I pray…

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My son and youngest daughter tromp down the wooden stairway perched on a steep, wooded incline in front of their grandparents’ cabin. Buckets and nets in tow, their squeals echo as rambunctiously as their feet racing to the floating dock. They are fishing today, the non-fishing way. No hooks or worms. Just bread crumbs, nets, and long lines of patience.

Depending on the time of day, they may or may not see what they’re trying to catch. My son and daughter lay across the dock’s splintered slats, faces pressed as close to the lake’s mirrored surface as their lifejackets’ bulk will allow. Sometimes they only catch a glimpse of what’s below when a sunfish breaks the surface tension of chocolate gray water.

If, however, the sideways gaze of the rising sun drew my kids down to the dock, they stare into the water’s sepia-infused glow. Scaled bodies, drunk on the morning sun, swim with the music of lakegrass and lilies. Mesmerized by the disco-ball-dazzle of a quartz boulder glittering in the shallows nearby, my kids watch and wait, enchanted.

It’s this kind of enchantment many churches try to create at Christmas. Dazzle! Impress! And maybe, just maybe, some of the people who came because it’s the one time of year they go to church, or because they miss carols and candlelight, or because awhile back the church was their family, or maybe because they’ve never gone and just want to see what this Jesus stuff is all about…maybe, just maybe, some of these people will come back.

This Christmas Eve, I entered the stone archways of a cathedral clad in all its Christmas finery. Candlelight, choirs, brass. Carols and communion. The head priest walked the center aisle, reaching out towards the people in filled pews. He met others’ gazes through round professorial glasses. His gray hair distinguished him more so than his vestments. This was Christmas in all its nostalgic, traditional glory.

And then he preached.

“The woman was so ugly!”

Laughter in the pews from the front and side by the pulpit.

My spine straightened. My skin bristled.

Did he really just say that?

Yes. And not just “ugly woman.”

The “ugliest woman.”

And on it went, spun in ways that confused outer beauty with inner worth. His words twisted one’s God-given goodness from gospel truth into knots beholden to the human standards of male authorities.  This ugly woman was exalted as a necessity for shameful men (like him, he admitted) to learn (and now to teach, apparently) that it’s all okay because God needs broken, ugly women (people, if I’m generous) because that’s how God’s light gets in.

I was drowning, thinking of God’s people who had been diminished by ugly name-calling and labeled less-than by people deemed more powerful than them. Many of whom were likely in the pews around me, bracing themselves against the assault from the pulpit and laughter around them. I longed for the sense of wonder found on the dock with my children.

Those moments on the pier weren’t always perfect, or beautiful, or crystal clear.  But we knew the fish were there. The light was already there. We waited. We watched. Whether we saw into the depths, or how we perceived what swam underneath, was a matter of timing, opportunity, and the perspective revealed by the angle of light. Not really all that different from Bethlehem so long ago, when a baby came to shift our perspective. To shed light in ways that did not break us more, but illuminate new ways to love and better paths to peace.

My heart breaks for the other priests who had to follow the head priest’s path down the aisle. Priests who because of labels are marked as different, or even ugly. Female priests. Priests of color. Priests betrayed by a head priest’s Christmas Eve message to the masses. I pray that more of these children of God stand proudly in the pulpit. I pray they cast light in the ways only they can. I pray our perspectives shift in healing and life-giving ways. I pray that ensnaring people from pulpits with nets of blame and shame becomes a thing of the past.  I pray for a time when all old, white, distinguished, smug men in the pulpit will humble themselves and speak boldly of the beauty found in all God’s creatures.

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A Child Says…

file0001628333441byiamagooatmorguefileI’ve been told that I can stretch the boundaries of people’s understanding or comfort. Last spring, after I preached a sermon using a vulture as a metaphor for disciple, I was advised to keep in mind that depending on my audience, I may need to scaffold listeners’ understanding for things that may rock their world. Maybe I’m just a naive judge of what will rock people’s worlds.

I’m still relatively new at my church, where I’ve been attending and working as their Sunday school teacher for about a month. The church is excited to have a relative abundance (thirteen!) of kids participating, ages 4-11, compared to recent past. The congregation and its leaders are trying to embrace this, and expand kids’ involvement to worship. For World Communion Sunday this past weekend, the kids played a special role in two parts of the liturgy, and I was asked to offer the Prayer of the People during worship.

I prayed and thought a lot about this before I wrote the prayer. There is so much to pray for these days! I thought about some of the worries the kids vocalized in just our first few gatherings together. I reflected on a visit to the Georgia Aquarium with my own kids. I prayed about the transition the church is in of figuring out how to more fully live into its perceived identity of offering a wide welcome to a diversity of people in a personable way. I recalled my participation in this majority-white church’s first intentional conversation about race following Charlottesville.  I reflected on how I am inspired by the interim minister’s leadership. I connected all that I’ve been reading in my seminary classes, particularly pastoral care. I thought about the conversations swirling at the seminary. I attended to news and current events. I tried to intuit how these things intersected with all the people around the world gathering to break bread together at God’s table. I prayed some more as I wrote and tweaked the prayer.

On World Communion Sunday, I prayed for the People of my congregation, from my heart.

There seemed to be a heightened alertness during most of the prayer. Following worship, I had flashbacks to the conversation from last spring. I received a few general, “I liked your prayer” comments following the service, but I also heard, in tones ranging from excitement to OMG, words like, “bold,” “fearless,” “yeah, pretty bold.” Or, “moments like these will help you grow.”

I didn’t feel like I prayed anything that earth shattering. I went where the Spirit led. Did I really misread my context? Was it bold? And if so, might that be okay?

What I do know is that the intersection of prayer, Spirit, people, and life during worship is a mysterious place. I am thankful to have the opportunity to enter this mystery. Join me. Let us pray:

A Child says,
“I hope the man who fell and broke his hip at the roller skating rink is okay.”

God, this life we lead is not easy.
For the everyday trials, accidents, and discomforts of life, we ask your presence and healing.

 

 A Child sits in front of a window into the world’s largest aquarium and says, “Whoa! Look how big that fish is! Daddy, look, a shark, a shark!”

God of light and dark, water and earth, we are in awe of your creation.
We are also at a loss in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires.
Your earth and your people cry out.
We hear, God, but as you move mountains and waters, move us, oh God, to care for your creation. LORD, your love knows no bounds.
Let us show this boundless love in our response to your people in Puerto Rico and around the world who cry out for help.

 

 A child says,
“Some white people don’t like black people.”

Oh, LORD, we kneel before you, mourning for our sisters and brothers
who bear the physical and emotional wounds and scars of hate and oppression.
We lift up broken systems and institutions, lynched by nooses of white supremacy and greed.
In lifting them up, help us see how our own thoughts and actions support these structures,
so that we instead transform them in ways
that show black lives matter as much as they do to you.

 

A child says, “There are refugees here from Syria.”
A child asks, “What’s a refugee?”
A child responds, “People in wars.”
Another child adds, “Yes, they move because they are hurt, or hungry….or because of a hurricane.”

God, we mourn that people are on the move in this world because of horrors we can barely begin to comprehend. Remind us that we are all refugees from hate of our own making. As people of the Exodus, help us remember to love and care for all your people, even those who appear from places we don’t understand and who may not look, like, love, believe, or act like us.

 

A child asks,
“Why would refugees come here? We’re going to start World War 3!”

God, we admit that we fail at following Christ’s example of love and peace.  Forgive us oh LORD, for wielding words and weapons in a way that puts fear in the hearts of children and adults alike.

 

A child says,
“Yeah, there’s going to be a nuclear bomb!”

God of abundance, we thank you for your provision,
for the intelligence with which you’ve gifted us,
for the ability to imagine and build so many technologies with what you’ve provided.
Remind us of your ultimate authority.
Show us how to choose your way of peace.
Nurture the restraint of our world leaders, reveal to them the wisdom in using their positions for good not evil.

 

A child says,
“God loves us.”

We, along with millions of other Christians around the world, come to your table of grace today, bearing all of our imperfections, hurts, hopes and joy.
We meet at the Table because we have already been met and loved by you, a God who welcomes us to a table bigger and more abundant than we can imagine[1].
Let us come to this table with the open eyes, ears, and hearts of our children.

Amen.

This line adapted from: [1] de Jong, Patricia. “Unity Amidst Diversity.” First Church, Berkeley, CA. http://firstchurchberkeley.org/written-sermon/unity-amidst-diversity (accessed September 31, 2017).