To whom shall we go?

I go to church almost every week. I go even though I don’t always know why we are all there and I am often disappointed with what I experience–or don’t experience–in church.

Today as I sat in church, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, MN (that’s my home church, though I end up in a lot of different churches) I worried I would experience that again. I sat wondering what it was I was expecting, and often don’t find. I think what I often miss is the glimpse of something luminous or holy or sacred–something outside of every day life that touches on something larger. Something that both drives me deep within and also lifts my attention to the world I am called to care for.

Today, I went hoping to hear good news proclaimed in a time of national tragedy. I also went as study–since I am also a pastor, sociologically and ecclesiologically, I wanted to see how this church would handle 20 kids dead (and 8 adults) across the country in Newtown, Connecticut in the middle of the Holidays.

I just prayed they wouldn’t ignore it, and drone on with the words we always say. And then this happened: We started the words of confession and forgiveness, and I heard the voices of the table full of children next to me, saying the words in that confession: “We are truly sorry” as I sat, thankful for their voices, thankful we were all in this room together in a posture of prayer, thankful they knew the words by memory because someday they might need them. As the words of forgiveness were said, I looked up and saw the line of water in the stained glass window behind the altar, that runs like a lifeline from a depiction of baptism to the cross.

Then we stood up to greet the Gospel, and we were all singing the oh-so-familiar words ”Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Those words take on new meaning when you are trying to figure out how to make sense of things like death that comes too early.

Sermon time–I saw all the chatter from my pastor-friends, trying to figure out how to address this tragedy, or if they should. I watched to see what would happen here. Pastor Matt McWaters first sat with the children and acknowledged that it was a dark time, and had been a hard week for many people. Then he asked them to help by doing three things: hugging their parents a little tighter, laughing and playing a little wilder, and telling their parents “I love you.”

I could see these children, paying attention to the gravity of the situation. They promised to hug, and laugh and love like they knew it was important.

Then Pastor Matt got behind the pulpit and, visibly shaken, preached his way into the good news of Christ until tears came down his face as he named the stupid things people might say at times like this, like that “God must have needed another angel” or “She’s home now” and just nailed those ridiculous unhelpful sentiments right to the cross and said it is not true–that God does not cause evil to happen, and reminding us that Christ always came that we might have life, and that always wins, and always comes in the dark places.


During communion I heard the words of the song around me, talking about healing, as I made room for the man with his walker. I don’t know what healing looks like for this man, but it is moving nonetheless. I was reminded that these are the hurts we can see–how much more is inside each of us as we reach out our hands and hear the words spoken to us: This is the body of Christ, and it is given for you. After communion we hear words of blessing and hope–that at this meal we share we might be strengthened and kept in God.

Last week someone from The Project F-M book club said, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” She was talking about how she started going to church with her grandmother, and wasn’t sure why she went either, but now it has become important to her.

And then there are the words of my friend, Pastor Matthew Bolz-Weber who says, “The liturgy* works. You can’t say when or how, and you can’t force it, but it does work.”

If I didn’t go every week, and say those same words every week I might miss it. On this day, those words we repeat over and over and over had a different meaning.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.

*liturgy is a churchy word that can variously be defined. One way to define it is that it is the prescribed ‘form’ for public worship, talking about the order of things, and what words are said when, and what is included, especially in the context of a worship service with Holy Communion.


December Blues

December Blues

by Robert Pinsky


“At the bad time, nothing betrays outwardly the harsh findings,
The studies and hospital records. Carols play.

Sitting upright in the transit system, the widow-like women
Wait, hands folded in their laps, as monumental as bread.

In the shopping center lots, lights mounted on cold standards
Tower and stir, condensing the blue vapour

Of the stars; between the rows of cars people in coats walk
Bundling packages in their arms or holding the hands of children.

Across the highway, where a town thickens by the tracks
With stores open late and creches in front of the churches,

Even in the bars a businesslike set of the face keeps off
The nostalgic pitfall of the carols, tugging. In bed,

How low and still the people lie, some awake, holding the carols
Consciously at bay, Oh Little Town, enveloped in unease.”

Considering Mary’s choice

Poets and artists help us think  about all the questions around Mary, and and the stories about how she became pregnant. Lots of people have questions about this–did it happen, if so why, what is important about Mary being a virgin? Why did an angel announce it? Did Mary have choices in the matter?  This poem addresses some of these things, written as a study of Botticelli’s Cestello Annunciation. He sees in this painting a pause–space for Mary to consider, before saying yes. It relates to the poem of Levertov’s that I posted yesterday, where she says “choice, integral to humanness.”

The Cestello  Annunciation –Andrew Hudgins

The angel has already said, Be not afraid.
He’s said, The power of the Most High
will darken you. Her eyes are downcast and half closed. And there’s a long pause -a pause here of forever-
as the angel crowds her. She backs away,
her left side pressed against the picture frame.

He kneels. He’s come in all unearthly innocence
to tell her of glory -not knowing, not remembering
how terrible it is. And Botticelli
gives her eternity to turn, look out the doorway, where
on a far hill floats a castle, and halfway across
the river toward it juts a bridge, not completed-
and neither is the touch, angel to virgin, both her hands held up, both elegant, one raised
as if to say stop, while the other hand, the right one,
reaches toward his; and, as it does, it parts her blue robe
and reveals the concealed red of her inner garment
to the red tiles of the floor and the red folds
of the angel’s robe. But her whole body pulls away.
Only her head, already haloed, bows,
acquiescing. And though she will, she’s not yet said,
Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord,
as Botticelli, in his great pity,
lets her refuse, accept, refuse, and think again.

American Rendering: New and Selected Poems. Andrew Hudgins, Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2010.

Emily Dickenson’s words on night

We grow accustomed to the Dark–
When light is put away–
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye
A Moment – We uncertain step
For newness of the night–
Then–fit our Vision to the Dark-
And meet the Road—Erect–

And so of larger Darkness—

Those Evenings of the Brain–
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star–come out–within

The Bravest–grope a little—

And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead
But as they learn to see–

Either the Darkness alters–

Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight–
And Life steps almost straight.

These might be words of encouragement from Emily Dickenson for those “staying awake” or “keeping alert” during the season of Advent. She speaks some crazy fundamental truths—we grow accustomed to the dark: it’s amazing what we can get used to. Sometimes that is good; sometimes not so good.  But I think she speaks of being brave in the face of what is deepest night; How you can adjust, learn to see, and walk on.

A poem for the second day of Advent: The Second Coming

In Advent I’m borrowing from poets who speak to me about advent themes. Today I’m still hanging out in this Mark text that lots of churches all over the world read last week, (Mark 13:24=37) and I am reminded of this poem by William Butler Yeats:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats wrote this poem in the wake of World War I; and it appears that he has done what people do—he looked at all the chaos and destruction around him, and tried to make sense of it by tapping into the ancient stories. The gospels also came out of a time of war, when everything was chaotic. I think this is why the sacred texts hold such power;
they speak to real human condition across time.

But Yeats might find comfort in that text we had to read on Sunday, from Mark 13:24-“But in those days, after that suffering…” then he talks about things that look like the end of the world. But just as things look like hell (whatever shape that might take for you) Jesus speaks about signs of summer, if you’re paying attention: From the fig tree, learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth leaves, you know the summer is near.

Summer doesn’t equate to me with a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem, as Yeats wonders about in his last lines. But still I love his poem for how it names the reality we sometimes live in. Things do fall apart. It feels as if the center cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the weirdest people are intense and demand lots of attention. (Dare I say sometimes seminary felt like that?) And so Yeats imagines that Jesus might come out of the desert again, in attack pose for those of us lulled to sleep by the comfort of the last coming (rocking cradle).

Perhaps. Time will perhaps tell. I just wonder this: If Christ came once to judge the world, and judged with grace and mercy, why do people think that if Christ comes again in a momentous second-coming that there will be condemnation?

I don’t claim special knowledge about these things, but I believe Christ is always coming into the world. Look for the tender branches and leaves.


A poem for the first day of Advent

I love other people’s poetry, so I hope they (dead and alive) don’t mind me quoting them for this season. Advent, as a time of waiting, seems to me a poetic season that we can choose to enter into or ignore. If you were in church today in most mainline denominations, you heard something from the gospel about “learning the lesson from the fig tree.” To me that lesson seemed to be about watching for signs of hope instead of paying attention only to how much life sucks everywhere. Yet today’s poem tells us to wait without hope…

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

– T.S. Eliot, Exerpt from The Four Quartets, East Coker, III (which begins, “O Dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.)

If any line says advent to me, it is in that last line: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. Like so many mystics before, finding a connection between the darkness we experience in Advent as we wait in faith, hope, and love…(or in the waiting we find faith, hope and love…) That darkness shall be the light. That stillness the dancing.

I am left with questions…what are the wrong things to hope for? What are the wrong things to love? What are the thoughts I am not ready for? These are mysteries I can carry through Advent, looking for illumination in the darkness.