ballyhoo: humans aren’t great at contemplating the finiteness of our existence.

My own Christian tradition doesn’t really do ashes on foreheads – we’re too low-church and plain-spoken for such theater – but I love it. It is a physical experience of being marked with death, reminded of death, told by another living, breathing, beloved human that both of us are going to die – someday – and that this, too, will be holy. And I love that. I need it.

Being reminded of our created, contingent, finite existence doesn’t have to come as an imposition of ash on a forehead. It could happen in an Art of Dying series with your congregation, or at a funeral when we’re invited to listen to sacred scripture that reminds us of these very elemental truths about who we are.

What is important, I think, is that we open our ears and our hearts to the truth, and practice getting comfortable with it: every one of us is going to die. Death is not necessarily an affront or an illogical tragedy, though certainly death does sometimes steal people from us who ought not have been taken in the time or in the way they were.

Death is a holy part of being human. God created us as finite beings, beloved creatures whose lives are contingent on forces mostly beyond our control. Remembering that we are dust and to dust we will return is a pathway to humility and conviction. Here we are, together, for just a sliver of time. How will we choose to live while we’ve got the chance?

This passage from Romans 14 has been in the back of my mind all winter, as my congregation dove head first into wrestling with death and dying and have been confronted with death’s holy power even as we did so:

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

May it be so. Amen.

lent, again

I have long been a lover of Lent. I didn’t grow up with the practice because simple-living and low-church Brethren haven’t been very keen on marking *some* periods of time as more sacred or special than all the others, since *all* of life is sacred. But I still love Lent. I generally lean toward the quiet & contemplative, anyway, and so a season that invites all of us, together, to be still and intentional about our spiritual lives feels like sinking into familiar territory.

Except, the past year has been familiar territory. In a meeting last week, we were asked to name our “pandemic superpower” and I said that mine was probably my independence & appreciation of solitude. I like being alone; prefer it, in fact, seven times out of ten. The forced solitude hasn’t felt like a huge burden these last twelve months because I know how to be alone.

But being alone is different than being lonely, and the pandemic frayed the rope of carefully crafted connections that had kept me tethered to others. I couldn’t have Sunday dinners with my friend across town anymore, my book club wasn’t eating churros together at the local coffee shop each month, no travel for those bursts of intense, joyful connection with long-distance friends. I couldn’t even enjoy a Sunday morning in the building with my congregation – an exhausting but satisfying block of intense connection.

I am less excited for Lent this year, because the last twelve months have felt like one, long, imposed block of ascetic loneliness. A colleague confessed that being alone with God so much has amplified the voice of the Divine for them, but that has not been true for me. As someone who spends a ton of time in her own head, I need other people to help me hear God clearly. So much has been taken away from us without our consent and without our choice this year. Some of that was probably dross and detritus, heavy baggage that we needed to let go of, anyway. And some of it has been very, very painful to lose.

A chunk of the pain settled in my spirit this week, and I found myself aflame with anger at the absurdity of it all. We are living in an absurd time. Trying to lead people in worship when there is no one else in the room with me is ABSURD. An entire state opting out of a shared power grid and shutting down their plants in order to save money while people die: ABSURD. The fact that the life-saving COVID-19 vaccines are patented property, meaning that only certain companies can produce and sell them meaning that more people are dying: ABSURD. Whiteness protecting itself even unto death – in Congress and the church – is ABSURD. My health insurance company requiring me to take my own blood and send it off through the USPS in order to avoid a $200/month surcharge is ABSURD. Christians in the United States arguing about whether or not women can lead (hi, hello), whether or not LGBTQ people are fully human (come ON) , and whether or not we’re racist (spoiler alert, we ARE) while people are literally dying in the streets from exposure, hunger, poverty & COVID is so far beyond absurd that I cannot bear to say any more about it and keep doing my jobs.

And so, here we are, in Lent, again, in the midst of this life’s absurdities. I’ve got two resources staking up my tired soul in this season. My congregation is partnering with the neighborhood Methodists in a series called “Again & Again,” by folks at A Sanctified Art, and I’m grateful for the partnership, for the poetry & art, and the community that we will form in gathering around scripture together over these weeks.

And I’m also grateful for my friend Anna Lisa’s lenten devotional from Brethren Press, The Wild Way of Jesus. I’m grateful for her words and invitation and also for the knowledge that people I know and love around the country are reading the same text, asking themselves the same questions, and turning their hearts in the same direction day in and day out during this season.

I stink at fasting in general – last night I broke my casual agreement with myself not to do any unnecessary spending in the month of February by giving in to a mystery Grab Bag book deal from an iconic DC bookstore. But I do pretty well at add-on challenges: I walked 100 miles in January and am on track to practice yoga every day this month. And I wrote here, in this space, every day of Advent last year.

So, I’m making another add-on commitment to myself, to God, and to y’all: I’ll write here in this space each day until Easter. Advent unleashed a torrent of anger that had been building up over the last year, and I cannot promise that Lent won’t deliver much of the same. But here we are, together in this absurd time, and we’ve got scripture, Anna Lisa’s words and art from the women at A Sanctified Art to guide us. I may still be stuck here in my house alone for another couple of months, but I know – and perhaps it is helpful for you to hear, too – that we’re not doomed to eternal loneliness. Thanks be to God.

I’ll be here in this space every day. I’d be so happy if you joined me.

Invited In, by Lauren Wright Pittman

love builds up

Sermon @ Peace Covenant CoB, 1-31-2021

1 Corinthians 8

I saw my friends Meredith and Mike at the end of December. They were driving through Roanoke and stopped to visit with me at an outdoor picnic table near my parents’ house. All three of us wore masks, and Meredith even gave me a new, hand-sewn mask – with jellyfish on it! – that perfectly matches my winter coat.

Mike runs a lab in Indianapolis where he studies pulmonary medicine – how our lungs work. Because of his previous work on lung cells, his lab started researching a treatment for COVID-19 way back in the spring. They had live COVID-19 virus SHIPPED to their lab, suited up in space-suit-like PPE and tested a treatment that they’d previously developed for other lung issues to see if it was successful in treating COVID infections.

Since Mike and his team were working directly with the virus, he was top of the list to receive the vaccine when it arrived at his university. By the time I saw him in late December, he’d already received his second dose and was very likely immune to COVID. He still wore a mask.

But the story is even better than that: Mike had participated in a vaccine trial at the hospital attached to his university, early last fall. He had received two doses of – something – either a trial vaccine or a placebo, and learned a few weeks later when the study was unblinded that he had received the actual vaccine in the trial.

All of that means that Mike has been vaccinated against COVID-19 TWICE OVER, that he has known about his own near-certain immunity since the fall. “There is NO WAY,” he said to me, “that I’m getting COVID!”

And still – even double-vaccinated, months-immune – Mike was wearing a mask the entire time we were together.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “of course I wear a mask everywhere I go, and I still suit up in the lab. Can you imagine how hateful it would be, not to? I’m not gonna be a punk!”

The mask isn’t protecting Mike; the double-dose of vaccine is. He knows that he doesn’t NEED the mask – even the science behind whether or not vaccinated people can spread the virus is becoming very clear that the answer is, almost certainly, no – but he knows that wearing the mask is an act of care and love for everyone around him. Even though it isn’t functioning as protective gear, it is functioning as solidarity, mutuality, a sign that we are all still in this together.

Believe it or not, this is exactly what Paul was talking about when he wrote to the congregation in Corinth to address their conflict over eating meat sacrificed to idols.

Wearing masks and eating meat might sound light-years apart, but in our Christian commitment to following Jesus, the decision-making behind them is exactly the same.

In Corinth, followers of Jesus were in the minority but they were a diverse bunch. Some of the folks in the Corinthian church were high society, friends with the movers and shakers, educated and well-off. They were people who hadn’t ever really gotten into the whole “sacrificing animals to pagans” thing – they were people who profited off the practices of the local religion, instead. These folks went to dinner parties where the meat that was served came from local temple sacrifices. The well-to-do folks didn’t really consider those rituals to be sacred, and the meat was perfectly good, so shouldn’t it be eaten?

Other people in the Corinthian church were much less well-off and had joined the church as legit converts: people who had, until recently, been the people sacrificing those animals at those temples. These were folks who never had much meat to eat, and so to surrender an animal to the temple was a serious sacrifice. For them, eating the meat sacrificed to pagan gods was not only offensive, it was also a reminder of the culture and habits that they had so recently decided to leave in order to follow Jesus.

Paul is writing to a diverse congregation, some of whom want to insist that since there’s only one God, that those temples are not homes of real deities and the meat isn’t tainted and can’t hurt them, they should be allowed to exercise their freedom found in Christ and eat it without a second thought. Others in the congregation aren’t so sure that eating meat sacrificed to other gods is safe – it’s not just the meat itself, it’s the connection to other kinds of religious practice and communities that they are still extricating themselves from.

Paul doesn’t side with one group or another. He says to the first folks, who want to stand firm on their intellectual conviction that eating meat sacrificed to idols is just fine: “Yes, of course that’s right. There is only one God, the idols are not real, and so the meat that was sacrificed to them isn’t cursed or spoiled. Of course there’s nothing wrong with eating the meat itself.”

Except, Paul says, you have chosen to make your argument and base your actions on the wrong kind of commitment. You’re choosing to act based on intellectual conviction alone, and in your insistence that you are right and the meat is fine, you’ve totally ignored the concerns of others in your community. Your sisters and brothers see you eating that meat and they feel ignored. It feels to them like you’ve brushed off their deep concern entirely. You’re flaunting your freedom in ways that hurt your siblings, caring only for your individual rights and not our mutual well-being.

This is sort of an obscure passage from Paul. Who cares, these days, about meat sacrificed to idols? That is never a decision that we will be faced with, unless y’all know of pagan animal farms around Durham that I’m not aware of.

But the message that Paul is sharing is so much larger than the particular question at stake: Paul is instructing the Corinthians, and us, to choose love as a guide for our decisions over and above intellectual knowledge.

“Knowledge,” he says, “puffs up. But love builds up.”

Here’s Paul, explaining to the Corinthians why love is a better barometer than knowledge:

So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Paul was willing to give up meat entirely if it meant that by doing so he could avoid wounding his siblings in Christ. Paul is super into hyperbole, so let’s not hear him instructing us to give up all our convictions for fear of hurting anyone’s feelings; that’s not what this is about. He is saying that LOVE ought to be the surest guide for our actions, not necessarily perfect knowledge. He is insisting that LOVE of one another is what we live by and not a selfish insistence on individual rights.

I know people, as I’m sure you do, who are very convinced that wearing a mask or moving their worship services online is a gross violation of their constitutional rights. People have shared their pastors’ sermons explaining the intricacies of these violations and their refusal to go along with them on social media. This stubborn, selfish behavior has infuriated me for almost a year, now, and it is still going on.

So it’s helpful to read Paul and remember that this conflict between individual freedoms and mutual upbuilding has been part of Christian life since the beginning. And it is helpful to read Paul and be reminded that LOVE is always the right choice, that our freedom is always subject to the common good, that knowledge and self-righteousness never gets us closer to God or to one another.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols if it will hurt your community. Wear a mask for the good of all, even if you’re free not to. And prioritize LOVE of others in every decision, large or small. What a simple, helpful, trustworthy guide for how to live in this weird, chaotic world of ours. Amen.

favorite books 2020

If I manage to finish the romance novel I just started by tomorrow night, I will have read 100 books this year – mostly without trying. During a year when going places and doing things was severely curtailed, I reverted to my most natural state: curled up in a corner or sprawled out on the porch, reading a book. So many very good books: you can see the full list via Goodreads, here. And here are a few of my favorites:

“serious” fiction

Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings – This is the story of the life of Jesus’ wife, and it is SO GOOD. Historical, mystical, feminist and full of generative questions. You might like it if you, like me, are fond of Jesus but you might like it even more if you’re not.

N.K. Jemisin, How Long ’til Black Future Month? – I love N.K. Jemisin’s science fiction with the fire of a thousand suns or the groaning of a million fault lines, which is saying something since I am NOT a sci-fi gal. This collection of short stories gave glimpses into the ways she builds worlds – some were familiar from her trilogies, others were totally stand-alone and all the more fascinating for it.

Amy Jo Burns, Shiner – My grandma saw this on my Instagram and asked to read it. I warned her that the people in it were sometimes cruel and sometimes crass but not really…on purpose… “They just didn’t know any better, right?” Exactly. Yes, the title is a reference to moonshine, and the book is rare, raw and reads like a Kentucky holler feels.

mysteries, romance, all other “less” than “literary” fiction

Julia Spencer-Fleming, The Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mystery Series – this series has 9 books, so far, and I devoured six of them over the last couple of months. Clare Fergusson is a young Episcopal priest serving a parish in a small mountain town, helping to solve various and sundry murders on the side. She also falls inescapably in love with the – married – chief of police. I have become a reader of mysteries in my nearing-middle-age (something about the predictability of problems being SOLVED and FINISHED is appealing…wonder why?!), and this series is *almost* as good as Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache.

TJ Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea – HOLY COW, I loved this ridiculous book. A neglected home for wayward magical children, a dutiful paper-pushing office clerk, skeptical humans, gruff guardians & a tiny little boy satan form the stuff of a story that made me laugh and cry in equal measure.

Sonali Dev, Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors – My friend Carynne convinced me to read romances a year or so ago, and despite my internal scoffing and skepticism I sort of love them. Like mysteries, you know how things will end: well. Who doesn’t need a dose of sure and certain happy endings, these days? Sonali Dev writes bollywood romances based on Jane Austen and they are a *delight.* This one has a companion, called “Recipe for Persuasion,” and they both feature successful professional women finding unexpected love.

nonfiction of all sorts

Kiese Laymon, Heavy – I listened to Laymon’s book “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” a couple of years ago on a long road trip and it blew my mind. Last winter, I heard him speak at UNC with Tressie McMillan Cottom (who you should probably go follow on Twitter right now) and I felt like a little kid who managed to sneak into the adults-only salon. Heavy is intense, violent, deeply vulnerable and made me want to sit down and write, which is to say that it moved me in ways few things have.

Chanequa Walker-Barnes, I Bring the Voices of My People – I’m making a concerted effort to read history, theology & social commentary, particularly to fill in the gaps of my very white middle-class American education and to unlearn some fundamental falsehoods that those years of formal education instilled in me. This “womanist vision for racial reconciliation” is a theological primer in what I now know that I don’t know. Filling in 2021’s reading list with this book’s cited works.

Sylvia C. Keesmaat & Brian J. Walsh, Romans Disarmed – Good lord, I wish every biblical commentary read like this one. So deeply researched and so immediately relevant, this book made Romans make more sense than anything I’ve ever read, including Romans itself. Keesmaat & Walsh unfold their commentary on a structure of story – characters from the Roman world AND their own Canadian congregation – and deftly connect the dots across the centuries. I’d read another commentary like this for the sheer pleasure of it, even if I weren’t a preacher.

Robert P. Jones, White Too Long – I spent the first third of this book regretting my choice to buy and read it. I’m trying to fill my limited reading hours with words by people other than straight white men, *especially* when it comes to perspectives on Christianity and the church. And, indeed, the first third of this book was rehashing what I’d already read from Black theologians and historians (and they wrote about it better!). But the rest of the book is FIRE: personal confession, earnest repentance, data-based analysis and a conclusion that I’m convinced every white person in charge of any corner of the American church must read and take to heart.

Padraig O Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World – Holy. Just holy. This one came to me thanks to recommendations from three separate people, and it was one of those times when the right book arrives at just the right time. I love when poets write essays, and that’s just what this is, full of imagery and graciousness. The author is a battle-weary peacemaker, and he writes dialogue and interaction with a depth of consideration that thrilled me. Plus, O Tuama is Irish and I had heard him lecturing before reading so I heard every sentence in his brogue. You can listen to him read & think about poetry twice a week on his podcast, “Poetry Unbound.”

also worth your time

Mira Jacob, Good Talk

Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic

Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body is Not an Apology

Kirk Byron Jones, Rest in the Storm

Kiley Reid, Such a Fun Age

Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

contact tracing

Luke 2:2: This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

I know some version of this sermon gets preached every year, but it seems especially appropriate in 2020.

The first Christmas was not filled with parties and pastries and nostalgia. There were no pageants, no candlelight services, no boiled custard* and no coconut cake. Mary and Joseph didn’t even get one of my Aunt Susan’s sausage balls to celebrate the birth of their god-child.

I know you’ve heard this sermon ad nauseam, that the first Christmas was spare and sparse and simple. I know you’ve heard it preached to mean that you don’t need to wear yourself out buying gifts and performing tradition. I know you’ve heard this sermon meant to encourage you to appreciate the spiritual implications of the holiday instead of the commercialization.

I know. It’s an old trope.

And still, it bears repeating: the first Christmas wasn’t even Christmas. It wasn’t a tradition or a federal holiday or a family tradition. The first Christmas wasn’t spare and simple because God wanted us to resist the excesses of capitalism (though I believe God to be totally in favor of that) or because God wanted to give us a reason to dress tiny kids up as middle eastern sheep herders (though, again, I do think God giggles at that every year) or because God believes in the sanctity of the nuclear family and wanted a reason to force everyone to return to their family of origin once a year (definitely, decidedly, wholeheartedly KNOW that God doesn’t endorse this one – just read Jesus or Paul on the subject).

The first Christmas was not tame or traditional or comforting: it was terrifying. It irrevocably changed the experience of being human. The first Christmas involved registration mandated by a tyrant, arduous travel to fulfill governmental demands, hard and unrelenting poverty, confusing angel appearances, displaced people, stinging situations of social shame, foreign leaders working undercover to evade a murderous leader, and an orchestrated slaughter of children.

Christmas is not meant to be calm, comforting or familiar. It is not meant to be an occasion for us small humans to assert our power and control over our tiny lives by doing the same things year in and year out. Christmas is not a safety blanket or a cocoon or an anesthetic to lull us into believing everything is just fine.

I wish it was. But it is not.

Christmas is our marking God’s decision to enter into the world She created in the form of a human person. Christmas is when we remember that God loves us so much, desires so deeply for us to know that love, wants to be WITH us, that God took on human flesh in order to make it so.

Christmas is when we celebrate that God is here. That there is no part of being human that God doesn’t understand, hasn’t experienced. God KNOWS. God KNOWS what it is like to live in chaos, in violence, in uncertainty, in chaos. God KNOWS. God showed up here on earth in human form in the midst of all of it.

God is here. God loves us so much that God chose to join us, to experience what life is like in these scratchy & sensuous, constricting & conscious, fragile & finite bodies. And that doesn’t change, whether we are in the midst of a tyrannical census or a grinding depression or an unending pandemic.

I don’t know what happens, next. Things could get better; they might get worse. Given the witness of scripture, I’m inclined to believe that – at least for those of us who have long squandered our abundance and oppressed the poor and selfishly hoarded everything from toilet paper to healthcare – God’s justice is not going to feel very *pleasant.*

I don’t know if our lives will ever return to what they were, or if they should. I don’t know if we will get to celebrate Christmas in whatever tradition we’ve been formed next year or not. If one virus mutation could take advantage of our particular human cruelties in this way – disrupt and disturb and destroy so much – then who is to say that any of our habits or practices or expectations are safe from being demolished?

What I do know is that even in our cruelty, even in our human-created chaos, even in the worst possible situations, the most stubborn sinfulness, the horrors of horrors that we humans have managed to manufacture: God has not abandoned us. God has not given up on us. God still – even here, even now – desires to be with us. God still – even here, even now – desires goodness for us. And despite the ways we think and act and plan, God’s goodness is better than anything we can ask or imagine.

And I believe that God is using this time, in particular, to reveal to us again what divine goodness consists of: mutuality, care, justice and mercy. A world where, yes, in fact, the rich get poorer and the poor ARE more comfortable.

God is here. With us.

Sometimes, that’s comforting. Other times, it’s terrifying. A lot depends on your particular social location and whether or not you need to be lifted up or removed from your self-imposed throne, filled with good things or sent away, empty.

Do not be afraid: this is good news of great joy for all people.

*boiled custard, for my non-southern friends, is the far superior egg-based holiday beverage.

mitigating risk

Luke 1:48: for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

I love Mary’s song. I have this print by artist Ben Wildflower on two t-shirts and a sticker that lives on the front of my laptop.

On Sunday, I preached about Mary, who is blessed, highly favored & chosen. Except, it turns out that all those superlatives applied to her *before* she agreed to bear & birth the Son of God.

Sometimes we think about Mary as blessed because of who Jesus turned out to be, illuminated by the glow of her child’s accomplishments. But Gabriel assures Mary that she is blessed, favored, accompanied by God, even before he delivers God’s request. In fact, those are the first words he says to this scared girl. Don’t fear: you are blessed. God loves you. Getting mysteriously pregnant and becoming the bearer of God into human flesh hasn’t even come up, yet, and Gabriel is reassuring Mary that she is good, beloved, valued, honored.

We might do well to think about that a little more. WHY is Mary blessed? It is not because of Jesus: according to Gabriel, she was blessed long, long before Jesus’ tiny screaming infant body ever broke onto the scene.

Even later on in Luke’s own gospel, we learn about Mary’s blessing. After she hears from the angel – after getting over her confusion and being super perplexed – Mary goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who has just had her own angelic experience. And Elizabeth confirms Mary’s blessing, in this way: she says “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord.”

Elizabeth doesn’t say “blessed is she who will bear God’s own son.” She says “blessed is she who believed that God’s word would come to pass.” Believing – not bearing – is the root of this blessing.

Jesus even gets in on the conversation, once he’s grown enough to have a say – and he doesn’t do it once, but twice. First, while he’s teaching a huge crowd of people, Mary and Jesus’ brothers show up and someone passes him a note: hey, your family is here! But Jesus refuses to give his flesh & blood relatives any preference over the others there in the crowd: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

And, again, when Jesus is teaching another crowd, someone pipes up in adoration and yells out, blessing his mother: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.”

One of the things about Jesus that constantly amazes me is that even 2,000 years ago, he consistently refused what we’d call today “sexism” or “misogyny.” The woman yelling from the crowd is blessing another woman’s womb and breasts, diminishing her entire existence to a few body parts that make her able to grow a child. As if any human being is loved by God because of their mere physical appearance or ability.

Jesus is having none of it: “Nope,” he says. “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!”

Mary is blessed and beloved, not because she is the mother of God, but because she heard God’s call and agreed to accept the invitation.

I am convinced that each one of us is already blessed, already beloved, already highly favored, already chosen. We are not blessed because of any special ability or gift or because we get chosen for an especially holy task; we are blessed when we hear God’s word and obey it. We are blessed when we believe that God fulfills God’s promises and agree to become part of that happening.

I believe that God is speaking to us even now, through angels and dreams and friends and neighbors and headlines and social media feeds and those weird, unprompted nudges we get to do something or say a word or send a note. God is speaking. God is turning the world upside down, and we are invited to join in. “Greetings, favored ones! The Lord is with us!”

(with thanks to Mark Allen Powell’s commentary on this passage from Working Preacher.)

virtual

Luke 1:51: He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

I saw my Mammaw this morning. She’s 90 years old and every time I see her, I ask for stories. She’s got some great ones, about my great-great grandmother, Granny Guinn, who was widowed and dealt with the economic fall out by sending her kids to live with relatives, selling her land for a horse & a shotgun, and making a living as a midwife delivering babies up and down the mountains that stretch across the Kentucky/Virginia border.

And then there’s my Mammaw’s mean Aunt Belle, who charged her own niece an inflated price for butter and when her husband lowered the rent on the house Mammaw and Pappaw were living in – lower, at least, than what she thought it should be – she decided to plant corn in the adjacent field right up to the drip-line of the roof in order to make up the losses.

Mammaw’s memory is fading, though she can still painstakingly name all her cousins in birth-order, if you’re patient enough. She doesn’t really remember the stories I like best, even when I prompt her. But I think we might have discovered a 1918 pandemic story, today.

with Mammaw last summer

Mammaw’s father, Paris Stiltner, was married twice. His first wife, Sarah Sawyers, had two children before she died sometime around 1918 and Paris got re-married, to my great-grandmother, Elizabeth. Mammaw doesn’t remember what killed Sarah, but she does remember that the whole house was so sick during that time that when my great-grandfather, Paris, recovered, he couldn’t even remember getting the news that his wife and oldest child had died of whatever had nearly killed him.

Life in Eastern Kentucky in 1918 was no picnic. Mammaw paused, this morning, staring out into the distance, and said “you know, a lot of people died there in that time.” It’s hard to tell if Sarah and her daughter, Marie, died from one infection or another, but the story sure does fit the timeline and the outline of so many similar pandemic stories. I am left with the possibility that my very existence, like so many, is possible, in part, because of that unspeakable pandemic a century ago.

Paris wouldn’t have married Elizabeth and Mammaw would never have been born if Sarah hadn’t died. And if Mammaw hadn’t been born, of course, my mom wouldn’t exist, and neither would I.

The story of Christianity is the story of death and resurrection. Just like all of creation, humans are subject to the cycles of birth, death, and re-growth. Compost and humus feed the next season’s crop. Letting things go makes space for new life. It is not always the life we want or the life we would choose, but we humans are part of the cycle, nonetheless. In the empty spaces, God nurtures newness.

I have seen this happen when a parent’s grief makes room for incredible compassion, when a lost job opens up unspeakable opportunities, when a destroyed building frees a congregation to embrace more immediate ministries. I have seen the end of relationships lead to deep flourishing of individuals. I have – this year – seen smelly, rotten food waste be transformed by time and warmth into compost that fed the garden collard greens I ate last week.

Can we allow that kind of transformation to take us over? Reframe our losses – after mourning them – to be what they are: open space for something new? What will grow, here in the nutrient-rich ground that’s been tilled up with loss and watered with grief?

It’s easy for me to think this way when the timeline is generational – I never knew Sarah or Marie and even Paris and their second daughter, Stella, exist only as characters in my Mammaw’s stories to me. I know it is harder to see grief and loss as a clearing of space, a making room for something new when the losses are fresh and raw and barely even old enough for us to name. I know.

But God’s timeline is so much less immediate than our tiny human ones. It’s even bigger than generations; it is COSMIC. And when Mary sings her song – that she learned from her own great-great-great-great grandmother, Hannah – she insists that this God is the one who puts things to rights, nurtures newness, orchestrates justice, comforts the mourning, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and remembers his promises that he made to the ancestors…FOREVER.

So. I don’t know to what all I owe my own small existence. The 1918 flu pandemic certainly might be one contributing factor to my direct ancestral line. But I do believe that loss makes room for possibility, even if it takes years – or generations – for our tiny human hearts to see it happening.

What will grow in our grieving hearts? What new life is God tending, even here, even now?

muted

1 Samuel 1:13: Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.

Last night, I joined a Blue Christmas service. Have you heard of these? It’s a particular kind of worship service designed to make space for the grief and pain so many of us feel over the holidays. This year, in particular, we are all carrying so much of it.

Three clergy women colleagues guided us through the service, lighting candles and giving us permission to feel what we need to feel – even if all the rest of the worlds’ messages right now are telling us that JOLLY is the appropriate emotion, even here, even now.

In Advent, Christians traditionally light four candles – one for each week of the season. The candles represent the gifts of the waiting season: hope, peace, joy and love. In last night’s service, Pastor Mandy, Pastor Audrey and Pastor Angela lit candles honoring grief, anger, sadness and loneliness, those parallel states inextricably entwined with the season’s gifts.

My own grief and sadness are pretty close to the surface these days. Every day, I learn of another tragedy. The compounded grief of so many losses is real, and I can feel it in my easy tears and quick annoyance. I knew the opportunity to allow myself to be led into worship, instead of leading others – again – would be important. I knew that I trusted these pastors, in particular, to create sacred space for hard feelings. I was grateful for the invitation.

I did not expect to be punched in the gut, however, with gentle acknowledgement of anger and loneliness as holy things. I am still – even weeks into this practice of daily reflection – full up with anger. Angry at Congress for the $600 slap in the face “relief” bill they passed this weekend, angry at strangers choosing super risky holiday celebrations, angry at other strangers shaming me for my choices, angry at billionaires hoarding wealth when my neighbors are going hungry, angry at colleagues who have no creative energy left, angry at a healthcare infrastructure that allows hospitals to fill and denies care to the poor, angry at landlords poised to evict people next week, angry at the USPS for losing my packages, angry at Postmaster General Louis DeJoy for dismantling the USPS in the middle of a pandemic, angry at politicians who actively spread the virus getting their vaccine first, angry at the church for failing, failing, failing in our call to join in God’s healing justice, angry at SO MANY mediocre white men who are even now just luxuriating in their privilege to be loud and wrong, angry at the existence of the Trump Store on 220 in Boones Mill, angry at myself for not doing or saying or shouting or resisting more of all this evil. I am SO FUCKING ANGRY.

And last night, Pastor Audrey lit a candle in honor of that anger. A candle. A point of light. A reminder that anger is real and right and human; a reminder that anger is holy. Worthy of attention, worthy of being voiced and expressed and acknowledged.

And that’s when I started crying.

In today’s scripture, Hannah is losing it in the temple. She is weeping and praying and making deals with God. She has refused to keep her feelings to herself. She’s doing it all silently, though, which makes her look INSANE, and Eli, the priest, is certain that this drunk lady is profaning the sacred space.

He tells her to get out, but she refuses. “NO,” she says. “I’m not drunk. I’m pouring out my soul.” Eli, who I imagine must have been pretty skeptical, says “well, okay, go in peace, then.” But God heard Hannah – every word of her holy grief and anger – and granted her prayer. When she realizes that God has heard her and remembered her and answered her sobs and screams, she sings a song. And that song became famous – not only in her own family, but in ours, too. When Mary, Jesus’ mom, gets a visit from an angel and learns that she’s going to give birth to the Son of God, she reaches way back into the stories from her great-great-grandmothers and improvises on this song from Hannah.

Anger is holy. Grief is holy. Loneliness, longing and pain are HOLY. And we are not built to keep all of those powerful, moving, transformative feelings muted. We are invited to wail and weep and scream and shout – to do it, even, in God’s own sanctuaries. Because the world needs those songs, too.

sheltering in place

2 Samuel 7:2: the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”

I’m at my parents’ house in Virginia, sheltering in a new place for the next couple of weeks. (Requisite caveat: I tested negative for COVID-19 on Wednesday after isolating for two weeks. Isolation, for me, meant not being inside any building other than my home for longer than the 2 minutes it takes for me to grab my take-out order off the counter at Bean Traders.)

I have been very, very grateful to live where I live this year. My tiny apartment is tiny, but it is mine. My neighborhood has miles and miles of walking trails, allowing me to step out the door and get my 10,000 steps in easily. There are TWO local, quality coffee shops within a mile’s radius, and dozens of local restaurants, as well. My church is right down the road, and while we haven’t been meeting in person, our partners at the nearby UMC host the Food Hub where I get to volunteer in the garden and find safe, outdoor human interaction.

Durham is also *committed* to mutuality and caring for one another. Everyone wears masks. Local government and businesses have gotten super creative to keep people connected and fed and paid. I’ve been in meetings with clergy and health department leaders working tirelessly to keep lines of communication open and information sharing clear and robust.

And I live 3 hours from my parents and a little less from my sister and her family. That has meant that I’ve been able to see them all – at my nephew’s baseball tournaments, in my sister’s driveway, kayaking in Durham on my birthday – several times this year. I’m grateful to have a job and a life that is anchored just a few hours from my family.

I love where I live. I’ve lived in Durham 5 years now, the longest I’ve been in any place since I graduated from high school.

And. Even though geographic and economic disparities mean that, right now, some places are healthier and safer than others (church folks made sure I knew that Durham just got named Best City to Celebrate Christmas), today’s scripture reminds me that God isn’t any more or less present – no matter where we happen to be.

King David wanted to build God a house, to save God from living in a portable tent. But God wasn’t interested. The text after the highlighted verse, God says:

I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went

I have been with you wherever you went.

Later on, Solomon does, in fact, build a temple for God. And you know what happens? Generations later, conquering armies blow through and destroy it, and send God’s people scattered into exile. And it sucks. The losses are unimaginable. The people cry out: “how can we sing God’s songs in a foreign land?!” But God doesn’t disappear. God sticks with God’s people – when they are at home, when they are in exile, whether they worship in a tent or a temple.

I’m filled with gratitude for this place where I have landed. And I know, too, that had I been sheltering in place in any of the other cities where I’ve made a home – in Richmond or Manassas or Salem or Oxford or Elgin or Atlanta or Williamsburg – there would be gifts and graces and newly discovered corners and wonders. I am certain that wherever you are – in your tiny city apartment or your isolated mountain home – God is with you. God has been with you, wherever you have been.