O Night Divine

There is a time in late December
The sun stands still in winter
For three days and three long nights
Throughout time we’ve watched the sky
And waited for the sun to come and save us
Save us from the longest night

For years I have been doing things
And singing songs that don’t make any sense
But if I scratch the surface just a little bit
The holiday paint is pretty thin

Look to the sky with hope and wonder
There’s a star in the east to guide us home
We are closer now than we’ve ever been
To peace on earth and good will to men
As we celebrate the longest night
O night divine
O night divine


(Heard this live tonight and it blew me away!)

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silence wrestling with complicity

I am struck most by the silence as a response to deep anxiety, my own in particular. Sure, I’m linking, posting, maybe a pointed remark in my classroom. But outside, I’m slipping between public spaces. I want to disrupt hate and fear but the ground for resistance is unstable and I want to be ‘effective’.
My neighbors are deciding what they might do from within their own sense of vulnerability. C, down the block, no longer celebrating his victory, no longer looks me in the eyes as we pass on the road. It’s not what he wanted, he desired disruption, not devastation.
Next door, A & J are making space for a friend’s children, friends who expect to be deported and are seeking space for their children, adolescent’s who have Ohio as their only home.

Biblical prophets speak disorientation to disrupt our certainty, our reliance on fear and nostalgia as false compass points. I want to remain a neighbor, slipping through without offense. I am without any compass, no map, without orientation. Disorientation may last longer than a season, renewal and reorientation are beyond my imagination.
On Wednesday, I’ll be in New York city offering a few words as part of a day thinking about theological education and ecology, attempting to imagine a way toward the next 500 years. I’m waiting for those words.
Below I link to a poem that will offend some deeply, it came across email today, read it or don’t, but sometimes the prophet is an angry poet raging to find something true.

A Poem for the Cruel Majority

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There is One in the Darkness

“The Psalms are profoundly subversive of the dominant culture, which wants to deny and cover over the darkness we are called to enter. Personally we shun negativity. Publicly we deny the the failure of our attempts to exercise control. The last desperate effort at control through nuclear weapons is a stark admission of our failure to control. But through its propaganda and the ideology of consumerism, our society goes its way in pretense. Against all of this the Psalms issue a mighty protest and invite us into a more honest facing of the darkness. The reason the darkness may be faced and lived in is that even in the darkness there is One to address.

The One to address is in the darkness but is not simply a part of the darkness (John 1:1-5). Because this One has promised to be in the darkness with us, we find the darkness strangely transformed, not by the power of easy light, but by the power of relentless solidarity….

The Psalms are a boundary thrown up against self-deception. They do not permit us to ignore or deny the darkness, personally or publicly, for that is where new life is given, whether on the third day, or by some other uncontrolled schedule at work within us.”

The above is Walter Brueggemann from his book Spirituality of the Psalms, pages xii-xiii.

It’s worth hearing in this, the darkest part of the year, that light will come. The One is being born among us even as we wait though even he, for now, is wreathed in the darkness of the womb.

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Darkness Can Be a Teacher

Soon, in my patch on this planet, we mark the winter solstice. As we move through the shortest day and longest night of the year, we also start moving toward the rising of the light. For several millennia, it’s been hard for our species to resist the metaphor in that fact!

But I wonder… Are we so eager to get to the light that we fail to dwell in the darkness long enough to learn what it has to teach us?

As we all know, there are a lot of “longest nights” in life, and some of them seem impossibly long. As one who has spent months in the dark night of depression, I know how important it has been to let darkness become my teacher. The poets know this, too.

Theodore Roethke says:

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

Wendell Berry says:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

And Rilke says, very simply,

“I have faith in the night.”

So perhaps on this winter solstice, before we start turning toward the light, we need to spend some time embracing the darkness — or letting it embrace us. There are life-giving lessons to be learned there, even in our darkest times.

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Night drive

Sitting at a red light in the dark

where my favorite back road crossed the highway

rock on the radio

heater comfortable

others rushing by

still and content

light changed allowing me to proceed

then a well recognized warning sign for a sharp right turn

took my usual left

around the S curve past familiar places



in the dark.


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Advent Past, Present & Future

Advent addresses our past in the present with expectations for our future. It shows a non linear approach to time unlike how we tend to approach time in our dimension.  Sometimes it seems we are destined to live a ground-hog existence when we try and address our legacy issues. The problem is, when does the past stop and the present begin?

Does it stop in 1998 with the signing of the Belfast Agreement? Or does the past inhabit our present and in that sense, the past is never gone? This is not simply a rhetorical question as we now have a generation of young people born in the year of the first ceasefire, 1994, who are no longer teen-agers. Indeed those born in the year in which we signed the Belfast agreement are now finishing “big school”, during which they have learned about a past which we still contest, probably reflecting on “my past” rather than “our past”.

There are a number of things about the past on which we can agree.  It  is complex, it can be toxic, it is nuanced, it is a shared experience, (though elements are factually disputed), it is more subjective than objective, it fades with time but its legacy remains. Memory plays a huge part in our formation and as much of our recall is community or family based, it passes through a number of analytical social filters before it becomes received or accepted history.

Memory does, however, play tricks and as time moves on, some facts and elements of the past fade. This is a normal process and neither means we are creating a past nor reinterpreting history to our own ends. So we need to accept we are formed by our own memory as well as the remembering of others, even our “enemies”.

Memory is not a linear process and as John Paul Lederach reminds us, we constantly move between the past and the present and through this create new memories which transcend the years.  He put it this way, “ We find it hard to live with the ambiguity formed by the murky windows we all peer through, which we assume are accurate and clear.  They are not.  We peer into past, present and future through a glass lit dimly”.  Many things can dim our view of the world, prejudices, our experiences, pain and memories. Accepting this reality, can we take time to re-imagine the past and remember the future as we build our united community. God believes in us, do we also believe in our potential for change?

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make america repent again


John the Baptizer is outside my window, yelling some nonsense about a time that never was. He is calling for a ridiculous set of economic and political ideas that don’t understand how the world really works. Poor man, I’m wondering if I should shoo him off down the road, this is a nice neighborhood and I don’t want the neighbors to think I might know this kook.

Crazy talk about caring for orphans and widows, there is a home for them down the road. Ridiculous proclamations about welcoming strangers, as if we don’t have enough problems already without allowing people we don’t know who might do God knows what into our country. Now he’s yelling about the need for clean water, honoring treaties we made with people in a different century. I’m putting on my headphones now, I sure hope he’s gone by evening, the game is on and I’ll need to concentrate.

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from “The Celtic Christian Tradition” on FaceBook.

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Psalm 91: The Lord is my Refuge and the Devil take the Rest of You…

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High

 will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,

 so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
    you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

14 ‘Because he[b] loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him;
    I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15 He will call on me, and I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.’

When I heard that the Mockingbird was leaping again this year and that the prompt would be Brueggemann’s idea of Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation, it send me scurrying back to the Psalms and a refreshingly different Advent devotional discipline from the usual prophetic and gospel passages. But there was nothing leaping out that I wanted to write about, until I tripped over Psalm 91 twice in one day… Once in my own reading, where it was mildly comforting, and the second in the funeral service of a friend’s mother… Where it was read, without much comment, in that peculiar form of speaking that is the preserve of a certain tradition of preacher in this part of the world.

I’ve never used this Psalm in a funeral myself (so far as I can remember), but it’s promise of God as a refuge echoes many others that I have used frequently, especially Psalm 46 that was read at my own mother’s funeral many years ago. But for some reason there was something really disorientating about this particular Psalm being read at this particular funeral at this particular time (in this particular way).

I was left wondering whether the Psalmist (whoever, whenever or wherever he was) really believed what he was writing… that belief in God Almighty was an insurance policy against the afflictions that affected everyone else?

And do we as we read it? And what are we saying when we read it at a funeral, with its promises of protection while everyone else is dropping dead? Are Christians really immune from pestilence and plague? Are Christians guaranteed a long life? How long is long?

And moving in out of the context of a particular funeral, what does it say to us in the midst of a period of national and indeed global uncertainty. Is it the scriptural equivalent of all those facebook posts telling us “Don’t Fear! God is in control!” And if he is in control is it only his people who need not fear, because whatever despot is on an earthly throne, those who cower under the Almighty’s throne will be protected by him, spectators as evil-doers are struck down?

Yet what does that say about those of God’s people who have suffered and died and continue to do so under earthly regimes? Should we sit so lightly to the material world that all that happens here to us or to other does not matter to us?

Of course many of those responses are extreme, ignoring the wider witness of scripture and illustrating why it is dangerous to build a theology on one small Psalm…

Which brings me to the Devil’s use of this Psalm in both Matthew’s and Luke’s  temptation narrative. He suggests that God will protect his chosen one, but Jesus refutes his usage, not in terms of the Devil’s exegesis, but in relation to creating an artificial crisis to test God’s faithfulness. In this there is clearly an acknowledgement that at the time of Jesus this Psalm was widely regarded as a Messianic promise… But it isn’t one that we often read in the advent liturgies, because in the end Jesus did not enjoy a long earthly life… although we do teach that God’s salvation is revealed in him…

I haven’t read Brueggemann’s take on this Psalm, but whilst I suspect that the Psalmist is seeking to orientate his readers to a protective Almighty God, I personally have been left decidedly disorientated by it…

But at this early stage of advent, in this particular year that is maybe not a bad thing. There is a tendency in times of trouble to retreat immediately within walls, to batten down the hatches emotionally, theologically and liturgically… taking shelter under the throne of God…

But as a late colleague said of a former church building when it was erected at the top of a hill, there is the world of difference between a fortress to be defended and a stronghold to sally forth from… into a profoundly disorientating world…



If you want a modern hymn based on this Psalm Timothy Dudley Smith’s “Safe in the Shadow of the Lord” is a good one, though it smooths over some of the unsettling elements of the Psalm in it’s original form.

Below is my own paraphrase… Writing these is a discipline I use to help me avoid dodging the difficult bits of such Psalms.

You who reside under the protective roof of God on High,
And shelter under the shadow of the Almighty One’s throne
can confidently say this
“The great I AM is my hiding place, my safe space
The God to whom I entrust my life.”

Will he definitely protect me from life’s booby traps,
and deflect all disease and disaster?
Like a mother sheltering her children behind her skirt,
Will God shield me from all who would harm me?

Do not fear the terrible things that happen by night
Nor those who would attack you in broad daylight.

So I should not dread the disease that snatches people away in the darkness,
nor the accidents that hit when all seems bright and breezy.
Even though thousands drop dead around me, falling like flies to right and left,
I will come through it all unscathed,
Only an eye-witness to the punishment of the wicked.

You only have to say
“The Great I AM is my hiding place, my home is God on High.”
Then no harm will befall you and your household will be free from danger.  

For he will command his angels to guard you wherever you go.
If you stumble, they’ll be there to catch you before you hit the ground.
You’ll trample over terrifying beasts and crush the most deadly of creatures.

The Great I AM says
“My name is on his tongue and his heart therefore I will rescue him.
He calls so I will respond.
I will grant him long life and demonstrate my salvation through him.”

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Psalm 138: Settling and Unsettling

Psa. 138     Of David.

1    I will praise you, LORD, with all my heart;
before the “gods” I will sing your praise.
2          I will bow down toward your holy temple
and will praise your name
for your unfailing love and your faithfulness,
for you have so exalted your solemn decree
that it surpasses your fame.
3          When I called, you answered me;
you greatly emboldened me.
4          May all the kings of the earth praise you, LORD,
when they hear what you have decreed.
5          May they sing of the ways of the LORD,
for the glory of the LORD is great.
6          Though the LORD is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly;
though lofty, he sees them from afar.
7          Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life.
You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes;
with your right hand you save me.
8          The LORD will vindicate me;
your love, LORD, endures forever—

                        do not abandon the works of your hands.

There is a curious mix here in this psalm. There is certainty and confidence. The poet writes of the unfailing love of God. Of how when he called, the Lord answered. In an echo of the 23rd Psalm there is the conviction that even through troubled times God preserves his life and vindicates him against his enemies.

But then there is that explosive last line. The certainty and confidence exists alongside doubt and fear. I can’t claim to have been exhaustive about it, but none of the commentaries I’ve looked at answer the problem of this line. If the writer is so certain of God why is this line needed?

The writer seems to trust and not trust all at the same time.

Like all of us I guess.

Existing on this precipice. On this edge.

Who is this last line for?

At the last, does the psalmist fear that maybe this time God will be unable to act? Or will God somehow go against character this one time? Is the writer trying desperately to stiffen his back against the challenge?

Or is it determination on the part of the writer, to hold God accountable this time? To remind God again of his consistent pattern of action in spite of circumstances? To keep watch and ensure God does the right thing?

I like that this ambiguity is the closing line of the Psalm. The writer doesn’t need to sign it all off with a neat answer, but seems content to rest in the ambiguity. Sometimes the world is messy and I’ve just got to live in the mess, and resist the temptation to tidy it up with a orderly conclusion.

Brueggemann writes,
“deep loss and amazing gift are held together in powerful tension.”

That tension is reflected in my inability to be wholly one or the other. Wholly committed and believing. Or wholly able to let it all go into disbelief this time.

Thing is, God seems able to cope, whichever.

Light shines in the darkness. And the darkness is unable to overcome it.

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