Grief, Ministry, Writing

One of Us

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our
weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we
are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so
that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4:15-16, NRSV)

If God had a name what would it be?

And would you call it to his face?

If you were faced with Him in all His glory

What would you ask if you had just one question?

(Eric Bazilian, as recorded by Joan Osborne, "One of Us")

I believe I was in seminary before I heard the things I sort of knew described in this way: Jesus was fully divine and fully human.

That may seem surprising, but really, it's one of those concepts you spend a lot of time talking about in seminary and hardly ever trouble to unpack in church. A lot of what we "know" about Jesus comes not so much through teaching of scripture but through the singing of hymns and the repetition of whatever rituals have meaning in a particular tradition.

Some churches default to the divinity of Jesus, while it's probably more typical in progressive churches to focus on his wisdom and his kindness and his inclusion of the marginalized. The latter is fine for devising some life guidelines, but there are times when life frankly sucks and we enter the abyss of grief or the closet of despair or even the breezeway between identities. Some times in our lives defy guidelines, even the simple ones about loving God and neighbor. Some times in our lives center on questions: Why this? Why now? Why me?

In those moments, I'm glad I know that Jesus asked a question, too, about where God was at the crucial moment. I'm glad I know he felt the letdown of his friends' abandonment. I'm glad I know he got angry. I'm glad I know he made a mistake. And this doesn't begin to touch on the embodied experience, not really, of hunger and thirst and desire and tired feet and fear of death and boredom with the chronic complaining of others.

It comforts me to know that a person I think of as having been part of God and one of us became connected fully to God again, able to share the experience of being human. To me this says that the Cosmic Fund of love and goodness and creativity and justice contains our human perspectives and embraces our human flaws with the knowing of having lived those things and more. And while it may not fix what ails us, it's better than being alone.

Well, I believe it is. And this is what I want to know about God. I don't want to argue about what it means for Jesus to be without sin. I want to embrace the idea that beyond what we see, there is more, and in that More is an understanding of our humanity, and a love for it and for us, flaws and all.

Poetry, Writing

Counting by fours

I learned to add and multiply

when I was just a girl.

If school was going poorly

in my mind I'd count by fours.

They're handy tools, those numbers,

they work for math and money.

On family trips my daddy got

a little notebook for me;

he had me write down

everything we spent for

meals and gas and Pepsi-Cola

for postcards sent to Grandma.

In my first job I counted back

the way kids can't today,

made change for people buying candy

and cashed out at shift's end.

I helped my dad record his checks–

he wanted me to know

how much it cost to run a house

the worth of heat and lights

but while curious I did not get

the lesson I believe he meant.

I only knew it seemed he had

a lot of money, and I didn't.

I still count by fours sometimes,

like the fourth-grader in the hall

outside the classroom, in trouble

for some disgrace, real or imagined,

finding safe haven in the times tables.

They always made sense.

I never got much further with math,

stumbled through algebra, geometry

and luckily trigonometry

with a teacher who made sense

just before the SAT test.

Numbers have no play for me,

lack the supple charm of words.

They lay a foundation, firm and square,

four, eight, twelve, sixteen.

Thirty-two. Forty-eight, my age.

Sixty-four: where will I be?

Will I still count by fours?

Finally, Writing It, Interim Ministry, Writing

Back at It

It's that time. It's Saturday morning, and I'm preaching tomorrow morning, and since I've been on vacation this week, I've got a sermon to write.

I don't usually arrange it this way–I prefer to have vacation begin after preaching and include the following Sunday–but for a variety of reasons, this was the way it needed to be. It's just harder to get the motor started after a week of idling.

This is also the first day I am full time in the newer of my two jobs. I've left the Freeport UCC and said all my goodbyes and passed along the necessary information to the long-term supply pastor who will be with them through the end of the year, at least. Today I am fully in the employ of Y1P, as their Interim Associate Pastor.

I'm still working out exactly what that job means. Interim ministry is a funny hybrid of pastoring and consulting, and it seems this particular interim will be those things but in a much different ratio, with the emphasis on making sure certain programs continue apace and the consulting more of a condiment than the main course or even the side dish.

This also means I'll be preaching much less often, and I have to wonder what that means for this blog, which was titled in such a way to suggest I would be engaging the lectionary with regularity. I saw it as a way to deepen my reflections and sharpen my writing, but I also saw it aimed toward the weekly sermon. 

Now, I wouldn't dare ask what's the point of it if I'm not preaching, since there is plenty of point to engaging with scripture, for all kinds of reasons. But there is a sense of loss for me that there will be no end-product, or no need for one, most weeks. This month, while my colleague is on vacation, I'll preach a lot, but after this month, it's once a month for the duration of this job (at least until he figures out any other time he's taking off).

I can't decide whether this just makes me sad, which is silly since I knew going in it would be this way, or whether I ought to see this as an opening to do other things with my writing. I'd like to think there is some deeper purpose to this particular direction my ministry is taking, if only for a year, that there is something I will learn that I needed to know.

But for today, there is a sermon to write. I am back at it.

Chez Songbird, Preaching, Writing

Not Another Saturday Night

I'm in the midst of a three-week stretch of no preaching.

It's so weird!!!

As a solo pastor, both settled and interim, I've gotten into the groove, the habit, the lifestyle, the practice of thinking towards a sermon every week. When I took my new position as an Interim Associate Pastor, I knew it came with a different kind of preaching schedule, and although because of the two jobs and vacations it will be late August before it really happens, this span of three weeks provides a foretaste of consecutive non-preaching. Last week my colleague preached while I worked with the Sunday School; this week and next, the two churches have their respective Youth Sundays, in which I am involved, but not preaching.

So, it's Saturday night. Snowman and Light Princess are out at a contra dance with their dad, and until I go to pick them up later, I'm on my own. I've cooked pasta salad and baked a cake for tomorrow's church picnic. I'm probably going to knit and watch a movie. I wrote the material for tomorrow's service based on the Genesis 1 Creation story about a month ago, so I didn't even *think* about this week's lectionary. And I really have nothing else to prepare for the morning.

It's so weird!!!

On the other hand, this week I did a lot of writing. I've said for a long time that writing is my spiritual practice, but I must also admit it's my vocation, pointing toward the work of preaching as much as toward a deeper life. It was interesting to be writing about other aspects of life and ministry without "holding back" some story or thought for the sermon.

I wrote spontaneously. And it felt good.

I don't know what the coming year will bring to my writing, but I like this start.



Honesty is such a lonely word.

Everyone is so untrue.

Honesty is hardly ever heard.

And mostly what I need from you.

~Billy Joel

Honestly, I've hardly written a thing all month.

A few months ago I joined a writers group online, and one of my initial goals was to choose a project. I thought of a few different things: a book about how Molly influenced my theology and ministry; a collection of worship dramas; a Lectionary-based book of daily reflections, either a year's worth or a season's worth. 

And then someone suggested poetry. Which was flattering because that someone is a poet, among other things.

And then life became chaotic. Which shows few signs of diminishing. I have exactly two poems to show for April (one posted here), ironic given it was Poetry month and others were writing a Poem a Day.

And, honestly, I have no idea whether the poems I write are any good. Until recently I wrote a poem when I felt intense emotion about an experience and wanted to put it into words without explaining the life out of it. Most of my poems have been written quickly and never revised, creatures of the moment.

It was a new experience to revise and re-shape. I enjoyed it, but I don't know if it was *good.*

I will say, I find poetry very, very honest. So much of what I would like to write about I really don't want to share with others, or not many others, because these things have the power, I think, to hurt people.

Sometimes honesty about the things that have hurt us can hurt other people. I'm not sure I'm ruthless enough to tell the truth about some things. I care too much about the risk of collateral damage. Or maybe I care too much about having people regard me well. Or maybe I care too much about my private resentments.  Or maybe I am taking a side trip through honesty to avoid making up my mind. 


On Writing

Faithful readers may have noticed that it's been a while since I added a link from the local paper to my sidebar. For about three years, I had a column in the paper every 6 to 8 weeks. Last summer the editing of the Religion and Values page changed hands, and coincidentally I took the summer off from writing columns, and since then I just haven't been able to get back into the rotation, though I've sent in several pieces. The previous editor gave me a date for which to aim, and I worked well with a deadline. The current editor claims to use things in the order they were submitted and warns against writing anything too "seasonal." Thus my Election Day piece, written that week, was set aside, and I was among many who sent Advent-themed materials (an essay about Sam waiting to lick my oatmeal bowl, expanded from a post here).

I take a casual glance at the Religion page each week, either in hard copy or online. The titles of the Reflections column mean nothing, since they are, as is typical in newspapers, headlines of the paper's desire and not the titles I have given my writing. I am looking for my name.

Today I received a dismaying email from the new editor:

Hi, (Songbird).
I’m trying to track down the author of a Reflections that ran on Jan. 17 while I
was out sick and was attributed to the wrong author. Rev. Protestant Chaplain thought it
might be you. It begins, “When I was a little girl growing up in Portsmouth,
Va., I thought I knew my world well. It consisted of the route from home to the
Court Street Baptist Church, which happened to pass my father's law office and
my godmother's apartment.”

Can you let me know if you are the author? I’d
like to give credit where it’s due!

Oh, man. Not only did they print my piece under someone else's name, they did it with a piece I loved especially, using a signature opening phrase. (AND it only got in because he was away.) The date of publication was appropriate enough, I guess, because it came on the weekend before the inauguration and was written in response to the election.

But, oh! Those are my words, and that is my life, and I feel violated now.

Being asked to write for the paper helped me learn to see writing as part of my calling, as a form of ministry. It gave me feedback from a different audience. I took for granted that my words would be known as MINE.

Sometimes I read a discussion of what makes a person a writer. Is it the writing itself? Is it being published? Is it being paid for it?

Today I think you're a writer when your words feel like your children.

The pieces the newspapers print are usually theirs for a certain length of time, but because I am so disappointed, I give it to you here, in full, as written and very much as preached to a gathering of the Maine Council of Churches on the Friday after election day. (A shorter version appeared here.)


When I was a little girl growing up in Portsmouth, Va., I thought I
knew my world well. It consisted of the route from home to the Court
Street Baptist Church, which happened to pass my father's law office
and my godmother's apartment.

On special occasions it expanded to Monumental Methodist Church,
where my grandmother went, or to the Governor Dinwiddie Hotel, where I
had lunch with my grandmother and godmother in the coffee shop, where
the hard, cold ice cream came in a chilled metal dish.

I thought I knew Portsmouth well. But in my first year of seminary,
I met a classmate who also grew up in Portsmouth and realized I quite
literally did not know half of my hometown. While I skipped around
historic Olde Towne, enjoying the slapping sound my black patent
leather shoes made on the brick sidewalks, Gordon grew up in the
neighborhood of Effingham Street, where the concrete sidewalks ran in
front of much smaller houses.

I knew Effingham Street because our maid, Catherine, lived there.

Gordon's dad pastored a church, and when he told me the name, I
realized there must be a whole world of churches in Portsmouth that I
never knew. In a class titled "Hymns and Worship," we compared our
backgrounds while singing music from lots of traditions and working on
a group project together.

One day the instructor had us turn to a hymn I did not know, and as
was our practice, we stood to sing it together. Gordon said to me,
"This is the Black National Anthem." The beautiful words written by the
poet James Weldon Johnson – how did I not know them? I lived, still, in
a cocoon of comfort and privilege, without realizing.

Lift every voice and sing,

'Til earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on 'til victory is won.

Gordon and I knew the world, even our hometown, differently, and yet
we shared another part of our heritage in common: words of Scripture
and lessons learned in Sunday school.

"More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter
also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb./Moreover by them is
your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward." (Psalm

Although I began my life in a place where water fountains still bore
labels of "White" and "Colored," I heard something in the word of God
that transcended the facts of life in the early 1960s. I heard that
Jesus loved not just me, but all the little children. I went out into
the world sheltered from differences but open to understanding them.

I thought of Gordon after the election, as we began a new era in our
nation, one in which limited images for who can be president or who
might live in the White House will be changed forever.

I hope I will continue to have my eyes opened about the differences
between my reality and the way other people live, the challenges they
may face and the commonalities we share. As the president-elect said in
his speech on election night, "Our stories are singular, but our
destiny is shared." To that great truth, may we lift every voice and
say, "Amen!"


If they change the credit for it on the paper's website, I'll add a link in the sidebar.


One of *those* letters

In response to my Christmas letter, I received this from a college friend:

Your beautiful Christmas letter made me cry. I have always enjoyed your writing. I hope you are "doing something" with it.


I hope so, too.

(And yes, the note really included the quotation marks.)

Sometimes the best response is no response at all, right?