Apr 042017

Over the last couple of days, I’ve had this song running through my head:


Written and performed by Patty Griffin, the song is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., and refers to his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he gave on April 3, 1968 – the night before he was assassinated. (You can read the full text of the speech, and see a video of it here).

Just to pull some excerpts from the speech:

…the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding….

We need all of you. And you know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, “When God speaks who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,” and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor”

…It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

…Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

…Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

There’s a reason Dr. King was as successful a preacher and leader as he was – It’s hard to read a speech like this one (even harder to hear it) and not heed the call to respond, to speak out in the name of whatever injustice we see before us.  He had the ability to appeal to people’s convictions in a way that could invigorate even the most passive listener.

The thing is, most of us haven’t been to the mountaintop.  We may get fired up by impassioned speakers and prophetic voices that remind us that it is possible to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be, that praying and working so that things on earth might be as they are in heaven, is not an exercise in futility; but, usually this dream is met with the harsh reality that we are anywhere but the Promised Land, which makes it hard to trust those who have been to the mountaintop and can see a better tomorrow on the horizon.  The notion of a possible better tomorrow then becomes kind of a cruel joke – the perpetual carrot dangling in front of our noses; and, eventually we grow so weary from exhaustion and hunger that we just want to lie down in the wilderness.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve never been nothing but tired, and I’ll be working ’til the day I expire. Sometimes I lay down, no more can I do.  But, then I go on again, because you ask me to.

So, what do we do in the meantime?  What do we do when we feel lost, like we will be ambling in the wilderness forever?
We trust.
We trust that those whose vision is longer and wider than ours see more than a mirage.
We hope.
We pray.
We love one another with gentleness.
We welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted, feed the hungry.
We lean on each other when we are weary; and, in that leaning, we realize that we are are not in the wilderness alone.
We remind ourselves that the very notion that we are working together as equal partners with people of different races, classes, ages, gender identities, sexual orientations – is a radical shift from 100 years ago.
We acknowledge that we are living in a period in history when people are empowered enough to advocate not only for themselves, but for all the marginalized and disenfranchised, when folks are starting to wake up to their privilege and to really learn how to look it square in the eye, but to dismantle the very systems which uphold it.

There are times when it seems like we are standing in the midst of a darkness that will not dawn. As Dr. King said, it’s only when it is dark enough that you can see the stars.

Let us enjoy the stars even as we work toward the dawn.

Jun 212016

I preached a reflection on the Orlando shootings on Sunday. First time I’ve talked about being LGBTQ from the pulpit. Text and Audio below.

1 Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 126; Mark 7:24-30; June 19, 2016

In 2008, philosopher and theologian Cornell West wrote that we in the United States are in one of the “most truly prophetic moments in the history of America”…. Amidst an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor, wars, media and political propaganda campaigns targeted against the most vulnerable, we have seen the breakdown of the systems which are supposed to support the most vulnerable among us. West sees a sense of the “tragicomic” as a means of survival against the reality of defeat, disillusionment, and discouragement in the world. The tragicomic allows us to maintain a “sense of possibility. Some sense of hope. Some sense of agency. Some sense of resistance.” Yet, “hope is no guarantee,” West says. “Real hope is grounded in a . . . messy struggle and it can be betrayed by naïve projections of a better future that ignore the necessity of doing the real work. So what we are talking about is hope on a tightrope.” (Cornel West, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom, New York: Smiley Books, 2008, 2-4.)
This notion of “hope on a tightrope” is a theme which could be applied to the community for whom the Gospel of Mark was written. Mark was written in a time and for a people in the midst of conflict and uncertainty, people who faced maldistribution of economic resources, wars, social and religious institutions which, rather than protecting the most vulnerable in society, exposed them to greater danger.

Looking around today, particularly after weeks like this week, it would seem that the tightrope of which West speaks is now little more than a thread. The are times it feels as though those of us who long and work for a better world are nothing more than a huddled mass, naively dangling over an abyss, waiting for that last thread of hope to break.

I will not presume to know how to make sense of tragedies like the shooting that happened last weekend anymore than I can make sense of the path of the storm that raged through Richmond on Thursday night. I will not insult you with empty platitudes about the good that may come from this. The wounds in this country are far too deep to be healed by any sort of collective kumbaya moment, and to be honest, I think we are all too tired for any sort of candy-coated rhetoric.
Earlier this week, I posted something on Facebook that struck a chord with Alfred Walker; enough so that he wrote a piece about it on the church’s blog.
I wrote that while I still believe in the power of faith communities to transform lives and be places of healing and transformation for individuals and systemic change, I have never been able to breathe as deeply, to know that I was safe to fully be myself in a church as I have been in a gay bar. There is a kind of armor that LGBTQ people put on when we venture out into the world – a certain preparedness to explain how we know who we are, or decide whether or not to correct someone when they use the wrong gender for us, or argue when make assumptions about the kind of people we date, or whether it’s worth the risk of losing friends or a job or, for some, our lives, if we share who we are with those around us.
For many LGBTQ people, nightclubs or bars have been the places where we have been able to take off that armor. Many of us have had to survive and learned to thrive without the boundaries of traditionally-defined church walls. Our sanctuaries bear no vaulted ceilings or cushioned pews. For many LGBTQ people, family is not defined by blood, but by the sweat that has dripped to the dance floors of bars and clubs whose darkness offered the safety and solace not found in more traditional spaces. The club is the place where people can take off the proverbial corset they so often wear to keep other people comfortable. Or, if they so choose, where they can put on the corset they have for too long been shamed out of wearing.
For LGBTQ communities of color, suffering at the intersections of a racist, sexist, and homophobic society, this need for sanctuary and the violation of that sanctuary at Orlando is felt even more acutely.
In the first part of his poem “All the Dead Boys Look like Me,” written for the victims of the Orlando shooting, poet Christopher Soto experiences many of the feelings shared by LGBTQ people of color.

Last time, I saw myself die is when police killed Jessie Hernandez
A 17 year old brown queer, who was sleeping in their car
Yesterday, I saw myself die again. Fifty times I died in Orlando. And
I remember reading, Dr. José Esteban Muñoz before he passed
I was studying at NYU, where he was teaching, where he wrote shit
That made me feel like a queer brown survival was possible. But he didn’t
Survive and now, on the dancefloor, in the restroom, on the news, in my chest
There are another fifty bodies, that look like mine, and are
Dead. And I have been marching for Black Lives and talking about the police brutality
Against Native communities too, for years now, but this morning
I feel it, I really feel it again. How can we imagine ourselves // We being black native
Today, Brown people // How can we imagine ourselves
When All the Dead Boys Look Like Us? Once, I asked my nephew where he wanted
To go to College. What career he would like, as if
The whole world was his for the choosing. Once, he answered me without fearing
Tombstones or cages or the hands from a father.


How do we move forward in times like these, when any prophetic vision one may tout risks trivializing the pain and suffering so many are going through? It’s too close and too soon to start talking about any silver lining that may be found in the bodies of so many lost.
And yet, without at least a sliver of something that might pull us forward, we risk letting ourselves fall into a sort of nihilistic pit that screams at us to stock our armories even fuller, to trust less, to suspect more.

How, if we are to survive as a people amidst such devastation and in the face of so many systemic evils, how do we see a way forward, when we can barely find the strength to get out of bed in the morning, when our laughter feels like a dream, and our tears pour to the ground like rain? When the body count keeps stacking up? I’m honestly not sure. But I think at least part of the answer holds a combination of memory and sass. I know we cannot do it alone.

The Gospel of Mark was written for a community in the midst of tremendous suffering and conflict. Held under the thumbs of people with more power and authority, both socially and religiously, the message of Jesus’ story, that the last would be first, was one of liberation for Mark’s audience. Mark saw Israel as a land of divisive boundaries: boundaries between the rich and poor, between the clean and unclean, between the leaders and those for whom they were responsible, between the broken and means to achieve wholeness, between Jew and Gentile. In Mark, Jesus’ life and ministry were about shattering those boundaries.
I recently heard the woman from today’s gospel text referred to as “the woman who sassed Jesus.” The exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman often gives people pause, for some because of the way Jesus dismisses her pleas and calls her a dog. For others, because of her refusal to back down. It is a time when we see a side of Jesus that is unfamiliar, even troubling.

Perhaps this is not the best place for me to confess this, but I’ve never really had a difficult time with Jesus’ behavior in this text. As anyone in a helping profession can attest, there are times when we just need a break. Jesus had just fed five thousand people, healed many, and had a fairly testy exchange with the Pharisees. It’s clear from the text that Jesus doesn’t want people to know he’s there. He’s way out of his territory, likely trying to find a bit of solace. He’s tired, and he’s weary of one more pair of hands coming to him empty, especially from a voice so sassy. I can almost hear him saying it: “I just can’t. Not today. I have nothing left to give right now, and I need some rest.”
I have spent a great deal of time with this text over the last few years and I confess that I still wrestle with what it is that causes the shift in Jesus. What word does the woman speak that changes his mind? I’m inclined to believe there is something in the exchange that reminds Jesus of who he is. Even though the woman would not have known Hebrew scriptures, and never read the story of Elijah and the widow of Zeraphath, Jesus and his audience certainly knew it. I like the idea that in the exchange with this woman, Jesus would have been jolted a bit, reminded of the story of the widow and Elijah, of the woman who was at the end of her tether and out of resources, so hopeless that she was ready to surrender her life and the life of her son.

I like to think Jesus would have remembered that Elijah, too, was traveling beyond the boundaries of his familiar territory, and that he was fed by the woman – that the crumbs of meal sustained not only the woman and her son, but also the prophet. I’d like to think her comment reminded Jesus and his audience that, though we as faith communities might like to draw lines around the boundaries of the communities we serve, that the God we profess to follow does not define such boundaries.
Sometimes faith communities need that – to be reminded that we are not the ones who define what is sacred or who is worthy. Often those reminders come from the ones we’ve deemed to be less holy than ourselves, or beyond the bounds of our ministry.

Even – I would say sometimes especially – those we perceive as more holy than ourselves need a little sass. Perhaps the author of Mark’s gospel was illustrating that this can be a tremendously difficult thing – so difficult that even the Son of God needed a little reminder. Or, maybe the author of Mark is naming for the audience that the work of being holy is hard – so hard that even the holiest among us struggle.

Regardless of the intent of the author, or the inner thoughts of Jesus, the exchange between the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus marks a turning point in the Gospel. No longer is his ministry held within Jewish territory. When Jesus leaves the woman, he goes back through Gentile land, heals a man, and then feeds four thousand Gentiles. Any ideas about a ministry that was brought only for the Jews are gone – the transformative love of God that tore open the heavens in the first chapter of Mark has now torn apart the boundaries that had for so long defined and protected the Jewish community, opening up with it a new idea of the holy.
In today’s psalm, we find a community in the midst of a catastrophe, and it is through the act of remembering a past restoration that they find their hope. It is on the fine line between expectation and despair that they are emboldened to ask God to renew in them the shouts of joy they have known before, to turn their weeping to harvest. For the community singing this psalm, the act of remembering is what gives them the strength to move forward. At times when we feel lost, or cannot see a way ahead, it is necessary to look into our collective memories to see how to move forward.

For many in the LGBTQ community, particularly those of a certain age, when we talk about a collective memory, it is difficult to not talk about the AIDS crisis. In the 1980s, as AIDS was tearing town thousands upon thousands of people, and the government, seeing it as largely a “gay disease,” continued to ignore its effects, many people in need of services and community, were turned away from both. People lost their families, their faith communities, their homes and, eventually, their lives. Church of the Holy Comforter, an Episcopal Church here in Richmond, was intentional about outreach to the community so impacted by the disease. During the passing of the peace, rather than just reaching out and shaking hands or hugging those around them, they would kiss one another on the mouth.
Now, I’m a big hugger on the whole, and would identify myself as one who is fairly comfortable with embracing folks I may not know well. But, I have to admit that the idea of kissing folks on the mouth pushes me a little bit outside my comfort zone. Maybe a lot outside.

But can you imagine what that would have been like for those suffering with AIDS, or for those who were part of the community that had been stigmatized to such an extent that even doctors and nurses refused to care for them? To go to a church where you were not only seen but where you were embraced? Kissed on the mouth? What would that have been like?

Perhaps the answer is not to build more walls or buy more guns, but to let ourselves be vulnerable with one another – to open up, speak honestly, even when it scares us, to risk being seen and seeing one another.

In his blog piece this week, Alfred talked about his own transformation in understanding the holy. “Holy,” he said, “is where we find it, where we feel it, where we are affirmed, where we are most real . . . Holy, I’m pretty sure, is feeling God’s pleasure in our own selves…I love my church,” Alfred continues, “and I love being there. I’m grateful, this week, for the understanding that people can love church anywhere – a chapel, park, bar. . . when they experience that which is Holy through themselves and those nearby.”

Is it really such a radical idea for us who profess faith in a God who can bring life out of death, multiply loaves, who claim that even the rocks can cry out in order to offer praise, to see the holiness of God manifest beyond the boundaries the places we’ve deemed holy?

I believe that God is a God of abundance, a God who calls us and lead us beyond the margins of our comfort. I believe that we are called to bear one another’s burdens and to hold one another, even if we do not fully understand one another. I also believe the act of listening is one of the most holy things we can do, especially when we are sassed. It is in that difficult space where we are born into something more, where fear turns to trust, where hope turns to action.

So maybe it’s not that we have to look back, but that we have to dig a little deeper into the collective memories buried in what I often call our ooey gooey centers, beneath the hard candy shells we have been socialized to wear. In doing so, might we learn from both our mistakes and our successes. May hold one another – our anger, even when we don’t understand, our sorrow even when can’t fully relate, our joy, even when we may despair. May we hold one another accountable to living into the people we are called to be, while recognizing that the vision we have, however broad, is always incomplete. May we make room to be surprised and to be transformed.

Jun 192014

I’ve had this poem on my mind for the last several days – can’t shake the first line. It’s been a year, to say the least. New baby, new job, new house – just to name a few of the transitions that have taken place. So, I’ve mostly been holding on, trying to roll with it and maintain as much composure as I’ve got. Most days this is a successful venture.


the quality of being complete; unbroken condition; entirety
~ Webster

A wild patience has taken me this far

as if I had to bring to shore
a boat with a spasmodic outboard motor
old sweaters, nets, spray-mottled books
tossed in the prow
some kind of sun burning my shoulder-blades.
Splashing the oarlocks. Burning through.
Your fore-arms can get scalded, licked with pain
in a sun blotted like unspoken anger
behind a casual mist.

The length of daylight
this far north, in this
forty-ninth year of my life
is critical.

The light is critical: of me, of this
long-dreamed, involuntary landing
on the arm of an inland sea.
The glitter of the shoal
depleting into shadow
I recognize: the stand of pines
violet-black really, green in the old postcard
but really I have nothing but myself
to go by; nothing
stands in the realm of pure necessity
except what my hands can hold.

Nothing but myself?….My selves.
After so long, this answer.
As if I had always known
I steer the boat in, simply.
The motor dying on the pebbles
cicadas taking up the hum
dropped in the silence.

Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere —
even from a broken web.

The cabin in the stand of pines
is still for sale. I know this. Know the print
of the last foot, the hand that slammed and locked the door,
then stopped to wreathe the rain-smashed clematis
back on the trellis
for no one’s sake except its own.
I know the chart nailed to the wallboards
the icy kettle squatting on the burner.
The hands that hammered in those nails
emptied that kettle one last time
are these two hands
and they have caught the baby leaping
from between trembling legs
and they have worked the vacuum aspirator
and stroked the sweated temples
and steered the boat there through this hot
misblotted sunlight, critical light
imperceptibly scalding
the skin these hands will also salve.

Jun 242013

I had the opportunity to preach on 1 Kings 19:1-19 at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church yesterday. After moving through a few levels of anxiety in the construction process, I had a really great time working with the text, and looking at how the exchange between God and Elijah on Mount Horeb poses the question of what happens when a prophet has lost his nerve, and attempts to resign not only his prophetic office, but also his life.

It’s been almost four years since the first time I stood in this pulpit, on Theological Education Sunday in 2009.

I was one four Union students who were active members of Ginter Park at the time; and, as is the case every couple of years, we were asked to help plan and execute the service.

I think I’m safe to admit, now that some time has passed, that I did not want to be here that Sunday morning. I was just beginning my first year of seminary, and was reluctant – intimidated really, to do anything that required me to stand anywhere. . . Up here.

This pulpit. . . Well, any pulpit. . .can loom pretty large if we let it.  I didn’t feel worthy, and I didn’t feel ready.

At the outset of our first planning meeting, I made my reluctance known to the group, saying that I would love to help write prayers or choose music, as long as I didn’t actually have to stand in front of the congregation and deliver any of those prayers.  I was perfectly comfortable in the background, thank you very much, and was content to stay there. As the planning got underway, however, it became clear to me that no one in the group was willing to indulge my desire to stay safely in the pew. It was like they didn’t even hear me.

“Okay, so who’s going to deliver the call to confession?” someone asked.

“Give The Prayers of the People?”

“Preach the Sermon?”

Looking around the room, I did some quick math, calculating the number of people participating (four) and the number of roles to be filled (more than four). I began to see my notions of staying in the background diminish before my eyes.

“Okay, okay.” I said, my words still falling on deaf ears. “I can participate in leading worship as long as I don’t have to go anywhere near the sermon.”

As you might guess, “we” decided that the time for the sermon would be divided among the four of us.

Still trying to hold my ground, I offered the only thing that came to mind.  “Okay, fine. I’ll participate in the sermon, but only if I can talk about the silence of God.”

Begrudgingly, I went to the same text Eleanor read this morning. I talked about God’s presence in the stillness, coming into our lungs as we breathe, telling us that the gentle nudging of our beating hearts may well be the most tangible sign of God’s claim on our lives that we ever receive.

While I hold that such messages are important, and I appreciate my reading of the text from four years ago, as I prepared for today’s service I found a number of things that were lost on me then. First, and most glaringly, is that God is anything but silent in this exchange.  And while God’s self-revelation in the sound of sheer silence marks an important transition in the relationship between God and the people of Israel, it is only part of the story.

Set within a broader context, the narrative of Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb fits within a much larger story of the relationship between God and the people who continue to forfeit the benefits of their covenant with the God who has chosen them. When Ahab became king, he abandoned the commandments of God and followed Baal, the Canaanite storm god. Actions such as Ahab’s – building altars and giving official status to pagan gods – lead the people away from who they are called to be, and eventually into exile. Within this larger saga, stories such as ours today address questions about the role played by the prophet in the divine-human drama.

The exchange between God and Elijah on Mount Horeb poses the question of what happens when a prophet has lost his nerve, and attempts to resign not only his prophetic office, but also his life.

In many ways, Elijah’s flight to the wilderness and attempted renunciation in Chapter 19 seem a bit confusing. Though our story today does begin with a death threat, as the lives of prophets go, Elijah’s is actually pretty good. In the previous chapter, he makes a mockery of the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, calling forth God’s fire onto a water-soaked altar and leading all of those who witness it to “fall on their faces” proclaiming that the Lord is the one God of Israel.

In a brutal and disturbing follow-up to this contest, Elijah slaughters all of the 450 priests of Baal, demonstrating God’s power and lack of patience with false prophets.

At the end of chapter 18, a heavy rain comes, ending the drought Elijah successfully predicted three years prior.

Through Elijah, God has shown power over fire, water, and the sword. And yet, upon hearing of the queen’s threat, Elijah heads for the wilderness, abandoning his homeland and, eventually, his only companion. In the face of such cosmic victories, one has to wonder why even an intimidating earthly threat from the queen would send Elijah into a tailspin. Why, in the face of so much resounding assurance from God, is he so shaken?

In short, Elijah is burned out.

On the surface, it appears as though the faith and courage that he has shown have had very little effect. Jezebel is still intent on taking his life, and Ahab hasn’t budged an inch. God sent Elijah to convert the king and turn the people’s hearts, yet even the grandest displays of God’s power and providence do nothing. Elijah’s passion and zeal for the Lord may have motivated him to take part in amazing things, but they’ve also put his life in jeopardy. Exhausted and depleted, he comes to a lonely tree and asks only that the Lord might take his life.

“Enough,” he says. “I have had enough.” And he lays down under the thin branches and goes to sleep, ready to die.

That he is awakened by a messenger of the Lord and given enough food to strengthen him for a forty day trek in the wilderness does little to brighten his mood.  When the word of the Lord comes to him, he isn’t shy about voicing his complaint: “I have done all you’ve told me to do,” he says, “but the Israelites continue to forsake you. I. I am all that’s left of the faithful, and now they are hunting me down and they will take my life.”

“What’s the point?” Elijah wants to know. We may have seen some gains, celebrated even large victories, but what’s the point of doing God’s work in the world if the very people who are supposed to be faithful turn away again and again and again?

What’s the use of a zealous heart in the face of circumstances that continue to be so overwhelming?

When Elijah meets God on Mount Horeb it is to say that God’s expectations are too high. As one scholar puts it, “by calling on Yahweh to take his life, Elijah puts the whole situation squarely before God.” If God concedes, and allows Elijah to die, it is an admission that the task is too great. If not, Elijah is challenging God to respond to the underlying causes of his distress.

God’s response to Elijah is two-fold. Rather than accepting his resignation, God expands his list of duties. However, included in that list is a compromise: one of the duties he’s to carry out is the installation of Elisha, his successor. In Elisha, Elijah is given not only a companion, but a sense of hope, seeing that when it is his time to go, the work will continue. In short, God tells Elijah that he’s not alone, gives him a companion for the journey, and tells him to get back to work.

Though it is tempting to see Elijah’s dramatic plea to God as a bit. . .well, dramatic, his words point to a deep sense of hopelessness in the face of seemingly overwhelming circumstances.

In his book The Call of Service, Robert Coles talks about the potential hazards that come with the work of serving others. He confirms that even those we hold to be heroes in the work of justice grow weary, when he quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., saying: “We have just so much strength in us. If we give and give and give, we have less and less and less – and after a while, at a certain point, we’re so weak and worn, we hoist up the flag of surrender. We surrender to the worst side of ourselves, and then we display that to others. We surrender to self-pity and to spite and to morose self-preoccupation. . .Whatever we say or think, this is an arduous duty, doing this kind of work; to live out one’s idealism brings with it hazards.”

Though our intentions remain good, when circumstances become overwhelming even the greatest of us struggle with such feelings – with depression and cynicism and the goodness getting knocked out of us. Though we may have zeal and courage enough to look straight into the eye of even the most fearful beast standing between where the world is and where it should be, doing God’s work can be a soul-crushing endeavor. Shining the light in a dark world can feel like a losing battle. Compounding this weariness is the disconcerting notion that questions of whether or not we are up for the task, or even if we’re worthy of the job, seem to be beside the point.

Though God doesn’t seem willing to yield to our attempts at throwing in the towel, God does provide us with sustenance for the journey, often in the form of an individual or group who, if nothing else, remind us that we are not alone. In community, we find food in the wilderness of our lives, we find encouragement to be brave and the strength to be resilient; we find even a small broom tree’s worth of shade to rest under when we are weary.  Even more, we are reminded that the work of being the church is not our work to do alone. We aren’t chosen, after all, because of who we are or what we can do, but because of what God can do through us.

What happens, though, when it’s not an individual who feels this sort of weariness, but an entire community who finds themselves at the mouth of the cave, overwhelmed and frustrated before God?

What happens when a congregation, or an entire denomination, looks at the reality of the way things are and realizes that, though we may have seen some gains, celebrated even large victories, the task before us is simply too great?

We bring our time and energy and all the zeal we can muster to conversations about how we can truly welcome people, but denominational numbers continue to shrink.

We build relationships and find new ways to feed people, but food programs are cut, reduced lunches are disappearing.

Volunteers are hard to find, resources are stretched thin. We are tired, lonely, sometimes even feeling useless.

How are we supposed to respond to God’s word courageously when none of us has any encouragement to give?

I was struck by a surprising parallel to these challenges while watching the movie The Whale Rider earlier this week (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it!).

The film’s plot follows the story of Paikea, called Pai, a young member of a dying Maori tribe on New Zealand’s North Island. Pai, who also narrates the film, was born a twin, but both her mother and brother died during childbirth. Despite the fact that she is a direct descendent (and namesake) of the tribe’s founder, who mythically rode a whale from the ancient homeland, leading them to their New Zealand home, the fact that she is female makes her ineligible for tribal leadership.

Though the people are literally facing extinction, her grandfather Koro’s expectations for a new leader to instill energy and vitality into the community are dashed with the death of his grandson, and blind him to Pai’s gifts. Faced with a loss of cultural identity and a spreading apathy among the people, Koro calls out in desperation to the Ancient Ones, the whales, for help.

“But they didn’t listen.” Pai says. “So, I called to them. . . And they came.”

It isn’t long before an answer to Pai’s call for help comes in the presence of a pod of whales.

Only . . . it goes all wrong.

Rather than delivering the community to a new land, or somehow bringing a message of hope, the whales beach themselves on the shore near Pai’s home. The villagers work to coax and drag the largest of the whales back into the ocean, knowing that if he goes, the others will follow. But, the whale too large, and the strength of the whole village is not enough to coax him into deeper water. Pai watches the last of her grandfather’s hopes dying with the slowing breaths of the giant animal.

“He wanted to die.” She said. “There was no reason to live anymore.”  It leaves the viewer wondering if she’s speaking of the whale, or of her grandfather.

When the whole community has finally given up, Pai climbs onto the massive beast.  “Come on,” she says gently; and, with a nudge of her heel, the weary animal begins to move.

It is not until he watches his granddaughter ride the whale out to sea, that Koro realizes that the hope he’s been looking for has been there all along.  He’d become so set on finding a leader who looked like those of the past that he failed to see the future right in front of his face.

Just as Koro fails to see the presence of the ancestors in his granddaughter, so too we become blind to the potential for God’s movement in the world when we fail to recognize the gifts brought in the generations that follow, and in the beauty of relationships built across generational lines – the kinds of relationship made possible in a faith community like ours.

If we are able take off the blinders of anxiety and fear, creeping conversations about budgets and denominational decline, lingering doubts about the role of the church in the world,  we can actually see signs of God’s movement everywhere.

In every seed that is planted and conversation begun. In the love and care shared among people who have seen even the worst parts of ourselves, we have hope for the future.

In nudging one another, whether to the pulpit to read scripture, to tell our stories in front of the congregation, or into the neighborhood to invite people to a block party, we have hope for the future.

In the participation of children and youth who know that they are part of this community, who read scripture and make banners, offer gifts of music in worship, and clink glasses at Supper Church. In conversations where the ages of the participants range from five to thirty five, to sixty-five and ninety-five – conversations that happen here all the time! –  we have hope for the future.

When we sit with each other through joblessness, sickness, even hopelessness, we when we take communion to homebound people, and sit with them as they enter the final stages of their lives, we have hope for the future.

When we admit our exhaustion and find rest from the weariness of our days, trusting in the one who undergirds the strength of our community, and who has sustained the generations before us and will continue to sustain the generations after us, we have hope for the future.

May we only have the eyes to see and the ears to hear God made manifest all around us.

Mar 272013

Lectionary C: Easter Sunday

(No specific text connections here, but this one seemed too lovely not to share.)

“spring song” by Lucille Clifton

the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible