Cut from the Cloth of the Ancestors

In the final month we lived in Virginia, alongside the requisite sorting, box-making, and packing, I finished a project that was nearly a decade in the making.  The project hadn’t languished because it was particularly difficult or big—it was just one of those projects that lies fallow for awhile until it’s clear that its time has arrived.

The project was a small wall hanging—no more than 2’ x 2’. In early 2011, I had moved to Pittsburgh to begin a Master’s program, taking with me my sewing machine and a stash of fabric as my study-break hobby.

This was not just any fabric, though; it was fabric I had gleaned from my mother’s stash and from fabric she had gleaned from both of my grandmothers, who were both deceased.  The fabric was mostly scraps—small bits leftover from yesteryear’s (or yesterdecade’s) projects, likely clothes and quilts.  Some pieces were no bigger than a couple inches across. Most were wonky remnants.  All had a bit of that musty, mothball grandmother’s-closet smell.

I began taking the scraps and piecing them together, using a technique called “crazy quilting,” where symmetry is not a goal, at least until you finish the square.

Eventually, I had made about 35 squares. Half of them, I pieced together and quilted for my sister.  The other half sat in a box for the rest of our time in PA.  And then it sat in a box in a basement while we lived in London.  And then, still in the same box, it sat in my study while we were in VA.

Years later, at the start of 2019, I resolved to finish what I now called my “Grandmother Project,” to put the final squares together and make a wall hanging for myself. 

By Summer 2019, it was still in the box.  But as a move loomed in our future, I felt a poke of “quilter’s conscience.”  And then, separately, when it seemed clear that my ordination for ministry would be happening before we moved, I felt the critical impetus for following through on my resolution.

I felt this because I linked the possibility of my ordination with my ancestors—particularly ancestral women with whom I shared either genes or spirit.

So, in August and September 2019, I finished piecing the top. I carefully layered the backing, batting, and top together. I then quilted it by hand.  Finally, I bound the edges and it was complete. With the ordination service approaching, I requested that “Grandmother Project” be part of the worship visuals as a symbol of gratitude and interconnectedness to those who have “made a way” for my journey.

As I stood facing the congregation that morning, I also stood in front of my handiwork, my grandmothers’ and mother’s fabrics, and I was anointed for ministry.  My mother and mother-in-law joined me, draping a vibrant stole around my neck that they had collectively made.  It was a sacred intersection of blessings, of standing on hallowed ground with women who had paved the way for me, whether or not they knew it.

Photo credit: Justin Showalter

Recently, I’ve taken out more of these old scraps from my grandmothers, my own fabric occasionally mixed in.  As I cut them into squares for some future project, I think of my grandmothers and I wonder about their lives.

As I’m currently reading My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Path to Mending our Bodies by Resmaa Menakem, at times I reflect on the mystery of my own grandmothers’ hands. 

I think about the scars and trauma my ancestors endured, and wonder how much of that lingers in me. I wonder about how my grandmothers thought about race, gender, white privilege, or the land they inhabited.  I smile at the question with an unknowable answer: What would they think of their granddaughter-pastor? 

In the absence of answers, I keep cutting squares and asking for their blessing and wisdom. I offer my gratitude for them, for their labors in keeping loved ones clothed and warm with all varieties of colors and patterns. And I let their love shape my ministry, as I think now of those who will lead us in the years to come.

A Prayer for Peace and Nonviolence

Author of Life, Painbearer, and Peacemaker,
we long for you.
As the sunlight diminishes each day, 
the shadows seem to overtake our world.
Chaos, confusion, and uncertainty threaten to spill
into every vacant space in our minds and hearts.

We long for your presence.
All: Loving God, be our peace.

As we move through this election season,
   we pray for inner peace.
We pray for an awareness of our belovedness,
   of the Spirit’s empowering presence.
Center us in our true, whole selves.
Give us clarity of mind and a discerning heart.

We pray for inner peace.
All: Loving God, be our peace.

We pray, too, for the peace we share with the world.
In the midst of harsh and hateful language,
   may we speak words of healing.
In the midst of hypocrisy and hyperbole,
   may we act with integrity.
In all the ways we live and move this week,
   may we be bearers of justice, mercy, and nonviolence,
   modeled on the way of Jesus.

We pray for our peace witness in the world.
All: Loving God, be our peace.

We pray for the peace of the world.
We pray for those in power,
   that they will use their power for unity and not for division.
We pray for each election site in our communities and nation,
   that intimidation and fear-mongering will be absent,
   and safety, wisdom, and a commitment to just process will flourish.   

We pray for our communities, that neighbors will reach out to 
neighbors in recognition of our common humanity.

We pray for the peace of the world.
All: Loving God, be our peace.

We long for your presence and peace, O God,
   in all people and all places,
   this day and everyday.

All: We ask this in the name of the Creator, Incarnate Wisdom, and Inner Breath. Amen.

Rooted and Freed to (Be) Love(d)

This image on my arm has become my symbol of commitment to resisting dehumanization, both my own and others’. She represents our freedom from the lies of systemic oppression that restrain the fullness of life and loving expression.

For me, transitions tend to invite introspection—first at the time of the transition itself, and often again at anniversaries of the original event. These reflections take on multiple forms, such as journaling, personal retreats, or planning rituals with friends. Other times, the reflection is intertwined with embodied expression: cutting off my hair, adding holes to my body, or inking up my skin. 

Recently, I crossed a milestone anniversary of a significant transition – one that was, in fact, marked by fresh ink on my right forearm.  It is this experience, the art and the personal growth, that I reflect on below.


The chaos felt violent, unnecessary, and soul-deadening. When I finally found a shred of Center, something deep had shifted within me, and I began pondering my first steps out of the swirling mess.

Stepping out of any tumultuous experience is a significant transition, a liminal space to be named and honored. And so, I commissioned an artist-friend to draw a tattoo for me.

The instructions were basic: it should be based on a Celtic tree of life (a symbol that connects with my spirituality); with a nod toward a water-loving tree, such as a weeping willow (connecting to my natal watershed); and, I wanted the full spectrum of color represented.

My friend took these instructions and mocked up a couple of options.  I was immediately struck with one where she had intuitively transformed the trunk into a feminine figure, such that the roots became her feet, and her arms and head stretched up to form the bottom branches.  This was it.  This was the one. The image spoke to what had shifted in me and, in turn, marked my stepping out from the shadows.

Part of what shifted within me, you see, was a new unwillingness to be boxed in.
An unwillingness to put my head down, to be veiled in silence, to take up less space.
An unwillingness to be complicit in the unconcealed, deliberate stifling of my very essence.

As I was reminded countless times, I had agreed to this.  I had initially consented to The Box,* diminishing myself in some vague, perverse form of Gelassenheit.  I settled for the self-silencing. I optimistically trusted that this was rooted in something theologically sound and that I would grow to understand it. Instead, I found it was rooted in the tired, old forms of patriarchy and sexism, and every time I mentioned this or stepped out of my box, institutional denial emerged with scapegoating hot on its tail.

At a point, I had enough.  (Part of my reflections now, many moons later, include an incredulity that I stayed as long as I did.)

The tattoo, then, was a way of saying, “no more!” – a visible, physical reminder that life is too short to be boxed in for a “greater cause,”** when in reality, The Greater Cause desperately needs our full, flourishing selves.*** 

Part of my call is not only to believe that I deserve this for myself, but to actively advocate for the flourishing of others. That’s partly where the full spectrum of colors in the tattoo comes in.

This image on my arm has become my symbol of commitment to resisting dehumanization, both my own and others’.  She represents our freedom from the lies of systemic oppression that restrain the fullness of life and loving expression. 

In flinging wide her arms, the Tree Woman is not only freed from her shackles, she is freed to love and to be loved.  Songbirds land in the safety of her weeping branches, and she sings along with them.  The life-rich soil on the banks of her stream, she firmly holds in place with a steadfast resolve. Travelers of all sorts find under her canopy a safe haven for rest, arms stretched wide to hold and be held.  (She loves to be held as much as she holds.)


In a recent worship planning meeting at Madison Mennonite, our chairperson opened the gathering by sharing the following poem of Hildegard of Bingen. As he read, I saw reflected that while this tattoo is on my arm, it represents the experience and blessing we all need in milestone moments and in their anniversaries.  As we find our roots and shake off the shackles that bind us, we are freed to be “encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”

Good people,
Most royal greening verdancy,
Rooted in the sun,
You shine with radiant light,
in this circle of earthly existence
You shine so finely,
it surpasses understanding.
God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.


*I was told The Box would grow and change its shape, according to the person inhabiting it.

**A scarcity mentality leads us to accommodate the “greater cause.”

***Becoming our “full, flourishing selves,” does not include the “freedom” to trample on the potential growth of others.  It may, in fact, involve the surrendering of certain “privileges or preferences” to enable the thriving of others. In this vision of Freedom, my flourishing is directly tied to your flourishing; if you are chained, then I cannot be free.  (…to adapt the quote generally attributed to Lilla Watson.)

Sneak Attacks of the Night

The poem, perhaps yet unfinished, has been rolling around for awhile. It speaks of that which keeps us up at night — anxieties, traumatic memories, resentment, anger. There is something about the dark that invites these things to blossom in ways they wouldn’t dare during the day.

Petals unfurling at night,
a flower blossoms in the shimmering glow
of an ever-full moon.

Stubborn and devious,
it will not bloom in broad daylight
(no, for there it withers
under the stout resistance of one’s heart
and mind.)

Instead, this sickly-sweet blossom prefers
a still, silent world
shadows
poor night vision.

Feet, hands frozen
as if in a dream
can neither pluck it
nor flee from it.

A stray cloud passes;
the momentary distraction
shatters the illusion.

Then, a deep breath,
blankets tucked in again.
Weary eyes shutter.

The petals collapse in on themselves,
defeated for this night.

Richard Boyle @hellorich

Most of my creative energy in the last weeks has been directed toward church-related plans and staying present with broader invitations of life. All of this has required a high level of collaboration, which is fantastic and I wouldn’t trade any of it!

But it has been awhile since I’ve written anything “shareable” for the blog. I saw this on a friend’s timeline and I knew it was true for me.

The poem above, perhaps yet unfinished, has been rolling around for awhile. It speaks of that which keeps us up at night — anxieties, traumatic memories, resentment, anger. There is something about the dark that invites these things to blossom in ways they wouldn’t dare during the day. Sometimes there is the grace of a passing cloud, or a new perspective; often there is not.

In the Midst of the Storm

In these late summer COVID days, the imagery and reality of storms seems ever-present. Several conversations lately have turned toward thunderstorms and the swirls of chaos many find themselves right now.  It’s a vulnerable time; we feel exposed to the elements, utterly out of control.

Of the storms in the Bible, my favorite to reflect on is in Job 38, where God speaks to Job from the middle of a whirlwind.

“From out of a storm, the LORD said to Job:
Why do you talk so much, when you know so little?
Now get ready to face me. Can you answer the questions I ask?” (CEV)

While some might read this theophany and hear an über-powerful God who smites doubters and sufferers alike, I hear in the passage a deep love for all that God has made: a God who birthed the oceans; who embroiders the hills with sunlight; who has storehouses of snow and dew.  This is a God who has thought of every detail, arranging the cosmos with an artist’s keen eye.  And this is a God with a dry sense of humor, asking questions that direct Job (and us) back to his inevitable mortality and finiteness.

One of the most disorienting aspects of life in this COVID time (perhaps especially for white U.S. folks) is that our illusions of being in control have been shattered. The whirlwind has whipped away the flimsy protections of privilege.  This has led to our feelings of vulnerability, to which we all respond in different ways.

The invitation of Job 38 in a time like this is to surrender to God.  There is so much we cannot control right now (or ever).  To surrender to God is not to be obliterated or made insignificant; it is to be liberated from the illusory self. To surrender is to see that we are but one piece in a beautiful web of the cosmos, intricately created and loved – loved not because we hold it all together, but simply because we are.

In the midst of the storm, the Holy One will meet you.
Let Them guide you through the chaos with a Love that is infinite.


Songs featuring storms have themselves been swirling through my mind. Here’s a short playlist.

Friends from our days in London.

This essay was originally written for the August 2020 Madison Mennonite Church newsletter.

Lord, have mercy

A sermon on Matthew 15:10-28; Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Lord, have mercy.
“Lord, have mercy.” It’s one of those phrases that suits so many situations and can be taken so many different ways.  Sometimes we utter it in exasperation, in disbelief or sarcasm, with an eye roll for good measure.  Perhaps more often these days, we say it in grief, shock, or surrender.  It’s a line for when we are at a loss for words or when words are simply insufficient.

The Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 yells this phrase at the top of her lungs.  “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented.”  Jesus doesn’t answer, but we know that he heard her, for the disciples sidled up to Jesus and urged him to send her away.  “She keeps shouting.  Her voice is shrill.”

Jesus weighs the situation, doesn’t say she can’t be there, and sort of diplomatically says, “Sorry, can’t help. You’re not in my constituency. Not my responsibility.”

The woman, of course, persists.  She jostles forward, using her body to block his forward progress.  “Help me, Rabbi.”

Again, with the excuse that the healing salve he has developed only works in certain cases, Jesus denies her access – he doesn’t have enough to spare, and it won’t work for her type.

Yet she remains, unmoving at his feet.  “Yes, Lord, yet even my type are healed by a drop of this balm for which we would scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town.”

Jesus, whether in mock or true surprise, responds, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Her wish, the desire of her heart, in contrast the Pharisees earlier in chapter 15, is pure and life-giving.  What comes out of her mouth is the hope of her daughter’s healing.  And her daughter is healed instantly.

Healings in the Gospel of Matthew
Looking at the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, healings like this are commonplace. Generally, you can separate the healing stories into two themes or categories. 

The first category is the smaller of the two. These healing stories are grouped because they’re the ones where Jesus is the proactive actor.  There’s Peter’s mother-in-law in ch. 8, who is ill and Jesus goes in to heal her.  She does not, in the text, ask for healing and yet receives it.  Or there’s the man with a withered hand who Jesus encounters upon entering the synagogue in ch.12.  Again, the man does not ask for healing but receives it.  The healing of these stories reflects a proactive grace or proactive salvation – these are the people whom Jesus seeks out or whom he seems to just encounter along the way and offers healing.

The second category is the bigger group: healings that occur because people have sought out Jesus.  If the first group shows the proactive healings of Jesus, these stories show the responsive grace of Jesus.  Certainly, the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 falls in this camp, but this group also includes the crowds who are constantly following Jesus around. Who materialize instantaneously as he walks into towns, or gets off a boat, or comes down a mountain.  Many are healed or cured because they have sought out Jesus.

As a whole, the Gospel of Matthew encapsulates both proactive and responsive healings and grace. There are those who seek Jesus out and those whom he encounters along the way, and the end result is the same: healing.

Seeking Jesus Out
Given today’s text, I want to take a closer look at those who seek Jesus out.  The story of the Canaanite woman connects closely with three other healing stories in Matthew.

Two of them involve two blind men – so four blind men in total – and the third is a father who advocates for his epileptic son.  In each of these four stories, the ones-seeking-healing enter the story with the same line: Lord, have mercy!  And they all do so with equal gusto and persistence, for they are portrayed as speaking this line, “Lord, have mercy,” while “crying loudly,” or “shouting” or jostling through a crowd.  All, inevitably, find healing in Jesus’ response.

But the Canaanite woman’s story diverges here.  The first distinction is that while all experience some level of marginalization because of being affected by illness, the Canaanite woman has two additional stigmas. She’s a woman, of course, an unfortunate gender in that context. And the fact that she makes herself known in public through shouting is serious faux pas.

And, she’s Canaanite. The ethnic backgrounds of the others are not mentioned, from which we can infer that the men were Jewish.  She’s a woman…from the wrong tribe.  So the first divergence is that she should not be there; or, if she’s going to be there, she should know her place and stay in the background.

The other detail that is unique is that she is the only one who meets resistance from Jesus and the disciples when she cries out for mercy.  The disciples–silent in the other three stories–openly voice their desire for her to shut up and go away.  Not only is her voice not welcome, but they also want her to leave.  Jesus also puts up a barrier for healing that he does not construct for the others.

She did nothing different from the others who approached Jesus for healing, crying out, “Lord, have mercy!”  Yet she encounters resistance.  The relevance of how this still plays out today–even at the highest rungs of social and political power–should not be overlooked.

The “Foreigner” of Isaiah
Commentaries pitch a variety of hypotheses on what is happening between the Canaanite woman and Jesus.  In drawing in Isaiah 56, my sense is that the Canaanite woman is the example par excellence of the “foreigner” in Isaiah 56, whom God has committed to “gather in.”  Her body and her embodiment of covenant faithfulness bridge the good news of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ teaching.

Hear again the words of Isaiah 56:6-7:

And the foreigners who join themselves to me,
Ministering to me,
Loving the name of YHWH and worshipping me–
All who observe the Sabbath and do not profane it,
And cling to my Covenant–
These I will bring to my holy mountain
And make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
Will be acceptable on my altar

The Canaanite woman persistently joins herself to the Son of David, who shares Canaanite blood with her through their common foremothers Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.  She ministers to Jesus with her wisdom and tenacity, acknowledging Jesus’ authority, and throws herself at Jesus’ feet like a servant.

She is committed, in her own way, to the law of the Sabbath, setting aside her daily labors to seek restoration, renewal, and healing for those in her care. The desire of her heart is a worthy offering.

She knows that she is one who, while an outcast of Israel, deserves a welcome at the house of prayer.  In fact, she will not be kept from it, even if she has to scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town or sweep up the crumbs from the communion table.  I Am Who I Am has promised to gather all those in – the outcasts who seek the Holy One and the ones the Holy One encounters on the way.

Have Mercy, O God
For what or for whom do you seek healing?  When have you received healing as a gift? 

Whether we have sought out Jesus or unexpectedly encountered him on our journeys, our status as foreigners or even imposters will not be a barrier to the welcome table. 

As we see others drawn in, perhaps throwing elbows and shouting for mercy, may we not stand in their path, or ask them to be quiet and leave. May we instead step out of the way, for all deserve healing and a place at the table.  The Spirit is at work, gathering us to the holy mountain, where there is enough bread and wine for us all.  

Prayer of Petition, in preparation for Communion

Have mercy on us, O God, Son of David.
If we might but taste the crumbs which fall to the ground,
that will be enough to feed our faith,
to make us whole.
Draw us in, we who were once far off,
to your holy mountain,
to your house of prayer –
not only for our healing,
but for the healing of our children,
our siblings, our community,
for the healing of all nations. Amen.


Featured Image: Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canaanite Woman Asks for Healing for Her Daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57555 [retrieved August 18, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilyas_Basim_Khuri_Bazzi_Rahib_-_Jesus_and_the_Canaanite_Woman_-_Walters_W59243A_-_Full_Page.jpg.

Book Review: The Lost Art of Dying

The details: L.S. Dugdale, The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom (New York: Harper One, 2020).

The problem and the question:  More and more North Americans have been dying poorly. We pursue a seemingly endless array of medical treatments with the hope of a cure, and, in exchange, often sacrifice our quality of life. We are dying alone and with regrets. And we die in fear, untethered from a sense of a bigger purpose. How can we support others’ dying and prepare for our own dying so that death is done “well”?

The thesis:  To die well, we must live well. 

What this means for Dugdale:  Dying well means living with a sense of our finitude.  We’re all going to die someday, and it’s best if we deal with that fact while we aren’t facing death head-on.  That does not mean we look forward to dying, but that we have judged and arranged our todays (and tomorrows) with an awareness that we cannot do/have it all.  We cannot be cured of death.

Dying well requires a connection to community and loved ones.  Which is to say that we must be present for others when they are dying (to both support them and to be reminded of our own mortality), and we must be prepared to unashamedly invite others in to our dying processes. Community helps us answer – or, at least admit that we often have – lingering questions about our existence.

Dying well means considering our literal deathbed.  The art of dying well is to curate, if you are able, your final days and moments so that you are at “home.” A hospital can be a “home” for various reasons, but Dugdale argues that hospitals often present barriers to dying well. So, thinking through what is important to you is a first step to dying in the bed and company of your heart’s desire.

Dying well requires that we acknowledge our fear of death.  It is out of fear of death that we “wage war” on the illnesses that ravage our bodies.  This fear is sometimes mistaken for a “desire to live,” though the quality of life one lives when on a third or fourth experimental drug says otherwise. It is natural to be afraid of what we do not know and what we cannot control, but Dugdale writes,“[N]ot all fear compels a person to submit to torturous procedures that are unlikely to help.”*.  To die well while afraid is to “walk courageously…toward the terror and sadness.”** To stare back at the fear of death is the only way to die well.

Dying well means attending to the body and the spirit. Dugdale writes of “vandalized shalom,” where bodies, communities, and the world are not as they are meant to be and are affected by decay.***  Yet it is within (broken) community that we find meaning and transformation. And it is within communities of faith, Dugdale suggests, that we find spiritual grounding to ease despair and emptiness.

Finally, dying well entails devoting time—more than one might think—to the rituals surrounding death.  While our culture around death has shifted significantly in the recent past, passing on to “professionals” the actions associated with saying our final good byes, Dugdale suggests that what is gained with efficiency does not offset what is lost ritually. Rituals, like preparing the body for burial or funerals, aren’t meant to be efficient, but to be effective markers of significant transition. In the case of death, they are meant to allow us to show love to the deceased, to the bereaved, and to contemplate our own mortality. What would it look like for families and communities to return to holding these rituals, rather than funeral homes?  Would it help the living to live (and die) better and to mourn more fully?

Personal reflection:  I finished this book on my birthday, a purposeful move…for though birthdays invite us to celebrate our lives and existence, with each passing year, they also mark, if we pay attention, our certain mortality. While I had a blip in my mid-20s where the idea of death filled me with utter sadness, I have largely felt unintimidated by death. I’m certainly not personally eager for it, nor do I wish anyone else an untimely death, but, with Dugdale, I have felt convicted that how we live (not what we have or ultimately what we accomplish) is how we die. And so I have tried to shape my life around priorities, which include faith, community, and no small amount of not-putting-up-with-crap.

A birthday donut: definitely contemplating my mortality, with the help of delicious, delicious carbs and fat.

Reading The Lost Art of Dying couldn’t have come at a better time–in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of societal upheaval, and in the midst of the earth rebelling against human abuse. Each of these circumstances reminds us of just how interconnected we all are. How your ability to live well relies on my ability to live well. How your ability to die well — without fear, surrounded by loved ones at home — is intricately connected with my ability to die well.

It may seem strange to educate ourselves on dying well, while death feels far off, but as Dugdale suggests, what better time is there?  What does it mean for you to live well? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

On a lighter but connected note: 

*Dugdale, 98.
**Dugdale, 110.
***Dugdale, 150.

God the Good Gardener – Proper 10A

Reimagining God as a creative and uninhibited farmer through the Parable of the Sower.

Background: A few years ago, I reflected on the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:1-9. This sermon, shared at Madison Mennonite on 7/12 and Germantown Mennonite on 7/19, “grows” out of those initial thoughts, expands them, and builds in the other Revised Common Lectionary texts of the day, Psalm 65 and Isaiah 55:10-13.

God the Good Gardener

Scripture is laden with metaphorical imagery for God and the way God acts in Creation.  Throughout both the Old and New testaments we encounter God in many forms – God is like a rock, a refuge.  God is like a warrior, a sovereign, a potter.  God is our metaphorical father and mother. God is like an eagle, a mother hen. God is a midwife, a bakerwoman. And so on…

As we hear in our scriptures today, God is like a gardener. Psalm 65, which we heard in the call to worship, declares that God “visits the earth and waters it.” In the Parable of the Sower, God scatters the Word on the ground that stretches out before God. And, in Isaiah 55, God waters the earth with God’s word, and the earth erupts with golden grain.

This image of God as a Gardener comes at a good point in our lives, here in the northern hemisphere, for seeds planted in earnest earlier in covid have taken root, and their abundance has begun to spill out and over trellises.  As one MMCer put it, we are approaching the season where gardeners must face the formidable “Deluge of the Green Bean.”

It is in this context, then, that we hear the parable of the sower, making connections as gardeners ourselves or as those who enjoy the plentiful harvests of others’ farms and gardens.

Land acknowledgment

I consider myself an average gardener. Much of my knowledge about gardening is the result of experience passed down through my family. Yet, it’s important to acknowledge that the gardeners and farmers of my family have accumulated that knowledge primarily as settlers on the land of peoples systematically displaced by European conquest and occupation. So, I offer this adapted land acknowledgment today as I share my reflections, a tension I and white folks must hold as we seek transformation and as we interpret biblical texts on the land.

Questioning Easy Interpretations

The parable of the sower is familiar enough to most of us that we know, without even reaching the interpretation of the parable, where the story is headed. The suggested lectionary reading includes the parable’s interpretation, but I left it out on purpose…

If there’s anything gardeners know and can agree to, it is this: one must resist predictable explanations and expectations when it comes to seeds. In honoring that, I resist the traditional, flannelgraph-worthy punch line of this parable: that some people are good because they’re prepared for the Gospel and some people are bad because they squander the Gospel.

As a gardener, I want to resist that dualistic interpretation. I want to resist it because when I reflect where I am in this parable, I see evidence that I’ve got all of these circumstances in me: sure, the fertile soil…but also the thin, rocky soil, the hungry birds, and no shortage of thorns or weeds.  I imagine this is true for most, if not all of us.  Each of these has a purpose for us as we grow in our understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus.

Thin, rocky soil

When the sower sows seed into thin, rocky soil, is it really all for nothing?  The seed sprouts, grows quickly, and then dies. 

But might what is gained in the long run balance the short-term loss?  In other words, while there will be no harvest of grain this year from that seed, all is not lost.  The plant that does grow will return to the earth, amending the soil as it composts. Over time, perhaps with the help of rain and animal droppings, too, seeds flung into this rocky soil will do the slow work of building up the land, until one day, there is a noteworthy harvest. 

The invitation of the thin, rocky soil is to recognize that the places within us where growth feels tenuous or unlikely, those places still hold profound potential.  God the Sower takes the long-view of who we are becoming.   And tosses seed where most other gardeners would leave the ground fallow. 

Weeds

Then there are the weeds. While the source of this quote might be surprising, a character in Jim Thompson’s 1952 thriller, The Killer Inside Me, states something gardeners love to re-quote (without knowing the source). The quote is: “A weed is a plant out of place.’ I find a hollyhock in my cornfield, and it’s a weed. I find it in my yard, and it’s a flower.”

It seems to me that so-called weeds have their own purpose and worth – whether retaining the soil’s moisture or reducing erosion or simply being a native part of an ecosystem we don’t totally understand. What if the invitation is to take the weeds – plants neither good nor bad, just in the wrong place – and move them to where they won’t choke out the fruit of the Spirit?

Birds

Then there are those hovering, hungry birds. I can only imagine that if I were in the crowd when Jesus was mentioning the birds that come and steal the seeds, it would have occurred to me about 10 minutes after Jesus had already pushed the boat off into deeper waters…to remember that there was another time when Jesus said something about the birds, and how they neither sow nor reap, and yet their heavenly Creator provides for them.

Well, how do I know it’s not the same birds from that example that are coming and taking the seeds in my field? Is there not enough grace and love in these good news seeds to share with all God’s creation? The invitation here is to see that God takes into account that all creation relies on God’s generosity. In turn, we are invited to resist our hoarding compulsions and to move instead into a spirit of jubilee – not just for humans, but for the land and creatures, too.

Fertile Soil

Which leaves us with the fertile soil.  One commentator on this text writes that the yield is “exceptional”; yet another says it’s “miraculous.”  These seem like distinctly different descriptions – one is possible, and the other is only possible with God’s intervention.  Both, I believe, are right.

Miraculously, God-the-sower imbues seeds with the most unexpected, unexplainable potential and possibility. That there is any of God’s word scattered in our lives is a gift. And exceptionally, we are created with the capacity to respond to God’s word — we do not rely on grace alone.  We can reflect on what sort of spiritual life we are cultivating.

The invitation of the fertile soil is to celebrate the average and exceptional fruits that we bear.  We are also invited to bask in the harvests borne of mystery and miracle.

The Sower Sticks Around

As much as the parable teaches us about us, it also teaches us about the nature of God…who, amongst other attributes, is like a good gardener.  A good gardener sows seeds in a field and then continues to tend the field.  God does not abandon God’s garden, but nurtures it through the seasons and years.  Listen to these words from Isaiah 55:10-13 (NRSV).

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
    for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

God the Gardener does not sow seeds that sprout empty promises or empty threats. God the Gardener uses choice seeds, honest in their purpose, true to their description, and imbued with unimaginable potential.  God the Gardener can create growth in spaces where the most seasoned farmer wouldn’t want to waste good seed.

Where God is the Gardener, the land is filled with jubilation, and the trees give a standing ovation. Where God is the gardener, ancient sequoias overshadow the thorns and trees of life crowd out the briers. 

Where God is the gardener, the thin soil and the rich soil will be equally peppered with word-seeds of faith, hope, and love.  Where God is the gardener, the birds and the field mice and prairie dogs will find there is enough for them, too.  Where God is the gardener, plants once thoughtlessly type-cast as weeds will be transplanted into God’s front yard.

May we be gifted with ears to hear and eyes to see that as God sows God’s word, holiness and beauty are abundantly cultivated in us and all around us.  May we give thanks to God–the good gardener, the best farmer–for lovingly and faithfully tending the fields of our souls in each and every season.

Call to Worship: Psalm 86:11-17

We continue to worship online at Madison Mennonite Church. It’s been a solid four months of adapting, experimenting, messing things up, and stumbling into surprise successes. We aren’t returning to the physical building for worship anytime soon and I grapple regularly with how to think about how to curate nourishing worship experiences while we continue to meet online.

There are aspects of worship that are simply harder these days. Of course, we all know that robust, resonant communal singing is not possible. Then there are the needs of children and families whose children simply are not interested or willing to “participate” in virtual church. There’s the feeling that worship leaders have of speaking or singing into the void–where we used to be able to feel or observe or hear how people were encountering the Spirit in worship, now there is largely silence, a short in the feedback loop. Worship has become less of an embodied encounter. We rarely stand to sing. We do not reach out to shake hands, or to take the bread and cup.

In Numbers 11, the Israelites are on one of their classic complaining streaks, voicing that they are weary of the manna that they are provided…though it technically sustains them. In their weariness, they cry out to Moses, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4b-6)

Like the Israelites in the desert, we grow weary of just having manna to sustain us–we long for the lively, embodied pre-COVID worship that is our custom. To be fair, I have not heard complaining at MMC! Just grief for the loss of what was meaningful for many. Longing for the richness and goodness of what worship can be. A deep desire for a refreshing worship diet that allows us to “taste and see that” our Creator is, in fact, very good.  And a longing to be sustained as we live and serve as God’s people in the world.

The grief and grappling of these days is real and disorienting. And we will be here awhile.  But the sliver of hope that I hold on to is that worship, now when it seems impossible and even futile, fuels resistance against despair, hate, violence, and greed.  Worship – even in virtual spaces – can inspire rootedness, loving-kindness, generosity, and truth-telling.  We are invited to gather whatever worship-manna we can for this day, and let it nourish us.

A Call to Worship, based on Psalm 86:11-17
One: Friends in Christ, we gather to learn, grow, and be shaped by God.
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

One: When we are uncertain or distracted,
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

One: When we feel crushed and hope is crowded out,
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

One: In our work, our play, and relationships,
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

One: And now, in this time of holy worship,
Many: Teach us your way, O God.

A Pastoral Prayer: Psalm 46

The rich, metaphorical imagery of Psalm 46 invites us to meditate on many of God’s attributes: strength, shelter, tenderness, faithfulness, and compassion.

Oh God, our Refuge and Safe Harbor,
Time and time again, you show up.
You are faithful to your people and to all Creation.

As your beloved ones, we look for you and long for you
in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
The world erupts with anger and grief;
injustice, oppression, and heartache spill over like lava.
We grieve…(offer prayers that reflect the community’s sharing)

God of Grace, we give thanks
for the rivers of joy flowing through our world and lives.
We hear your voice, like the constant flow of a stream, speaking peace;
the earth softens under your tender love.
We celebrate…(offer prayers that reflect the community’s sharing)

Oh God, our Refuge and Safe Harbor,
Time and time again, you show up.
You are faithful to your people and to all Creation.
We offer you these prayers,
in the name of your Beloved Child.  Amen.