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.

Love in the Time of COVID | Part 3: Others

What is the pandemic teaching us about love? This is the third in a series answering this question.  See Part 1  and Part 2 here.

The pandemic is teaching us that the love of others is vital; and it is complicated.

Let’s start with the bad news first: COVID-19 is teaching us that the love of others isn’t as easy as it seems.

During an interview aired this week in the Festival of Homiletics, Duke Divinity professor, theologian, and sermon guru Will Willimon firmly stated, “I’m telling my students: ‘There’s one sentence you should not utter in a sermon these days. I don’t say it, no preacher should say it: ‘We’re all in this together.’ Don’t say it; it’s not true.’“*

His reasoning? This pandemic is affecting us all differently, and those with greater privilege are not forced to face it in the same way as those who society marginalizes.

First and foremost, white culture swings heavily toward individualism and personal security.  When white folks say, “We’re all in this together,” we often mean it in the sense of, “…only after I’ve taken care of my own, and as long as I don’t have to sacrifice too much.”  In this way of thinking, to be together is possible when it’s convenient, advantageous, or at a minimum, a neutral-sum game.

Confession: I said something very similar to “We’re all in this together,” if not those exact words, to Madison Mennonite a week or two after we first started meeting virtually for worship.  My intent was good, of course, but Willimon is right that such platitudes are not grounded in reality and render majority-white congregations (and their white leaders) blind to the pandemic’s varying effects.

What I meant to do when I said, “We’re all in this together,” was to inspire us all to live into an attitude of mutual aid.  To think of others as equals. To consider how our actions affect others. But, knowing that even I struggle to practice what I preach, I wonder: is it possible to swim against the swollen, relentless river of white, patriarchal imperialism? Is it possible for us to work for a society where we are “all in this together”?

Which brings us to the good news: There are others in the water with us, struggling against the current, resisting the undertow.  We just need to look up and out to see that we’re not alone.

Last fall, I borrowed The Book of Joy audiobook from our local library and listened to it as I transitioned from one place of ministry to another.  The Book of Joy details a delightful and theologically-provoking conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  As the two religious leaders reflected on suffering and what it means in human life, one shared their belief that any suffering we’re experiencing begins to heal when we enter into the suffering of others.  In other words, if we remain focused only on our suffering, our pain, and our turmoil, we will find it difficult to ever heal. It’s like continuously picking at or fussing over a flesh wound.  And, while we are absorbed with our own hurt, we will find it difficult to sojourn compassionately with others.

This teaching is helpful at the individual level as well as the communal level.  As we look up and out, we see that we’re swimming upstream with others, and we can band together in solidarity.  But we shouldn’t stop there.  Sticking with the aquamarine metaphor, our “schools” also need to look up and out and see that there are many, many other “schools” banding together, resisting the impulse to defend only our interests (lest we flounder…).

In the church, we can do this by linking with other faith communities – informally and formally – expanding our networks of relationships and resources and ultimately, compassion.  In an attempt to encourage my church to do just this, a few weeks ago in our virtual worship, I invited congregants (and friends on social media) to name faith communities they wanted us to pray for. The intent was to look up and out, to see that we are not alone in our suffering.  That we are not the only ones who are impacted by COVID-19.  That our decisions and actions cause ripples beyond us and impact everyone else in the water.**

COVID-19 is teaching us that loving others takes proactive courage. It is teaching us that we cannot lie behind the half-truth that “we’re all in this together,” when we’re unwilling to sacrifice for our siblings in our neighborhoods and around the world.  And it’s teaching us that there are others with us in the deluge, fighting to swim against the tide of individualism and self-security, if we just look up and out.  Look up and look out.


*Paraphrased, from memory.

**We prayed for 40+ faith communities around the world.  Here’s what we prayed:
Uniting Spirit, we give you thanks
            for the living, breathing, beautiful web
            of churches and faith communities around the world. 
We pray for them in this time of pandemic,
           when they and their members may feel like exiles,
           passing through strange and hostile lands.
We hold in the Light of Love these churches:
            (churches named)
For each community named tonight, we pray for hope, creativity, and peace.  May they and we be reminded that none of us is alone. Equip and empower us to encourage one another, to empathize with one another, and to learn from one another.
We pray in the name of the One who makes us one. Amen.

Words of Assurance

While words of assurance often come after a prayer of confession, I think there’s a place for them to stand on their own in personal and communal worship. What I offer here is one of those times.

Little one
During a “remote retreat” this past week, the person facilitating encouraged my fellow retreatants and me to consider imagining a “Sacred Naming” for ourselves – adding a word or short phrase to our names to remind us of the immense grace we are extended.  This could function, she said, as a way to break the cycles of negative self-talk. Just an hour prior to hearing this idea, I was caught in my mind’s own loop of shame, and in a moment of mercy, I heard myself saying, “Oh, baby girl, you’re okay. Just let go.”

Now, those of you who know me will know that this–”baby girl”–is not Valerie language at all. As the words tumbled out of my mouth, I was caught off-guard, but it was exactly what I needed in the moment–I needed comfort, I needed to be reminded that I could let go.  When the retreat director shared the idea of Sacred Naming, I knew I had already found what God’s Spirit had named me: Baby Girl.  (Even if I roll my eyes a little at the thought…)

That’s where “little one” comes into these words of assurance. Perhaps “beloved,” “blessed,” or “my child” fits you better.  What is your Sacred Name?

Be at peace
The words, “be at peace,” were written to me on the same day, with similar effect. I had asked to let go of something I could not hold, to be released from an expectation that was painful. In response, these three little words offered me grace and a blessing.  A commissioning with kindness. I could not have asked for a cleaner cut. (Of course, I also instantly thought of this clip from Return of the King, when Aragorn releases the Army of the Dead, using the same three words.) 

What blessing do you need to hear?

Words of Assurance
This is what words of assurance are at their best: they share a loving truth about us and they speak to us with a kind commissioning.

Rest, little one.
Be at peace.

I see your bleary eyes, your tense shoulders.
            the knots that trace your spine, from your neck to your tailbone.
I love those eyes, those shoulders, that spine.
You’re beautiful.

Time rushes by in a whirlwind –
            five hours later and you’ve written only a handful of sentences,
            labored over each word, frequent sighs, wringing your hands,
            wondering if they ever give epidurals
            for the pain of the soul.
            I labor with you.

You’ve lit a candle today, hoping to be reminded of me,
            and that I am with you.
            I am.
            I am the Hope and the Flame.

You wonder if you’re enough,
            if you’ve tried hard enough,
            if there’s enough of you to go around.
            You are enough.
            And you’re human. You’re finite. You’re okay.

I watch you curl up, and then unfurl your limbs,
            aching for contact. To be held.
            Have you seen the sun-warmed grass outside?
            The grass and I–we will hold you.

Oh yes, little one, I know. My heart aches with you.
You are weighed down by many things.
There is only one thing you need to do:

Rest, little one.
Be at peace. I love you.

Peace Prayer: Fire

Approaching the fifth week of Lent, we engage our fifth and final element: fire. Like the other elements, fire has within its nature the potential to harm and destroy. To wipe out forests in a day. To raze homes and buildings in mere minutes. To burn animals’ delicate skin. To erupt and cover our planet with molten lava.

Perhaps, it’s mostly from our human perspective that fire seems so dangerous and destructive. And it’s true that fire takes human lives and has been used as a weapon of torture and capital punishment.

ash blaze bonfire burn
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So, what does it mean to pray for the peace of the fire? Does it mean that we hope that fire is tamed, controlled, domesticated? Or does it mean our perspectives on fire will be changed?

Fire connects to this week’s lectionary passage in the Gospel of John, chapter 11, when Lazarus is raised from the dead. Fire is cleverly hidden in the passage – you have to look harder for it than in other weeks. It is certainly in the ground, the rocks and hills that make up the landscape of Judea. But’s it’s also in the stone that covers Lazarus’s grave, which is then pushed away in an act of life-giving. That stone, birthed in fire, delivered its own miracle on that day in Bethany – where once death was a final and unyielding citadel, with the stone as its sentry, the stone now abandoned its guard in a defiant act of resurrection.

So fire, too, becomes a witness and actor in God’s foolish love of shalom.

O God, our rock in a weary land,
we pray this day for the peace of fire.

We praise you for the fire of the sun,
warming planet Earth,
kissing the plants and waters and our bodies
with steadfast love.
We praise you for the fire of the earth,
creating land for land animals to trod on,
for towering mountains to behold,
and deep canyons to ponder.
We praise you for the fire of our hearths,
delighting us with feasts of holy communion,
where friendships blossom and laughter abounds,
and where, in the quiet crackling and dancing of flames,
our soul’s deep questions find illumination and new life.

May your Spirit, like tongues of fire, purify all hatred and fear,
inspiring this world to burn with life-giving peace.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker. Amen.

 

Peace Prayer: Dirt

We are facing our mortality more than ever these days, the threat of covid-19 looming large in every conversation, news story, or trip to the grocery store. How (when) will it affect me and the people I love? What will happen to those who are particularly vulnerable? Will we have enough toilet paper? Our fear and anxiety are often based, if hidden from our minds, in our fear of death – of losing control over our mortal, physical selves, and entering into the Great Unknown. We’re afraid of becoming dirt again, for to dirt we shall return.IMG_1753

At least in modern English, “dirt” is a negative concept. If something is dirty, it seemingly has lost its purpose and is fit only for the rubbish bin. When a person is dirty, it justifies isolation and exclusion until they are clean again.

How do we hold dirt, humus, the earth in a more positive light…where to return to stardust, to return to dirt is not bad but necessary for the continual renewal of the cosmos? In the midst of our fear and anxiety, can we “ground” ourselves in trust, that the Love which made us, is remaking us still, and will continue to use us “dirt creatures”* in the transformation of the universe? Can dirt be beautiful without being sanitized? Can mud, smeared on our blind eyes, give us hope to see again?

Great Creator,
who delights in the messiness of mud,
we pray this day for the peace of the dirt.

We praise you for the rich earth beneath our feet,
holding ancient memories of its time among the stars.

We praise you for the dirt’s revolutionary vocation,
breaking down what is spent in order to nurture new life–
dead leaves and moldy fruit,
last month’s casserole forgotten in the fridge,
our beautiful and bloodied bodies —
transformed into new beloved communities
of flesh and fiber.

We praise you for the inherent goodness of mud,
slathered on our world as a healing salve.

May your gentle hands shape the earth each day,
enlivening the dirt with your Breath of Life.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker. Amen.

 

*When God forms the first human from dirt in Genesis 2, the better translation of what is formed (ha-adam apar) is “dirt creature.” The creature represents humanity in its fullness.

Peace Prayer: Water

IMG_2083
Photo: Valerie Showalter / Lake Mendota

Last week, on my day off, I walked from our house to the art museum on campus. For the first time, I realized that I could spot Lake Mendota on Speedway Rd. – just the smallest of vistas between various buildings, but there it was, still frozen and frosty white. Since moving to Madison, I have missed the presence of a body of water just outside my door. I never tired of sitting on our front porch in Linville, looking down the hill to Linville Creek and listening to its gentle current. Leaving that porch and that creek was hard; and the waterfall-themed white noise app I use at night rarely convinces my brain to shut off like Linville Creek did.

But this lake vista, a surprise sighting as I walked on the sidewalk along a street busy with cars, gave me pause – and delight. Each time I have driven up Speedway Rd. since, I have waited for that moment when my eyes catch sight of that sacred body of water, the “blood of the earth.”*

Loving God,
whose presence is like a stream in a desert,
we pray this day for the peace of the waters.

We praise you for the lifeblood of this watershed,
for Yahara, the Catfish River**
for Mendota, the lake “where the man lies”
for Monona, the “Teepee Lake”
for Waubesa, the “Lake of the Rushes”

We praise you for the snow and ice,
that encrust the world,
and slow our hectic pace.

IMG_2085
Photo: Valerie Showalter / Lake Mendota

We praise you for the gentle rains,
that awaken the earth in spring,
and nourish the crops in summer.

May your healing love cleanse the waters of this world,
from the aquifers below to the storm clouds above.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker, Amen.

*pulled from a quote by Chuang-tzu, in Grounded: Finding God in the World by Diana Butler Bass.
**Names used by the Ho-Chunk peoples. (Mendota, YaharaMonona, Waubesa)

Peace Prayer: Air

This week, the scripture-inspired element for our Peace Lamp prayer is air.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep,
We pray this day for the invisible mixture of compounds we call air.
We praise you for air’s generative movement,
bringing life from the four directions,
carrying pollen and seeds,
giving reason for new growth.

We praise you for the way wind enlivens our world,
the ambling tumbleweeds,
the gentle breezes of the lakeside,
the way our kites take flight on spring afternoons.

We praise you for the oxygen that fills our lungs,
to sing our songs, 
to offer our praise,
and to simply be.

We pray this day for the shalom of the air,
that it, too, will benefit from your healing and liberating love.  
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Peacemaker, Amen.

grass beside the sea
Photo by Melanie Wupperman on Pexels.com

Peace Prayer: The Natural World

During Lent at Madison Mennonite, our weekly Peace Prayers are being shaped by the elements (nature, earth, fire, wind, water.) As I wrote this week’s prayer on nature from Gate 12 at the Dane County Regional Airport, four F-16 fighter jets took off on their daily practice flights, one after another. Thundering by on their exit, the noise shook the terminal. We could hear nothing else. It was terrifying. My body seized, chest tightened, and tears came to my eyes. Christ, have mercy.

While I can hear the jets taking off from our home and feel their abhorrent power even miles away, today, simultaneously writing a prayer of peace for nature, I was utterly convicted again how much our world needs peace. While the empire stays at war, prepares for more war, plays war, and builds ever-more-destructive weapons of devastation, we must pray and work for peace. Christ, have mercy.

Peace Prayer for Nature

Giver of Life,
We pray this day for the peace of the natural world.
We praise you for the trees,
who send their roots deep into the earth, and their branches to the skies.
We praise you for the rising and falling of the landscapes,
the driftless regions, the prairies, the dells, kettles, and moraines.
We praise you for the many creatures who live here,
from the smallest prairie dog,
to the honking wild goose,
to the slinking coyotes.
May your Spirit of Shalom permeate the natural world,
sustaining life in all its good forms.
We ask this in name of the Jesus the Peacemaker, Amen.

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Photo: VLS.  View from the main cliff at Camp Bethel Horizons, Dec. 2019.