Out of Steam (a prayer for pastors)

Dear God,

Some days, some weeks
we struggle to serve you.
We are flat out of steam.

We are grieving
for lost colleagues,
friends and family.

We lament decisions
by authorities and
individuals.

We wonder at the rise
of certain kinds
of people.

We know too well
why your gifted ones
languish.

We are dismayed,
disheartened,
flat out of steam.

Our fires burn too low
to keep us
going.

We need you, Lord Jesus,
and the gasp
of recognition.

We need you, Great Spirit,
and the heat of
Holy Flame.

We need you, God of all,
for the stoking
of our hearts.

Light your fire in us
and under us,
we pray.
Amen.

Later in the day

We’ve had a very low-key Easter Monday at my house, with our 12-year-old, Mr. Dimples, in the middle of what is a terribly-scheduled Spring Break for a clergy family. The weather was beautiful, full-gloried springtime. We’ve been out with the dog numerous times, admiring the crabapple trees and the tulips in the neighborhood, and I sat on a bench for a while at the park, watching kathrynzj pitch to Mr. D.

Now it’s evening, and the baseball noise floating from my living room emanates from the PlayStation 4, which is startlingly realistic. The crack of the bat sounds almost exactly right. When it comes around every year, in a real game, it’s as much a sign of new life as the daffodils.

On Easter Sunday, later in the day, we watched our favorite team, the Nationals, play the Phillies. When our hero, Bryce Harper (I mean, we named our cat after him), came up in the bottom of the 9th, the Nats trailed 4-3, with two men on base and 2 outs.

He worked the pitcher to a 3-2 count. This is basically the point of baseball, to make you swing so hard between despair and hope that you declare you will give it up forever…

Then, “kkraakk!” sang his bat! (Click here if that’s your thing.)

He stood and admired the ball as it sailed away. It’s bad form, but who could blame him?

When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. (Luke 24:28-31, CEB)

It may seem sacreligious to compare Cleopas and his companion, let’s say Mrs. Cleopas, to baseball fans, but we are so far from their moment that it’s hard to capture their emotions in a palpable way. We read up on how far it really was to Emmaus, and ponder whether it’s a metaphorical destination. Buechner has described it (paraphrasing here) as a place representing our lowest moments, but even that feels detached to me. How can we get out of our heads and feel that swing between hope and despair?

Jesus worked Mr. and Mrs. C like an excellent batter works a pitcher, stretching it as far as he possibly could.

Then, “kkraakk!” sang his bat!

And in the fleeting moment before he disappeared, I feel sure he admired his handiwork.

Dear Jesus, dear Jesus, I love the way you work. Keep working on me. Amen.


I read and blogged about Luke as my Lenten discipline in 2017, and this is the last post in the series. The full list of posts can be found here.

Fierce and Fabulous for Jesus (an Easter prayer for pastors)

When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. (Luke 24:9, CEB)

Fragrant were the spices they carried
to the tomb that morning,
pungent and piercing,
like the words of women today
who call on us to speak the truth
not just with our speech
but with our actions.

Fabulous were the angels they saw,
two men in dazzling array,
good news bringers
like the powerful sisters
who remind us the gospel
is not white sugar-coated
but for everyone.

Fierce were the women themselves
in their trip to the garden,
and in their encounter with the men,
like clergywomen of our time
who call lairos on patriarchy:
the powers cannot keep him on the cross;
Christ is free in the world.

Fierce must we be, my sisters,
for we serve that risen Lord
This is my prayer for you:
Be fierce and fabulous for Jesus!
Go out and preach Christ resurrected!
Alleluia! Amen.


I offer this prayer with gratitude for Wil, Traci, Naomi, Kentina, Leila, Denise, Jan, Anne, Laura, Katie, Angie, Marci, Amy, Carol, Hannah, Kwame, Ruth, Julia, Joanna, Sally-Lodge, Mary, and Karyn, and so many others in the RevGals community who speak the truth fearlessly like the women on that first morning. May the world have ears to hear.

Sit with it

This is a weird, in-between day for pastors, in particular, but for any church folk involved in the work of the congregation. We’ve laid Jesus in the tomb, but we know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and in the meantime, we have to get ready. There are flowers to arrange in the sanctuary, groceries to buy (or reservations to make), maybe even eggs to hide or last-minute additions to baskets for our little ones, and Lord knows, a word of witness to the Resurrection to polish, if not write from scratch.

Hoagie, the last of the Berners, at Evergreen on Holy Saturday, 2011

When I lived in Portland, I always took whatever dogs I had for a walk at Evergreen Cemetery. It seemed like the right place to be, a resting place with markers and monuments going back hundreds of years, yet still in use for more recent losses.

And there is a duck pond.

I found it to be the perfect liminal space, where thoughts of the unthinkable – a literal victory over death – seemed somehow plausible.

Every year I did my work there, walking with my words, from the first year when I wondered if I really believed in a bodily resurrection, to the last, when I believed it wholeheartedly.

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it, then they went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils. They rested on the Sabbath, in keeping with the commandment. (Luke 23:55-56, CEB)

I’ve often thought of them on that in-between day, not knowing what was to come, expecting the sad but obvious ending – a chance to perform a ritual of respect and love for their friend and teacher. Unlike the busy preacher, chorister, or flower arranger, they could not fill the day with tasks. They could not, like my mother, press the pleats into a tiny Easter dress; or as my friend Mary Ellen and I used to do, make fresh ravioli on my big dining room table; or walk the dog or go to the German bakery to choose an appropriate dessert for tomorrow or stop by the dry cleaners for the pastor’s robe that needed cleaning (for the Lord’s sake, get there before they close).

They just had to sit with it.

Let’s remember they were not at home, so picture them in a rented room in Jerusalem, maybe the same Upper Room where the apostles retreated, or maybe in their own 1st century Air BnB. They lack the comforts of familiar space. They are each other’s family now. Which stage of grief were they in that day? After witnessing the crucifixion, I suspect shock was primary, but I want to think some among them were angry, too, angry at the betrayal, denial, and cowardice of the men who should have known better.

It’s tempting to rush ahead to rejoicing, so tempting that many in our churches skip straight from Hosannas to Alleluias. Today, at least for a long moment, I’m trying to sit with the shock, the anger, the grief, even the helplessness, as if I didn’t know what comes next.

Thank you, Lord, for the women you gathered around you, for their stories, for their courage. Amen. 


I’ve been reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. The full list of posts can be found here.

 

Standing witness

I’m living through this Holy Weekend the same way I lived through Lent, engaged by the scripture but still … at a distance. It’s not the first year I’ve been unoccupied by a church at this season – 2013 and 2014 were the same – but it’s the first year I’m fairly sure I won’t ever be in the role of local church pastor again. If I skipped church this weekend, who would notice? It’s a strange feeling.

And everyone who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance observing these things. (Luke 23:49, CEB)

I wonder about the experience of the women around Jesus, not just on this day, but throughout his ministry. Luke is less specific about the support they offered. Here they have simply “followed him from Galilee.” I’m not sure what that implies, although it certainly tells us that they traveled with him to what they must have assumed was the very and most bitter end.

We trust they were really there, both because someone had to bring back the eyewitness accounts, and because if the tradition gave women credit for something, it must have been true. Who were they? Were they friends from the beginning? Did they jostle each other for his attention, form alliances, keep to themselves? (The disciples certainly behaved like contestants on The Bachelor, each one making the case for his own superiority, each one taking pride of place.) You’ve got to say this for the women: they didn’t scatter.

At my Bible Study last week we considered how they found the courage to stand by and watch, even at a distance, the terrible things that happened to Jesus on that Friday. Maybe, someone suggested, they thought there would be a miracle! Yes, and I have often wondered if they expected some heroic rescue, whether by allies or by a change of Pilate’s mind.

Even at a distance, it was terrible. This feels like the most obvious statement one could make. The situation was terrible, the death was terrible.

Even at a distance, even today, it is terrible.

And even today, the world is full of terrible things, terrible violence and mayhem and cruelty.

I wish it felt like comfort to know that God in the person of Jesus suffered the reality of some of the worst things humans can do, wish it felt like comfort to know he understands the hearts and minds of 8-year-old murder victims and poisoned babies, to know he feels the outsider pain of queer and trans folk, to know he hurts with brown and black people oppressed everywhere, to know that he embodied the story of death by religious bigotry.

Last night I thought hard about whether to even go to church. I’m feeling powerless to do much, and aware of my lack of place in any congregation. I wondered, who will care if I go? What difference will it make? Then I got a text from kathrynzj encouraging me to come to worship. The other preacher at my house said later she could feel me trying to decide what to do.

As I crossed the street, I thought, “I guess Jesus will notice I’m here.”

And I want to think he noticed them, too, that he knew, in those last terror-full hours that someone cared, that the women understood how to bear witness and embody a ministry of presence, even at a distance.

Holy Jesus, I cannot stop the troubles of the world, but I promise to keep standing witness. Amen.

Brown body, brown bread

Dear friends,

In the category of things we take for granted, I never thought much about what kind of bread we used for Communion, only whether it was fresh and tasted good. I grieved over stale bread cubes, grimaced over the flavor of rosemary focaccia dipped in grape juice, and groaned (quietly) over moldy pita grabbed from the church freezer by a deacon when someone else failed to provide. I took offense at being given a slice of bread to break – would you vivisect our Lord, I asked nobody in particular?

When the time came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles joined him. He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. I tell you, I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.” (Luke 22:14-16, CEB)

Meanwhile, I earnestly deconstructed our white, Victorian images of Jesus. Yet it took years before I thought about the image being projected by the bread meant to represent his brown body. Whether pita or loaf, ciabatta or challah, it was all the same color. 

It was all white. 

Yesterday I went to the grocery store and looked for bread with my wife, for her service tonight. She wants to fill three baskets without keeping the people who need gluten-free separate from the rest of the congregation, and I thought we could find a multi-grain loaf in the gluten-free section. We stood reading ingredients together. In the tiny print, we found something wrong with every loaf. We will keep trying. We can all keep trying.

Jesus commanded the disciples to love each other, and the same mandate applies to us. We have the power to send a message of love to the church and to the world with each word we speak, each action we take, each loaf we share. When that bread is broken tonight, I’ll be thinking of all of you, tearing pieces of bread, in churches of all descriptions, for people of all descriptions. I will be treasuring this community of the faithful tied by bonds of love, across all kinds of human-made boundaries. I will be thinking of your faces, the ones I know in person, and the ones I know as little pictures on Facebook, and the ones I imagine in the words you write. On this night when we want all to go well, may the bread be flavorful and fresh, and the cup a sweet reminder of the One who lived his life with so much love, Jesus Christ. May the meal convey welcome not just to a collective all but to each one who receives it. And may each and every one of you be blessed, just as you are a blessing to those you serve and a blessing to me.

Faithfully,

Martha


I’m borrowing my own words today from the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader for Maundy Thursday.

Enter Satan

When I was a student at an Episcopal girls’ school, there was a column in the student newspaper entitled, “The Devil Made Me Do It.” For this middle schooler, the phrase had no prior meaning – I’m sure it was meant to be hilarious, some account of youthful antics written by a popular upper school girl – and left me feeling vaguely distressed. What had a big girl done? And can the devil really be responsible for our mistakes? In the household where I was raised, you didn’t blame anyone else if you got in trouble. In fact, I remember getting the blame even for things I hadn’t done often enough that I began wondering if I had done the things for which other kids at school got in trouble.

If only I had been leaning on Luke’s account of Holy Week, I might have felt less perpetually guilty.

By means of an inverted Deus Ex Machina, the gospel of Luke turns the corner in Chapter 22. We don’t hear about Judas being annoyed or disturbed over Jesus’ behavior, as we would in John. Instead he is suddenly possessed and the story moves forward as if inevitable.

The Festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called Passover, was approaching. The chief priests and the legal experts were looking for a way to kill Jesus, because they were afraid of the people. Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, who was one of the Twelve. He went out and discussed with the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard how he could hand Jesus over to them. They were delighted and arranged payment for him. He agreed and began looking for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them—a time when the crowds would be absent. (Luke 22:1-6, CEB)

In Sunday School this week, we talked about whether this outcome was a plan on God’s part, and I wish I had said, when arguing against it, that it seemed unlikely God would collude with Satan in carrying off a dreadful scheme against Jesus. Judas won’t get to blame the devil. He’s going to pay the price for his own sinful action. He won’t be spared because God had it planned this way all along.

For some people the idea that God is in charge of everything is comforting. For them, it seems obvious and somehow excusable that God would send Jesus to die, that death was always the plan.

I don’t believe it, cannot believe it. I believe in a God powerful enough to redeem us without sending his Son to the cross. It played out this way because people couldn’t handle having God in their midst. Of course God had the victory over death and sin in the resurrection, but I don’t think that means Jesus’ death was inevitable. It was only horribly likely.

The gospel really doesn’t make the case for the kind of vicarious atonement held true by many Christians. Luke, in the writing, needed the twisted plot, the entry of personified evil, to make sense of it all. Enter Satan, who made Judas do it. Enter the Devil who makes us do it. Why confess? Jesus will cover it.

No.

I don’t believe in this either. The human mind clearly has the capacity for exceptional cruelty and hatred and torture, not to mention blasé injustice, without any help from the supernatural. Just read the headlines.

I wish, in this Holy Week, we would look to Jesus instead, to his witting action and gentle courage and abiding love. Imagine a world that embraces that kind of redemption, not a free pass from our responsibility, but saving grace from bigotry and brutality, a rebirth of mercy and love.

Lord, I take responsibility for the things I have done and left undone. Have mercy on me. 


I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.