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.
“It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot or a few small stones; just pay attention…” Mary Oliver
In her poem, Praying, Mary Oliver gives credence to the power of paying attention, particularly when what is immediately before us doesn’t merit it. But what our preoccupation is in itself the problem? What if our vexation and distress, however understandable, hinders rather than helps our capacity to see?
Though family, friends, colleagues, store clerks, and the postal carrier, may have all been wished a Happy New Year, have you pondered how auspicious 2022 will be…if at all? With real threats to our democracy, unabated natural disasters, and escalating planetary temperatures, is it possible to carry on when hearts are breaking? Can one hope to perceive anew when so much we had once counted on, appears lost?
In the wake of all our losses, the poet replies, “[Your reclamation] doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot.” Indeed, when it comes to recalibrating and restoring our vision, Oliver describes prayer, not as an obscure doctrinal obligation but holy discovery. Where thanksgiving conjoins with silence, and senses become attuned to a deeper and more vibrant frequency.
Concerning prayer, Oliver writes,
“[…just] patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.” 
In these waning days of Christmas and as we stand on the threshold of a New Year, may even the simple and mundane usher us into thankfulness and silence, so that shattered hearts may be restored in your divine likeness once again. Amen.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, (which means, God with us.)” Matthew 1:23
Immanuel, God with us. You who are no stranger to this weariness of ours. You who see beyond our pretense, an unraveling bordering on futility and despair. You who know the inside track of our lives, including those we’d prefer to forget. You who look upon us, not with judgment and condemnation, but with a love that is limitless, faithful, and true.
On this Christmas Eve and in your mercy, liberate us from fashioning you into a god of our own making. Absolve us when we insist on heeding narratives that deny the urgency of your divine love and justice. Forgive us when we fail to see the multitude of your children and all creation as you do, as bearers of your divine countenance.
Immanuel, God with us. Light of Light that inhabits all goodness and mercy and love. Call us back to Bethlehem and the manger once more. Where we can perceive the wonder of it all, in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
You must give birth to your images, they are the future waiting to be born. 
Just as the unborn child will not tarry when its time has finally arrived; nor can the artist, the writer, the poet, the musician, the mystic, or the prophet. Speaking in the imperative, Rilke emphasizes, “You must give birth to your images.” Not when you’re feeling like it, or when the occasion seems right. Not when others dictate the appropriate time.
But what if the future isn’t necessarily completely out of our hands? What if images and ideas; plans, and proposals; and even dreams and visions, are not only conceived within imagination’s interior but nourished and incubated in a process of growth and maturation? What if our individual and collective future(s) are far more akin to pregnancy and birthing than we allow for?
With uncertainty overwhelming our capacity to cope and teetering on the point of exhaustion, Rilke counsels, “”Fear Not the strangeness you feel… Just wait for the birth, the hour of new clarity.” When normality has fled and you find yourself submerged in darkness, hang on to the transparency that can usher in the new. Focus instead on the impending birth.
In this Season of Advent, when obscurity clouds our thinking and fear has the upper hand, fill us with expectation, Divine Maker, as we await the hour of new clarity. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son given. And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Amen. 
“…The forest keeps different time; slow hours as long as your life…So you feel more human; persuaded what you are by wordless breath of wood, reason in resin…Ah, you thought love [applied only to humans] till you lost yourself in the forest…these grave and patient saints…pray and pray and suffer your little embrace.” Forest, by Carol Ann Duffy, the Scottish poet
This holiday season, as we hastily adorn living rooms, front porches, and workplaces with either real or artificial pine trees – what if we’re also trying to feel more human? Yes, the Christmas tree is a much-beloved holiday tradition. But what if trees, “these grave and patient saints,” actually slow us down, calm our fears and provide a canopy of beneficence unnamed but longed for?
Imagine if our yearnings for continuity, and to be in close proximity with those whom we love – also points to this ineffable but ancient connection to all of nature itself, and in particular, trees? What if something seemingly common and expendable as a tree – holds not only the link to our distant past – but grasps the key to our future?
In the nineteenth century, German composer Ernst Anschutz wrote a traditional folk song, O Tannebaum, which translated means, O Fir Tree. Later it was adapted as a Christmas carol, giving voice to our yearning:
“O Tannebaum, O Christmas Tree, how lovely are thy branches!” O Tannebaum, O tannebaum, how lovely are thy branches!”
In this Season of Advent, be with us, Divine Maker, so that we may behold our kinship with all of creation as you ordained it, including trees. Amen.
“All we can really do is love people. We can’t change them or make them do things they’re not ready to do. But we can love them…sometimes its from afar, but we can always send love their way.” Vienna Pharaon
Some years back, Robert Redford directed a film called, A River Runs Through It. The setting was in Montana, in the early years of the 20th century. It is a story about a father and his two sons.
A Presbyterian minister, the father taught his sons fly-fishing while telling them stories about Jesus and his disciples as fishermen. As his sons grew into manhood, fishing grew to be a mutual bond and avid practice amongst all of them. Yet the youngest son’s unwillingness to let go of dimensions of himself that were self-destructive led to his early death.
“All we can really do is love people,” ponders one. “We can’t change them or make them do things they’re not ready to do.” Indeed, for every grieving parent, sister, brother, husband, or wife unable to help those whom they love; for those struggling to save a beloved companion or friend from the throes of addiction; for those separated by COVID, distance or alienation; for every counselor, physician, nurse, minister or first responder striving to ease suffering; there are those whom we cannot reach, those whom we cannot help, much less retrieve from harm’s way.
“But we can love them.” Towards the end of the movie, the father and minister was portrayed preaching before his congregation. By all accounts, it was another Sunday service and sermon. But for this father, his words spoke volumes. He spoke for all of us.
“…It is true that we can seldom help those closest to us… But we can still love them… We can love—completely—even without complete understanding…. 
In this Season of Advent, where darkness lingers and those whom we love are out of our reach, be with us, Divine Maker, so that we can love them as you would have us do. Amen.
 Dialogue from, A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford, 1992
You, who summon us from the depths of human struggle and into the bright light of day, we extol your name. Clinging to lifelong patterns of hiding our insufficiency, our gnawing inadequacy, and darkest shame, You, in Your Mercy, You in Your Glory, summon us to stand in the light of day. Who would have ever guessed that boasting of the very things that terrify us – could be the means of your saving grace? Who would have believed it is that which torments us and not our obvious strengths that lead to the perfection of your power?
God of Amazing Grace, whose grace is sufficient and whose power is perfected even in the likes of us, we implore you to open our hearts and minds to hear your unwavering Words of promise. And giving thanks that you continue to walk alongside us even in the worst of times, let us pray as Jesus taught us saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Gathering Prayer: You who take us from the shores of Galilee to the byways, zoom sessions, and the post-vaccinated sphere of common life, we praise your name. Though relying heavily on electronic communication and physically separated from loved ones these past sixteen months, You, in your majesty, You, in your glory, invite us to stand in the light of your countenance. Even when overcome by the darkness and uncertainty of it all, You, in your audacious love assure us, saying, “Do not fear,” and “Go in Peace”
God of all Solidarity, during this worship hour, we beseech you to open our hearts and minds to hear your word of restoration and hope, so that by your grace, we may be empowered to live out a new story.
Giving thanks that You staunchly refuse to give up on us, let us pray as Jesus taught us saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
In response to the humanitarian and environmental crisis that continues to unfold in occupied Palestine and the egregious loss of lives on both sides, I’ve written to representatives concerning the passage of HR 2590. It is a bill to promote and protect the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. I would encourage you to consider reaching out to your representatives as well. A copy of the letter is below:
May 19, 2021
The Honorable Senator…(followed by address)
RE: H.R. 2590 A Bill to promote and protect the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and to ensure that US taxpayer funds are not used by the Government of Israel to support the military detentions of Palestinian children, the unlawful seizure, appropriation, and destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the West Bank, or further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law.
My name is Rev. Dr. Jessica McArdle. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, I am an Environmental Justice advocate whose work includes challenging the systemic impact of unjust and predatory practices directed against communities of color, indigenous, and other vulnerable populations. In particular, the occupation and aggression against Palestine and Palestinians in favor of illegal Israeli settlements, has devastated the already limited water supply, uprooted established agriculture, accelerated soil erosion, and has increased toxic waste and dumping.
2) Along these same humanitarian lines, the displacement of Palestinians in favor of Israeli settlements, violates international law: Violation of International Law.
3) The continued occupation and aggression against the Palestinian peoples including the illegal seizure of their property, has devastated arable land, led to the depletion of water resources and increased toxic waste and dumping: Environmental Degradation of Land Due to Occupation
On a personal note, I saw this flagrant violation of the land and its people firsthand when visiting Palestine several years ago. Traveling with a seminary delegation, we stayed overnight with Palestinian families in occupied Bethlehem, toured a Palestinian farm whose lush olive trees were later uprooted by Israeli soldiers, and met advocates who against overwhelming odds sought to provide a measure of protection and well-being for their communities. Throughout our visit, the barrier that cut deep into Palestinian-occupied territory loomed large. Still, through it all, I observed an unparalleled commitment to human dignity, was afforded generous hospitality, and experienced a quality of kindness that touched me deeply.
As a minister, advocate, and constituent, I urge you to support the passage of this bill. Given the current escalation of violence in this region, I believe this bill addresses some of the root causes behind it. As your constituent, I would appreciate knowing where you stand, relative to this issue and in particular, this bill.
Thank you, Senator…, in advance for your consideration.
Rev. Dr. Jessica McArdle, (followed by your address)
Commemorating the 51st anniversary of Earth Day while speaking to the “spring song” of justice long-denied for those in the black community, a poem by the late African-American poet, Langston Hughes. Given the events of this past week, his words are timely.
An Earth Song
It’s an earth song,
And I’ve been waiting long for an earth song.
It’s a spring song,
And I’ve been waiting long for a spring song.
Strong as the shoots of a new plant
Strong as the bursting of new bud
Strong as the coming of the first child from its mother’s womb.
“When God saw that the people had changed, how they turned from their destructive ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that would be brought upon them.” Jonah 3:10
How often does God change God’s mind?
The story of Jonah is recorded not as an account but parable. Here, a prophet called, Jonah, after emerging from the “belly of a whale” astonishingly succeeds. Cut to the heart by the prophet’s warning, the entire city mends its ways. When seeing that the people had turned from their evil ways, God changes his mind and spares the city.
But what if God wasn’t poised to destroy the city of Nineveh? What if Nineveh, like the fall of the Roman empire or the rampant deforestation leading to the collapse of Easter Island and Norse Greenland, were well on their way to destroying themselves? What if the figure of God in this parable and elsewhere, isn’t bent on bringing about the destruction of whole civilizations as much as trying to get our attention – using prophets like Jonah – before it is too late?
Prayer: God of the Whale and the Dolphin, who broods over the waters of the deep, in your steadfast love summon us to make amends for the harm we have committed against each other and this planet we call home. Teach us to turn from the violence that readily insinuates itself into every corner of human life. Quell our voracious appetite for hoarding, while abolishing the meanness that festers and the parsimony that corrupts.
In your mercy, transform us by thy grace. So that you can change your mind about us, once more. Amen.