Church Life, Psalms, Reflectionary

If two preachers…

Like many churches, the Presbyterian congregation my wife serves has seen what we used to think of as the fall return to a regular schedule pushed back from September to October and into November by travel team soccer and fall baseball, 5Ks and half-marathons at popular regional locations, Penn State football games (in our area), even cheerleading for elementary school girls. This year the staff decided to offer a worship opportunity late on Sunday afternoon, from mid-September through October, lined up with the time parents typically drop teens off for youth group. Kathryn planned a simple service using an Iona liturgy. After she joked several times that she would be reading it alone, I offered to come over to church at the appointed time. 

It was just the two of us the first week. And the second week. The third week Kathryn was out of town, and a few people joined the Christian Ed director, so we were hopeful that week 4 might bring more.

It was just the two of us again. 

We prayed and sang and engaged in lectio divina, just the two of us, for the third time in four weeks. This past Sunday’s psalm was 26, and we listened for the phrases that stood out for us, and talked about what was different for each of us and how we heard the verses for ourselves and for the other. It’s ironic, in this time of #ChurchToo, and knowing how important it is to be outside the walls of the church to be in ministry, and perhaps most of all because no one else had come to worship, that this verse popped for me.

If two preachers pray in the sanctuary, but no one else sees them, do they make any sound at all?

By all the metrics that matter in denominational surveys and material assessments, the 5:30 Sunday service could be called a failure. Yet as we left to walk back across the street to the manse, I thought, I would love to keep doing this, whether anyone else ever comes or not.

A version of this post appeared in the RevGals Weekly e-Reader

Common English Bible, Denial is My Spiritual Practice, Psalms, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Rheumatoid Disease

Like a bird on a roof

My health has been, let’s say, indifferent over the past couple of months. I’ve had to change some plans, with disappointment, and there may be more of that to come. My rheumatologist has prescribed a new medication and made some adjustments to another; it will take some time to see if this artful combination works.

I always try to be hopeful about these things

I can’t decide how to punctuate that sentence.

“, but …”

“; that isn’t always easy …”

I don’t know. It’s been almost ten years since I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. One of the chapters of my book is about how I have used denial to cope. Now, not only am I trying hard to be more realistic, this time I have felt poorly enough that I can’t fake it.

I can’t.

I’m like some wild owl–
like some screech owl in the desert.
I like awake all night.
I’m all alone like a bird on a roof.
(Psalm 102:6-7, CEB)

I’m not alone, of course. I have a genuinely and generously supportive wife. The lone, wild bird is a creature of my feelings. I reject the idea of being ill and dependent. I like to do *for* others. I’m an Enneagram 2; it’s a feature of my personality, and it’s been important for me to learn to give without wanting something in return, and to learn when something is mine to do, or not. I understand all that.

But must I learn to receive even when I cannot give?

I’ll be honest. I hate that.

Thus the bird on the roof.

Many psalms lay out a complaint, whether a diatribe against oppressors or a lament direct to God. Usually they turn to praise, to some sense of reconciliation with the Lord, some relief of the pain. 102 comes around for one more exclamation in verse 23.

God broke my strength in midstride,
cutting my days short.

My days are cut short because I cannot do all the things I want to do, at home, at work, or at play. And while that is discouraging in the near view, the hardest thing in this illness is how inevitably I get sicker when I am trying to get better.

I don’t believe God visited it on me

That’s a hard one to punctuate, too.

I don’t believe God visited it on me, but I wish I could get a break, some improvement in my health, even a time of staying the same. It seems I need to prepare for more of the inevitable; I will find a way to do it.

For now, though, I am trying to feel my feelings. For now, in prayer at least, I’m all alone like a bird on a roof.


Pray First, Prayer, Psalms

Praise The Lord

Praise The Lord
With awkward beauty
With good intentions
With well-meant gestures

Praise The Lord
With technical difficulties
With endless set-up
With incorrect hymn boards

Praise The Lord
With stiff hands
With tear-filled eyes
With worried mind

Praise The Lord
With open heart
With smiling face
With hopeful spirit

Praise The Lord!


After a prompt from Writing to God, by the wonderful Rachel Hackenberg.

I admit that I am several days behind in the book. The prompt for Day 10 took me in this direction when I read these particular verses and conflated them with a dream about a worship service, beautifully envisioned but awkwardly executed — a glimpse at the heavenly banquet complete with showered rose petals, but a long delay before Communion to reset the stage including the hymn boards — and woke to stiff hands reminding me of my own technical difficulties as I seek how I will serve God next.

Psalm 147:10-11 God doesn’t prize the strength of a horse; God doesn’t treasure the legs of a runner. No. The Lord treasures the people who honor him, the people who wait for his faithful love.


Pentecost, Psalms

Enough to go around

LORD, you have done so many things!
You made them all so wisely!
The earth is full of your creations!

The skunk in our backyard was out this morning, early. And while I hope that eventually she will be a displaced homemaker, for today she is my neighbor. My backyard is her front stoop, her entry to the world from the abandoned groundhog den under my human neighbor’s garage.

All your creations wait for you
to give them their food on time.

We don’t know yet how many children she is feeding. I only know she seems harried, working late into her night and rising before the sun goes down. They are hungry and growing, and they are her responsibility.

When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled completely full!

Here in the house, Hoagie is up early, too, roused as I move from window to window to watch Mama Skunk. He is waiting for his breakfast, and he stands by the bag of kibble, a suitably gigantic bag for a big dog. He is also a portly dog, and his rations have been cut. He stands by the bag, hopeful. Maybe today there will be more. Maybe today!

But when you hide your face, they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to dust.

Not today, Hoagie. You are provided for, but still on a diet.

We’ve all felt like Hoagie, sometimes, wondering if there will be enough of God’s goodness to go around.

When you let loose your breath, they are created,
and you make the surface of the ground brand-new again.

I watch the skunk. She works so hard. Behind our house is the stump of an old silver maple. It had seven segments coming off one central trunk, each one a good-sized tree in its own right. I moved into the house in 1998, a few months after the big ice storm. When a powerful thunderstorm struck that August, big pieces of the tree came down, and in our small neighborhood, that meant they came down in other people’s yards, on other people’s garages. I had the tree cut down, but removing the stump, five feet in diameter, cost too much money. Fourteen years later, it is a rich feeding ground for Mama Skunk. She digs around it and under it before scooting under our gate.

Then she is off, through a different neighbor’s backyard, tail above the Forget-Me-Nots.

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I’m still alive.

(The italicized lines are Psalm 104:24, 27-30, 33 Common English Bible)

Common English Bible, Easter 7B, Faith, Psalm 1


Psalm 1 is sort of awful and wonderful, all at the same time. It exhorts us to live by the law of the Lord and promises that things will go well with us if we do. Don’t sit with the scoffers, it warns, because things are surely going to suck for them.

For the righteous faithful, things sound better:

They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Ps 1:3, NRSV)

I haven’t always felt so fruitful as that, despite my best efforts to be faithful. Sometimes the streams of water, of grace, of love have seemed unreachably far away.

Agnes Leung

Today I read this Psalm in a new translation, the Common English Bible, and I found something I needed to see. Here’s the fresh look at verse 3.

They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
which bears fruit at just the right time
and whose leaves don’t fade.
Whatever they do succeeds. (Ps 1:3, CEB)

RE-planted! I love it!

A tree can be transplanted, and while it’s not always successful, it is possible for a tree to thrive. The apple tree planted in my backyard came to us from a nursery, root ball in a burlap sack. It had already been growing somewhere else, clearly. I thought it was simply a flowering tree and looked forward to enjoying its blossoms. But in my backyard it found a home and sunk down roots and even gave forth unexpected apples.

Of course the trick is we have to be willing to risk ourselves, to choose to be transplanted, away from the things and people and habits of mind and heart that separate us from God.

The truly happy person
doesn’t follow wicked advice,
doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful. (Ps 1:1, CEB)

So it takes more than passive, nice, safe faithfulness. And don’t kid yourself; being active and rigorous and discerning involves risk, because it upsets other people who like us the way we always were before. Loving the Lord’s instruction (again CEB) requires an energetic commitment. We have to choose away from the disrespectful, the road of sinners, the wicked advice. We have to choose toward God. That’s when  we will find ourselves planted anew, by streams of water.

And maybe, just maybe, our leaves won’t fade.

Psalms, Revised Songbird Version, The Bible, Worship

Word work

For the past year, I’ve been trying to put the Psalms into words we can more easily say and understand, mostly to use as Calls to Worship. I like to use the week’s Psalm that way, but I recognize that some of the words typically and rightly used to translate them are not heard instantly as anything other than “churchy” sounding.

One great example is “ascribe.”

“Ascribe to the Lord,” says the Psalmist. Some people will certainly think of the word “scribe,” which is to say someone who writes things down, but even that is an old-fashioned word, not in common use. Imagine sitting in a pew and reading that word when you’re not a Bible student. (Honestly, isn’t that most of the people in our pews, UCC people? Other Protestants, Catholics, your mileage may vary.)

A-scribe. Unless you’re whipping out your smart phone to look it up quickly, which you’re most likely not, the word is going right by you, and it’s just one more pretty-sounding piece of church blah-blah-blah.

(Not that some of us don’t like church to be just that way, pretty-sounding blah-blah-blah. Pretty-sounding blah-blah-blah is SAFE.)

Ascribe to the Lord means Give God the credit for whatever the thing is. Or, you know, impute, because that would be more easily understood by the general population. It means “attribute or think of as belonging, as a quality or characteristic.”

“Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.” (Psalm 96:7, New Revised Standard Version)

So give credit to God for having glory and strength.

This week I looked at the Common English Bible, which I mostly love, and I used it as a model for our Call to Worship (granted, I eliminated male pronouns, which required some other adjustments, too), but I’m not satisfied with the closing line and wish I had done something different.

One: Give to the LORD, all families of the nations—give to the LORD glory and power!
All: Give to the LORD the glory due to God’s name!

I added the “to” in the last line for clarity, even though I don’t like the meter, and as I say, I’m not satisfied. But at least that rendering of verse 8 in the response line makes the point that we’re giving God God’s due.

Anyway, next week, I hope I have time to lean less heavily on the CEB and work up a Revised Songbird Version instead, even though I mostly love it.

Lectionary, Preacher Group, Psalms

The Face of God

I’m reading a very fine study of Psalm 27, or rather the portions of it that are in the lectionary this week, and I looked to see if there will be an answer to the question raised by one of my friends (Hi, RevFun!) at Preacher Group this morning, but there was not, so here it is: what is up with God having a face?

It seemed awkward to me, too. Isn’t it the case that seeing God’s face would pretty much set a person on fire, in a not so good way? Wouldn’t God’s face be too much for us?

And do we really want to go around thinking of God as having something so human as a face in the first place?

I suspect I’m missing some important piece of exegetical material here, but since it’s only Tuesday I’m not worried about it, not yet. Maybe some smart preacher out there can tell me what all that stuff about hiding the face means. Does it refer to the social shame of being rejected by someone above you on the pyramid of power? Or is it more like having a parent who refuses to make eye contact with you? (And aren’t those DaVinci eyes a little scary?)

We went on to discuss finding some way to say it that doesn’t depend on having God be the Big Giant Head. Still pondering.