Mary and Viriditas


Last year in March, we traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in search of this painting. It is called The Virgin, by Joseph Stella, (American, born in Italy, 1877-1946), and it was part of the museum’s exhibition on “Infinite Blue.” Briefly,

“The works of art in Infinite Blue feature blue in all its variety—a fascinating strand of visual poetry running from ancient times to the present day. In cultures dating back thousands of years, blue—the color of the skies—has often been associated with the spiritual but also signifies power, status, and beauty. The spiritual and material aspects of blue combine to tell us stories about global history, cultural values, technological innovation, and international commerce.” From the Museum website.

I went to Infinite Blue because wanted to see this depiction of Mary, one of the most captivating images of her I have ever seen. I first came across it a few years ago when I was searching for icons related to Hildegard of Bingen, and like Elizabeth in the Gospel of John, my heart leapt when I encountered her. I’m guessing that this particular Mary appeared in the gallery of images because of the abundance of growing things, surrounding, entwining, embracing her, the figures of flowers and vines embroidered on her clothing, the circle of blossoms where Jesus will be…Hildegard’s “viriditas” “greening” is everywhere in this painting. I haven’t looked at the history of this work, so I have no idea if Joseph Stella intended the “viriditas” connection. But what this icon has done is change my experience of Mary. She is always a source of life, carrying the divine within her. She is a garden, here, of earthly and heavenly delights, of beauty and wilderness, of fecundity and blossoming. This is imagery I usually associate with the incarnation and the Tree of Life. There’s no reason Mary shouldn’t be a part of that. I had just not seen it in quite this way. Here, Mary herself becomes a tree of life, which I suppose every woman is: not a Mother Earth, which is always the temptation with Mary, or a representation of the goddess, but a woman who bears and brings and carries life. Stella depicts her as serene, peaceful, but also, I think as holy possibility, that moment after or before or in the midst of her “yes.”  This Mary is born of the beauty of earth, and the divine manifests in and through the beauty of earth, the necessity of the material. Like all icons, Stella’s Virgin is a window into a perception of the holy, here entwined in, and arising from, the lavish blessing of creation.  I wish I could thank Joseph Stella in person. But perhaps he knows already.

Holy Week 2019


The first night of Passover is also Good Friday this year. It seems appropriate. Our family is both Jewish and Christian, and we try to observe as much of our mutual holidays as we can. For me, as a pastor, the double observances deepen my understanding and devotion during Holy Week, where the resurrection is linked to the ongoing action of a God who is committed to liberation wherever there is oppression, whether from struggles within myself, or from external, systemic forces. The power of the Exodus story, next to the Crucifixion brings me to prostration every year.  This year, for many reasons, Holy Week, for me, is all about liberation, naming the powers, unmasking them, and interrupting the destructive force of hatred. The Cross is the Holy Intervention, as we would say in pastoral care, a life-giving intervention, a life-saving intervention.



Wednesday in Holy Week-2018

St. Paul Lutheran Church

The palms and procession are over. We are mid-week in Holy Week, the day before the Triduum begins, the Great Three Days. Wednesday in Holy Week, at least for me, feels something like Holy Saturday, a day of waiting, knowing that the rest of this week will be lived within the great drama of the Passion of Jesus, and the Resurrection. I usually have at least one sleepless night in Holy Week, and tonight is that night.

This summer, I had the privilege of taking a 30 day silent retreat at Eastern Point Retreat House. The retreat was based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Each week of the 30-day Ignatian retreat is spent on different aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus. The final days are spent on the The Passion of Christ and the Resurrection.  Part of the structure of the 30-day retreat is meeting every…

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Advent Halfway or So

chagall mary

The readings in Advent always take me to a place that theologians call the “margins.” Between Isaiah’s prophecies and John the Baptist, I get caught up in the fullness of their vision of the Reign of God, the richness of their dreams, the urgency of their prayer. Advent calls us to draw near God, even as the prophets announce that God is already drawing near to us. The Reign of God, John the Baptist cries, draws near in Christ. The yearning for God expressed in Advent, can take us to the margins of our lives, as it took Jesus.

During my sabbatical this year, I spent three months traveling around the country, visiting intentional communities that seemed to me to exemplify the biblical vision of Beloved Community, groups of people whose souls have caught the prophetic vision of the Reign of God, and are striving to live it in community–this is what church is, of course, but these folks were also forming intentional communities to express that vision in their every day lives, sharing homes, resources and a mission to their neighborhoods.

Beloved Community is a term that became popular during the Civil Rights era in the United States, but its history is older, and its modern expression goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Beloved Community is the language for an ideal—or a vision, a metaphor for the reign of God, or the kingdom of heaven—in religious terms, a horizon toward which we move, also a biblical vision, articulated in scripture. The biblical prophets point us in the direction of Beloved Community; Jesus’ teachings do as well, based as they are in prophetic faith, teachings that break into history with transforming love, working within individuals and in communities. Beloved Community can be thought of in a variety of ways: a community of repentance, a community of memory, a community of hope, grace, revelation, love and justice. The modern use of the phrase is attributed to philosopher Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In 1913, Royce wrote, ‘“My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.” Beyond the actual communities that we directly encounter in life there is the ideal “Beloved Community” of all those who would be fully dedicated to the cause of loyalty, truth and reality itself.'( See: Later the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would adopt this language of Beloved Community, and popularize it in his sermons and speeches, as something that was achievable, rather than a far off horizon of vision. It was a realistic goal: “In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” For King, the method to achieve this goal was creating a critical mass of people trained in the theory and practice of non-violence. “Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred.” (From The King Center:

The Beloved Communities I visited were all informed by the powerful stream of  imagery, theory, teachings, and practice about what it means to create just and loving communities, exemplified in the biblical prophets and in Jesus’ teachings, in Dr. King’s work, and those who came after him. Most were Christian or interfaith communities, and all of them lived close in with people who have been, or may be still on the “margins” of our society. Now, here’s what this has to do with Advent: Jesus lived on the margins–this isn’t a new thought in Christian theology; it’s a foundational understanding of Jesus’ identity. From his birth in a rural village in the out-post of the Roman Empire, to his death on the cross, Jesus makes his home with the “anawim,” the Poor Ones. (See Raymond Brown: The Birth of the Messiah).

This year, because of our divisive politics, and some of the cruel measures being taken against the people Jesus calls us expressly to love, I find myself feeling an even deeper urgency to understand, help, and advocate for those who are being pushed to the margins of security because of poverty, immigration, discrimination of any kind, racism, sexism, classism, disabilities, mental illness, addiction.  Anger and prayers about injustice are not enough; faith is active in love. Jesus lives there, in the lives of people who are struggling for justice, truth, and love. Advent can take us into the blessing of those struggles, if we are not there already.

Here is an example. I call it the first principle of the discipline of loving the neighbor: get to know them. In one of the communities I visited, the members simply took regular walks in their neighborhoods, making it a point of learning about the lives, needs, and struggles of everyone who was within walking distance of their communities and churches. What they found, and what we will find, should we do it, are the intersections of our lives. Everyone needs safety from violence. Everyone needs food. Everyone needs shelter. Everyone needs health care. Everyone needs dignity and respect. Everyone needs decent work. Everyone needs love. As they got to know who their nearer neighbors actually were, it expanded their sense of belonging and opened their hearts to generosity and curiosity about their differences and their shared experiences. They discovered, as we may discover, common struggles, our interdependencies, our interconnections.  Refugees live nearby; homeless shelters are down the street; food pantries and soup kitchens feed the person next-door–we ourselves may need those same soup kitchens, too; local libraries offer help with ESL classes, and filling out government documents and forms; neighborhood houses of worship host health clinics and homeless families in transition. Soon the word “stranger” became and becomes the word “friend.”

Charles Marsh writes in his book on Beloved Community, “We must learn how to perceive the living God who is building a new world in unexpected places and shapes; indeed, we must learn what it means to enter the new world of God. In short, we must relearn the meaning of being a Christian. For if Jesus Christ is Lord of the church and over all creation, power, and principalities, as Christians believe, then our first order of business must be to learn again how to participate in the gift…But let us not for a moment conceal from ourselves the fact that obedience to this vision–our actual acceptance of what the Bible proposes: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”–is a step into space, “an undertaking of unknown consequences, a venture into eternity.” Christian discipleship leads one into the most passionate worldliness and the experience of life’s polyphony, its beauty, anguish and complexity…in church we are taken up, perhaps even against our will, into a fellowship of astonishing variety and difference. In church, we are taken into “Christ-time” …and given the hope that our fragile and infrequent experiences of reconciliation will one day become an eternal feast” (p. 214-215). May this Advent take us to the margins, out past our comfort, and gather us up into that astonishing world of “Christ-time” and “Christ-love”, toward the unexpected and mysterious down-to-earth ways that the love of God might be born anew in us and in our beloved communities.

Returned from the Pilgrimage

chatauqua geese

The image above was taken this summer on our last leg of a sabbatical journey. I gave  the sabbatical a name: “Beloved Community: A Pilgrimage.” The lake is Lake Chautauqua, the Chautauqua Institution being one of the communities we visited during what was a 9500 mile pilgrimage around our country. I have only begun to put the experience into words. Recently, I gave an hour-long presentation at St. Paul Lutheran Church, where I serve, to try and report on what I discovered along the way. For this short entry, first, all the beloved communities we visited had a commitment to non-violence. Second, all that they did together was aimed toward healing, healing the world, their neighbors, the people living within their communities. Third, the visionary expectation of these communities was very simple–every loving act or word we offer the world in our daily life and work, wherever and whoever we are, those acts of love in speech and action, bear the fruit of peace. During the trip, I thought often of Jesus’ beatitude: “blessed are the peacemakers.”

Often in the evenings wherever we were, we took time to sit and review our days, recollecting in the prayerful sense of the word what we’d seen and experienced, talking softly, as we watched the sunset. Here, on the shore of Chautauqua, we were nearing the end of our journey. As we sat in the quiet, a family of geese swam slowly around the shore in the evening light. The geese stayed close together, goslings following their parents’ stately lead, defenseless on a shining lake. They knew they were safe there, from human beings, for the time being, so they didn’t flee when they saw us. I had been thinking about what is necessary for beloved community to arise. One thing is simple: one has to feel safe. And if safety isn’t present, the community needs to work toward it. Beloved community is built on trust.

Of Plum Tree Blossoms and Sabbaticals

The plum tree at 3 Duley

The plum tree in our yard began to bloom with delicate flowers during Holy Week, and by Easter most of the tree had flowered. Tonight, the third Sunday of Easter begins, and they have faded. But shad buds have opened, and the crab apple tree will soon follow, each tree at its appointed time.

This week I will begin a sabbatical, the first one I’ve had. It has a name: Beloved Communities: A Pilgrimage. I’m glad to be starting in spring, glad for the plum blossoms and the accompaniment of their soft beauty, a good time to begin a journey.  We are going to travel around Turtle Island, heading south first, then west, then north, and finally east again, toward the dawn. This time next week, there will be dogwoods blooming in Appalachia, their gentle white and pink petals lighting up the depths of mountain woods. Tonight, I’m thinking of the road to Emmaus, knowing  wherever we travel in this pilgrimage to community, we’ll meet Jesus on the way, in conversations, in listening, in the breaking of the bread.

Advent Day 22

We had our Christmas pageant at church this week. I have to say, it was wonderful to celebrate the Nativity, an act of joyful resistance and a declaration of hope into the seeming chaos of all the troubles of the world. The Nativity: Good news for everyone. A child is born. Hope emerges from a womb of darkness, blood and water, the inland sea of birth into the light; light begat light, life begat life. God loves life, so much, that he made a home with us.

I know we live in a dangerous, frightening time. It was when Jesus was born, too. And still, he came and lived among us. God chose life. We can, too.


Advent Day 17, 2016

Today, deep in Advent, I read the devastating news from Aleppo, a continuous tragedy that has haunted me day and night for months. I wake up with it, in my mind’s eye, and watch and listen throughout the day, so far away, and so unable to do anything to help. Here’s the link to the New York Times article about what happened today: Aleppo

I have no words for the sorrow of this, and for the horror of this violence. I’m not even sure why I’m writing about it now, other than to add my voice to the lamentations of others, to the terrible grief and frustration of watching tyrants and violence prevail. What is happening to us? To our humanity?  What will the survivors do, the civilians, the children do? What will God do? What will the world do?

These last weeks since the election in the US, and the endless stream of terrible news from Syria and other places, I’ve been turning to theologians and spiritual leaders who have lived through such times, and such violence, martyrs and sages, many from biblical scriptures, prophets and mystics, trying to find a path through, as a pastor, and more important, simply as a Christian in the United States. I’ve read Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Wiesel, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Luther, Daniel Berrigan, and Mother Theresa, and a host of columns by my contemporaries,  brothers and sisters who are themselves, seeking faithful ways through. But we’re alive to think about it, and preach about it, and our neighbors in Syria are dead and dying. Where I go in these moments of wordless grief and sorrow, over and over again, is to Mary, not in an Advent pregnancy,  but standing at the foot of the cross, to the Stabat Mater, watching her son die, helpless to stop it. Or to the Pieta, Mary holding death in her lap.

This Advent is a Lent of the death of hope and freedom in many and various ways. Today, Day 17 of Advent, feels the way mid-afternoon on Good Friday does, a giving up of the spirit. We failed to save them, in Aleppo. And my heart is pierced with that. Maybe the only prayer today is from the Lord’s Prayer: “save them, deliver them, from evil.”