Christmas Eve 2021

And so it goes: The pup and I ended up leaving a half-day early for our Christmas sojourn to the east. In a journey mirroring the Wise Ones’ trip from the East, Maggie and I found the inn under garishly bright blue lights, its sign advertising a low rate surely impossible to sustain life.

The halls reek of cigarette and pot smoke. Maggie is so anxious she paces our room, alert to every door opening and shutting and every footfall outside our door. The door to my room barely closes; each time I go in and out, I have to lift up, using my whole body weight to get the heavy door to open on its hinges. The floor is littered with an assortment of debris, and there is a used bath towel hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Atop the bed is a blanket so threadbare that I will later sleep under my coat. Just outside, vehicles on the interstate race by, pilgrims seeking a different inn for this night.

And yet it is Christmas Eve.

Settling into my room, I take a homemade muffin made for this journey and bite into it: this is the body of Life.  And I open my water bottle, pour some of the fresh coolness into Maggie’s dish and then some into my mouth: this is the cup of Love. 

It could not be more real than this—the strange alone-ness of this night, in a place far from home, with smells and sounds that are foreign to my body. 

I retrieve a little candle and matches from my bag, ready to welcome the Christ-child into this holy night.

Ignatian Imagination Prayer: Luke 1:39-55

The Ignatian Imagination Prayer is a sensory, engaging spiritual practice that encourages one’s imagination to run free with the Spirit through scripture. Teresa A. Blythe writes in her book, 50 Ways to Pray, that the intent of this practice is “to imagine that you are physically present” in a particular scripture, “and to allow that scene to become a prayer for you.” (p 100)

Especially for passages that we know (or think we know) well, this spiritual exercise invites us to look, listen, and feel again. To be open to an awareness of words and emotions we hadn’t noticed before. To let the scripture speak to us in our present experience.

This practice can be used by individuals or in a group. To use it on your own, simply read slowly through the passage and the questions, taking the time you want to enter into each portion. Allow about twenty minutes to go through the following scripture. Jot down your experience in a journal, if you like, and any insights that dwelling in the word brought you.

For use in a group, read through the passage and questions, allowing more time than you think might be necessary. (As one who has received guided meditation before, I often feel rushed in my imaginings!) You may want to invite shared reflection at the end. A pdf version of this reflection is available here.

Prayer of preparation

Spirit of New Life, I/we ask for grace:
that all my/our intentions, my/our actions, and my/our imaginings
will be used for the service and praise of the Divine. Amen. 

Ignatian Imagination Prayer

Within a few days [of the angel Gabriel’s visit to her], Mary set out and hurried to the hill country to a town of Judah, where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.

  • Take a moment to imagine yourself in this scene, not necessarily taking on the character of Mary or Elizabeth (or Zechariah). Simply be an observer for now. 
  • What do you notice about Mary as she hurries down the roads of Judah? Does her face tell you anything about how she’s feeling? 
  • What time of year is it in in Judah? What do you smell?
  • What does Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house look like? As Mary nears the house, when does she call out to Elizabeth? What does she say? Where is Elizabeth when she hears Mary call her name?

As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 

  • In your mind’s eye, notice how Mary and Elizabeth meet face-to-face.
  • What does it look like as the Holy Spirit settles on Elizabeth? Is there a visible change, or do you feel a shift in your surroundings? 
  • Imagine Mary notices you, and calls out to you, too, to join their delighted embrace. Does anything move in you—does your heart beat quicker or your stomach do little flip flops? Stay there, in the scene, as a full participant in the story.

In a loud voice, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why am I so favored, that the mother of the Messiah should come to me? The moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished.”

  • What is the energy like in the room as Elizabeth shouts this blessing? After her long journey, how does Mary react to Elizabeth’s words? Does anyone or anything else in the area also join the scene, drawn in by Elizabeth’s excitement?
  • Do you eagerly join in the blessing, or do you hold back? 

Mary said:
“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
For you have looked with favor
upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me
and holy is your Name.

  • What does Mary’s song sound like? Is it in a major key or minor key; a rapid tempo or meandering pace? Does she start out tentatively or boldly? How is she moving her body? 
  • Do you feel an impulse to sing or sway along? What is Elizabeth doing?

You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.

  • What emotions cross Mary’s face as she describes God’s actions? Are there hints of rage, hope, frustration, or joy? How does the tune and volume of her singing shift in these stanzas?
  • As you hear her revolutionary words, sung there in your presence, do you feel nervous…or comforted?  

You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,
mindful of your mercy—
the promise you made to our ancestors—
to Sarah and Abraham
and their descendants forever.”

  • As Mary’s song ends, survey the scene again. Look all around you. What do you notice? Has anything changed between Mary’s arrival and now? 
  • Notice your body in the scene—emotions, sensations, tension.
  • What do Elizabeth and Mary do following this greeting, blessing, and song?
  • Let your full imagination run free now. Allow the scene to change in any way you feel inspired. Linger and interact with the characters there.  What are you doing? Do you go off to tell someone about your experience? How do you describe what happened?

Either in a journal or in a group discussion, take time to reflect on the experience. What does it mean to make ready for the birth of the Divine within us? Consider how Mary and Elizabeth prepared.

What does this mean to you? What part of the story helps you lean into a welcoming spirit? What part of the story disturbs you most? What insight does this imaginative exercise provide?

Close by offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God or pray a version of the Prayer Jesus Taught.


Scripture from The Inclusive Bible translation.

Image: Everett, Trey. Blessed Is She, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57818 [retrieved December 20, 2021]. Original source: www.treyeverettcreates.com.

Autumn Equinox

In our backyard, a gorgeous, expansive oak hovers with a regal grandeur, providing shade and scurrying space for the squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, and goldfinches. The last few weeks, the oak has been dropping thousands of acorns, which plummet to the earth with a powerful velocity. (One does not want to be sitting under her branches when there is any wind, lest an acorn drops with forceful precision on an exposed head…) It’s clear that autumn is arriving as the boughs sigh with relief as they lighten with each released acorn.

Tomorrow marks the autumn equinox here in the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth. In Madison, the weather has subtly shifted with the days still (mostly) bright and warm, and the nights cool and breezy. In this threshold between seasons, the earth reminds me to prepare for the winter ahead. The annuals and perennials alike are shifting their focus, nudging me, too, to let go of those things that were wonderful for a season, but now need to be put to rest…perhaps until next spring, or perhaps for good.

O Spirit of Change,
prepare my heart for the winter ahead,
but not before I have celebrated the fruit of summer.
In this Great Transition Time,
as the earth continues in its path,
may I sense, like the Mother Oak,
a lightening in my body,
as the gifts of the long summer days
drop to their earthen womb below.
Amen.

Home

At times I miss the wild spaces:
     the cacophony and chaos
     of bird songs, brambles, and entangled pines.
In the racket of ravens
     and the inquisitive gaze of the fawn,
     I find my spirit’s home–
         home, a quiet heart
         clear vision
         renewed hope–
home is where the heron lands.

Image by Roy Buri from Pixabay

To Read or Not To Read (the Bible)

How do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves?

A family member with young children recently shared that their children had asked why they, as a family, don’t read the Bible. A recent experience at a church summer camp seemed to spur the children’s question, and the adult family member wasn’t sure how to respond. The family actively attends a faith community, participating in a wide variety of church activities and weekly worship.  Yet, the children perceived a gap between themselves and others and were curious about it.

One evening a few weeks later, the adults of the family were sitting in our living room and raised this question: How do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves?

After talking around this for a while, I turned the question back to the parent. I asked, “Why would you read the Bible?” — asked not in a rhetorical way, but with an intent to draw out a positive Bible-reading ethic, if they felt they could.

In the progressive-leaning faith communities I’ve been a part of, attitudes toward the Bible have been mixed. There’s a desire that our children are exposed to the Bible, but we don’t want to gloss over that scripture is complex. We’re not interested in passing on the old legalism we were raised with, but we also think there’s a fair amount of wisdom in Jesus’ teachings.  We’ve lost our naïveté that God’s a big guy up in the sky, but we’re captivated by a sense that there’s Something More.

And each time we do crack the book to begin reading, we come with an awareness that these texts weren’t written for us 21st-century readers. The Bible was written in many times and places, by many people shaped by their particular cultures. It spans multiple genres, is written in multiple languages (not English!), and includes no extended information on the authors or their motivations.

It’s a lot to hold. 

Teaching the Bible from a place of uncertainty is really hard, especially when we’re trying to teach it to children. So, what is our responsibility, as adults in a faith tradition that values voluntary membership? (Here “adults” includes both a child’s parents and other adults in the faith community.)

I offer three main suggestions:

First, let children direct you. Follow what they’re interested in learning about. Equip them to ask questions and create a safe environment for them to ask. Ask other adults to help. Help other adults when they ask. Exploring the Bible can be playful, imaginative, and mysterious.

And second, following the wisdom of Celtic Christianity, allow the natural world — the “big book of scripture” — to shape your understanding of the Divine, of justice, of compassion. An awareness of the natural world is vital to understanding the written word of scripture, regardless of one’s age.

Meanwhile, within the Anabaptist tradition, rigid indoctrination of the young actually violates our core value of being a believers’ church.* That’s not to say that we should shield our faith from the next generations; rather, it is an invitation to live with integrity. Children (and youth especially) can sense when we find something is important, often through the way our words and actions align

So, how do we “teach” the Bible to 8-year-olds when we’re not even sure what we think about it ourselves? We can allow—or even encourage—our children to explore sacred texts they’re interested in and to provide the tools they need to do so. We can notice and point out the ways that our everyday lives are deeply spiritual, as even some of our most mundane decisions are informed by faith, ethics, and/or our understanding of the Divine. And we can foster a sense of wonder about the good news we encounter in the very world around us.

All of this is centered in trust. Our relationship with a sacred text, like any relationship, is marked by seasons of distance and intimacy, of discernment and questioning…and we trust that the text can handle this. We also find trust in the Anabaptist practice of reading and interpreting the Bible in community, in which there is safety, accountability, and support. And perhaps it’s an opportunity to trust that our children will discover and discern on their own why they might (or might not) want to read the Bible.


*This is why I’m generally wary of things like Sunday School, especially for children.

The Aches and Pains of New Growth

A midsummer Monday morning has dawned. My muscles are a little achy today and my bones feel heavy. My mind and body show signs of hard labor as sweat gathers on my forehead. But I stoop again, to gently lift up the pea bush, eyes scanning for plump pods to snap off the vine.

My thoughts still in the garden, and it’s okay if I move a little more slowly here, listening to my body’s preferences for more comfortable positions. I find amidst the peas and tomatoes and basil a respite. A presence.

As I pinch off the tomato suckers, growing at a 45-degree angle from the main stem, I smile as I realize that now my hands will invariably smell like tomato all day: a pungent fragrance born of the plant’s hard labor.

image courtesy of pixabay.com

An Unpredicatable Office: Pastoring in COVID

Pastoring during COVID has been a mix of joys and sorrows: from the explosion of creativity, learning new skills, finding unique ways to connect, and the deepening of ‘wilderness’ wisdom … to managing disparate expectations and needs, the loss of touch, knowing people are slipping through the cracks.

Yesterday, my spiritual director asked me, “Do you regret being a pastor, or does it feel right?”  I paused for a moment and responded, “Depends on the day.”  She laughed, and my face cracked into a grin.

We were talking about the challenges facing the Christian Church, both nationally and locally. Attendance at communal worship is decreasing. White supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism are fighting to maintain dominance. Distrust within our communities festers and threatens unity.

And then, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s COVID. 

The odds seem ever not in our favor. Yet here I am, strangely called to pastoring.

Pastoring during COVID has been a mix of joys and sorrows: from the explosion of creativity, learning new skills, finding unique ways to connect, and the deepening of ‘wilderness’ wisdom … to managing disparate expectations and needs, the loss of touch, knowing people are slipping through the cracks. I have witnessed incredible courage and paralyzing fear. I have seen the inspirational strengthening of communal ties and the cunning creep of individualism.

In normal times, pastors are invited into the most vulnerable spaces of human life, where we see the beautiful and the horrific. COVID has been no different in this way, only the beauty is often blinding and the edges of the horrific are razor sharp.

Who would want to be a pastor, given all of this?! In fact, many are leaving parish ministry altogether. The cost of staying is often too high.

I’m not at that point, though I empathize with those who are. Rather, the confidence in my call—at least, the confidence I have most days—keeps me tethered to both relief and hope.  There is relief that the church can actually change, and relatively quickly; the past year proves this. There is hope that pastoring will continue to allow me to witness the Divine in the mundane, in the transitions, in the crises. And, there is hope that our sacred texts will guide us toward loving our neighbors, inspiring selfless acts of collective solidarity.

Amidst the fleeting, if somewhat regular blips of questioning my vocation, there are enough moments where pastoring feels right. And if not today, then perhaps tomorrow.


Image by SvetlanaKv from Pixabay

Morsels – 4.29.21

Choice crumbs of daily living // Seedlings, Current Reads, and New Housemate

Seedlings, or lack thereof, 2021

Our seedlings are mostly a failure this year. Justin hypothesizes that it’s because our potting up mixture’s chemistry was a little off. It’s interesting to me: the more I care about starting things from scratch, the more likely it seems that results are mixed.

So, for the first time in a very long time, I’ll be buying tomato plants for my little garden plot.

One summer in college, I had enormous success with starting tomato seeds. I want to say I ended up planting upward of 90 plants—my dad would remember for certain. In preparation for living as simply/cheaply as possible, I and about ten friends planned to rent a house together and practice college-level intentional living.  Clearly, one needed as many tomatoes as possible to ensure this.


I’m in the middle of five books. I’m not totally sure why I do this to myself.

I checked this book (Miracles and Other Reasonable Things by Sarah Bessey) out from the library on Tuesday. I’ll be done by tomorrow.  It’s easy reading—kind of like reading through one’s old journal entries. The chapters are both deep and simple, approachable and distinct.

Then there’s this tome (The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler), which I’ve had for a couple months and maxed out the library’s renewal limit. The book was groundbreaking for its time (1988), and in many ways, still is. Eisler presents a more complex review of human history, the ample evidence for a Goddess-based “pre-history,” and the way such a worldview relied on cooperation and equality between genders. In other words, human history has not always been defined by dominance, violence, and war-making. I probably won’t finish the book before it’s really due back at the library, though I am trying.

The other three fall somewhere in-between. I actively read them—a couple pages from one in the morning, a few poems before bed.  And lastly, there’s a draft manuscript from a congregant. I will absolutely finish it; it’s like an asynchronous pastoral visit.


In about a week’s time, we have a new housemate moving in. Justin and I have often lived with others during our married life, so this is nothing new.  In preparation for this addition, however, we’ve really been stretched to get rid of more of our stuff to make room.  We downsized when we moved here a year and a half ago, and yet it’s embarrassing how much crap we still have and how much we’ve accumulated since being in Madison.

It’s been a humbling experience, and I wonder how much is related to the deep-seated insecurity we have as white folks.

Exhibit A: Guest Room Closet

#TheMoment, Part 2

In conversations about “returning to church,” one of the key questions that I think each church needs to reflect on is, “How has the church been changed by the pandemic?” It’s also an important question for followers of Christ to reflect on for our own spiritual growth.

When COVID Changed Me

In conversations about “returning to church,” one of the key questions that I think each church needs to reflect on is, “How has the church been changed by the pandemic?”  (In a forthcoming essay to be published in the Anabaptist World, I offer why I think this is a necessary question.)  

I also think it’s an important question for followers of Christ to reflect on for our own spiritual growth and formation over the last year.  Here are two personal takeaways from how the pandemic has changed me.

Losing Control / Needing to Surrender

One of the first things I and others came to grips with was just how little we could control. Facing the virus meant facing the façades we have built in Western civilization, namely that of individual power.

White folks especially don’t like losing control or recognizing the truth about how little we actually control.  We might be okay with losing control if we feel like we’re choosing it (playing into a martyr complex), but to choose to lose power is to still be in control.

Sadly, I have not escaped this malformation, either. 

But somewhere, in the midst of 2020, I felt a nudge to surrender.  To let trust develop, particularly in my relationship with God.  It was/is hard to relinquish a sense that “I’ve got this,” especially when I’m supposed to be leading a group of people. But the truth of the matter was I couldn’t do much. It was a wake-up call to my finitude and mortality.

It’s hard to surrender (the fallacy of) control, even in order to open oneself to the Divine within and around us. Letting go of controlling outcomes requires vulnerability, another thing white folks often feel a “right” to be shielded from (due to white privilege).

But a life of vulnerability and yieldedness (Gelassenheit) is actually at the heart of the gospel–a challenge that changed me in 2020 and changes me still.

Worship and Trauma

Webinars proliferated in the early months of the pandemic. Everyone and their mother was offering spaces to gather and process the pandemic’s effects. I signed up for a lot of these webinars—some better than others.  One, featuring my pastoral care professor from seminary, changed me.

He mentioned that in any given Sunday worship, a pastor should expect that about a third of the congregation is actively grieving something.  With COVID, though, he said that number was now a full 100%.  That was the first inkling I had that worship planning, and specifically preaching, needed to take our community’s grief and trauma into account more thoroughly.

With the murders of Breonna Turner and George Floyd, my attention turned to the trauma of white supremacy.  Reading My Grandmother’s Hands and Words That Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls, I started taking more care to craft sermons and services that attended to the unhealed trauma that nearly all of us carry around. I have been challenged to honor my own traumatic experiences and to confront the deeply embedded trauma of white supremacy within me.

One result of these two things: COVID has changed my sermon writing process.

Pre-COVID, I had a neat, day-by-day order of what I did when.* When COVID hit though, each day was full with a week’s worth of uncertainty and disorientation. I found myself having a lot more to emotionally process before I could start writing. Many weeks, I only felt ready to start writing a first draft on Saturday afternoon.

This was a shock to my careful (semi-perfectionistic) process. I had lost control of comfortable patterns and expectations about how sermons come together. Instead, I felt nudged (or sometimes forced) into relying on the Spirit’s presence in my writing. It felt dangerous. I felt vulnerable.

In its place, I experienced a heightened awareness of speaking carefully and gently to the wounded souls on my screen. I knew what weighed many of them down; we were hitting refresh on the same data dashboards and newsfeeds. The sermons probably weren’t “great” in a classical sense, which provided a necessary check on my ego. Yet, it surprised me every week that a sermon came together, and the process was still marked with joy.

As time has gone on, I’m closer to my original sermon prep process; I’m not changed to the point of always waiting until Saturday to write my sermons. (I do like doing other things on Saturdays other than work.) But my attitude toward sermon writing has changed. I pay more attention to centering in the Spirit before I start writing.** I’ve also mellowed a bit, having less to prove and more to care for. I’m hopeful that this will prove to be growth.


*I typically read all the lectionary texts a week in advance to familiarize myself with them. On the Monday before a service, I would muddle around the texts again and then hone in on one or two of the texts and formulate themes. (Parts of) Tuesday and Wednesday were spent in reflection, research, and perhaps writing an outline. Thursday was my writing day with the goal of getting a rough draft completed. Taking Friday off, I returned to my draft on Saturday morning to smooth the edges and clarify my main points. Sunday, I print it off, practice running through it a few times, and scribble changes in the margins.

**In a worship class in seminary, the professor taught us to have a prayer that we say each time we sit down to work on a service. I use the following prayer, which is adapted from Annie Heppenstall’s book, The Book of Uncommon Prayer. It is a prayer for the season of Epiphany.

Loving God, be a lamp to my feet,
the brightest star in my sky;
guide me to what is of true worth,
and give me courage and diligence to keep searching
until I find for myself
that which draws forth my delight and awe,
the revelation of your presence within me.
Amen.

#TheMoment, Part 1

NPR’s All Things Considered is inviting listeners this week to reflect on when they “first realized COVID-19 would change their world.” While I didn’t submit a response, this one-year anniversary of stay-at-home orders and the recent glimmers of hope out of the CDC have me pondering both those early moments of the pandemic and the ways I/we have changed since.

When COVID Changed My World

NPR’s All Things Considered is inviting listeners this week to reflect on when they “first realized COVID-19 would change their world.”  While I didn’t submit a response, this one-year anniversary of stay-at-home orders and the recent glimmers of hope out of the CDC have me pondering both those early moments of the pandemic and the ways I/we have changed since.

I had traveled east in late February/early March 2020 to visit family. Making my way through various airports, I noticed a handful of passengers wearing face masks. 

My last indoor Showalter family gathering, Feb. 2020.

I remember one curious, unmasked person called out to another who was masked, “Do you have the virus or just playing it safe?”  The person responded, “Wearing it just in case.”  I washed my hands a lot on that journey, the primary advice I remember hearing in those days. 

A few days later, I was meeting with the pastoral team from Orchard Ridge UCC, the church Madison Mennonite rents from. It was Tuesday, March 10, 2020. We were navigating what to do about their Sunday service that week, where I was slated to guest preach.  My sermon was titled, “Singing Our Faith: Songs of Liberation, Lament, and Praise.”

(How little we knew, then, about singing and COVID.) 

One of the pastors, away on vacation, called in.  She had spoken with the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, who, having spoken with state-level health officials, had said we should expect March 15 to be the last Sunday of in-person worship, at least until Easter. 

(How little we knew, then, about how long this would last.)

On Thursday afternoon of that week, I met with the worship leader for the Madison Mennonite service. We had planned to meet at a coffeehouse, where they had stopped letting people bring in travel mugs.  You were supposed to ask for any drink accoutrements when ordering; there was no longer a self-serve area.

The worship leader and I sat and talked for a little while about what the emerging news about COVID meant for our Sunday service. A state of emergency had been declared, and uncertainty was growing very quickly. After a little while, I said, “I think the safest thing we can do, based on what we know, is to meet online.”  Maybe it would be a blip. Maybe it was overkill.  But we knew we could gather with absolutely no viral risk. 

(How little we knew, then, what it meant to plan virtual worship.)

Thursday night, I had a conference call with our church board and I relayed the discernment from my afternoon meeting. We were, somewhat surprisingly, in full accord with one another to move worship online and to cancel all other in-person activities. My guest preaching gig was soon canceled as well. 

(How little we knew, then, how much would be canceled.)

In the weeks that followed, I was thirsty for wisdom on how to be the church online in the midst of a global pandemic. I was fazed less by the technological side of gathering as the Body of Christ, and more by a general loss of control as speculation about time frames and viral transmission shifted hour-by-hour and day-by-day.  In a now-forgotten NPR story, probably mid-April, I heard about the likelihood that vaccines would be the way out of the pandemic, meaning we were looking at a year or more until some semblance of “normal” returned. This was my first “a-ha” moment—where the uncertainty about “Are we going to be worshipping in-person by Pentecost?” turned to “What does it look like to be in this space for a year?”

When I mentioned my shift in thinking to colleagues, saying that I thought it was possible that we wouldn’t worship in-person until Fall 2021, they looked at me quizzically.  “Do you mean Fall 2020?”  No, sadly, I had meant what I said.

That was a second “a-ha” moment.  We were all thinking about this in a dozen different ways.  The politicization of the pandemic was leaking into our churches.  It was changing us.  

(How little we knew, then, that we were already changed.) 

Our set-up for the Maundy Thursday Love Feast with Madison Mennonites.

#TheMoment, Part 2: When COVID Changed Me will be published tomorrow.