The Hills Are Alive

You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy.
– Psalm 65:11-12 (NRSV)

The house where I grew up is purported to have been a speakeasy during Prohibition.

It’s not too hard to imagine. The house sits atop a hill along a rugged path (not a metaphor), as out-of-the-way and nearly inaccessible today as it was in the speakeasy days, when a rough wagon track climbed the hill and then continued its winding way along the mountain. A traveler would have had to be intent on that hilltop destination to choose such a difficult path.

In my childhood, I explored those old wagon tracks through the woods, but these days, much of the path is overgrown with brambles. Only deer and small wildlife can navigate it easily.

But oh! There are wild raspberries too along that way, when the season is right. Blueberries and teaberries if you know where to look. Blushing mountain laurel and swinging vines.

The overgrown wagon tracks may be intimidating to wagons and wanderers alike, but God’s wild richness on the trail is no less abundant.

Which is a lesson I’m trying to hold onto in these days when life seems determined to take the most difficult path possible: The wildness of the way overflows with beauty and bounty, even when the path is rough. The tracks across the hills are dressed in God’s joy, even amidst the brambles.

Let your bounty, O God, be the source of my joy even when I am snagged by brambles. Let me recognize the beauty of your path even when the way is overgrown.

written for the Daily Devotional

Distant Promises

They died in faith without having received God’s promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. (Hebrews 11:13)

What do we ask of you, O God,
but faithfulness in presence and
mercy from devouring powers?

What do you ask of us, O God,
but integrity in discipleship and
compassion in community?

How have we failed one another, O Christ?

What do we ask of you, O God,
but timeliness in justice and
holy fury in redemption?

What do you ask of us, O God,
but patience in labor and
hope in restoration?

How have we tested one another’s limits, O Call?

What do we ask of you, O God,
but a rock to rest upon and
reward for sacrifice?

What do you ask of us, O God,
but trust in your steadfastness and
surrender of our treasures?

How have we counted one another’s costs, O Creator?

What do we ask of you, O God,
but inspiration for renewal and
courage for peace?

What do you ask of us, O God, but
but humility in worship and
dreams of what may be?

How have we failed one another, O Covenant?

What do we ask of you, O God,
but that you come?
And what do you ask of us
but that we be ready?

And will it be so?

Amen.

cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals

Learn Your Lessons

Gimel
Be good to your servant while I live,
that I may obey your word.

Daleth
I am laid low in the dust;
preserve my life according to your word.

– Psalm 119:17, 25 (NIV)

Through my earbuds plays the wisdom of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” about setting boundaries after a bad relationship: “One: Don’t pick up the phone… Two: Don’t let him in… Three: Don’t be his friend…”

One, two, three.

The psalmist prays in an acrostic format, with one letter of the Hebrew alphabet beginning each stanza’s lines: Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, Dalet.

A, B, C.

Given the complexities of the world, given the complexities of our lives, given the complexities of faith as we mature and ask hard questions and wrestle with God: it’s no wonder that sometimes we need simple tools and elementary lessons to keep us grounded.

One, two, three. A, B, C.

In Sunday School when I was a child, the foundational lessons were built into our songs: “One, two, three. Jesus loves me! One, two. Jesus loves you!”

In the days of memorized catechism, it was a series of questions and answers: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” (à la the Heidelberg Catechism)

In Psalm 119, twenty-two letters shape the psalmist’s prayer, but it can also be a string of beads or the fingers of a hand or the hours of the day that help us pray. It can be the simplicity of a rhyme or the faithfulness of a sunset that teaches us of God’s love. It can be an earworm or an alphabet that keeps us honest about our relationships with God and with one another.

So long as we learn the lesson. So long as we keep returning to it, by whatever simple tools we find most useful for the living of these complex days.

A: All that I am is yours, O God.
B: Be present with those who suffer, O Christ.
C: Call us beyond our egos and out into the work of love, O Spirit.

written for the UCC Daily Devotional

Melted

What the hell do any of us know, O Eternal Mystery?

While we worship constancy and might,
mountains melt and remold like wax.

While we sing hymns in echoing caverns,
the Spirit waits upon those in prison.

While we pray to love our enemies,
the Church itself nurtures violence.

While we thirst for truth and order,
we get drunk on self-righteousness.

While we say “Believe us — here is God, and there too!”
a prescient slave girl is considered a threat to orthodoxy.

While we await God’s redemption from evil,
our loyalties fly high for military domination.

While we stake our place “so help me, God,”
creation is wise enough to tremble and bow.

While we die the daily death of change,
your love remains in all and through all.

You tried to make it known and living;
we preferred to make it certain and stagnant.

What the hell do any of us know, O Eternal Mystery?

on the Narrative and Revised Common Lectionaries,
cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals

Reviews: Denial Is My Spiritual Practice

Since the release of Denial Is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith) earlier this year, my new book co-authored with Martha Spong, I’ve been touched by the messages of appreciation for the book from readers who find in its pages a sense of companionship through their difficult days. Their messages remind me, too, that I’m not alone in struggling to make sense of God when life is difficult.

Many messages from readers are personal and private — a DM or an in-person conversation — but some of the feedback from readers is also public in the form of book reviews. I’m grateful for the reviews being written about Denial, including:

  • RevGalBlogPals’ book reviewer and Lutheran pastor Julia Seymour writes, “If there was such a thing as a spiritual grief group, this would be the book I would recommend. The grappling with scripture, where its promises deliver and where they don’t, is simultaneously consoling and provocative.” Here is her full review.

 

  • Blogger and Episcopal priest Rosalind Hughes encourages, “I recommend that you acquire yourself a copy, read it, savour it, and then keep it close for those moments when, for the sake of faith or sanity, you need once more to find yourself reflected in the mirror of another soul, another spirit, one that has wrestled with God, and, against all expectations, lived to see dawn’s light limping across the valley.” Read her review written for Episcopal Café.

 

  • Jennifer Burns Lewis reviewed Denial for The Presbyterian Outlook: “The authors’ facility in providing a biblical frame for their doubts and denials and dance with God is a striking feature of this book. With strong and graceful articulation, they connect their own journeys of faith with the biblical narrative, informing the reader’s understanding of their lives and of Scripture as well. I’m so glad that the authors chose to present their lives with such candor and honest reflection. The essays in Denial is My Spiritual Practice are a breath of fresh air and good for the church.”

 

  • Author and blogger Laurie Brock wrote about Denial, “[The] deft narratives of love, hate, fear, fragility, gratitude, doubt, frustration, joy, and more love are excellent reflections for any person of faith who needs to hear the words of God that life is hard, hurtful, and messy and is glorious, joyful, and loving and all of these are necessary.”

 

  • Joanna Harader, a Mennonite pastor and blogger at Spacious Faith, notes, “This book, for all its honesty, has a misleading subtitle. While the stories they tell may indeed reveal the ‘failures of faith’ to operate in the ways we churchy people might expect, it is ultimately a book about the success of faith. Not that faith is successful because Martha or Rachel or any of us are spectacularly faithful, spiritual, people; but that faith is successful—it abides with us, it pushes us, it carries us through hard times.”

 

  • Author and Presbyterian minister MaryAnn McKibben Dana writes of Denial, “Read this now.” Her review continues: “Here is a book that deeply resonates and that I gratefully admire. I’ve been on somewhat of a personal crusade to embody ‘World’s Okayest’ lately, and this work shares a similar ethos: life is messy, grief-riddled, traumatic even. It is also beautiful, interesting, and grace-soaked.”

Thanks to these reviewers and to other reviewers whose feedback I’ve not linked here, and certainly to readers who have shared their affirmations and their stories in response to Denial.