These are dark and corrosive times. As a writer and ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, I use prayer, poetry, reflection, and scripture to re-align our embattled spirits with the uniqueness and urgency of our God-given identity and call.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside everything that hinders..and let us run with perseverance the race set before us…” Hebrews 12:1
On this Election Day, fear and anxiety bests us at every turn. Threats of violence, voter suppression and yet more chaos looms. Intimidation abounds and many fear to go to the polls. Should democracy perish, what will become of us?
Yet lest we forget, we are not alone in this struggle. Those who have gone on before us are now a cloud of witnesses. No longer can they be silenced or oppressed, beaten or incarcerated. Instead, having labored for justice and emancipation, fair voting rights and equal protection under the law, a living wage and affordable health care – they stand alongside us. Cheering us on! Encouraging us onward. No strangers to intimidation or trepidation, they call out, “Be not afraid.”
So come and stand alongside us, you audacious cloud of faithful witnesses. Come, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Come, Medgar Evans and Howard Thurman, John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. Come, so we may draw upon your courage and conviction. Come, so that together we may work towards the emancipation of this generation, and those that are to come.
Divine Maker, when will we experience your promised rest? For we are weary and afraid. Those who labor for justice are assailed on every side. Shallow and self-serving religiosity has replaced our nation’s moral compass, and expediency all too often has the upper hand. Even slumber at night is elusive and the hope of former years fails us.
In our dismay we cry out, “Have you abandoned us in our hour of need?
But just as you declared to the one called, Moses, you abide with us always – even in the darkest of hours. Though overwhelmed and hemmed from every side, you proclaim that in our struggle we find favor in your sight. Indeed, it is by your presence, we are set apart. You know each of us by name, and even the hairs on our head are counted.
For just as you revealed yourself to Moses, come Divine Maker, again, again and again. Reveal your mercy, make all your goodness known, lavish your compassion and faithfulness, and restore us once more. So that we may be the seekers and doers of justice that you have summoned us to be. Amen.
“The LORD said, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided…” 
Holy One, we are a country that may as well be two nations. For we are at war with one another. Though many call America their homeland (whether born upon her soil or journeying to her shores from distant lands), we are sorely divided. Indeed, we even struggle with those closest to us, besides the enmity painfully evident elsewhere. Before you and you alone, we confess that our predilection for division runs deep.
So, when your beloved son, Jesus asked, “Who is my mother, and my brother and my sisters,”  how could he have done so knowing that his biological family was just outside, waiting for him to return home? What could his hearers have been thinking, given the ironclad grip of familial bonds in his day? Was the One who spoke of honoring your mother and father as stated in the Ten Commandments, nevertheless spurning his own?
Yet we thanks that after making this declaration, Jesus answered his own question. And by answering it, your son testified that love of God AND the love of neighbor  applies to all humanity, O God, not just those who are immediate members of our biological family, our local church, or tribe. Instead, as our Sovereign, you created us to be far, far more inclusive than we alone can fathom. For under the shelter of your love you call forth the new family: that includes the foreigner, the welfare mother, the unemployed, the transgendered, the homeless, the uninsured, the elderly, the disabled, the indigenous, and all people of color, not just those who think and look like we do.
We give thanks that having said these words, your son then stretched out his hand toward his followers, saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” O God, in your love and mercy, we beseech you to mend our weary hearts and ease our burdened minds, so that we might embrace the fullness of your incarnation and be healed. For when we dare to manifest what love of God and love of neighbor actually looks like, we celebrate your kindom and the goodness of all creation. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
 A depiction of the power struggle between Jacob and Esau, by Yoram Ranaan
 Genesis 25:23
 Matthew 12:48-50 (these verses immediately precede this week’s lectionary reading, setting the context for Matthew 13:1-9)
 Love of God and love of neighbor are the anchors Jesus used to succinctly illustrate what is required of us. Mark 12:30-31, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy” Rumi
Since late March of this year, I’ve been drawn to a large swath of conservation land called Winchester Fells. Covering more than twenty-two hundred acres and stretching across several communities, it is a remarkable system of reservoirs, meadows, numerous trails, and lush forest. But within it are places that make one pause, allowing us to drink in the beauty of the moment.
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy,” wrote the Persian mystic, Rumi. Gazing at the clear running water gurgling over rocks and spilling now and then into small pools, it was as if a river was unleashed within me as well. A joy. Remembering the sacred text, the words, “…from our innermost being will flow rivers of living water,”  led me to ask, what does it mean to do things from one’s soul?
Our soul has been described as our “blueprint in God, what we were born for.”  But our souls aren’t merely an etheral dimension within us or an entity relegated to religion. Instead, our souls, your soul is as a sure compass, pointing in the direction of the stream’s current while gently urging you onward. Have you long dreamed of painting but were convinced you lack the talent? Have you yearned to write but felt you don’t have the time? Have you long considered rekindling a treasured friendship but just kept putting it off?
Coudl it be that seemingly such simple things – gazing at the brilliant blooms just outside your window, picking up a paintbrush or allowing the sound of music fill your senses – be the conduit to reclaiming the movement of the soul within? Could it be that our souls are greater agents of reclamation within us, and beyond, then we realize? What if when all is said and done, our Maker yearns for us to experience the singularity of joy?
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers to his harvest.Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and sent them.” Matthew 9:37-10:1
As Jesus went about the cities and villages, he looked out on the weary crowds that surrounded him. An occupied people with no recourse to the injustice they bore, Jesus looked upon them with compassion. Cut to the heart by their suffering, it was then that he turned to his disciples and said, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore, ask that the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Suggests author, Scott Hoezee, “When Jesus told his disciples to ask God to send more workers into the [harvest of acute human need], we can assume that the disciples prayed that God would send others to support the people as Jesus requested. But what Jesus’ disciples didn’t expect, is that God would send them.” Yes, God answered their prayers. But what they weren’t expecting, is that God’s answer to prayer, was them.
What if God’s answer to prayer, turns out to be you? What if the fact you’re overwhelmed and just plain tired of the pandemic and everything else, qualifies you all the more? What if God has more confidence in uncertain, unlikely you…then you could possibly imagine?
What if God’s answer to prayer, turns out to be you?
“Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught They lowered him down as a king But when the shadowy sun sets on the one That fired the gun He’ll see by his grave On the stone that remains Carved next to his name His epitaph plain Only a pawn in their game” 
When twenty-two-year-old Bob Dylan sang before the gathered masses at the Washington Mall in August of 1963, Civil Rights Activist and World War II veteran, Medgar Wiley Evers, had been buried just two months before. The victim of a racially motivated assassination, Medgar was just two weeks shy of his thirty-eighth birthday. Having just arrived home, Medgar was shot through the heart moments after getting out of his car. Still, Metgar managed to stagger thirty feet before collapsing just outside his front door. This is where his wife and three young children found him. 
While decrying the barbaric and inhuman cycle of victimization, Dylan’s lyrics also point to its pervasiveness. Chances are it is far more contagious than we’re comfortable admitting. Throughout his lyrics, Dylan points out that hatred and divisiveness are intentionally stoked by those who crave power. What better way to reduce people to pawns? Like the police who watched while an officer kneeled on George Flloyd’s neck as he gasped for breath, are we not bystanders when we fail to recognize our complicity in systemic oppression?
Are we not pawns in someone else’s game?
 Bob Dylan, Civil Rights March, August 28, 1963
 Bob Dylan, Only a Pawn in Their Game, Folk, blues
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —” 
Just outside our window and nestled within the leaves of a cherry tree, a young robin sits atop a nest. Since it takes about a month from the time the eggs are laid up to when the fledglings leave, she vigilantly broods over her young. Throughout the dark of night, and all during the day she remains, steadfastly keeping her young warm and protected.
It was earlier this week when I first spied the robin brooding over her nest. Here I was, weary of this pandemic and its physical distancing guidelines, sick at heart as to the state of our democracy and fearful for our children and children’s future in the face of ongoing ecological degradation. But nevertheless, the little robin just outside my window continues to do her stalwart best – despite predators, harsh weather, and an uncertain outcome given the fragility of her young.
Wrote Emily Dickens, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – that perches in the soul.” Author and Rabbi, Naomi Levy suggests that most life questions are actually soul questions. When we are lost and confused; when we feel ‘cut off’ from the best part of ourselves; when we are despairing and wonder if we’ve hit bottom; while not dismissing the intensity of the pain – could this be a manifestation of the soul’s yearning? 
It is now noon, and still the robin remains. Looking at her steadfastly atop her nest and protecting her young come what may, I realize that what she needs to do – is nothing remarkable in and of itself. But what is remarkable, is that she does it moment after moment, hour after hour, day after day. Watching her, I think of God’s face brooding like a bird over the watery abyss from the Book of Genesis. The Maker of Souls who continues to hover over all creation. Giving substance to hope, that perches in the soul.
 Image – Barry McArdle, photographer
 Emily Dickenson, “‘Hope’ is the Thing With Feathers,” from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickenson.
 Naomi Levy, Einstein and the Rabbi, (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017)
And daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away by Singer, Songwriter, John Prine, “Paradise”
When the late singer and songwriter, John Prine, wrote the song, Paradise, Kentucky had long been one, if not the epicenter, of the coal mining industry. In 1820 the first commercial coal mine in Kentucky opened in Muhlenberg County, the Western Coalition, whereby 1879 the state produced one million tons of coal. Then in the 1900s another area within Kentucky, the Eastern Coalition, also began producing coal. Such that by 2006, Kentucky was the third-largest producer of coal.
Though the coal industry provided for thousands of jobs through direct employment or indirectly over generations, the environmental impact upon the land, air and freshwater has been devastatingly consequential…particularly as concerns public health. In communities that engaged in mountain top mining, there are elevated mortality rates for lung cancer as well as for chronic heart, lung, and kidney disease. Tragically, these threats do not appear to go away after mining has ceased nor after land reclamation has taken place. 
From the opening chapter of Genesis, we hear these words, “…and God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Scripture unequivocally asserts that first, creation belongs first and foremost to God and God alone, and second, as created by God, it is very good. Likewise, Jesus’ actions (such as in showing solidarity for those on the margins) signify a deep and lasting caring, for those in the present and future generations. His actions demonstrated a deep kinship and love for neighbor and all of creation.
Yes, we are facing so much loss right now. Schools remain shuttered; unemployment and poverty are looming; graduation, wedding and travel plans have been put aside; the death toll continues and we remain sheltered in place, wondering how long this will last. Figures larger than life, on the frontlines and those who lived quietly, have succumbed in the wake of this devastating illness.
Yet even as our hearts break due to the terrible toll this pandemic is taking, even as we’re overwhelmed with the plundering of God’s beloved creation, let us never forget that we are uniquely called to exercise solidarity. When we wear a mask, when we keep physical distance to protect others and even phone a neighbor to see if they’re alright – have you considered how consequential even simple acts of courtesy and kindness are? And when you compost, recycle and even resolve to go without meat one day a week – have you considered how simple steps can demonstrate a kinship with this fragile planet, we call home?
 Wikipedia, Coal Mining in Kentucky, en.wikipedia.org
 Image from – onlyinyourstate.com/kentucky/ghost-town-ky/
This past week has marked the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Notes Jim Antal, environmental activist and public theologian, “Fifty years ago, some rivers were so polluted that they caught fire. The smog in major cities was so thick it was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Thirty-five miles of pristine beach from Santa Barbara to Ventura were covered with 3 million gallons of crude oil from a recent spill.” 
It is hard to fathom, but in the 1960s there were no environmental regulations or laws in place to protect even our water supply or the air we breathe. Perceived as a hindrance to the nation’s economy and a stumbling block for consumers, nothing was in place to protect the very ecosystem that sustained us. It was in this context, that the first Earth Day was conceived and gained widespread support.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), came on the heels of a bi-partisan commitment that enacted numerous laws including The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. It was wholeheartedly adopted because it recognized that clean water and clean air, the safeguarding of wilderness and the species that inhabit it, are wholly necessary for health and well-being; no matter what side of the political aisle you sit on and what demographic you belong to.
Yes, this pandemic has shaken us to the core. But the onset of this devastating virus has also exposed a dangerous dualism, perpetuated by those who insist on returning to business as usual. As if the care of God’s creation AND protecting public health are two entirely different issues. As if being a good neighbor to current as well as future generations and all species on this planet, IS AT ODDS with protecting our children from asthma and contaminated drinking water.
In the months and years to come, what will be said of us? Will it be said that out of expediency and fear – we like Pontious Pilate – washed our hands of injustice, abdicated responsibility, and turned our backs on the destruction of God’s people and creation? Or will it be said of us – that we did not yield to the temptation of returning to business as usual – but instead built a more just and sustainable world.
 Image is from whatsnewindonesia.com.
[2} Jim Antal, Earth Day Sermon, Sunday, April 19, Riverside Church, NY
“The seat of the soul is where the outer and inner world meet” 
Last summer, I traveled down the Aberjona River by canoe. Loaned to us by a friend, we packed within its hull a few belongings and began our journey in shallow waters just north of the Upper and Lower Mystic Lakes. A well-made vessel of solid wood, the canoe silently carried us while the banks on either side became denser with grass, brush and small pine.
We had only traveled a few minutes when a mother deer and her fawn came into focus. She stood with her young off the bank to our right, surrounded by tall grasses but within a space of the surrounding vegetation. Looking at us, they stood perfectly still. Transfixed, we placed our oars in the water to stop midstream and held our breath.
Author, Belden Lane, speaks of such fleeting experiences as moments of non-separation, where we see everything with sudden familiarity and intimacy – from the inside. He writes, “In the Jewish scriptures, the deepest realities of existence are always concrete, earth-related and wild. One might best think of the soul, then, as the place where the body and the rest of the vibrant world converge…when we discover a vital connection with the ordinary details of everyday experience.” 
In the wake of this time of social distancing, it is easy to lose sight of this vital connection. Assuming the connections we must have are those in close proximity to loved ones, friends and neighbors, we forget that the soul’s longing is deeply embedded in the seemingly most ordinary. The illumination of morning’s light filtering through our window. The texture of the African Violet leaves, soft to the touch. The sound of our own breath reminding us, that indeed, we remain very much alive in this world.
Imagine if we are not as isolated as we presume? What if the divine source actually dwells within, rather than being a distant and intangible entity? For if what the monastic traditions have been insisting for centuries is true, then “this flesh we inhabit is actually a necessary vehicle by which everything in creation connects.”  Could it be then that our physical bodies and the deepening of our souls are not separate realities but were created to be intrinsically, wondrously and vitally connected?
Writes chaplain, Lisa Steele-Maley, who speaks to this longing for connection:
What love and peace will hold us aloft? What belonging will sooth our isolation?
What bridges will we build as we spend more time in our homes and communities?
As we reflect on the impact that our lives have had on the lives of others:
Will we claim our participation in the web of life?
Will we claim that the deepening of our souls may have ensured our survival?
Will we remember that one day we will be the ancestors in someone else’s story?
As we recognize the depth of responsibility to the interconnected human family:
Will we also take note of our interconnection with all living beings?
Will we be reminded of our interconnection with the living, pulsing earth?
Will we affirm that we are, in fact, one? 
 Novalis, 18th-century author, poet, mystic and philosopher
 Wildlife image by Meta Aller
 Belden C. Lane, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, Oxford University Press, 2015. Pg. 8