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.
“…a deep sleep fell upon Abraham, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” Genesis 15:12
It happened while I was sleeping. Longing to escape, I sought the anesthesia of slumber to overcome and numb my senses. Believing I would be spared if I fled the reality of this storm-tossed existence – the terror followed me down the corridors of my unconscious, troubling my dreams and invading my sleep.
But it is these dark and terrifying places, where your covenants are made, O Lord. When the guardrails we relied upon have fallen away, it is precisely in the precipitous places where your promises are made known. So speak to us, maker of dreams – those terrifying as well as tender – so that we may know that your assurance lives on not just in the light but particularly in times of darkness and fear. Amen
 Image from an online source, https://www.msn.com/ Stargazing in Chile: dark skies in the Atacama desert.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” Luke 4:1
When was the last time you were lost or even led into an overwhelming situation? Did you find your way out?
Or are you still in the thick of it?
Scripture recounts Jesus being led into the wilderness. Historically, this raw and forsaken setting was the Wilderness of Judea. Covering an area five hundred and twenty-five square miles, this vast desert’s name in Biblical Times was referred to as Jeshimmon or “The Devastation.” With ridges sprawling in all directions, it is a contorted desert-scape. With distant hills described as dust heaps, and though gnawingly cold in the dead of night, during the daylight hours, the surface of the landscape glows like a furnace. 
But what if the use of this seemingly god-forsaken place as described in the Bible is also a literary device? What if the wilderness as spoken of in scripture here and elsewhere is intended to address deeply challenging places in our own lives? Where the resources we’ve turned to help us in the past (supportive friends, a steady job, devoted family members, a stable marriage or our health) unravels – and the scarcity is as acute as a waterless and wind-swept landscape?
Writes Winn Collier,
“…Jesus’ story is also in many ways a recapitulation of several other stories scripture tells, in which humans find themselves in desperate situations and unable to do the right thing, to withstand temptation, to rescue themselves from their troubles. With Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we find Jesus again enacting the very things we humans have been entirely unable to enact on our own.” 
What if scripture here and elsewhere is showing a pattern of living as Christ’s followers? Such that when you and I are in the wilderness of life – when reeling from a cancer diagnosis, mourning the death of a loved one, suffering from the loss of income or a beloved home, or feeling powerless in the face of injustice and environmental degradation – what if the Spirit that led Jesus is also available to us?
Written as a letter of encouragement to wilderness travelers, we hear these words from scripture, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.” 
What if scripture here and elsewhere shows us a pattern of living as Christ’s followers?
 William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2001), pg. 52.
 Winn Collier, Other Stories of Desperation, Luke 4:1-13, (Sunday’s Coming: Christian Century, March 4, 2019).
“Christian joy is not happiness. It doesn’t even necessarily bring you happiness. It just overwhelms you.” Matt Fitzgerald 
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” Psalm 51
“Jesus appears in the desert as the representative of the human race. He bears within himself the experience of the human predicament in its raw intensity. Hence, he is vulnerable to the temptations [and yet shows us how to confront them].”
— Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ
Why “joy” on Ash Wednesday in the face of global environmental degradation, an imperiled democracy, acute suffering from disaster, disease, war and the despair of inconsolable grief? Why joy when, “you are dust, and to dust, you will return,”  is solemnly intoned as the sign of the cross is inscribed upon your forehead?
Some years ago and while undergoing training for the ministry at a local hospital, I wondered if I carry on. Decent and God-fearing people whom I hoped would recover, could not. Previously intact families unraveled in the painful cycle of futility and grief. And those who should not have died – children, teenagers, young adults, parents, and vital elders – did.
There was no sense of justice. No reward provided for those whose labor and devotion had been poured out for others. No answers could be found when sitting at the bedsides of those who suffered. Scared, I wondered if could be there for them at the end – their end – because I acutely felt my own end too.
Later that week and while driving, I happened to pass a cemetery. It was fall, and its entire grounds were covered with fall leaves. Sitting next to me, was our four-year-old son.
Catching sight of the leaf-covered graveyard, our youngest son made it clear that he wanted to go and visit those grounds. Though usually a pretty easy going kid, that morning he made such a fuss I caved in. Driving our car through the cemetery entrance, we pulled up to an area densely covered with gravestones.
Bolting out of the vehicle and filled with childhood delight, our youngest proceeded to run along the gravestones, patting the top of each one as if playing a game. I, however, was terrified. This was the last place I wanted to be. Running after our youngest, I began shouting, “Can’t we just go home now?” But it was no use. He just ran faster.
Wrote the psalmist when overcome with futility, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” It was not happiness or bliss or even contentment that the writer of this ancient text was seeking. Instead and as Matt Fitzgerald writes,
“But joy is like Christ. Joy arrives on its own terms. It turns tables over and leaves you gasping in its aftermath. Happiness and joy are different, not mutually exclusive.” 
When at last I caught up with my son, he was breathless, squirming and ablaze with delight. Though overcome with anxiety – when dropping to the ground to hold him – I was surprised by joy.  No, it wasn’t happiness or bliss or even contentment. Instead, it was an intoxicating sweetness, an indescribable quietude that seized me. Joy had arrived at last, but it was on its own terms. Overwhelmed but profoundly grateful, I picked up our son and headed back to the car.
 Matt Fitzgerald, Five times a day, the WeCroak app reminds me that I’m going to die, (Christian Century Magazine, October 24, 2018) I am indebted to Matt Fitzgerald for his own recollection facing death, and the influence of his young family.
 From Genesis 3:19. On Ash Wednesday these words are commonly invoked while the sign of the cross is gently etched upon one’s forehead.
 Ibid. Matt Fitzgerald.
 Surprised by Joy, is the title of C.S. Lewis’ classic on his conversion into the Christian faith.
“While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed his disciples; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.” Luke 9:34
Among the classics in the Christian tradition, is a text written in the 14th century. Anonymous, it is likely that it was written within the context of a monastic setting. Though written in the Middle Ages as counsel for a young student whom the author knew well , it continues to be sought out as the definitive guidebook for those actively seeking a pathway to God. But why was it called, “The Cloud of Unknowing?”
Unlike an aircraft or ship equipped with navigational instruments when caught within the grip of cloud or fog, both the disciples on the mountain that day with Jesus, and the writer who composed this classic – encountered the disorientation that can seize even the most rational of folk when there is no other point of reference to fall back on.
Writes the monk who crafted this ancient text,
When you first begin [this work], you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. […] Reconcile yourself to wait in the darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after [God] whom you love. For if you are [to expereince union with God], it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness. 
So what happened that day when accompanying their master and teacher up to a mountaintop, Jesus’ followers witnessed not only the unfathomable but became so overwhelmed that they were terrified?
Have you ever had an experience (be it a severe accident, illness or natural disaster) – that rendered you unable to respond given the magnitude of what was happening? Have you ever felt so disoriented, that whatever responses you may have been able to muster at that moment – were inadequate in the face of what was happening? Was there ever a time when you found yourself caught fast in the grip of not knowing what would come next?
Perhaps rather than reducing the divine to something tangible and familiar, the God who loves us beyond our imagining – desires that we move beyond comfortable and sentimental categories – to that realm where it is as we are in darkness, even in that cloud of unknowing? What if all our powers of reason, rationalizing and justifying, are insufficient to save us? What if the love we need to complete us, evades every category we’ve (out of our insufficiency) have unwittingly ascribed to it?
As seekers of God, what if the “cloud of unknowing” is the place where all of us must begin?
 Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016), pg. 122.
 William Johnson, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing: and the Book of Privy Counseling (July 1, 1996)
“But I say…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Luke 6:27
“You shall love…your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27
Are those unable to impact either our lives or the lives of others, deserving of the designation of the enemy? Or is it those who are close, in a position of influence and/or power and by all accounts should be trusted, who become one?
Think of the occasions when you’ve been hurt, maligned and/or betrayed. Was it a person and or persons whom you didn’t know or were utterly distant from you? Or was it someone or persons that were close, whom you trusted or whose values you thought corresponded with your own?
Blogger, Levi Rogers, writes,
“….[concerning enemies], Jesus wants to make it clear that our neighbors are everyone… even specifically, our enemies. So another way [of addressing love of neighbor, may be], to ask, “Who is my enemy?” 
In other words, when Jesus responded to the lawyer’s question, “And just who is my neighbor?” by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus also addressed the necessity of loving our enemies.
Consider the racism, cruelty, deceit, and complicity being enacted by the current administration and those who further their policies. Is it because they are behaving like enemies that makes the actions so egregious? Or is it because they are violating the very tenants granted to them by their position and therefore are disregarding the vows they swore to uphold?
So this makes them our enemies, right?
But what if Jesus was teaching us, that our enemies are also our neighbors? What then?
After directing his listeners to “love your enemies…and do good to those who hate you,” knowing they were likely resisting his words, Jesus then asked his audience, “Are you grinning ear to ear because you lavish love upon those who adore you? Even your ordinary, run-of-the-mill sinner can pull this off. Are you feeling smug because of the nice things you do for your friends? Even the most obnoxious of sinners do this. Are you feeling magnanimous because you loaned money to a person you know will repay you back (and quickly)? Even the most miserly of sinners do this.” 
What if Jesus wants us to be different than what the world expects? While it is understandable to respond scornfully with those whose words and actions are contemptible OR tune out by ignoring their behavior, what if Jesus’ directive to love – takes us down an entirely different path? One that refuses to respond with self-righteous indignation that can justify hateful words and actions. One that promotes human dignity and respect, even if we feel like we’re the only one exercising it at the time.
What if we’re not only made in the image of God but are challenged to be “like” God? No, not holier than thou – but full of compassion. Not as aloof bystanders – but as active participants exercising deeds of mercy?
What if our enemies are also our neighbors?
 Levi Rogers, Who is My Enemy? (Sojourners Magazine: July 2013)
Unison Prayer for The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. First Corinthians 15:20
Last week’s Valentine’s Day came and went, Holy One. Whatever we received in the way of heart-shaped greetings, red & white carnations and sugared candies – are behind us now – if we received them at all. Yet even so, there remains a part within that yearns for unconditional love and acceptance. Sweeping pretense aside, we acknowledge that un-salved grief and deep-seated regrets accumulated throughout a lifetime have left their mark.
So taking us into your tender embrace, tell us a lasting love story. One that we can carry in our hearts when those whom we have loved are lost. One that remains when those we’ve loved could not care for us in return. Tell us a story of love that endures, one that we can carry as a song in our hearts, one that lifts us from disquiet and renews our confidence once more.
And because You are “…the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end,” we know this request is not beyond You. You are the conceiver, author, and communicator of the most amazing, most lasting love story of all. And we adore You. Amen.
Recently, I learned of a woman who fled her homeland with her children. However, even as they fled from the violence the mother grew anxious. Would she be able to find shelter? Could she secure sufficient food for her family after they arrived?
Still in the days and weeks that followed – and through receiving assistance from people of faith – the necessary housing and groceries came through. Overwhelmed by the generosity of those whom she had never met before, humbled by the kindness extended by people she did not know, she received all this as nothing less than the handiwork of God.
Of late, I’ve read articles attesting to the importance of those who profess to follow Christ – to remember that Jesus started a movement. Yes, there are incidents of those whom he had healed “worshipping” him and yes, his closest disciples and others were in awe of how his presence and power could co-exist with such humility. However, Jesus never issued “worshipping” him as a commandment. Instead his words to his disciples then as now are, “Follow me.”
What if Jesus not only started a movement, but by doing so radically altered the lives of those engaged in it? What if Jesus not only challenged the institutions, policies and practices that perpetuated wanton violence, greed and scapegoating BUT was equally if not more invested in completely changing the mindset of his followers? What then?
Imagine if those closest to us – those who’ve seen us at our crabby, obnoxious, self-centered worse – might catch a glimpse of the holy even in the likes of us? OK, so it is a brief moment. But imagine if a better, nobler and more genuine reflection of our God-given self were to emerge? No, not a holier than thou, tiresome, self-righteous kind of person, but one who genuinely strives to be a follower of Christ Jesus. Who despite the rampant cruelty and gluttonous self-interest that continues to be unleashed, takes a different path. Who practices deeds of mercy and kindness. Who knows that all of God’s children need to be loved as dearly as our own.
Imagine if others could catch a glimpse of the holy even in the likes of us.
Imagine becoming nothing less than the handiwork of God.
These past days, the news has been particularly distracting…if not downright deafening. It is as if nothing else matters. Nor are people of faith immune to such onslaughts, particularly when it comes to discerning what is important.
We know there are matters that require our immediate attention. There are circumstances that necessitate reassessing and reprioritizing our time and resources. Then there are those situations that challenge our most deeply held values.
But how do people of faith discern what is best, when the distraction becomes a cacophony?
Thankfully, we are not without help in this regard. Could it be that the very practices we are asked to do as Christians: regular worship, communal and contemplative prayer, reading and listening to scripture, offering our gifts, laboring for justice, fellowship and caring for one another – is what puts us on the path to deliverance? Could it be that when we engage in these practices, we are allowing God’s Spirit to work within us?
Yes, these past days, if not weeks and months, have been distracting. Yet God’s deliverance can strengthen us, teaching that all consuming distractions and the demands that go with them – are not in keeping with following Christ. Instead, God-in-Christ offers each of us an alternative: a daily decision to live by God’s mercy, justice and peace, steadfastly putting each of us on the path that leads to life.
(The Rev. Dr. William Barber is barred by a State Trooper at the entrance to the Kentucky State Capitol. Photo attributed to Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus, used with permission)
“[This past week] conjured up images of the dark days of the past. Peaceful protesters nose-to-nose with police officers in places like Selma and Birmingham and Little Rock and Greensboro. But this wasn’t the 1950s or 1960s. And it wasn’t in the Deep South. It was Monday at the Kentucky state Capitol. And it was troubling.” J.Gerth, Courier-Journal
“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every house divided against itself shall not stand” Mark 3:25 KJV
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech before 1,000 delegates in Springfield, Illinois. Held in the statehouse for the annual Republican Convention, the delegates chose young Abraham to be their State Senator. It was three years prior to the start of the Civil War. At 8pm that evening, Lincoln stepped to the podium to deliver his address. At once, his remarks set him apart from what incumbent and opponent, Stephen Douglas, had long advocated. For by exposing the fallacy that a growing nation could peacefully coexist as both slave and free – Lincoln speech delved into the ensuing crisis – using Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke:
“A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free….Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it…or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”
While one of Lincoln’s most memorable quotes, neither he or Jesus received good press at the time for saying it. In Lincoln’s case, quoting Jesus that evening likely cost him the election to the Senate that fall. In Jesus’ case, while successfully refuting his opponents, the authorities waged a malicious campaign to publicly discredit him as a sorcerer, a deviant and generally speaking, a completely unhinged man. Small wonder Jesus’ biological family sought to abruptly have him stop doing what he was doing, so he could quietly return home for good.
So why did Jesus respond to his critics by employing the image of a house divided?
Because his words countered not only the absurdity of his opponent’s charges but exposed the shifting demographics in his day, where the most vulnerable were burdened with escalating economic disparity and homelessness in ancient Near East:
Observes Jeanne C. Tate, “The social order that the Hebrew people had known for centuries was in fact already crumbling. As the land peasant families had farmed for generations was consolidated into large estates, there was an exodus to the cities. Younger sons, in particular, were forced to leave behind the land of their ancestors for crowded and impoverished urban life. [In the wake of traditional clans disappearing], Jesus was only pointing out the obvious: the people were indeed becoming a “house divided against itself.”
No, it isn’t 1950 or 1960. And no, this didn’t take place in the deep south. But the voices raised and hands of those pounding on the doors of justice will not be silenced. And no house can remain divided for long.
“O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” Isaiah 25:1
Sovereign God, we confess that as mortals, we forget. We forget that our lives – while not as precarious as other creatures – is nevertheless short-term. There is no permanency clause, no stipulations requiring that when we die, it will be on our terms. No promises were and will be given as to the matter of our demise, either. This knowledge is out of our reach and not at all within our domain.
So thank you, for this life with all its joys and disappointments, delights and devastating failures. Thank you for the lives given us but more so, for pouring upon undeserving us the sweet, intoxicating love of your salvific grace. Thank for not holding back your mercy for mere mortals and all creatures that inhabit this fragile planet, the one we call our earthly home.
Thank you for your inestimable patience, your tireless energy, and your unfathomable wisdom. Thank for seeing beyond what any of us could imagine, but having the capacity to peer into the immediacy of our hearts. Thank you for loving us, our families, neighbors, friends, former co-workers, bosses beyond all matter of understanding. Thank you for extending that quality of mercy we cannot apply even to ourselves.
Thank you for the astonishing beauty of freshly fallen snow, that clings to tree trunks and rests on branches. Thank you for its impermanence, its temporal quality and its paradoxical quality of its extravagant beauty juxtaposed against the bitter cold. Thank you for gracing us with the seasons meant to regulate life – even as we wantonly undermine the very facets of the earth’s atmosphere designed to preserve it.
Thank you for listening to the endless petitions that are lifted up to you, prayers from distraught, grieving and weary souls. Thank you for not dealing back to those who curse you and your name, and utter all manner of falsehood and depravity against you. Thank you for continuing to hold your children – even when we forget you, exploit you for our own selfish purposes and outright lie in order to preserve the very falsity that is destroying us.
Thank you most of all for being God: all-powerful and all vulnerable, unknown but accessible to all; older than the universe but younger than a newborn child.
Thank you for being all that you are, for endowing us with an inalienable birthright as your children and loving us through it all. Thank you, thank you, and thank you!