About Timothy Brown

A pastor. A writer. A dreamer. Occasionally a beer brewer.

Who Needs Sleep? Tell Me, What’s that For?

I read that Dolly Parton wakes up around 3am to start her day.

I remember reading something about Al Roker and Tom Ford doing the same, around 4am each.

I kinda want to be that person, you know?

The Blessed Martin Luther said he used to rise at around 4am to pray because he didn’t know where else he’d fit it in his busy medieval day.

The hours of the morning feel very fruitful to me, but also very inaccessible if they follow too quickly on the heels of one another.

I’ve spent the week calling it quits at 10pm. I wasn’t always *asleep* by then, but I was in bed by then: no screens, maybe a book, but that’s it.

It was actually freeing to have a bed time. One of the struggles in adulting is figuring out what time it is, you know? I mean, not chronologically, but in that Kairos sense of time, that “time out of time” state that helps us figure out important patterns and rhythms that allow us to move well in our stage of life.

I might be in the stage where I need a bedtime, as much as I hate that idea in many ways.

But there’s a reason that monastics stick to a pretty strict schedule: it frees them. It frees them from having to figure out what time it is. I’ve heard people in the military say something similar.

Like being on a regular diet, like living out of a capsule wardrobe, having a bed time (and a corresponding time of rising) is freeing for me.

The closest I ever came to living like that for an extended period of time was when I was a camp counselor in college. There we had no cell reception, few clocks except for the watches on our wrists, and pretty simple living. There was no snacking except those given to us by the kitchen. There was time for rest and fun, adventure and quiet.

And when the sun came up, you rose. When the sun went down, you retired.

It was the most natural rhythm I’ve ever lived in. I envy that most days.

This week-long Lenten discipline is reminding me of that time in my life.

I know I am instinctively a morning person; I always have been (much to the chagrin of my partner). But I find when I can’t rise as early as I need to in order to feel like my day is full, and fully mine (we give so much of the middle of our day away!), I get off-kilter.

I’m not in a right relationship with myself, others, or the work at hand.

I don’t know if moving forward I’ll keep a strict 10pm bed time, but my plan is to make it the norm rather than the exception.

I mean, that’s what Lenten discipline’s are for, right? To come back into righteousness and exit the wilderness different than you entered it?

What about you? How is your relationship with sleep? Are you righteous in this corner of your life?

If not, what will you do about it? I’ve found that it affects every aspect of my being, including my spiritual self. In fact, that’s one of the things I’ve noticed most: taking the time in the twilight hours to meditate, center myself, and connect with the Divine has opened up my work, my parenting, my health, and the wisdom within.

Rhythms are freeing.

Names Mean Something

Hi, Pastor.

If you’re looking for something to hang the sermon off of this week, a really effective golden thread that weaves its way throughout Genesis (17: 1-7, 15-16) and Mark’s Gospel (8:31-38) is the importance of names and naming things.

You might think it’s low-hanging fruit, but dig deeper there…I think you’ll find some profound insight here. So many sermons will focus on Jesus calling Peter “the Satan,” and the scolding lessons that will come from thinking that Jesus had come to take the easy way out of the Divine work, but I’m just gonna throw it out there that the church doesn’t need another sermon like that.

It really doesn’t.

Either the hearer will feel shame because they, like Peter (like all of us?) miss the mark, or they will feel their ego swell because they don’t believe that about themselves and really we don’t need any more tearing down or puffing up in the church. That deflation-inflation rhythm has led to a mass exodus over the years, and rightly so.

What we need is an invitation to go deeper not pull a moral from it all.

Like, what if this whole Peter episode was less about Peter missing the mark, and more an invitation for Peter to reflect more deeply on his name? Jesus had just one short episode earlier called him “The Foundation,” and it might be worth noting that a) that’s something to live into and b) even foundations aren’t infallible.

And notice Jesus doesn’t name Peter “Satan,” but in saying that out loud perhaps he’s asking Peter if he’s forgotten who he (Peter) is. “Remember, Simon, what I’ve named you…”

Remember who you are.

And for the assembly that name is given in baptism. It’s not “Brian” or “Shelita,” it’s “Beloved.”

It’s, “Child of God.”

Because, here’s the truth BELOVED, this world is gonna call you all sorts of names.

It’s gonna call you lazy.

It’s gonna call you wealthy.

It’s gonna call you a son-of-a-bitch.

It’s gonna call you a slut.

It’s gonna call you a fag.

It’s gonna call you a role-model.

It’s gonna call you a star athlete.

It’s gonna call you intelligent.

It’s gonna call you single, partner, parent, aunt, loner, Democrat, Republican, patriot, Communist, lover, fighter.

It’s gonna call you stupid.

And it’s important to remember, Beloved, so that you don’t do that deflate-inflate rhythm on a daily basis, that all of those names can be stumbling blocks when twisted in the wrong way, and though they try to stick on you like Velcro, the waters of the font have washed it all away in favor of:

Beloved.

Abram gets a new name. Sarai gets a new name. Simon gets a new name (and he’s asked to remember it!).

And so do you.

I say all this, too, because names become important for us in other ways, too. Because when a Beloved is given a true and rightful name, or they choose one for themselves, that, too, deserves honor and respect.

Like, no pretending you can’t pronounce a name that’s from another culture. That kind of privilege degradation has been pulled by white people for a long time. It’s a way of saying, in not so many words, “You’re not one of us, and I don’t have to bother learning your name.”

They are Beloved, just like you, so don’t try to pretend they’re not.

And like, when our Trans siblings identify that their birth name does not fit their gender and have found a name that suits them well, we honor it, by God.

They are Beloved, just like me, so no getting around that fact just because it’s confusing for our simplistic understanding of gender or not “we’re not comfortable” with it. Want uncomfortable? Try living as a gender you don’t identify with…

Names mean something. Names are important. And on this road to Calvary that we call Lent we’re offered a chance to reflect on what we call one another and what we’re called by God.

And I just think it’s an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up, Beloved.

Who Needs Sleep? Well, You’re Never Gonna Get It…

Sleep and I have a sordid history.

I’ve been gifted (I PREFER TO SEE IT AS A GIFT!) of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), and so for much of my choice-informed life I’ve chosen experience over going to bed.

In college I would regularly start my school work at midnight, closing up shop at 4am and rising at 7:15am just in time for my 8:00am Greek class, my participles all accounted for.

I got good grades. I got poor sleep.

I both lost and gained weight in college. Up and down. It made it hard to buy clothes.

No, that’s not correct. I had no money to buy clothes.

It made it hard to fit into the clothes I had. Too loose, too tight, too much inconsistency.

I fully believe that my sleep habits affected my weight. Affect my weight. It certainly affects my food choices. Skipping meals, or eating high calorie dishes to get energy because I was just. so. tired.

Am. tired.

These habits have followed me off and on throughout my life. Being a parent has exacerbated the sleep issue. By the time the boys are in bed I’m tired as all get out, but they just got to bed so those twilight hours are the only ones I have to myself.

It’s a real struggle.

Add into the mix the desire to workout (in the morning? night?) and to meditate (morning? night?) and to write consistently (morning?! night?!). When the day begins at 6am, there are breakfasts to be made and kids to get up and out the door.

The night feels like it’s really the only time…for everything not work or kid related. But by nightfall my body has said “peace out,” and my brain has this big error message scrolling across it and my old patterns aren’t working anymore like a quilter who is trying reproduce a stitch by memory, only the fingers aren’t as nimble.

And also, let me be perfectly honest as a parent: by 8pm if I get one more request, one more touch, one more anything I might just spontaneously combust into a ball of feeble utility.

You know?

The pandemic has made these sleep issues worse. Insomnia has crept in as an uninvited houseguest, sometimes banging around on the pipes of my brain for no reason other than to make perfectly clear that redundancy causes my neurons to go on the fritz.

This week’s experiment with getting into bed at 10pm, come hell or high water, is in its infancy, but I’ve already noticed three things.

First: I’m not missing out on much. Late night TV is largely banal. I console myself with the idea that I can always watch the rerun anyway…and then never do, which seems to be a deceptive pattern that works for me so I’ll keep it.

Secondly: I’ve had to say no to work. A lot of times I’d crank up the old hamster wheel laptop again after the boys are in bed to finish a report, an excel, a writing project, a blog…the past two nights I’ve thought in my midday brain, “I can finish that later tonight” only to realize that, no, I can’t.

And probably shouldn’t. I have to get to bed.

St. Ruth of the Bader-Ginsburgs once wrote that, “You can have everything in life, just not all at the same time.” I’ve come to realize this is true about sleep for me. I can work or I can sleep. And now, at this point in my life, sleep is the more needful thing.

And, finally, the last two mornings I’ve gotten up at 5:00am consistently without even really wanting to crawl back in bed. The most productive periods of my life have been marked by early rising. It’s felt good to want to get out of bed, to meditate in the twilight hours, to make coffee and read and see the first news (always the freshest takes!) and take stock of the universe before the pitter patter feet tumble out of their trundle beds.

In the scriptures we regularly read that the Christ sought a place by himself to pray and be alone, and slept when he had the chance. In the Hebrew scriptures we know God instituted a sabbath, meaning that there were times to work and times not to work. The people turned that into a commandment, when really I think it should be seen as permission.

I’m seeing it as permission.

I have FOMO, but I’m choosing not to miss out on sleep right now. It’s my stage in life. Who knows how long I’ll be in this stage, but it’s time to get back into a better relationship with sleep.

Running Fast and Making Changes

Blow the trumpet in the holy city
bless a holy fast!
Get everyone together
bless them all
the elderly
the young children
even babies who still breastfeed!
In the middle of their weddings
get brides and grooms to stop everything
.
-Joel 2:15-16-

This reading will be read at most every Ash Wednesday service today, virtual or in-person…however we’re getting our ashes in this pandemic (which feels like a heap of ashes already).

The prophet Joel intends to call people back into right relationship with God. In order to do that people would sometimes be invited to fast. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism…fasting is pervasive in all the major religions. A bit of self-denial heightens our indulgences, right?

Sometimes people fast for poor reasons, though. I know of someone who does regular fasts because they are certain that they can “hear God more clearly” when they fast. I’m not sure that’s a good reason, honestly, because I’m not sure that’s how it all works. Certainly there is a need to get rid of distractions in order to discern the Divine in the world, but not eating that candy bar (or anything?!) for forty days seems like an ineffective way to do it.

God doesn’t need your sacrifice…at least, not that kind. If you eat too much candy, sure, fast from it. But if you think it’s getting you brownie points with the Holy Presence I think you’re kidding yourself.

Sometimes people take on fasts to just “do it,” like not eating meat on Friday or not eating meat at all for Lent. That’s fine, I think, if you consume too much meat (and most Americans do, honestly). But if you’re doing it just to see if you can…I’m not sure that’s a good fast, Beloved.

The prophet Joel blesses a fast in order to bring the people back into right relationship, otherwise known in the scriptures as “righteousness.” Fasts are not used to deny people good things as much as to help them see how their relationships with things (or people, or food, or, well, anything) is off kilter.

I’ll say that again for folks in the back.

Fasts are not about denial for denial’s sake. They are about taking a hard look at how your relationship with certain things is off kilter.

And, yes, in the process you’ll continually be invited to analyze how the relationship with the Divine is off kilter, too.

Now, if this hasn’t been your practice in recent years, no need to feel bad about it. There are all sorts of ways the messaging on Lent and fasts has gone awry…humans are wont to do that (hence why we have the season of Lent at all! We’re kinda messed up in all the right and wrong ways). And fasting is not the only thing to do in Lent. Many people choose to add a practice, work on habit change, or do some spring cleaning both physically and spiritually.

Those are all great.

But I’ve decided to fast. To look at some relationship stuff.

I’m going to embark on a Lenten journey of my own, with some updates/devotionals to add to the mix. Most fasts will begin on a Sunday and last the full week (there are 6 of them), and you’re welcome to join in. I’ll be writing and reflecting each week about the particular fast and what I’m learning, and I’ll be noting my thoughts, ponderings, and realizations.

All of these fasts are intended to help me better analyze my own relationship with each subject, and be honest about how they’re off kilter. I’m not righteous in these areas, Beloved. I know this. I want to dig deeply into that.

Week 1: Fast from delaying bedtime.
This pandemic has been terrible on my sleep. Many of the folks I coach have noted that, too. I’m going to go to bed when I’m tired at night, or at least by 10pm.

Week 2: Fast from iPhone.
I carry it around with me. I scan the apps. I respond to texts in two seconds. It’s out of control.

Week 3: Fast from Media.
This will be a bit tricky, but I’m going to say media in general, not just “social media.” Too much binge TV at night. Too many apps open on my phone. Too much stopping in the middle of work or writing to scroll social sites. I’ll still post on a social site this week, mostly to keep the blog updated, but I’m going to “post and ghost.” No reading the comments…

Week 4: Fast from Buying.
The pandemic has made Amazon a little too convenient. But not just Amazon, I’m constantly looking for excuses to go out and grab a coffee-to-go or skip making dinner and just ordering in. Not this week. That urge needs to me analyzed and, I hope, curbed a bit. I’ll allow for grocery buying (because I’m the cook, so I do that shopping), but other than that, no purchases (and no gift-cards, either! Loopholes are for suckers).

Week 5: Fast from Processed Foods
It’s not that it’s just not good for me, it’s not good to me, either. I know it’s not. This week will be interesting because it means no processed anything, even that Friday beer, those corn chips I allow in a moment of salt-crave. Nope.

Week 6: Fast from Meat
We don’t eat meat with every meal, but I think we eat it too much. On the far side of this fast I intend to make some rules around meat consumption. And, here’s the thing we forget: when you eat an animal, you also eat what they ate! It’s a double-whammy of mindless chomping there.

So, here are the fasts. And you’re welcome to join if you’d like. In fact, I would like that very much, especially if you take a bit of time to reflect on your off-kilter relationship with the topics and send them on to me, either as a comment on a post or in an email. I want to be in a more righteous relationship with these things.

But, maybe your relationship with these things isn’t off kilter at all. Maybe you’re working with other issues that need addressing. Alcohol? Snack foods? Lack of activity? Spiritual practices?

Whatever it is, take a fast. But don’t do it to solely to deny yourself that thing; absence does make the heart grow fonder and, do you really want to go back to the old you when this is all over? The you who had an off-kilter relationship with these things?

Do it to analyze your relationship with it all and, on the far side of the fast, sanctify some changes, Beloved.

After all, repentance, metanoia, means turning around. Changing.

If you think you need that, if something is off kilter, run (a) fast toward change. See if you don’t find a new you rising come April 3rd.

Robinhood, Wall Street, and Religion

An unusual thing happened this last week: the masses made their voices heard.

And it didn’t happen through voting, though that is one way this happens more regularly in the world (when voting restrictions don’t keep people away from the polls).

And it didn’t happen in a courtroom.

It happened on Wall Street, and it is so rare there that it actually brought the beast to a little bit of a halt this last week.

If you’re not up to speed, you can find an extended story here. If you want a basic (very basic) version, this is basically what happened:

To make easy money on the market, some entities do some fancy footwork to play the system. It’s set up to be played, by the way, but only if you know the right moves…and usually only the very wealthy can afford (literally) to know the right moves.

Basically, you bet that a stock will fall, so you borrow securities, trade them on the open market, and assume you’ll be able to buy them back at a lower price. You payback what you borrow, and you get to keep the excess.

This last week the market recoiled after a group of small (in terms of Wall Street) investors decided to bet on nostalgia and bought up shares of GameStop, you know, that place in the mall where they sell (and buy back!) video games.

What’s a mall, you ask? It’s that place where the elderly walk in circles and pass by stores no one goes in anymore. But, I digress…

The reason they bought these stocks, though, was because hedgfunds were using GameStop (and other entities like it) to “buy short” as they call it, betting that the stocks would fall and wanting to make some quick cash.

The influx of GameStop buying sent the stock soaring, causing a number of short-buying investors to lose millions. Billions, even.

Seriously.

And it was largely done because a bunch of little investors using no-fee sites like Robinhood, a place where people can trade small amounts just to dabble in the market. In fact, Robinhood even shut down for a bit to stop the blood loss for the billionaire class because this collective buying by small-time investors was working so well at beating the game by playing the game.

It’s all pretty fascinating. Popcorn-eating fascinating.

But what I’m most confused about is not how it happened (I think it should happen more! The market should be risky for everyone, not just the little investor!). I’m more confused about why Robinhood, a site that says it is dedicated to getting small investors in the game, shut down when the billionaire class became imperiled because other users figured out how to play the game better for once.

Isn’t Robinhood supposed to encourage that kind of enagement?

I mean, it’s named ROBINHOOD. You’d think it would be happy to live up to it’s name, right?

Oh, what’s in a name…?

The truth is that Robinhood, and other sites like it, were instrumental in transforming the system, if just for a moment. But, unlike it’s name would suggest, it turns out it wasn’t interested in transformation, but rather in just propping up the system so that nothing changes at all!

And this, Beloved, is where critique of religion comes in because, I have to be honest, religion, too, doesn’t often live up to it’s name.

Religion literally means “connect again.” “Re”-back and “ligio”-ligament, actually means to re-bind or re-connect, and at its core should be invested in life transformation through a connection to the Divine.

But honestly, on both ends of the operation, this is usually not the goal of most religion as it we currently find it.

If you think that’s not true, just talk to the number of pastors frustrated because they can’t get people to invest in a deeper spiritual life through dedicated spiritual practices. They’d rather have their Spring Picnic and Youth Car Wash and

Or, if you think that’s not true, talk to the thousands who never darken the door of a religious building anymore (accept on a tour) because “nothing happened” for them in those walls.

On the participation side and on the facilitation side it seems like religion isn’t really too interested, most days, in living into its name.

You know, kind of like how the elite Wall Street investors and the sites like Robinhood weren’t too interested in transformation, but only in paying lip-service to getting people into investing and embracing risk.

Systems that live for self-preservation are not interested in making a difference in your life, but rather only interested in propping up their own lives.

This is why I think that for every religious institution the question of “should we sell our building” be on the table, every year. The building can become an idol, Beloved, and if it’s not working for the mission, it’s working against it.

This is why I think that most every team of a church should be ad hoc, by and large. Why have a team if there’s no reason to? The Spring Picnic Team should only be convened once it’s clear that there is a good, missional reason to have the Spring Picnic! And, yes, a time to gather and get to know one another is absolutely a great reason for a Spring Picnic, but if all you have are a bunch of Spring Picnics under different names, then, well, you need to reevaluate your purpose.

Good religion needs to live into its name, or else it is no better than Robinhood: inviting people in but, once they have been transformed and want to do something differently because of it, shutting them out or down because, well, “that’s not how we do things around here…”

Invest in places that are interested in both being transformed and in helping you transform, Beloved. They are out there, both in the market place and in the halls of religion.

But it doesn’t seem to be the norm.

So make sure they’re living into their name…

Abuse Lingers

I talk with people who have been hurt by religion.

I talk with them quite a bit, actually. It’s part of what I do, and I’m grateful to be a space where people can be brave and safe and admit their doubts, frustrations, fears, and, yes, moments when they’ve been beaten and bruised (both metaphorically and in real life) by religion.

I also talk with folx who have been hurt by what they consider to be hostile political policies these last four years.

And, let’s just get it out of the way, while a less-than-equitable tax code is certainly not fair, and certainly takes advantage of the poor and vulnerable, that’s not the kind of hostility I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is making fun of a disabled person by the President of the United States.

What I’m talking about is having the phrase “Muslim ban” being thrown around in the halls of power with conviction rather than concern.

What I’m talking about is barring transgender people from serving in the military, and announcing it by Tweet, the way you or I might announce the latest cute thing our kid said into the ether of the world.

What I’m talking about is a President ordering the dispersion of peaceful protestors by MILITARY FORCE so he could take a walk and hold up a Bible for a political headline.

What I’m talking about is the systemic libel of our democratic systems in an attempt to keep and consolidate power.

This is not “snowflake” sort of stuff. These are triggers. They’re abusive behavior.

And the reason I bring it up is because, well, I’ve heard some people tell those who struggle with religion, often due to the coercion or the abuse they felt in those hallowed halls, that they should just “get over it.”

Or that they should “forget about it and move on.”

One of the interesting things about abuse is that, while many of the marks that you can see fade with time, the marks that aren’t visible seem to last.

Imagine waking up every morning not knowing if your spouse was going to hit you or cook you breakfast. Do you think that feeling just immediately leaves when you’re out of that situation?

That crap lingers!

Now replace that “spouse” with the Divine, and instead of breakfast or a slap, it’s a “blessing” or “eternal damnation.” You think that just goes away if you stop going to church?

That crap lingers!

Now replace “the Divine” with the voice from the Oval Office who literally pulls the strings of power in the nation…

…yeah, yeah, save your “separate but equal” lip-service for another blog; I intend to be real. This last administration (much like the Jackson administration they so emulated) has shown that the Executive Branch is the mightiest on the tree when there hasn’t been adequate pruning…

…and imagine that instead of “blessing” and “eternal damnation” it’s replaced by “emboldened privileged existence” and “open season for outright abuse.”

Why do you think racists could march un-hooded through the streets without fear? Why do you think Confederate battle flags and Neo-Nazi flags marched alongside Trump flags when they stormed the Capitol?

Why do you think that hate crimes rose by 20% the last four years?

So, when people say, “He’s out of office, just move on…” to that I say:

THAT CRAP LINGERS!

It lingers.

And abuse that is not addressed, somehow, continues to harm long past its life-expectancy.

And anyone who says, “words are just words” has never sat with a spouse who was continually dressed down and verbally shamed for years. They’ve never stood next to a kid who was mocked for how they look or what religion they practice (or don’t) or how their family is composed.

Words hurt, Beloved. They move people, for good or for ill. Words have power, they change things, and trying to pretend they don’t is like saying that the abuser isn’t at fault because the ones who are hit let the blows land.

I write all this as a way of explaining why it’s still important that we have some sort of discussion…no, not discussion, a “come to Jesus” about what has happened the last four years.

About why we can’t just “move on,” because we have the serious tendency to “move back again” if we just try to move on.

I write this for everyone wondering why it still matters enough to mention. It still matters because, to be honest, I cringe when I turn on the news, even now, because I wonder what other right has eroded, what safeguard has been crushed, what minority group has been scapegoated…

And, no, elections will not fully prevent those things from happening, but we have seen what happens when an election accelerates it!

And, Beloved, it lingers. In the soul. In the spirit. In the head. In the heart.

It lingers.

Rachel Just Wants Someone To Cry With Her…I Do, Too.

One of the most haunting and touching collisions of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament happens in the Gospel of Matthew where the writer recounts Herod’s rage over the birth of Christ, and the tragic resulting aftermath.

The story is well-known, of course. Herod goes on a rampage and kills all the young boys three years of age and under throughout Bethlehem. This horrific episode is captured in the Christmas carol, “Lully, Lullay,” an ancient song written for a long-lost nativity play that towns and villages would put on during Christmastide.

This song, with the minor tone and lullaby lyrics, “Lully, Lullay, thou little tiny child/bye bye lully, lullay…” is meant to mimic the quiet song the mothers of Bethlehem sang to their little ones to keep them quiet while soldiers went door to door searching for children to kill.

The writer of Matthew, as he is wont to do, overlays Hebrew Scripture prophecy on the scene, recalling an obscure verse from Jeremiah 31 where Rachel, the seminal matriarch of the Hebrew people is crying over the death and exile of her descendants. “She cries,” the prophet shouts, “and she refuses to be comforted.”

She refuses to be comforted.

This whole scene has always moved me, and does so even more so now that I have my own children. It is striking. It is raw. It is a commentary on political power and political fear. It is a testament to the endearing love of mothers, of all parents, for their babies.

I am currently in a program where I’m learning to effectively coach people who are in the process of dying, or who are grieving over those who have died. We talk a lot about the process of death and grief, about saying goodbye well and remembering well.

And we talk a lot about the fact that the dying and the grieving don’t want our pity, and they don’t need our platitudes. After all, a euphemism or a trite moralism is just another way of saying that you don’t know how to care.

Caring doesn’t mean patching over grief, but about walking into the valley of the shadow of death with someone else so that they don’t have to do it alone, by God.

Being in this course (and, by the way, if you’re in need of someone to walk with you in grief, death, or dying, don’t hesitate to reach out), I was reminded of an old midrash, a tale that I know I heard somewhere but that I can’t now place.

It talks of Rachel, and of her seeing the devastation of her ancestors, her babies, and seeking out someone to cry with her. She goes to the patriarchs, but they will not do it. She goes to the angels, but they can’t grieve with her. She finally goes to God and says, “And you? Will you not grieve with me?” And God, in Divine mercy, weeps with her into the night, not consoling her (she refused to be consoled), but simply weeping alongside her.

And that made all the difference.

Rachel didn’t need someone to make her feel better, and she didn’t need someone to “fix” her…she wasn’t “broken.”

She was grieving. Her heart was broken, and that can’t be fixed in any other way than by walking through that valley and grief, and she needed someone to walk with her, to hear her tell the stories of her babies, of her ancestors, to laugh as she pulled out picture after picture, and to cry as she missed them in the night.

I know why Rachel refused to be consoled. I know why Rachel wanted someone to just cry with her.

I’m thinking these days of all the anger and hurt and grief we’re all experiencing today. The losses of normalcy, those loved ones lost to the pandemic and our collective inaction.

I’m thinking these days of the way we assault one another, of how we refuse to hear other perspectives and so easily fall into the trap of conspiracies and group thought that promises easy outs and secret remedies.

We’re grieving, Beloved. We’re grieving.

And what we need to do is, like Rachel, refuse to be consoled for a bit. We need to just let it out, to cry a bit, to stop hanging our hopes on every tilting windmill and instead sit and just be with it all for a little. damn. while.

I know why Rachel refuses to be consoled.

I’m refusing, too.

A Matter of Words

If I were preaching tomorrow…here’s what I’d preach.

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Beloved, when I was eight years old, I was told by my 3rd Grade teacher that I was, “just not good at math.”

I went through the rest of my elementary, middle, and high school years believing what she told me. It was just a fact: I wasn’t good at math.

I carried this truth upon my shoulders until I went off to University where, as part of my Philosophy Minor I had to take a course called “Logic and Critical Thinking.” It involved a number of word problems, proofs, and in that course, at the age of eighteen, a full ten years after I first was told with all certainty that I was “just no good at math” I realized I had been lied to.

And here’s the shame of it: because I had been told that I was no good at math, and I believed it, I never explored math. I always took the lowest math courses I could find, the most remedial in the catalogue.

I just took it as truth because, well, they were a teacher, right?! They knew best, right?

Words matter.

My friend, as a kid, was called a “fag” every day at school.

Now, I don’t think his bullies actually implied that he was trying to sleep with other guys, though maybe that was part of the implication, I don’t know, but really what they were trying to do was dehumanize him in some way. They wanted him to know, in no uncertain terms, that he was different, unwanted, and unliked.

And, well, later on in his years, when he crouches in a corner clutching a bottle of pills, thinking maybe he should just swallow them all…I mean, that’s part of what was running through his head, Beloved.

Words matter.

In Genesis today we hear that not only do words matter, but words create matter! The Divine speaks into the chaos of the universe and forms order out of it, parting the waters and the celestial bodies, helping to create a rhythm to the hours, helping to create safe spaces for all kinds of what would be created: land dwellers like you and me, ocean inhabitants like the majestic whale and the whimsical sea horse, and those who take to the air like the high-flying condor and the swift hummingbird…and, well, the Wright Brothers who, by the way, just a few days before their first flight would read in an op-ed of a national paper the projection that flight was generations off for humanity.

Good thing they didn’t take those words literally or seriously, right?

Words matter. Words create matter.

Words can create: safe spaces, brave places where creation can be comfortable, order in the chaos of a world that seems hell-bent on entropy most days.

And words can destroy, Beloved. They can stigmatize. They can dehumanize.

They can incite.

Terrorize.

We’re all acutely aware of this now, right?

So today, here are some other words, words to create a brave and safe space, words to lift up and inspire and provide some baptismal hope on this Sunday where we remember not only the baptism of Jesus, but our own baptism:

God loves you, for Christ sake, and will not let you go.”

These words were spoken to me again and again by my Theology professor and surrogate grandfather, Reverend David Truemper. He said these words, wrote these words, inscribed them on my heart, and I etch them now on yours, and he did this even as his body was laid waste by a cancer that ransacked him in my Senior year.

Cancer is a word that can destroy and terrorize, but these words carried him through it to the other side of the Jordan where he undoubtedly heard, “You are my son, my Beloved, in whom I’m well pleased.”

It is good you exist.

In one of my darkest moments as a teen, these words were spoken to me by a friend who guessed I was on an edge. It reminded me of something very deep and very true.

We shall overcome…

In my Black Church course in seminary we started out the semester standing and singing this song, all together, led by our professor who had, himself, marched the streets with Dr. King. Tears ran down his face as we sang, a second baptism of sorts washing our heads and our hearts, re-centering us. We were not pastors who preached just any words, but we must be pastors who preach liberating words! Gospel words. Words that don’t rev people up into frenzies, but lift people up to new heights, by God!

You must work for justice and peace…

I’ve said these words over a hundred times in these last ten years, making sure that before people get to the font they know what they’re doing. These words are part of the baptismal liturgy, and they make clear that entering the waters of baptism means exiting oceans of hate and violence. The waters of baptism don’t wash away prejudice, but they birth you into a life of unlearning it, by God. They birth you into a life of reading the scriptures not through a lens of grievance, greed, and group-think, but through a lens of grace, both for yourself and your neighbor.

Justice and peace hold hands, Beloved, because one ensures the other. Peace and justice work for the good of all people. They lean toward truth and away from lies. They overthrow the halls of power not by force or “trial by combat,” whatever the hell that means, but by a fierce determination that changes hearts because they say, “See how much they love…a sacrificial love.”

Love lifts up the oppressed, it does not oppress.

And, finally, how about these words, ripped straight from our Gospel today:

You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I’m well pleased.

Here’s the thing, Beloved: words matter. The words that grip you, matter. The words that you cling to, matter. Words affect matter, and as you know, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return…”

We don’t just matter, we are matter.

You are matter. I am matter. And matter, Beloved, can be manipulated. Molded. Moved, for good or ill.

Which means we have to be honest about words, Beloved. Words matter.

In the spirit of our baptismal calling, we condemn words that incite, right?

It’s no wonder that in the Gospel of John Jesus is called The Word. God’s love letter to the world. Because words matter, love letters matter, and when we have words that go against The Word, that aren’t love letters but hate speech, we rely on those sacred words, like those I lifted above to carry us through.

To remind us not to fall victim for wards that affect matter, but rather live in the embrace of words that remind us that humanity matters, peace matters, love matters.

And yes, words will call us to flood the streets in protest. But we cannot do so over just any words, especially lies and feigned grievances. We do so over words like, “I can’t breathe,” and words like, “You can’t marry,” and words like, “You’re illegal,” and words like, “Move to the back of the bus.”

Marching on those words is not marching for grievances, it’s marching in solidarity with true grief! And if you cannot tell the difference, well, then we’ve grounded ourselves not in The Word who calls us to defend our neighbor, but in words that call us to destroy.

Beloved, we’ve been doused in a river of news this last week, an ocean of words that have spilled over into our hearts, homes, and have covered our heads. There were points this last week where I felt like I was drowning in sorrow, in anger, in sadness.

But we must remember those other words, Beloved. Words that can carry us through. Words that compel us to counter the words of lies, selfish grievance, and hate. Words from The Word.

So, Beloved, be baptized in the deep words that compel you to peace and justice, not the shallow words of grievance and guilt.

Be baptized under the name of the one who created you, not the name of any demagogue out there who longs to move you against your neighbor.

Be baptized under the name of the one who says, unequivocally, “I love you. You are my Beloved,” and who will love you to death and one step beyond to show how true those words are…

Have these words poured over your heart and head today.

Because, words matter.

Why We Didn’t Take Down the Tree

If you ask my youngest son what his favorite ornament on our tree is, he’ll point to a square glass ornament, red and white, shaped like a present.

“That one,” he’ll say, lightly touching it with a gentleness not usually seen from a five-year old. He’ll smile at you, look back at it, and stare at it in a way that makes you want to be the ornament: with awe and wonder and possibility and love.

Who knows? When his back is turned, maybe it becomes a real present, falling like an apple from the tree to be opened on Christmas morning. The imagination is wild and wonderful, especially at five.

January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, and in our house that means taking down the decorations at the end of the night, blessing the house, and formally folding up Christmastide.

But we didn’t do it yesterday.

In fact, we ushered our kids out of the living room where the tree with the beautiful present ornament resides. We stuck a toy they got for Christmas in their hands and told them to play as long as they wanted for the afternoon as we looked in pained faces at the screen in front of us.

Horror on the Capitol.

You kind of want your kids to look at their lives with awe and wonder and possibility and love, right? Like that ornament: who knows what can happen?

But what do you do with a day like yesterday? A day when leaders they’re supposed to trust and follow turn on them? When the highest office of the land curves in on itself like a deranged parasite, eating away at its own body to satisfy its own needs?

You leave the tree up.

You wait on that door blessing, for just one more day.

I’m not saying that you put off the holiday/holy day by any means, but you allow it to live, by God.

You allow it to live, to do the thing it’s meant to do.

Because the Epiphany is supposed to be a day of awe and wonder and possibility, a day when you honor the fact that the Divine is up to something in this world, dammit.

And yesterday was not that day.

And I don’t say that for political reasons, by the way.

I say that because, well, when words are used to incite violence–which is what happened–then the Word of God that we honor on the Epiphany, the Word sent to confront such words, is shadowed in anger and violence.

Especially because I saw, in those rioting mobs, more than one “Jesus” flag alongside a nationalistic flag that had nothing to do with a nation. I saw “Pelosi is Satan” and “Jesus Saves” signs as they broke windows and busted into the democratic halls intended to ensure our freedoms.

It’s an imperfect union, Beloved, but it’s all we’ve got at the moment. And it was not awe-some.

It was awful.

Holy days are intended not just to be observed, but to help us observe, Beloved.

What I mean is, holy days are meant to help us interpret all of life.

For instance: Advent is a time where we practice waiting so that we will know how to wait when the time comes. For births. For deaths. For new jobs. For the next big thing. For anything! Advent teaches us how to wait.

Lent, likewise, teaches us repentance…and Lord knows we need some of that in this world.

The rhythm of the church year is meant to help us breathe, to keep time, to know what to do next in life. But it is, above anything and everything, practice for those times in our lives when we’ll need to put these sacred skills into practice!

I’ve been in a season of Advent in my heart all throughout Lent when I was waiting for my son to be born. I was absolutely in a season of growth (Pentecost) when Lent descended on my heart at the death of my grandmother.

The seasons of the church teach us how to be in the world, if we’re willing to pay attention.

And so, yes, yesterday was the Epiphany. But it wasn’t an Epiphany.

In fact, what was needed more than anything yesterday was a little more Christmas, a little more celebration, a little more “God-with-us” and “Word-became-flesh” as too many angry words were spewed from the halls of power.

Yesterday needed a little more thwarting of Herod, and so we invited the Magi to stick around a bit longer, Beloved.

We’ll take down the tree later this week. Probably this weekend.

And we’ll slowly take off each ornament, inspecting it, standing in awe of it, telling one another stories about where we got it and how beautiful it is.

And then we’ll bless the house, pray a blessing on 2021, and tell each other how beautiful this new year is on the other side of yesterday. The wonder. The awe.

The possibility.

I want them to look at this world and see the possibility. The “good bones,” as Maggie Smith would say.

Because it has good bones…it just needs a bit more Epiphany.

December 25th: The Craziest of Second Comings

painting by Alexy Kondakov

Merry Christmas, Beloved!

I mean that with all my being.

Merry, in the ancient use of the word, didn’t mean “happy” or even “bright,” as the carol might suggest. “Merry” meant “safe” or “secure.”

“God rest ye merry, gentlemen…” was how the old song went. So many think it means that the gentlemen are happy, but really it is better translated as, “God make you safe, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!”

Which makes more sense, right?

So I wish you today a safe Christmas, a blessed and secure Christmas, especially in these pandemic days. Advent just hit differently this year for me, perhaps for you, too. But I pray Christmas hits with safe and secure joy.

Today I’m taking a little bit of an easy way out and coopting a poetry piece from my brother Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He writes,

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree,
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars.

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives.

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special deliver
and where no televisioned Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey.

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white bears
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
Pennsylvania
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous soul
He waits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

I pray that it will be revealed to which anonymous soul God stole away into this year.

Perhaps yours?

Thank you for letting me journey with you.

Today, throw on the Mynabirds “All I Want is Truth (for Christmas)” in the hopes that 2021 will be a year of safety and truth for a change!