Church Life, Music, Reflectionary

Freedom’s Holy Light

Until a couple of years ago, I would have described myself as a moderate about singing patriotic hymns in church. I wouldn’t design a whole service around patriotic themes; usually I allowed time for a patriotic sing-along before the start of the worship service proper. My philosophy was to keep what was usually a communion service on the first Sunday in July separate from nationalistic themes. I would tell myself, there is no other place where people sing together anymore. And some – even most – of those songs include themes that call us to be better.

We get into trouble when we consider them descriptive rather than aspirational.

This past Sunday I worshipped at kathrynzj’s church; her attitude about those songs is similar, but for reasons having to do with the installation of a new sound system and the resulting limited rehearsal time for her musician, two patriotic hymns were part of the service.

I can remember listening rhapsodically to a broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” from Wolf Trap in which Garrison Keillor had the audience singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” a capella; I remember wishing I could have been there to feel the sound rise around me.

This past Sunday, though, I was crying by the time we got to verse 4.

Our fathers’ God to, Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!

I’m past grieving now for the idealized America my parents let me believe in, because they hope it would be true, protecting me from the racism they wished were solved, promoting values of equality and fairness and kindness to others, particularly those less fortunate than we were.

I'm crying now because when God's holy light shines bright we see every sin, collective and individual, that plagues us.

I’m crying now because when freedom’s holy light shines bright we see every sin that plagues us. Worse, we see how many people in this country positively rejoice in those sins of violence and cruelty when they serve a White Supremacist agenda. Power now seems to belong to the cruelest, the unkindest, the most selfish among us, people who understand freedom as whatever profits the individual.

Today I am looking for and finding signs of hope, not the kind of candy-coated, bunting-inspired hope of past 4ths of July, but the gritty determination of activists, pastors, moms, and many other ordinary people determined to help others, to embody the values I cherish, values I derive from my faith, values I believe will bring freedom and liberation: inclusion, cooperation, and mercy.

I pray for the day when our land will be bright with freedom’s holy light, a freedom that will no longer be merely aspirational, a freedom that makes manifest God’s commonwealth of love.

Faith, Reflectionary, The Inner Landscape

Constant

IMG_1533This morning in South Central Pennsylvania, the sun is shining. The Japanese maple tree outside my window is in full leaf. The steeple of the Presbyterian church rises behind it. Although the tree changes with the seasons, this has been my outside view for several years now as I sit at my desk, consistent and reliable. My star word for this year is Constant, and it reminds me how few things are. In a season of political and ethical turmoil, not much seems reliable.

But this view, and the things I see when I walk out my door or drive down my street remain – essentially – the same, despite potholes or snowfall. A hydrangea grows beside the church’s youth center, which sits next door to the Manse, with shades of blue like crayons, they are so intense. I see the church, these houses, the fence around the Associate Pastor’s backyard. (Yes, we live on what amounts to a compound.)

There’s something reassuring, constant, about the sameness of these things, this place. Similarly the landscape of Portland, Maine, offered a framework for my life for so many years, the curve of Baxter Boulevard around Back Cove, the uneven brick sidewalks where I walked my dogs, the esplanade of trees shading Sheffield Street. I did some of my hardest personal work talking on the phone while standing beneath those trees, considering what would come next while driving that route, trying to be ruthlessly honest with myself while wrangling a big dog.

Do you remember the concept of having a Constant that was part of the TV Show Lost? In that case the idea was that a person could be your constant; there was a romantic implication there about Desmond and Penny, although there was a time-travely bit, too. (#fantasy) In mathematics it means an unvarying value and in other disciplines the idea is the same, is constant. It’s something that doesn’t change.

I suppose that means a person or a place or a thing cannot be a constant, cannot be constant.

IMG_1536I’ve been pasting a little star with the word handwritten on it in my bullet journal every week, trying to keep the word in front of me instead of forgetting it as I have some years. I’ve studied lists of words in the thesaurus that suggest the nuances of the word: fixed, ceaseless, trustworthy.

What or who has unvarying value?

In this season of turmoil, I’m asking questions while walking a different dog under different trees. I’ve fallen out of the habit of my spiritual practice, which for many months was reading the Psalms and writing prayer in their margins. Instead I wake each morning to see what new terrible thing has happened in this inconstant world. The other day, my friend Mary Beth posted on the question, “How can you pray at a time like this?” She pointed me back to the Psalms, and I thought of a phrase from Psalm 146. It’s helping me today.  I’m not saying it’s enough to pray, but maybe if I can pray again, I can do the work that needs to be done, with God as my constant.

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
    the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
    he upholds the orphan and the widow,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

Church Life, Ministry, Reflectionary

Asked and Answered

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My favorite preacher

The question has been asked and answered so many times. At least on this occasion I knew the asker was friendly, offering an opportunity to make the case to an audience containing listeners of mixed attitudes. We had discussed a recent complaint on the matter before the recording began. Even so, I was a little surprised when I heard the question.

“What would you say to people who don’t think women should be clergy?”

He asked, so I answered, bearing in mind our earlier conversation.

“I would point them,” I said, “to the gospel stories of the Resurrection, and to the first evangelists, who were women. I would suggest they read Paul’s epistles carefully and take note of how many leaders in the early church were women.”

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Some other preachers I appreciate

My interviewer moved on to the next question, but I know that out in the ether, people will repeat the one already asked and answered. A vocal portion of humankind – which I like to think are in the minority despite the volume of their voices and the attention paid to them – continue to value women only in relation and submission to men.

They make these claims on religious grounds, forgetting or ignoring passages of scripture inconvenient to their thesis. At the church my wife serves, the staff and Session have undertaken a read-along, Four Gospels in Four Months, and invited the congregation to join them. Today’s chapter was Matthew 15, in which Jesus meets a woman who teaches him when she says, “…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” She asks, and he answers, and the mission of Christ expands to become a mission to the world.

Holy God, give us patience to answer questions asked again and again, and keep us open to answers that will change us. Amen.


This post was written for the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader. You can hear the interview mentioned above on Day1 in June.

John 20:29-31, Reflectionary

Fantasy League Jesus

It’s no secret that we love baseball at my house. We celebrated Opening Day in Holy Week and actually managed to watch our favorite team, the Washington Nationals, play on TV. My wife and our 13-year-old are playing in a fantasy baseball league, which is to say they have drafted players and named teams, and the rest happens online, where the fantasy teams win or lose based on the daily performance of actual players. Their success is calculated by some math that is beyond my powers, or at least outside my interests.

The strangest thing about it is hearing my oughta-be-Nats fans root for players not on our team, for the sake of their other teams. They are inhabiting a paradigm that is unfamiliar to me. What is it they are wishing for? I understand it intellectually, but not emotionally.

Fantasy league JesusI have to think that in the days after the Resurrection, the disciples felt a similar disconnect. Ten of them – and some of the women, uncounted – saw the risen Christ. And then a week went by. They must have begun to wonder whether they were reliable witnesses to their own experiences. In their fantasy Jesus leagues, were they still looking for his return, maybe followed by some “gotcha” confrontation with the authorities, some earthly kingdom victory? Did they hear his words about peace and calm down? Or did they grieve again, realizing that the risen Lord could not remain with them forever? I picture them questioning each other, retelling the stories of Mary in the garden and Jesus in the Upper Room, asking, “Do you remember exactly what he said next?”

Thomas lived through that time in a different kind of tension. I picture him glowering, frustrated, understanding in his head that they must have seen something, but in his heart feeling hurt to be the only one left out, the only one who saw no sign. I sympathize with him.

This week, preachers will ask their own questions of the familiar story. And let’s be honest, this is not most preachers’ favorite Sunday; we’ve been there before, and we’re in a post-Easter lull. Maybe this year, we can take a page out of fantasy baseball and move the players around. Maybe we can triangulate against the text with Thomas instead of critiquing him. Maybe we can put ourselves and our listeners in Thomas’s shoes.

I’m pretty sure that’s why he’s there.


Find this week’s texts here.

I wrote this originally for the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.

Gospel of Mark, Lent, Reflectionary

And you still don’t understand? (Mark 8:1-26)

I’m not sure whether it’s Jesus or the gospel writer who chooses to double down in Mark 8, but this chapter brings us themes recurring from chapter 7 in a way that does not imply accidental repetition (such as the merging of two manuscripts) but rather the frustration of a very human Jesus with the numbskulls who follow him. The disciples have a way of making things about the bread rather than the good news.

Mark has Jesus feed two separate multitudes. Both times there is enough to go around, with plenty left over. After the second impromptu meal, the Pharisees come to Jesus asking for a sign from heaven. Hear that. After a few loaves and some fish have been multiplied to feed thousands of people – twice!!! – they come asking for a sign from heaven.

The disciples then proceed to obsess about their one remaining loaf of bread.

Jesus knew what they were discussing and said, “Why are you talking about the fact that you don’t have any bread? Don’t you grasp what has happened? Don’t you understand? Are your hearts so resistant to what God is doing? (Mark 8:17, CEB)

He *is* the sign from heaven.

They are being fed but do not know it.

These feeding stories are accompanied by two stories about healing people who are visually impaired. Again, to double down, the description of the second healing adds to the metaphor about spiritual blindness by describing the blurriness of the man’s newly restored sight. It takes a second laying on of Jesus’ hands to make the vision clear.

I can think of plenty of times in my life when I needed to see something more than once to understand it fully. And I was (most of the time) trying! The disciples may be slow, but they are trying, too. Jesus must know that, because he keeps talking to them, even though he is clearly frustrated with them.

But the Pharisees? They cannot see what they will not see. And Jesus is not laying his hands on their eyes. They will get no sign.

Holy One, thank you for your patience with me when I am slow to understand. Amen.


I’m posting this onboard a United flight to Chicago, where I will be holding a focus group for my Pastoral Study Project. Read about it and find the schedule for geographic and online focus groups at Sustaining Clergywomen.


I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I am also referring to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible.

You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts.

Gospel of Mark, Lent, Reflectionary

Ordinary Preachers (Mark 4:1-34)

Don’t you understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? (Mark 4:13, CEB)

I’m always fascinated by what a hard time the disciples have understanding Jesus. He hand-picked them, didn’t he? According to Mark, in chapter 3, he went up a mountain and called exactly the ones he wanted. They had three jobs: to be with him, to go out and preach, and to cast out demons. How, I wonder, did they preach? What could they say, confused as they were?

Jesus seems to have expected more of them.

It’s a good question for any of us who try to be faithful followers. What can we say, confused as we are? Sometimes I think those of us with advanced education in theology and scripture have the hardest time of all, concerned with our socio-political agendas from whatever place on the spectrum.

Ultimately I am both hopeful and humbled when I consider that Jesus chose ordinary people to preach the good news. Maybe God gave the disciples, and gives us, the gift of coming to know Christ more deeply through the act of sharing with others what we do not yet understand.

Holy God, use me today for your purposes and increase my understanding. Help me to accept that sometimes it happens out of the order I would expect. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I am also referring to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible.

You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts.

Gospel of Mark, Lent, Reflectionary

That escalated quickly (Mark 1:16-28)

Lots happens in chapter 1 of Mark, and the words used to describe what happens show that they happen with speed and energy. Right away, immediately, suddenly – four fishermen leave their work to follow him, they all go to synagogue, a person with an unclean spirit screams at the sight of Jesus.

That escalated quickly. Will fishing for people always be so dramatic? Who is this guy? What have we gotten ourselves into, man?

In a time of both spiritual and material emergency, I wonder if we can take some solace in knowing the first disciples, despite being water-wise, had to immediately realize they were in over their heads. Suddenly they saw they were attached to someone unpredictable. Right away he was drawing attention; surely they had been seen with him?

The whole story of the disciples in Mark is about not understanding, asking the wrong questions, acting from wrongheaded impulses, and hiding from the truth.

But without being impulsive and a little boneheaded, I wonder if any of us would follow?

Holy One, help me see how I am like those first followers, and sweep me up with you immediately, suddenly, right away … before I can hide myself away. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I am also referring to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible. Tomorrow I’ll be reading Mark 1:29-45. Full schedule can be found here.