Shape and Substance

meditations on faith and church

Just Call Me Grumpy


Transfiguration Sunday afternoon

            I have been asking myself all afternoon why I feel such disgruntlement with worship. 

            After all, the sermon was literate and thoughtful, true to the texts of the day, and full of encouragement to be the people of God engaged in bearing witness to the love and justice of Christ in the world. The children’s sermon was a delight: a meditation on the transformative possibilities inherent in the most basic elements of creation. The Great Prayer gathered up the remembrance of God’s graciousness in creation, re-membered the narrative of Christ, and called forth the power of the Spirit not merely to draw the gathered worthies into the presence of Christ but also to love those unloved and ill-treated by the world. We were benedicted with the injunction to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. All of it accompanied by towering organ music and the best efforts of a choir to represent in song the scriptural paradox of the Christ event. Even the hymns, though hardly my favorites, were true to the spirit and themes of the moment. 

            So what is wrong with that? Or with me, that it leaves me dissatisfied?

            What is wrong, I think, is that there was no space for mystery, for not-knowing. We have, as a people, ceased to be in awe. We have convinced ourselves that we know all the answers to all the questions. We are here to tell you about it. 

            Annie Dillard once observed of the modern predicament that, “We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.” Were she meditating on today’s texts, Luke’s version of the Transfiguration story, she might have said that we have finally managed what poor old Peter could not: we have built booths—what Greek calls skene, source of our word, “scene”—to contain the numinous in the drama of normalcy. 

            You know the tale: Peter, James, and John go with Jesus to the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appear, and Peter burps up the instinct to put together a little stage show, perhaps to memorialize the moment, perhaps to take on the road to see how well it will play in Peoria. But before he can design the set, there is a cloud, a blinding light, a heaven-rending voice—and then there is nothing but Jesus, standing alone on the stage to deliver the final monologue. In response to which, Luke says, the trio “kept silent and in those days said nothing to anyone.” 

            The day’s preacher, eager to give the congregation something to do, used the disciples as a foil (something the Gospels do regularly), encouraging us not to remain speechless as they did, but to tell the good news. I didn’t argue the point. 

            But downstream from the moment, I can’t escape the feeling that their silence wasthe point. When you stand at crumbling edge of coherence and peer over into the wild unknowing, there are no words. Talking is a profanity. 

            The Church has become frighteningly good at talking. We preach what Christian Wiman memorably called the “unthunder.” We pray prayers that rarely rise higher than our hairdos. We advocate for this, witness to that, issue calls to action for the righteousness that isn’t happening and demand moratoria on the unrighteousness that is. But does all this talking finally amount to anything more than sound and fury?

            Don’t misunderstand: it’s not that we are saying the wrong things; we are, as a friend of mine used to say, “on the side of angels.” It’s that there is no right thing to say. At the heart of things, there are no words. There is only silence. 

            Where the disciples missed the point was not in their silence, but in their impulse to speak. At least they got it right in the end. Would that we could say as much.

            Where, then, are the moments when we are silent before the mysteries?

            In the Sacraments? Well and truly said. But even here we can’t stand the absence of our own voices. We cram the liturgy full of canticles, set to inane tunes that swing like giddy children’s songs, accompanied by organ explosions that startle the contemplative out of her chair, to say nothing of her contemplation. We drape the Table in prayers that are less pleas to God than preachments to the gathered, second bites at the homiletical apple. We reduce the mystery of body and blood to justice and social action. We might as well be building booths. One expects the voice of God to interrupt with a command to listen, but it seems God can’t get a word in edgewise.  

            Or in the music? One hopes. But even the anthem—ostensibly a paean to the paradoxical Christ—gets lost in its own bombast as the tenor section screeches and claws its way to the triple-fortissimo high F in the final phrase. No mystery here, just strained vocal chords and pitches that echo slightly flat in the wounded air. 

            And so, as Sunday afternoon creeps on, I cannot shake an emptiness I struggle to name. I struggle because its name is silence. I yearn for silence. I yearn for the encounter with That Which Has No Name, or at least no name we can pronounce. I yearn to be struck dumb like old Zechariah, skeptical of the mystery until it was enfleshed before his very eyes. I yearn for the presence of That Which Does Not Need Me to Talk About It. I yearn notto know, but instead to be knownby that which lies beyond knowing. 

            So what does all this ranting suggest that I do? Drop out of the choir and stop coming to worship? Find a quiet spot in the woods where I won’t bother anyone? Perhaps, but no. I love the music, miserable musician that I am, and I need the fellowship, and I hear in sermons truths worth pondering. I thrill to the sensation of the foundations of the earth quaking beneath my feet when the organ rattles the windowpanes with the lowest-of-the-low C. I savor the taste of sweet bread dipped and dripping with the fruit of the vine. I will be there next week and the week after, hoping, waiting. It is as Peter says elsewhere: “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

            But occasionally I will slip away—in mind and spirit, if not in body—and cease listening to the words. There will be moments when I will tune out this everflowing river of talk and attend instead to the silence. I will be here in my seat, but truly I will be gone. Gone into the cloud at the top of the mountain. Gone into the shining darkness. Gone into the echoes of a voice that speaks and says exactly Nothing. I’ll see you on the other side. 

            If there is one.

Things Divide

For my siblings in the United Methodist Church

Things divide
and fall apart
that once were one
at heart.

Streams divide
when points of land
refuse to move,

new channels form,
however hard
the parting ways.

though it may seem,
the future’s share
is neither dream nor

Island shores
amid the flow
appear eternal.
But slow,

beneath the waves
an inkling change,
and waters over time

to wash downstream
what once seemed sure.
Water—not the land—

Divided things
once held apart
will yet be one
at heart.

We Who Are Alive

We Who Are Alive
1 Thessalonians 4:17; Mark 11:13
We who are alive
wait for fig trees to bear fruit.
Not yet time for figs.
Temples not torn down
wait still for their rebuilding.
Three days is not long.
No sign of rain, but 
clouds of possibility
gather in the east.
Therefore encourage
one another with these words.
It is time for figs.

For Mary Oliver

Never mind that he is only a memo
from the offices of fear
                        —Mary Oliver, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”
Where you walk, I only look through windows. 
Not because I fear the woods, or the wind 
that ever brushes clean the window sill
and sends the dry leaves roiling in the clouds, 
but because there are the words to read
before they too roil away, and the time
to put on coat and hat seems like a treason.
And so your owl with unfurled fernlike wings
becomes in mind a strange transcendent angel—
oh, not a jovial, chubby, red-faced cherub, 
but as you said, oblivion’s memorandum.
Rilke knew: every angel is terrifying. 
The darkened cottage opens to us all,
and all of us in time approach its door. 
Yesterday you stepped across the threshold.
I peer through the window in my coat and hat. 

The Magi Recall the Star

Matthew 2

Epiphanies always have consequences.
Apocalypses always require assembly.
A star. A distant pin-prick—maybe
            light from an ancient orb gone supernova—
portends the end of something, and the birth
            of something new. But what? And why?
What difference should this faint illumination
            make to those in shadow on the journey?
The journey. Set your foot to paths uncharted
            impelled to some uncertain destination,
ask inconvenient questions of those whose power
            disinclines them to acknowledge answers,
barter time from old, bloodthirsty fools
            who sit on queasy thrones and dread the star. 
The star. It moves, yet night to night the same 
            point of light in the aching windswept darkness,
the cold black emptiness of space.
            Like you, it makes its own strange journey,
setting sail to catch the breath of God.
            It finds its destination in those eyes.
Those eyes. The child sees you, and calls your name—
            a name you had forgot, or did not know
you knew, a name whose riches, undeserved,
            will cost you everything you have, and more.
He looks at you, and in his eyes you see
            the rising and the setting of your hopes.
Your hopes. Leave them behind, these selves you carry 
            the journey long, like treasures of the heart;
return, then, empty-handed, knowing nothing
            but the light behind the dark eyes of the child.
Be haunted by that light. It does not fade
            even as the dark absorbs the star. 
Darkness falls. You are night-blind, and groping. 
Go home a different way, if home at all.     

Christmas Rose

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
— Traditional German Carol
Were there roses before there were thorns?
Or did thorns give rise to roses?
Rilke said, 
Denn das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang…. *

And Stevens, 
“Death is the mother of beauty….”
I say 
blood and beauty are identical twins
born of love, and laid in a manger.
And to love is to live 
and to live is to die
and to die is to love. 
I have held a rose.
I have been pierced by thorns.
Truth has not one nature
but two.
* “For beauty is nothing other than the beginning of terror.”

The Shepherds’ Prayer

Note: This poem is set as a hymn to the author’s tune, “Wrigley.”. 

O God of the shepherds in night-fallen pastures,
God of the angels suspended in flight,
God of the moon-dark, the maiden’s frail gesture,
O God of the man-child who cries in the night:
Illumine the night with the angels’ cold glory;
linger with us when the host turns away
and flees into heaven, and whisper the story
we ponder with wonder as night turns to day.
Your glory is fierce, and it tests our conviction
to follow the path to the manger and inn,
a glory that ends in a dark crucifixion
for any who muster the heart to begin.
So bind up our courage and lead us through darkness
from sheepfold and stable to table and tomb,
from manger and mother to glory incarnate,
Light of the world in the dark of the womb.


Suppose it was not an angel,
but dust-mites floating in a shaft of light,
an idle breeze billowing the curtain,
whispering the wild and wordless wonder 
of the ages. 
Suppose it was not a message 
from a god no one has ever claimed to see 
and from whom only madmen claim to hear
such promises as these to strain the limits
of belief,
but only a poor girl’s fantasy
who had no sense of natural causation
and no better explanation near to hand
than godly violation of the sanctum
of her womb.
Tell me, could you blame her
for telling such a tale and, tale once told,
believing it with all the heart she had,
relying on the growing evidence
of her belly?
And if she believed it,
kept it in her heart, then why not we?
Why not the world—can it not always use
a god or two who yield up life in service
of the holy?
Here am I, she said,
a statement less of certainty than hope.
And wondering if we could say as much,
we follow at a distance on the road
to Bethlehem.

When I Die

Spare us the pasty euphemisms: “He has passed,”
or “crossed to the other side,” as though a sheep
slipped through some metaphysic fence for greener grass.

Spare us the pious “He’s with God.” No god may keep
what was not a god’s to take, and will not be.
Where gods demur to sow, they cannot claim to reap.

Spare us the overwrought, the puff-stuffed eulogy.
Deeds, like fireflies, offer but the briefest gleaming;
their light a glimmer in the dark before they flee.

Spare us, as well, the erudite discourse on meaning,
untangling some arcane apocalyptic thread
from the raveled skein, the knotted yarn of dreaming.

Brave the clean-shaved danger of the word: Dead.
Beyond the looming end, these phrases incomplete,
these words, if living now, shall faint upon this bed.

Then raise a glass in toast to love, however fleet.
Sing rousing songs of courage, though the night draws close,
Then go your way to live, to love, to sin, to sleep.

Some say the dark bestows a blessing upon those
who sleep the trackless hours of night. They wake
new-shaped, first fruits of new creation. Is it so?

Let it be so. For all must sleep, if not all wake.

Robbers’ Dens and Barren Trees

A sermon preached in observation of the 160th anniversary of the founding of First Presbyterian Church in Fernandina Beach, FL, 18 November 2018.

Jer. 7:1-15 and Mark 11:12-25

It is a daunting thing to step into the pulpit of an old church, and even more daunting to step into such a pulpit on an auspicious occasion like this. Expectations are high, and I suspect more than a few of you are anticipating a pat on the back for a congregational life well-lived to date and a rosy-eyed vision of days yet to come. And you deserve it. God knows, this has been a faithful place for long-numbered years. It has endured storms both meteor-ological and metaphorical, and found a way to offer meaningful ministry to the center of this community since before this community was a community. It has been well-led and well-fed, well-intentioned and well-mentioned for most of its storied existence. You deserve a pat on the back.

Your problem is that pat-on-the-back preaching is not my homiletical strength. If you came hoping for that, you may be disappointed.

To tell the truth, pat-on-the-back preaching is not exactly biblical, either, and so I feel some justification. Take for example the passages from Jeremiah and Mark we read a few moments ago. Jeremiah and Jesus stand up to preach in the outer courts of the temple—the same location, albeit different temples five hundred years apart—but if anyone passing by on either day expected to hear words of congratulations on a job well done, they were, well, disappointed. Rather, Jeremiah and Jesus took a different approach to their messages.

Jeremiah’s context is a moment of extremity. Babylonian armies under Nebuchadnezzar were massing outside the city gates for an assault on Jerusalem, while inside the city two political parties vied for control. One saw surrender to the Babylonians as the only way to preserve the city and interpreted the city’s crisis as God’s judgment on the people’s errant ways. The other pointed to the Temple atop Mt. Zion as evidence that, as long as the Temple stood God would stand with the city, and encouraged resistance to the invaders. In the midst of this desperate political struggle, Jeremiah stood up to preach.

The first words from his lips were all anyone needed to know where the prophet stood. “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord!’” Amend your ways, cried the prophet, or this temple will be of no more permanence and security than the ancient Israelite shrine at Shiloh, once a center of Israel’s worship but long since destroyed and annexed by other invaders. Your hope—whatever hope you have—rests not in the foundation of this Temple but in your return to obedience to the values on which the nation was founded: care for the widow and orphan, justice for those to whom justice is denied, faithfulness to God. And to clarify the point, he uses a most intriguing metaphor: “Has this house,” he says, “…become a den of robbers in your sight?”

When we hear that, most of us think of images of violence and criminality. A robber’s den must be a place of murder, mayhem, and theft. But, in fact, it’s the opposite: it’s the place where the robber gang goes after they’ve committed the murder and mayhem, a place of refuge, rest, and security where they can count and divide the loot and plan their next move. It’s what the old westerns call a “hide-out” where you go when the posse is hot on your trail. Has the temple become a hide-out for the Judaeans, a place of safe refuge where they can avoid the consequences of their actions? Don’t trust in that, says Jeremiah. The law has caught you, the Babylonians are at the gates; God is about to wreak havoc in your haven.

Jeremiah’s point is that faithfulness to God is not wrapped up in what happens inside the church. It’s not what happens inside the Temple that’s a problem; the Temple is in fact just fine. It’s what happens outside in the city that counts. It’s the way you treat the lowest and the least in the world: the homeless man in the street, the undocumented child at your border, the woman who cries for help in the wake of abuse or assault. If you are looking for protection, protect those who need protecting. If you want to be the church, be the church to them.

It is surely no accident that Mark chooses this precise metaphor to place on Jesus’ lips when Jesus ventures into the Temple courts that day. He sees the Temple in full operation, with animal sellers providing animals required for the sacrificial ritual and money-changers exchanging Roman coinage stamped with the image of the emperor for temple coins that bore no image of any living thing so as not to violate the second commandment. He sees, in other words, the Temple doing and being exactly what the Temple should do and be. And he drives them out, bringing that doing and being to a grinding halt. And he says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.”

We like to think of Jesus as exhibiting anger here, and who knows, maybe he was. We like to think that what he saw that day was dishonest commerce at the foot of the temple doors, and it provoked him to a righteous rage. The problem is that there is nothing in the text to suggest either that there was anything dishonest with the commerce in the temple court or that Jesus was angry or enraged—not a word; go back and look! And there is a good deal to suggest that this was a carefully calculated moment, all to make a point.

The calculation starts in v.12, before Jesus comes to the Temple. On his way there, he passes a fig tree, and Mark tells us, “he was hungry” (the only indication we get of Jesus’ inner state). Looking at the tree, he finds no fruit because—and Mark is carefully explicit about this—“it was not the season for figs.” So Jesus pronounces an end to the fig tree’s function, and moves on. But I have to wonder: was Jesus so out of touch with the natural rhythms of growth and harvest that he expected fruit when no fruit could reasonably be expected? Was Jesus expecting the fig tree to be more than a fig tree, doing and being exactly what it should be doing and being? Or is it that he knows that henceforth, seasonal barrenness can no longer be an excuse, and that being a fig tree in a fig tree world is no longer enough? After clearing the temple, as Jesus passes the barren fig tree, he tells his disciples that “whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and it will be yours.”

The point Mark’s Jesus seems to be making is not that Jesus can exhibit righteous indignation, but rather that being faithful is something larger, more encompassing going to church. The Temple, being and doing what the Temple is supposed to be and do, is no longer enough. It is not enough to seek shelter from the storms. Faithfulness forces us out into the weather to give shelter to others. This, I think, is why Mark uses the “den of robbers” quote from Jeremiah. Look beyond the Temple as a place of refuge, he seems to say, and see the Temple as the place where change begins. Pray, he says; believe, and the world itself will move. And then get out there and be part of the movement.

Now what am I suggesting to good folk gathered in good clothes in good faith on this good day? Just this: don’t get caught up in doing and being church to such an extent that you forget what doing and being church is really all about. It isn’t about how long the building has stood here on 6th Street in Fernandina Beach. It isn’t about whether the building is on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. It isn’t about the warm feeling you get when you walk in the door or how much you love the people you walk in with. Important as those things are—and they do have importance—they are not the point. And when you make them the point, well…that’s when the trouble starts.

In the last decade of the previous century, I served as pastor of a congregation in Atlanta; in fact, it’s where Wain Wesberry served as intern for three(?) years while in seminary. When I was there, Rock Spring was a medium sized Presbyterian congregation of about 250 members. I left in 1999 for other callings, and in the succeeding years the Rock Spring congregation went through some hard times. There were leadership controversies and financial struggles, and people found other places to go. I read an article in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution the other day reporting that the now 80 members of the congregation have sold off two and a half acres of its prime mid-town Atlanta real estate, including the church’s former manse and lower playground and parking lot, just to keep the fiscal life support machines running a little longer. I’ve often looked back on years and wondered what we could have done differently that might have set the congregation on a different course.

The people of Rock Spring loved their church, and they loved their church building. Loved it so much, in fact, that changing anything about it was anathema to more than a few. The bitterest argument I had as a pastor arose when we removed—temporarily—the front modesty rails and first two pews to make room for a small orchestra for a musical performance. It was as though the sacred ancestors were rolling in their graves. Love of that sanctuary was so overwhelming that the church did little else to reach beyond its walls. There were individuals in the congregation who gave out blankets and soup to the homeless on cold Atlanta nights, and there were a few intrepid souls who occasionally volunteered to staff the homeless night shelter at a nearby congregation, but for the most part “church” to most of those good people meant “sanctuary building” and the beloved friends they met therein and the warmth and security they felt in that building among those friends after a week’s buffeting in the rough-and-tumble world of Atlanta business.

Not that there is anything wrong with that: that is, in fact, the church being and doing what the church is supposed to be and do. The problem is that it isn’t enough. That congregation, for all its warmth and insular love, has become—to borrow Mark’s metaphor—a barren tree. One of the members of the congregation was quoted in the interview saying, “We know we have to change in order to attract young people.” Much as I love that woman, I can tell her that attracting young people won’t do it. It does nothing to reach out to widow and orphan. It does nothing to attend to the needs of migrants or undocumented or homeless. It doesn’t bind the wounds of the emotionally bleeding in the community. Most significantly, I think, it doesn’t follow the God whom no building can contain and who never stops moving in the world. It isn’t that God doesn’t love the good folk of Rock Spring; I know it is true that God does. But perhaps it is also true that God has seen that the church has ceased bearing fruit and simply moved on.

Both Jesus and Jeremiah would have us understand that faithfulness is not about individual morality and getting right with God. Faithfulness is not a private me-and-Jesus coziness, not some spiritual snuggle that allows me to feel safe and warm and special. It is rather a commitment on the part of the whole community—whether that community is a congregation like this or a nation that would call itself Christian—to be less concerned with its own security and more aware of the world God loves enough to risk dying for. The faithfulness to which Jeremiah and Jesus summon us does not separate religion from ethics. Rather, it understands that moral life in covenant with God involves rejecting the ways that harm neighbor. That moral covenant may start in this building, but it cannot stay here. It must bleed out into the spaces of our lives: work places and home places and voting places and learning places and commercial places and private bedroom places. It must be upheld in White Houses and state houses and migrant workers’ houses and your house and my house. If there is anywhere that covenant is not upheld, we cannot claim to uphold it here. Church—whether in 6th century Jerusalem or on 6th St in Fernandina Beach—is no shelter from the hard decisions about love and ethics. It is the place we learn how to make those decisions.

Here’s a poem.

Gods of Small Things

Let us be gods of small things,
lords of mice and roaches,
bastard sons and daughters
of happy, smiling gods
who bless their acolytes
with touchdowns and close-in parking.

Let us stand to the ends of things:
parting notes of postludes
in empty sanctuaries
apologetic exits
whispered at the door,
the echo of the deadbolt.

Let us walk the hallways after
light and hope burn out,
read from silent liturgy
prayers addressed to no one,
hear from mislaid hymnals
music no one sings.

Let us raise the chain-link fence,
last fence around the Table,
that bars the way to all
lest any come unworthy
to take the meal, until
the meal is taken from us.

Let us be the wrecking-ball;
swung from moral heights
we bring down the house
then hang condemned when done,
the evidence against us
stone not left on stone.

But let us be at last the rain
that falls on wrack and ruin
to wash away the stain
—see, even now it falls—
and waters wheat and vine
and pools in broken fonts. (1)

Here is my prayer for you. That you may be more than a robbers’ den and a barren tree. That you may be the rain that waters wheat and vine, until grows the grain for bread and the grape for wine. That you may be the font that, though broken, still holds the baptismal waters. That you may follow God into a strange new world where God is not in the temples but on the loose, and dwells with people of every sort, and wipes away every tear from their eyes. That you may move mountains. Indeed, that you may go out of here and move mountains.

(1) Paul Hooker, Days and Times: Poems from the Liturgy of Living. Eugene OR, Resource Publications, 2018, pp.8-9.