It was a muddy March, many years ago now, and my liturgically-minded husband and I attended a small country church in rural Vermont. We had only been attending for a couple of years, but we’d missed the observance of Lent that we had enjoyed at our high-liturgy Episcopal church near our former home. Hesitantly, we approached the pastor and asked if we might be able to lead an Ash Wednesday service, and do a series of Taize services during Lent. He agreed enthusiastically, though cautioned us that the church had never done anything like that before.

As the day approached we had all the preparations in place: a simple liturgy, some reflective hymns, and the all-important ashes. What I was not prepared for was the powerful act of actually marking the foreheads of my beloved church family.

“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

One by one they came and stood before me while my husband played quiet instrumental guitar music. One by one I dipped my thumb in the ashes and lifted it to waiting foreheads. I bent to mark the smooth skin of our youngest members. I looked into the eyes of the men and women I considered my spiritual brothers and sisters. But it was the stooped frame of Richard, one of the eldest members of our community, that undid me.  I will never forget the grit of the ash under my thumb as I made the cross on his papery skin.  I could barely choke out my line:

“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

In that moment we both knew the truth of the refrain, and that it would come to pass all too soon for him. It was a holy moment, in which the nearness of death was acknowledged without fear.

DSC_0247In our day-to-day lives we live so removed from death–it is almost as if we forget that we will die. Is it too difficult to live with this reality? Is that why we put it out of our minds? In the wake of my father’s death over a year ago now, I have not been fully able to settle back into the familiar forgetfulness of a death-less living. I am all too aware of life’s fragility and ultimate end. But I must say, sad as I am to be without my father, I am grateful for this new reality. Each day is an ordinary gift of grace offered to me, and the chance for me to offer grace to others.

I love this prayer from Alive Now–the invitation to “reacquaint ourselves with our smoldering, crumbling, earthbound nature.”  Today, as you mark countless foreheads with gritty ashes, may you be comforted by the reality of the boundaries of all our lives, and the holy thread of God’s presence that is woven in the space between.

God of all peoples and creatures,
you knew the chaos that swirled before Creation
and the clash of tongues in Babylon;
you raised up humanity from dust by your breath,
and by your Spirit we may still be renewed.

But on this day of dust and ashes,
let us not turn too quickly to the hope of new life.
Let us first reacquaint ourselves
with our smoldering, crumbling, earthbound nature:
our ability to burn down all we have built up;
our tendency to devastate, to ravage, to destroy
every place where God dwells,
where Christ abides and reaches out.

Let us come face to face with all we have failed to honor,
every difference we refuse to celebrate,
every fear-based judgment that drives us away from love,
every certainty that lifts us above our brother, our sister,
our neighbor, our enemy,
our very own Belovedness of God.

We confess we are no more than dust and ashes,
and we desire to turn from our destruction.

God of hope and healing, save us from ourselves;
breathe into us again and restore us as your children.
Draw order out of chaos once more:
let our tongues fall silent until guided by your Spirit;
let our steps fall in line with Christ’s journey through the wilderness;
let our hands reach out in care and re-creation
where your work is still to be done.

And in life, in death, and in life beyond death,
may we be marked and claimed by your cross-shaped love.

Reprinted with permission from Alive Now.

–Caren Swanson

There Is Endless Potential in the Clay: A Lectionary Reflection on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139


Welcome to the tenth and final post in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in these weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our tenth guest post is by Ed Moore, reflecting on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139.* 

When I was a student at Duke Divinity School, I considered becoming an archaeologist. I had toyed with the idea as an undergraduate (religion major, as many “pre-mini’s” were back then) and then attended a lecture by Duke’s renowned Eric Meyers on his recent dig in the Middle East. I was fascinated as Meyers explained that strata in a ruin inhabited across millennia by different peoples could accurately be dated by identifying the various types of pottery.

With just a few shards, an expert could give a fair estimate of the date when this or that group “owned” the place. I thought my interest in archaeology had been shelved when I opted for the pastoral ministry, only to discover within a few months of arriving in my first appointment (a congregation founded in 1788 – Asbury preached there several times, the locals were quick to say) that identifying strata in a congregation’s past was nearly as demanding as digging up Nineveh. And some of the pottery shards were, well, surprising.

9371760700_d5ac835f13_hJeremiah knew about potters, their wheels and shards. In the reading for September 8, he imagines Yahweh sitting at the wheel, shaping the destinies of nations, just as a potter would a common vessel. As preaching technique, this is powerful stuff. Everyone who heard Jeremiah had seen potters at their wheels, and watched them gently form the wet clay into the desired shape. Occasionally the potter would be dissatisfied with the way the work was going, would collapse the clay back into a lump, and would start all over again. The shape hadn’t been right, and the work needed a fresh beginning. Just as Jesus’ parables drew upon the commonplace to connect with his listeners – lost sheep, prodigal offspring – so Jeremiah used everyday imagery as a vehicle for the prophetic Word. If you heard Jeremiah describe God at the wheel, you would remember the sermon next time you passed the neighborhood potter’s shop.

This time of year tends to evoke memories for United Methodist pastors, since many of us began serving new appointments on the first of July. It is inevitable that, as we leave one place of ministry for another, we reflect back upon what was good – and not – in the place we’ve been. If we’re not careful, we begin to dwell upon the “if only” scenario: if only I had been more pastorally sensitive in that situation five years ago, I’d have avoided serious conflict. If only I’d been more decisive in dealing with that difficult staff issue, the congregation would have been healthier. If only I’d been a better listener, preacher, counselor, manager, fund raiser . . . you get the idea. Yes, of course, the New Jerusalem would have descended had I only gotten my act together.

But I didn’t, and now it’s moving time again. This sort of selective remembering is really an archaeological dig. As we go down through the layers of ministry, we find shards of what-might-have-been. We gaze fondly upon them (as the Puritans loved to say), pick them up, and allow their sharp edges to wound us afresh. Each one is a stark reminder of some brokenness, either in ourselves or in the parishes we served. Stratum after stratum, year after year, they surface, each a relic of some shortcoming or missed opportunity.

When I was assigned the lections for September 8 and read again that passage from Jeremiah, I remembered a church camp experience from years ago. At the end of the week we had a consecration service (the planners weren’t clear about the meaning of that theological term, but meant well), in which we were asked to recall some sin we needed to confess. We were to write it down on a piece of paper, fold it up, and toss it in the campfire as we all sang, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” You know the lyrics, straight from Jeremiah, “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way! Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after thy will . . .”

8329324494_2572067fa7When we allow those freshly re-dug shards from the past to wound us, we miss the grace the Psalmist understood so well when she wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me . . . and are acquainted with all my ways. . . In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” It’s helpful to hear the Psalmist’s words through the prism of that old hymn. God, as Jeremiah imagined God at the potter’s wheel, is constantly about the work of re-forming when something gets out of shape, because there is endless potential in the clay. Lord, help us wait, “yielded and still,” for the gracious, reshaping touch of the Spirit.


Ed Moore is the Director of Educational Programs for the Clergy Health Initiative, and an ordained elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection

• Our memories are imperfect, and as such they can wound long after the fact. Why is that shard from a past ministry still hurting you? Why do you dig it up so often? The process of remembering can itself can become unhealthy, overweight with baggage that dulls the spirit. How can the healing of your memories begin?

• Sometimes it is helpful to note what scripture does not say. In this passage from Jeremiah, the prophet doesn’t mention the importance of water in the potter’s craft; he assumed everyone knew it. The potter always works with wet hands, shaping the clay until it yields to his skill. The waters of baptism are on the Spirit’s hands, too, molding the clay of your life and shaping it gracefully. How can the memory of your baptism be a means of healing and wholeness for you?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

Freedom From Infirmity: A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 13:10-17


Welcome to the eighth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our eighth guest post is by W. Joseph Mann, reflecting on Luke 13:10-17.* 

In his woodcut, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” the artist Robert Hodgell depicts a man bent over, not unlike the woman in today’s scripture from Luke. Strapped to the man’s back are large rocks, and written on them is the question, “What shall I do to be saved?” He tries to walk forward, but his burden is too great. Behind him are laughing faces, deriding him and adding to his woe.

This “pilgrim” makes little progress because he has burdened himself with the weight of his own salvation. This ill-health is deeply spiritual, marked by our human desire to save ourselves, rather than to accept the freedom that Jesus offers us.

458px-Juan_Rodríguez_Juárez_-_Jesus_with_the_Sick_Woman_-_Google_Art_ProjectLike the pilgrim and the ailing woman in this passage from Luke, many of us have seen the forces in life that can cripple us. We have seen parishioners burdened by the weight of grief, sadness, loss of work, economic woes, the failure of important relationships, or the inability to meet their own goals or others’ expectations. This weight can literally cripple and bend us over – we can see the pain in faces, in slumped shoulders, and in the broken rhythms of life. This ill-health taxes all of our abilities to cope, and we lose a sense of hope and promise.

We cannot straighten up, and we fear we never will. And there are those crippled by devastating diseases, diseases that make crooked our bones and leave us, as the woman in Luke, “bent over.” Those who are bent know diminished freedom and individual power. Such illness requires remarkable adaptation to the “healthy” world, a world where bones, at least for the moment, are straight and strong and allow us to move wherever we want to go. To revive us and give us health and freedom, we seek doctors, clinics, and hospitals – we seek to heal ourselves. But often, like this woman in the synagogue, health care cannot straighten us, cannot unbend us.

So this woman went to the synagogue. What a remarkable thing that preachers look out each Sunday and see a congregation of people, who, like this woman, are bent over by sin, illness, and burdens too heavy for them to bear. Why did this woman come? Did she come to synagogue as any observant Jew would, as her Sabbath right and duty? She does not appear to come asking for anything. She does not call out to Jesus – Jesus calls out to her. Wesleyans understand the wooing grace of God, a grace that comes to us before we call upon it.

And Jesus saw her. What a remarkable blessing: this woman is seen by our Savior, and in this seeing comes a call to him, a healing touch, and a response of praise. The church is the Body of Christ, and Jesus reaches out to us and calls us as well. Our opportunity, like that of Jesus, is to look about us and see. We can see those bent over and unable to stand, crippled by a spirit, and we can offer healing to them.

We can announce the Good News that Christ Jesus sees and knows our burdens and illness. We can be set free, even on the Sabbath, for such work is of the Lord. We only give praise. Praise that we all are made whole in Jesus Christ. Praise that we can participate in this healing work. All of us stand before God as broken sinners, unable to straighten up. In the church we confess our human condition and create solidarity with all like us who are broken. And we celebrate that the eyes of Christ are upon us. In the fellowship of the church we are called and touched and embraced.

In this story the woman is healed; she is made straight. We know that when we see, touch, and announce freedom from the burdens that weigh us down, not all of us are cured. But as in this Gospel story, we are all set free and given wholeness, purpose, and promise through Jesus Christ.

Joseph Mann File 0728/02  frame 26A © Duke University Photography  Jim WallaceW. Joseph Mann is adjunct professor of parish work at Duke Divinity School and an ordained elder in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection:

• There is a deep indignity in that bent-over pilgrim in Hodgell’s woodcut and in the woman in Luke 13: neither of them is able to look another human being in the face. Grace empowers us to see Christ face-to-face, but in that eye contact there is obligation. Do we cling to unhealthy aspects of ourselves because we fear the moment of being straightened and obliged to look Christ in the eye?

• The woman in Luke’s story still comes faithfully to synagogue, despite her illness, seemingly called or driven by something. When congregants bring their woundedness to church, what are the risks to the pastor’s own health and well-being? What resources help clergy manage the risk?

Being Rich Towards God: a Lectionary Reflection


This is the fifth in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

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Our fifth guest post is by Susan Pendleton Jones, reflecting on the lectionary reading from Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.

One word holds together the assigned gospel, epistle, and Old Testament lessons for this week: greed – the unhealthy, human tendency to trust primarily in ourselves and what we can acquire rather than putting our trust in God.

3400039523_ec5b55a7ecIn Luke, a man who has recently lost his parents wants Jesus to make his brother divide the estate with him. It appears that the man wants an advocate, someone who will be on his side, not a judge who will make a fair ruling. Jesus senses the man’s greed and responds by telling him a parable. A rich farmer, whose crops are so plentiful that he runs out of room in his barns, tears down his small barns and builds bigger ones. He decides to store up his abundance for many years to come, reasoning that, “then will I eat, drink, and be merry,” not knowing that later that very night he would die. In these verses, the man uses the words “I” or “me” twelve times. This farmer’s problem is not so much with his actions as with the motivation behind his actions. He believes himself to be in total control of his life and destiny. Seeing this lack of faith, God calls him a fool.

Greed takes the form of idolatry in Colossians, as the apostle admonishes his audience: “put to death” all earthly things such as evil desire and greed. Similarly, the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Hosea is framed in the context of the people of Israel not being satisfied with Yahweh and desiring idols who will please them more. Even though Yahweh calls his “son” Israel out of bondage in Egypt, the people turn to other gods: sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols. They refuse to be content with the good that Yahweh has done for them even though they have been gently led, even cradled, by a loving, forgiving God through the wilderness. “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”

Each of these lessons on the problem of human greed offers a similar solution: the discontented, overly self-concerned person needs to have a fresh encounter with God. In the gospel lesson Jesus, who speaks more about money than any other topic, reminds his listeners that there is far more to life than the abundance of one’s possessions. If we store up and rely primarily on our “earthly treasures,” then we will have a much more difficult time being rich toward God, seeking first life in God’s Kingdom, which keeps us in communion with God and others.


Colossians invites readers to turn from “earthly” temptations, things such as impurity, evil desire, and greed, by appealing to Christ, the one who was raised from the dead. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ has ultimately conquered these “earthly” things, the “powers of death.” If Christians have died and been raised with Christ through baptism, and if their minds and their lives are truly “hidden” with Christ in God, then they will not succumb to the temptation of these powers. Christians, he writes, are to clothe themselves with the “new self ” that is lived in the image of its creator.

In the Old Testament lesson, the God of Hosea responds to Israel’s ingratitude by offering forgiveness, an opportunity for a new and renewed relationship with Him: “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” In all of these lessons God offers Himself anew to the one who is moving down a path toward self-destruction.

So, how do we escape the snares of acute selfishness that manifests itself as greed? How do we find the renewal that brings us to wholeness? The answer to our deepest longing is not to turn inward to self-obsession or to turn outward to false gods of material goods or fleeting promises. It is to look “otherward” – toward a God whose arms are outstretched, not only in a cruciform, self-giving fashion, but also in a loving embrace that offers forgiveness and welcomes us home. Only when we allow the One who has come to give his very life for us to truly befriend us, will our affections and our yearnings be changed. And we know this, first and foremost, as a gift. It is not something else to attain, particularly not on our own – for doing so would be adding to the original problem. Rather, when we accept God’s love and forgiveness as a gift freely offered and when we then live into our baptism, we respond with glad and generous hearts that seek to please God and God’s people. By living our lives in harmony with God’s desires, we store up treasures, not for ourselves and our earthly consumption, but for the Kingdom of God and our blessed participation in it.


Susan Pendleton Jones is associate dean for United Methodist initiatives and ministerial formation and an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection:

  • From Enron to Goldman Sachs to angry, confrontational politics, greed appears to be endemic in our society. If the beginning of greed is dissatisfaction with who and what we are – the Israelites leave Yahweh for Baal, the farmer yearns for ever larger barns – then what is the origin of this dissatisfaction? Whose voice has captured us?
  • What would it look like authentically to “live into our baptism?” In our vows, we promise to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness” and “reject the evil powers of this world,” but we don’t name them. If we were asked to name what we renounce and reject when we’re baptized, what would we say?

(Images by flickr users Mykl Roventine and Great Beyond, both via Creative Commons)

Centering Prayer Liturgy and Resources


This is Part II in a series on Centering Prayer.  For Part I, please see Pastor Cheryl Lawrence’s guest blog post reflecting on her experience with this spiritual practice.

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Centering Prayer is a response to to the call of the Holy Spirit to consent to God’s presence and action within.  It is based on the format of prayer that Jesus suggests in Matthew 6:6: If you want to pray, enter your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Spirited Life has offered Centering Prayer as a workshop activity for Group 2 pastors, as shared by pastor Cheryl Lawrence on her blog, and we have mentioned it a few times on this blog (here and here).  It is a form of silent prayer using a sacred word to draw focus and attention to interior silence and an intention to consent to God’ presence and action within.  For more information about the method, click here.

Several pastors have shared with us that they are offering Centering Prayer to their congregations, but developing the structure around this time can be challenging.  Below is a liturgy for worship with Centering Prayer.  This particular liturgy is written for ‘the height of this day,’ but could easily be tweaked for whenever your group gathers.  We’ve also indicated a twenty minute sit, which is recommended by Contemplative Outreach, leaders in the Centering Prayer movement.


Each time you gather, you may use the same liturgy and alter the reading and the psalm.  As for material for the reading, consider using a favorite devotional or the week’s Gospel lectionary.  If you are interested in more contemplative materials,  the works of Fr. Thomas Keating, father of Centering Prayer, like Journey To The Center, may be appropriate.  Suggested psalms to use include 23, 46, and 62.

Worried about keeping time during the twenty minutes? Insight Timer has a free meditation timer app for both Android and iPhones.  The app has a variety of chimes to both open and close the twenty minute time of prayer.  To draw the group out of the time of interior silence, the leader may consider praying the Lord’s prayer very softly.

We hope this liturgy will be useful to you for your own centering prayer practice, for leading a group in your congregation, or to use with a group of clergy.

Centering Prayer Liturgy

Call to Worship:

One: The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

All: And also with you.

One: Blessed be the one, holy, and living God.

All: Glory to God for ever and ever.


Loving God, in the height of this day we pause to rest in you.  Quiet our minds that they may be still, fill our hearts that we may abide in love and trust.  Christ, as a light illumine and guide me.  Christ, as a shield overshadow me.  Christ under me; Christ over me; Christ beside me on my left and my right.



Holy God, open our hearts to the silent presence of the Spirit of your Son.  Lead us into that mysterious silence, where your love is revealed to all who call, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’

20 minute sit


Go in peace

Click here for a copy of this liturgy, ready to be printed, copied, and used with a group.

–Catherine Wilson

Image by flickr user ninjapotato via Creative Commons.

Be Opened


Don’t miss the news about the winner of this week’s giveaway on Monday’s post, and check in with us next Monday for another fun giveaway!

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Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  -Mark 7

5568630893_f507c93bac_bSometimes I come across something—a poem or a prayer or a piece of artwork—and it just sort of undoes me. I just had that sort of moment, and I’m struggling to wrestle something big and glorious and TRUE into this space here, because I’m excited to share it with you.

This morning a co-worker sent me a link to this sermon delivered yesterday by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber at the Festival of Homiletics that took place this week in Nashville. In his email my coworker wrote, “I thought about it as a blog post, but I’m not sure what I’d pull out or what I could add to it. The whole thing is terrific.” And that’s just it. What more can you say when faced with words of truth that knock you clean off your feet? But I’m going to try, because I’m stubborn like that.

What Nadia is getting at in her sermon is the ways in which we all tend to look for the most “broken” person in our midst, and get all holy, praying for God to heal THAT person over there. She examines the otherwise-unnamed “They” in the passage above, and how “They” begged Jesus to heal their friend.

Hey Jesus – we, the people who are just fine brought you the broken guy so you can fix him… I can’t help feeling like it would have been more realistic if all of the THEYs who brought the deaf man to Jesus would have also sought healing for themselves… But that’s not how we operate, see. We tend to let the obviously broken people carry all the brokenness for us. 

The scripture doesn’t tell us what the deaf man himself wanted, but it does tell us particularly that Jesus took the man aside “in private, away from the crowd.” And what Nadia points out is that the words Jesus uses to effect healing in the deaf man is not “be healed” but “be opened.”

We so often think healing is about identifying what’s wrong and then having that thing cured, but I wonder if spiritual healing has more to do with being opened than it does with being cured.

Because, let’s be honest, it’s usually easier to not change and it’s painful to be open and healing can hurt. Like a frostbite patient … when the blood comes back into the extremities it’s incredibly painful.  It can actually be more comfortable to allow parts of ourselves to die than to feel them have new life. Because sometimes healing feels more like death and resurrection than it feels like getting a warm cookie and glass of milk.

4830635905_a95577a3cd_bRev. Nadia had me at “be opened.” Part of my own story is that I lost my father to cancer earlier this year, after months of dear and faithful friends praying for his healing. Now, cancer is an evil disease, truly, and praying for healing is a good thing to do, but for my dad, he wasn’t healed—at least not from the cancer—which caused a lot of pain for those who were faithfully praying for healing. But you know what he was?—he was opened. He was fully opened to the love and presence of God, in a way that I’ve never seen him, even after six decades of good and faithful Jesus-following. And that was truly a miracle that I got to witness.

Beyond my own story, though, is the reminder that this sermon was explicitly crafted for and delivered to PASTORS. It’s important, I think, not to miss this point, because it’s those of us who spend our lives working for the care and healing of others who often miss how deeply in need of healing WE are. So I invite you to click on this link, invest the six minutes that it takes to read this piece thoughtfully, and prayerfully consider what Jesus is saying to you today. I am praying with you, for the healing of us all.

Be opened to what Jesus is saying to you.

Be opened to the idea that your value isn’t in working 60 hours a week for people who might not even be paying attention.

Be opened to knowing that your own brokenness doesn’t need to be hidden behind someone else’s brokenness.

Be opened to the idea that you are stronger than you think.

Be opened to the idea that you aren’t as strong as you think.

Be opened to the fact that you may not ever get what you want and that you will actually be ok anyway.

Be opened to this whole Gospel of Jesus Christ thing actually, actually, actually being real. And actually being FOR YOU.

Because maybe that’s what healing really is.

Since the radical reign of God that Jesus ushers in destroys the systems of designated sick people and designated well people so that all that is left is a single category of people – children of God. 

–Caren Swanson

Top image by flickr user Vincent_AF, lower image by flickr user Jenny Downing, both used with permission via Creative Commons

In the Brilliance of Spring, Remembering the Darkness of Advent


Keeping the liturgical year may be conducive to better health.

Allow me to explain.

We’ve known for some time that SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder – causes lots of people to experience mild depression during the winter months, when days are shorter and the weather cold and grey. Just as it is no accident that people feel a “spring” in their step this time of year, with the abundance of sunshine and blooming flowers, so too in the darkening days of fall do many people experience a dimming of their mood.  Recent research takes the relationship between the seasons and mental health farther, suggesting that waning sunlight and advancing darkness can have more serious mental health implications than previously thought.  Seasoned pastors – pun confessed – understand this and are prepared to deal with parishioners’ angst come November.

8201390638_69580c35ab_bBut what about pastors’ own vulnerability to the grey days, with their attendant increase in demands that time and creativity be spent planning for Thanksgiving, Advent and Epiphany? Have you ever felt your energy begin to dissipate at the mere thought of trying to explain to your congregation why Gospel lections for Advent begin apocalyptically? The Gospel for December 1, 2013, is Matthew 24, “one taken, one left.” Get ready.

Perhaps it’s time that pastors thought of keeping the liturgical year as a means of self-care, especially during the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle. Some years ago I wrote a liturgy for Longest Night (always either December 21 or 22) in which I confessed my own discomfort with the “tidings of comfort and joy” that cultural Christmas demands we feel, and unleashed upon the congregation the fruits of my historical-critical research by noting that Bethlehem doubtless stank when Jesus was born.  They loved it; some wept; I could scarcely make it through the Great Thanksgiving; the Holy Spirit triumphed.

And I was healed. By confessing the power of the darkness, owning that Luke’s birth narrative is scarcely so sanitized as we prefer to think, announcing that Incarnation made Mary scream in pain, and grasping that all of this is what Emmanuel – God with us – means, I was changed. Writing the liturgy displaced the darkness for me. It was unanticipated self-care, prevenient grace for us Wesleyans.

448485266_4af81d7b3b_bIn this joyful season of Eastertide, when new life is erupting all around us, take advantage of the long days and fresh energy to think ahead to the long nights of Advent and Epiphany.  It is not selfish, pastor, to ask yourself what you need in a particular liturgical season, in order first to receive the grace you have been called to sign and proclaim to the congregation. It is not selfish; it is responsible stewardship. Design those liturgies for yourself, too, and let the Spirit take care of the rest. She will.

–Ed Moore

Top image by flickr user Herr Olsen.  Lower image by flickr user Jeff Kubina.  Both used with permission via Creative Commons.

Hope Amid Disaster: Sermons After the Boston Bombings


As I type, it is Monday afternoon, and I am keenly aware that almost exactly one week ago, moments of celebration for Boston Marathon runners and spectators quickly shifted from a time of unity and celebration to terror, death, and horror. During times of national tragedy such as occurred over the past week, pastors and religious leaders are tasked with the monumental role of comforting their communities.


TIME magazine asked seven pastors from across the country, from Copley Square to rural Ohio to Los Angeles, to share the reflections and sermons they would offer their communities after the tragedy in Boston.

Katie Crowe is the pastor of Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham and works with Spirited Life in providing training for pastors on the practice of Centering Prayer. She is one of the pastors who offered words of hope as an antidote to violence, reflecting on the passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus shows the disciples the scars from the wounds of the crucifixion.

Katie shares that Christians have a Savior who shows his scars as a sign of solidarity; he knows the trials we endure and the pain that comes along with them. The scars are also the place where God’s work of healing can flourish.

“When Jesus bore the world’s brokenness on the cross, God’s grace filled in the gap between human sin and God’s righteousness, building a stronger body by uniting us with God through Christ as one. Today, the scars on Christ’s body represent the brokenness and sin of the world that can break us down, create gaps in our faith, and tear us apart as a human family. In this painful and anxious place, God’s grace fills in the gaps by the work and power of the Holy Spirit, building us all into a stronger body of believers, and making the moment of crisis a means of transformation within disciples, communities, and the world.”

As we pray for our healing in our country and peace within our world, we also pray for pastors and religious leaders who are sharing messages of hope, peace, and comfort, messages that allow us all be reminded of where we gather endurance for the races set before us. Thanks be to God for your work and ministry.

Catherine Wilson

Image from flickr user txfc of a vigil for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing Monday, April 22, in Davis Square, Sommerville, Mass., used with permission via Creative Commons.

The baffling Church


3474771251_14226c1b2d_b“How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go?”

-Carlo Carretto (1910-1988; Italian Catholic spiritual writer, desert monastic community member)

Tommy Grimm

image by flickr user wohlford via creative commons


Reverence and the silence of God


When was the last time that you experienced pure stillness and silence?

I had a conversation with a pastor last week who shared how rare it is for her to have moments of silence.  Even when she is alone and not in the physical presence of others, e-mails are coming in, her to-do list is nagging her, her children are active upstairs, she’s running sermon prep through her head, or she’s playing music.  Silence isn’t golden…it’s non-existent.

I find that it’s not always the demands of others that keep silence at bay.  When given moments to pause, even at a stoplight or in-between phone calls at work, I feel the need to fill these times of silence with words or actions.  It is easy for me to fill the moment with another task, a duty, a phone call, an e-mail.

But if we are not familiar with silence in our day-to-day lives, what happens when we feel that God is silent, either to us or to those that we care about?  How much more fear-inducing or uncomfortable are those times when we experience God’s distance?

Barbara Brown Taylor speaks to the silence of God as a mystery to be entered into with reverence.

“I believe we do more for those in our care by teaching them about the silence of God than we do by trying to explain it away. By addressing the experience of God’s silence in scripture and in our listeners’ own lives, we may be able to open up the possibility that silence is as much a sign of God’s presence as of God’s absence – that divine silence is not a vacuum to be filled but a mystery to be entered into, unarmed with words and distracted by noise – a holy of holies in which we too may be struck dumb by the power of the unsayable God. Our job is not to pierce that mystery with language but to reverence it.”

– Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent

Heeding this wisdom, during Lent, I’m pursuing more time in silence and attempting to both acknowledge and welcome God’s overflowing presence in that space. In particular, I’m aiming to spend twenty minutes of silence per day in Centering Prayer and fasting from the radio on my commute to and from work.  My hope is that I become more hospitable toward silence and replace the false busyness and action with obedience to God.

Catherine Wilson

Top image by flickr user seyed mostafa zamani, lower by -Delphine-, both via creative commons