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LGBT/queer My poetry Reflections for worship services

Reflection for Coming Out Day services: Fighting damaging silence, honoring formative silence

There are cocoons
of silence, soft merciful darkness enveloping you 
until you are ready to emerge as something
new—

And there are tombs
of silence. Darkness gone awry,
a heaviness that presses down your lungs,
so that your shouts of “I’m alive!” die
before they can escape your lips.

My shoulders ache with the ghosts of silences too long carried.

Mom, Dad, you always promised
to love me no matter what —
but so did my wife’s parents
and they nearly threw her out
when they found out.

I wanted to believe you really would love me “no matter what”
but how could I dare to hope it
when you never said a word
about gay or trans people,
and always changed the channel when two women
holding hands came on the screen?

Your silence weighed on me
almost as heavy as explicit condemnation would have.

Parents, guardians out there, please
tell your children when they are
young and only just learning what love is
that you will love them even if it turns out 
the wrong gender was stamped on their birth certificate
and no matter who they cut their wedding cake with. 

I came out to my parents eventually.
Piece by piece
I tore through the silence
we had built up together and they

have been wonderful. Slowly
they wrapped up the name
they gave me at my birth and put it away, replaced by
a name of my own choosing, a name that really is me. 

The pronouns took longer
but now when I go home 
arm in arm with my wife
I have no fear of being misgendered 
by those closest in my life.

And what of myself, the residue of silence
that still coats my inner gut?

Sometimes I forget that I am safe now
to speak up for other queer folk,
that I can say, “no, that joke was not funny
it was transphobic” or
“so why exactly would you ‘never date a bisexual’?”

My mouth stays shut. And silence wins. Nothing changes.
Other times I’m just too tired
to correct someone who’s called me ma’am yet again
to repeat like a broken record, please use they/them

and then silence wins.
I dodge falling stalactites as my identity caves in around me.

The seductive arms of silence 
reach out to all of us
and we all fall into them sometimes, too tired to resist
or too scared of saying the wrong thing to even try. 

But the key is to ask yourself: what will you do
to ensure that the old wounds etched by silence
don’t bleed out indefinitely? what will you do
not to cover over the scars or pretend like they never happened
but to keep new scars from jagging into existence?

Listen.
I know how your heart speeds up
when you try to speak up 
on your own behalf or another’s —
my heart does too.

I know the lump that forms in your throat 
and when you speak anyway, 

maybe people will be mad. Maybe you’ll have to fight.
Maybe you’ll even lose.

But speak anyway. And if you have to fight, 
then fight not with swords but with words, not with violence
but with love and truth. 

If we speak, 
the scars of silences once carried
will map themselves into a vision
of a future where no one
needs to bury themselves to stay alive. 

As for me and my house,
we will dig and dig and dig and free
the ones whom we have buried 
with the sin of all the times that we have failed.

We will not disturb those who have chosen
to wrap themselves in cocoons of silence
for their own protection,
but we will speak on their behalf;
while they form themselves in safety 
we will speak, so that when they emerge

the world will greet them not
with more tombs to shove them in
not with confused stares or snide comments
but with open arms
and a seat at the feast—

not with isolating silence
but with beautiful, life-reviving Song.


This piece was written by Avery Arden and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

I first wrote this reflection for a National Coming Out Day service at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in October 2016. The service included reflections from several individuals, each one responding to a different passage from Esther; the passage to which I responded was Esther 8:9-14.

I shared this reflection again, revised, for another Coming Out Day service for my friend Ainsley’s online Queer Church (you can watch the service on Facebook live here).

The first version of this piece included my description of how my parents were still working on getting my pronouns right; it was a joy to revise it saying that they now have that down pat! I also got to change “girlfriend” to “wife,” as we got married in 2019.

The concept of “coming out” brings up complex emotions in me. Western culture turns being “out” and “closeted” into a binary; assumes that all of us resonate with those terms; and centers cishet persons in discussion of those terms. Some incomplete thoughts:

My hope is that this reflection honors the many experiences and feelings around the idea of “coming out,” even while focusing on my own personal experiences.

Categories
LGBT/queer My poetry

poem: whippoorwill blessing

if i follow the call of the whippoorwill
out from our burrow of blankets and slow breathing

over and into the shirt
shrugged over sleepy shoulders

downstairs to the kettle snoring steam
for the tea steeping in its yawning mug

out, out! past the screen door
anointed in moth-kisses
into a slowly waking world

will a blessing be out there, waiting?

whippoorwill, are you calling me to go
stirring my spirit as I stir this golden tea

as the sun shrugs its golden shoulders
over mountains?

whippoorwill, tell me, tell me how
you’ll bless me!
and you, dove with your mournful morning croon,
you, creek with the laughter bubbling up
from your valley nook below —

tell me how you’ll lavish me in blessings
only lavished upon those
who arise
and go.

here i go.


I wrote this poem on the getaway trip my wife and I took into the mountains of Northeast Georgia for our 2-year anniversary a couple weeks ago. The first evening we spent in our little cabin nestled in the trees, we heard a bird calling that neither of us had heard before – but my wife correctly guessed what it was because the call really did sound like “whip-poor-will.” That next morning, I awoke very early to the sound of that same bird calling. I stayed in bed a little longer, burrowed safe beside the love of my life, and then I rose to follow the call outward.

There truly is a special blessing in the world for those who awake early not to head off to work but to take that first inhale with the dawn…you can believe in the aliveness and interconnectedness of all things in that early morning glow. I felt Divinity all around as I made my way to the creek a little ways away from the cabin.

Categories
Affirmation of Faith Call to worship Confession and Pardon easter Holy Days Liturgy Multifaith Opening prayer Reflections for worship services

Liturgy for the Ascension: joining the Cloud of Witnesses

Call to Worship 

Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!

Opening Prayer

God in whose image we all are made,
God who pervades all time and space,
when you died and rose again 
you drew all people to yourself.

We in this congregation,
we in this denomination,
we who live in this small point in time
are not the only ones whom you have gathered
to sing your praise and delve into deeper relationship
with neighbor, with stranger, and with you.

As we join as one to worship you today,
open our minds to experience the cloud of witnesses —
the timeless community of all those who dwell in your love, 
past, present, and future,
whose many voices intertwine with our own
to weave one song of praise 
made richer by every added harmony and chord.

And as we worship as one from under many roofs,
in many different lands and languages and ways of life,
send your Spirit to fill us to bursting
both with joyful anticipation of Christ’s return
and an irresistible urge to seek God’s kin(g)dom here and now.

Amen. 

Reading and Praying with the Psalms

Psalm 47:1-2, 5-7 (my translation)

For the choirmaster of the Korahites, a psalm.

All you peoples, clap your hands!
Shout to God with ringing voice.
For LIVING GOD Most High inspires awe, great sovereign over all the earth.

God has ascended with a rallying cry, 
LIVING GOD with a trumpet blast.

Sing to God, sing!
Sing to our sovereign, sing! —
for God is sovereign over all the earth. 
Sing a wise song!

Silence

Prayer

God of all the cosmos,
whose sovereignty brings 
not subjugation, but liberation,

There are as many ways to praise you
as there are creatures on the earth —
ways familiar and dear to us, 
and ways that we think strange.

Some praise you by the name Allah,
faithfully prostrating themselves
when the call to pray sounds five times each day;

Others call you Hashem, and worship you
through torah and ritual passed down over generations
that many have tried but all have failed to stamp out.

Your children worship you 
with prayer wheels and prayer beads, scriptures and songs,
in fasting and feasting, meditation and dancing

and in the worship of simply being —
the bursting of the bud, 
the burrowing of the worm,
the flashing of feathers in flight.

Let us praise you with all that we are,
O God of many names, God both dear and strange.

For wherever we go, whatever we do,
in life and in death we all belong to you.

Amen.


Confession and Pardon

Call to Confession

Our sin, individual and collective, is almost too much to bear. 
It would be easier not to face it — 
but to pretend it is not there is to let it fester. 

So let us face it together —
first with a moment of silent reflection,
and then with voices uplifted as one to God.

Silence

Prayer of Confession

Risen God,

You call us not to look toward the sky,
but into the faces of those who surround us —
to celebrate their many shapes and shades, wrinkles and scars,
the unique insights only they can share;
and to care for their needs as desperately as we care for our own,
according to the example you left us in your own ministry. 

Yet we live as though you abandoned us
when you ascended into heaven –
as though we should wait, dormant, for your return, 
gazing longingly to the sky 
as we dwell on bygone days 
and wish for an uncomplicated future.

When our siblings cry out to us 
from where they’ve been trampled into the mud
by systems like white supremacy, capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy

we with eyes glued heavenward shrug off their suffering 
with assurances that it is fleeting –
anything to avoid acknowledging our own culpability;
anything to avoid the endless work of active solidarity.

When we fail to balance our hope in your return
with living out your already-present Spirit: forgive us. 

When anxiety or regret holds us back: encourage us.

When apathy or resignation leaves us feeling powerless: empower us.

Amen.

Assurance of Pardon 

My friends in the cloud of witnesses,

God has called us into a transformation 
of our minds, our hearts, our very lives,
and – miracle of miracles! – 
Xe has made that transformation possible!

Through our Creator, Redeemer, Comforter,
we are forgiven and set free
to be God’s people made whole.
Thanks be to the One Who Gives New Life.
Amen.


Responding to God’s Word        

While making room for questions and fresh insight,
and celebrating the diversity of thought
that sets the cloud of witnesses aglow,

there are some beliefs that we in the church
commit ourselves to holding in common.

As one, let us affirm some of that shared faith
while lifting up the wisdom of some of our fellow witnesses.

We believe in one Triune God, Creator of all things.

In that Beginning told in Genesis,
She brooded over watery darkness
and gave birth to Creation in all its remarkable diversity — 
the day and night, and the varied shades
of dawn and dusk between;
the sea and dry land, and the shifting shores
that blur them together;
the plants and all kinds of animals, and life beyond them
— coral and  seaweed and fungi, unicellular organisms…

Each one created by God, who declared all Good.

Finally, God fashioned human beings
— male and female, and intersex –
in Their own divine image,
intending and blessing
our vast diversity of body and mind.

Transgender theologian Dr. Justin Tanis writes,

“In the story of Genesis, even while God was creating apparent opposites, God also created liminal spaces in which the elements of creation overlap and merge. Surely the same could be said about the creation of humanity with people occupying many places between [and beyond] the poles of female and male in a way similar to the rest of creation.”

We believe that in the Person of Jesus
this same God put on flesh
and dwelt among us,
drawing all of us into abundant life –
not only in some far-off time,
but for right here and now.

Rev. Dr. Noel Leo Erskine writes,

“We are admonished to bear the cross now so that we may wear the crown later. We are instructed to sacrifice and do without shoes now so that we may wear shoes when we get to heaven. But Black religion helps us understand that all of God’s children need some shoes now, right here on earth.

Black religion exposed the false eschatology that taught us to postpone liberation for the ‘sweet bye and bye.’ It exposed the fallacy that we have to wait until we get to heaven to have basic human rights such as access to shelter, food, health care, education, and the other essentials of life.

…Eternal life was not relegated to the after-life but was understood as a new quality of life beginning in the here-and-now.”

We believe that Jesus ascended into heaven
But did not leave us alone:

We believe in his Holy, healing, mischief-making Spirit
who sweeps us up into the work of God’s Kin-dom
that is already transforming the world
even while not yet fully ushered in.

In the body and divinity of Jesus,
heaven meets earth –
thanks be to God!

Amen.


I wrote this liturgy for an Ascension Sunday service for May 2021.

Categories
Confession and Pardon Holy Days lent Liturgy My poetry Reflections for worship services

Combatting Antisemitism on Good Friday: An Alternative to the “Solemn Reproaches of the Cross”

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

From the moment I shaped humanity from the mud
and gifted you with my own Breath
I delighted in you, and called you good,

invited you to serve my diverse Creation,
promising that as long as you cared for it,
it would care for you  –

yet you trample my good works under your feet!
You consume and consume and consume beyond your need
even while many of your siblings starve.

In sentencing your siblings and the land
to a torturous death,
you sentence me.

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us!

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

I chose the children of Israel as my own
not despite but because Jacob dared to wrestle me;
I chose the enslaved Hebrews as my own
not despite but because of their littleness,
the way their neighbors sought to dominate or destroy them.

My covenant with them is eternal;
My Torah instructs them well on how to love me
by loving the stranger, the Other, the defenseless –

Yet you claim your relationship with me negates theirs!

You call their testament “old,”
and claim the God you find there
is bloodthirsty, barbaric, not the same God;

Across the centuries you have listened to the story
of how I was charged by Roman powers with sedition,
died on a Roman cross –
and then went out and blamed “the Jews” for my death!

You have coerced conversion,
enacted or enabled hate crimes against them;
you have shunned and slandered them
when you ought to have
embraced them as your kin!

When you reject and persecute my Jewish people,
truly, truly you reject and persecute me.

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us!

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

I so loved you, I wrapped my divinity in frail flesh
so I could share with you
both joy and pain, feast and famine, friendship and loss;

I so loved you, I accepted Rome’s cross
to show my solidarity with all
whom worldly powers crush —

But still you idolize the very forces
that brutalized my body unto death!

When you regard a flag above a life
and let your siblings perish
on the other side of a border you invented;

when you wage war against Black and Indigenous peoples
or look away as they are killed
you also kill me.

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us!

Oh my church, my hands and feet on earth,
why do you not heed me on the cross?
Answer me!

Why do you not help me when I cry out
in thirst and hunger, or nakedness?
Why do you not welcome me when I come to you as a stranger?
Where are you when I am sick, but can’t afford care?
Where are you when I am abused or contracting COVID in prison?

Oh, my church! when will you truly become
my hands and feet on earth?
Answer, answer me!

Holy God,
we have no defense.

Holy God,
do what you deem just.

Holy God,
redeem and renew us
and we will be your hands and feet.

We will care for your Creation
and show gratitude for its care of us.

We will respect your Jewish people,
repenting of and uprooting our antisemitism;
we will learn to recognize your face
among persons of all faiths.

We will care for the most oppressed among us,
joining in solidarity with Black, Indigenous people of color,
with the LGBTQA+ community,
with the disability community, and all the disenfranchised,

uplifting their voices
and making good trouble
until the needs of all are met.

Truly, then, you will be my church
and I will give you strength, 
and you shall journey in the name of
God Who Draws All Peoples To Themself. 


You can hear me read this piece and explain it in other words in episode 39 of my podcast – find links here.

I wrote this piece to be used as an alternative in churches that on Good Friday traditionally read the Improperia, the “Solemn Reproaches of the Cross, the original version of which you can read here. My intention is to encourage Christians to examine our antisemitism during this week, rather than fueling it with language that blames the Jewish people past and present for Jesus’s death.

Holy Week has long been a dangerous time of the year for Jewish persons (See this article for the history of antisemitic hate crimes on Good Friday in medieval Europe; and this article arguing that “Centuries of Christian Antisemitism Led to the Holocaust“). The scriptures and liturgy that we choose to read in our churches during this time fuels that antisemitism not only this week, but the whole year round. 

As Jewish woman and New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine writes in this article,

“Jesus of Nazareth, charged by the Roman authorities with sedition, dies on a Roman cross. But Jews ― the collective, all Jews ― become known as “Christ-killers.” Still haunting, the legacy of that charge becomes acute during Holy Week, when pastors and priests who speak about the death of Jesus have to talk about “the Jews.” Every year, the same difficulty surfaces: how can a gospel of love be proclaimed, if that same gospel is heard to promote hatred of Jesus’s own people?”

Among the most poisonous of liturgy read by many churches across the centuries is the “Reproaches.” As Elizabeth Palmer explains in her 2020 article “Thinking about Good Friday during a Pandemic,”

In the Solemn Reproaches, Jesus addresses people who have harmed him — and the text has a long history of stirring up violence against Jewish people. Many times over the centuries, in many places, Christians bowed before the cross on Good Friday and heard or sang some version of these words: “I led thee through the wilderness 40 years, fed thee with manna, and brought thee into a land exceeding good, and thou hast prepared a cross for thy Savior.” Then they’d leave the church, form a mob, and attack Jewish communities.

The “Reproaches” are coated in the blood of our Jewish neighbors. They should not be read or sung in our worship — but neither should they be hidden away outside of worship. We can’t pretend this text does not exist. We must grapple with it, guide congregations in understanding why it is so evil, and in doing so move towards acknowledging and dealing with our antisemitism, past and present.

My hope is that this alternative text, which includes a well-earned reproach for our antisemitism with examples of what that antisemitism looks like in our churches today, can be a jumping off point for conversations on this topic.

For more on antisemitism during Holy Week and what to do about it, I highly recommend Levine’s article ““Holy Week and the hatred of the Jews: How to avoid anti-Judaism this Easter.” In this article, Levine describes how the anti-Jewish language got into the Gospels to begin with; how interfaith conversations today help stem the tide of antisemitism; and explores and ranks the 6 strategies Levine has seen people use when trying to resolve these problems with the New Testament.

From least useful to most useful, she names these strategies as excision (just removing the problematic stuff and pretending it was never there); retranslation (changing up the way we translate problematic texts, such as changing “the Jews” to “Judeans”); romanticizing (this includes Christians holding their own Passover seders – read this part of the article to see why we should Not Do That); allegorizing; historicizing; and, best of all, just admitting the problem:

We come finally to our sixth option: admit to the problem and deal with it. There are many ways congregations can address the difficult texts. Put a note in service bulletins to explain the harm the texts have caused. Read the problematic texts silently, or in a whisper. Have Jews today give testimony about how they have been hurt by the texts.

Those who proclaim the problematic verses from the pulpit might imagine a Jewish child sitting in the front pew and take heed: don’t say anything that would hurt this child, and don’t say anything that would cause a member of the congregation to hurt this child.

Better still: educate the next generation, so that when they hear the problematic words proclaimed, they have multiple contexts – theological, historical, ethical – by which to understand them.

Christians, hearing the Gospels during Holy Week, should no more hear a message of hatred of Jews than Jews, reading the Book of Esther on Purim, should hate Persians, or celebrating the seder and reliving the time when “we were slaves in Egypt,” should hate Egyptians.

We choose how to read. After two thousand years of enmity, Jews and Christians today can recover and even celebrate our common past, locate Jesus and his earliest followers within rather than over and against Judaism, and live into the time when, as both synagogue and church proclaim, we can love G-d and our neighbour.’

For more resources for dealing with antisemitism within our Christian communities, see below.


RESOURCES:

First, let’s get educated on the basic facts about antisemitism in Holy Week’s typical scriptures, and alternatives to concluding that “the Jews killed Jesus”:

Next, let’s reimagine the stories we read during Holy Week in ways that don’t do harm to our Jewish neighbors!

  • I most highly recommend Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine’s book Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week.
  • Get a summary of and link to a pdf of her chapter on Palm Sunday and the “cleansing of the temple” (Jesus flipping tables) here
  • And if reading a whole book isn’t your thing, Levine also has a video series where she talks about the Passion story – here’s the first video, just 9 minutes long
  • And here’s an article interviewing Levine that sums up the purpose of her work with the Christian Gospels – “A number of Christian commentators feel the need to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. Instead of portraying Jesus as a Jew talking to other Jews, he becomes in their views the first Christian, the one who invented divine grace, mercy, and love, and all that other good stuff. Such views neglect the presence of these same virtues within Jesus’ own Jewish context. There should be no reason this Jewish Jesus is used to promote anti-Judaism.”

Categories
Holy Days lent My poetry Other search markers Reflections for worship services

Crucifixion poem: “your death was nothing special”

your death was
nothing special

it was the death
of uncounted criminals
convicted under Roman law

in fact, two others died with you
on that same hill, on that same day
in that same way: bloody suffocation on a cross

so if you had lived today your death
would have been likewise ordinary
and likewise brutal:

exploded veins in the electric chair
after an unfair trial

or blood gushing out
on a road with a busted street lamp,
an officer’s bullet in your gut,
no trial at all.

Jesus, Jesus
this is why
your death matters.

because it didn’t — not to the ones who killed you,
not to the soldier who thrust a lance in your side
as he had done to so many men
on so many days like this one
not to the men who cast lots for your clothes,
profiting off your pain

your death matters, your death is precious
because it was common, ordinary —
you share the agony
of every tortured spirit who has ever walked this earth

you share every cry
muffled under the boot of one in power.

and so i know that
they with whom you have shared
agony
will also share in your rising.

…i have no words for this.
it is beyond words.
all i have is
thank you.
thank you.

thank you.


This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem:

Womanist theologians and other Black theologians, joined with Latin American liberationist theolgians and many others, have argued that substitutionary atonement deeply harms some of the world’s most oppressed persons — the very persons with whom Jesus most intimately identifies. As Miguel De La Torre explains in Embracing Hopelessness,

“There is nothing salvific about crucifixion. We are not saved through unjust suffering; although the oppressive suffering of the many who offer up their broken bodies as living sacrifices does provide abundant life for the elite few.

…The eleventh-century theologian Anselm of Canterbury would have us believe the purpose of the cross was necessary to satisfy God’s anger, to serve as a substitute for us. Sinful humans could not redeem themselves before an angry God who required blood atonement. Only a sinless God-as-human could complete the process, make restitution, and restore creation.

In other words, in order to satisfy God’s vanity, God’s child must be humiliated, tortured, and brutally killed, rather than the true object of God’s wrath, humans. …The problem with Anselm’s theology of atonement is that it casts God as the ultimate abuser, the ultimate oppressor who finds satisfaction through the domination, humiliation, and pain of God’s child. …”

But as we let go of these beliefs in God’s “need” for a sacrifice to assuage “his” anger, does the cross retain any meaning at all?

The answer is, of course.

Jesus’s death was hideously ordinary — and hence infinitely meaningful. As Richard Rohr said, “God did not die for us. God died with us.”

Through the cross, Jesus exposed the violence that is so commonplace that many of us have become desensitized to it for the evil it is — a key example being antiblack violence that forms a core tenet of white supremacy and is one foundation of the United States. Jesus’s execution is akin to the lynchings, shootings, and executions of countless Black lives in the United States — and, James Cone argues in The Cross and the Lynching Tree,

“Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “re-crucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

Through the cross, Jesus showed us that God’s power is not human power — is not control through violence, but rather is compassion, is co-suffering, is interdependence and solidarity and letting go of the need for control. But God’s power is antithetical to white supremacy and other oppressive powers, and so Christianity entangled in Empire will continue to promote the God whose anger demands blood and tortures it out of “His” own son.

Furthermore, the dominating powers of Empire — from first century Rome to today’s America — attempt to strip humanity and dignity from those they deem useless or dangerous. But through the cross, Jesus reaffirmed the humanity and dignity of the world’s most reviled, tortured, and discarded — for what they suffer, God has suffered. This is why Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion still matter, even if they are not the key to salvation. De La Torre’s discussion of the cross continues thus:

For Christians from marginalized communities, the importance of the cross is not its redemptive powers, for all aspects of Christ’s life, death, teachings, and resurrection are redemptive.

The importance of Jesus’s crucifixion is the point when Christ chose solidarity with the world’s marginalized, even unto death. Christ becomes one with the crucified people of his time, as well as with all who are crucified today on the crosses of classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and religious discrimination. For Christians to die with Christ so they can also live with him means they too must find solidarity with the world’s crucified people.”

We must find solidarity with the world’s crucified people. How will you and your communities do so?

Categories
Catholic vibes Holy Days lent My poetry Reflections for worship services

Lent births herself this year – Pandemic 2021

Lent births herself this year, no midwife braving
the cold to come to her and coax her out
with strong sure hands
into a thankless world.

Lent crackles like a sheet of ice this year
creaking underfoot her timeless chant
memento mori
remember the sudden plunge the icy fist that grasps the lungs
to beings sick to death of that same song
and bodies wrung bare
from holding themselves at arm’s length for so long.

Unbidden
Lent comes.

Unwanted
Lent comes.

Yoke gentle
this year
Lent comes.

One fist opens to expose the ash
she’ll paint upon your brow
if you’ll let her.

In a year bereft of touch
you may shiver as her fingertips brush flesh
and startle at their warmth.

And once
you’ve let yourself be marked by dust
Lent’s other fist will open for you
gentle as spring’s first petals.

This palm glows with embers
that flicker out Lent’s second song:
This too remember
o frail Dust — you’re born from Splendor
and Splendor thrums within you even now.

Lent births herself this year
into a world already stripped bare

and beckons to the embers in her palm.
Come. This year
they need only the faintest breath to stir them.
Come.



This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem:

I wrote this before the sun rose this Ash Wednesday morning, my sleeping wife’s warm limbs embracing me, her breathing a steady rhythm at my back. Be gentle to yourselves and to others this season, beloved.

Many souls are already weary in this time of pandemic, and Lent is the last thing they feel like embracing. But Lent is not suffering for suffering’s sake, or increasing our burdens as some kind of challenge for ourselves. Lent is for acknowledging what suffering already is present in the world, and bearing it together; Lent is an intentional remembering of what binds us, all of us, and nourishing those ties.

Lent is stepping into solidarity – alongside Jesus on his journey to crucifixion – with the tortured and discarded of the world.

Lent may just be what our tattered spirits and weary bones need right now.

The concept of splendor comes from Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, who writes in A Tree Full of Angels:

“Why shouldn’t our experiences be filled with God? Who do we think it is who is breathing in us? Where do we think this ache has come from? And has it ever crossed our minds that God, too, has a deep yearning for us? …You are the dwelling place for the Source of All Life. You are an offspring of the One who said, ‘I Am who Am.’ If the One who gave you birth lives within you, surely you can find some resources there in your sacred Center. An expert lives within you. An expert breathes out you. Your life is entwined with the God who gave you birth. Frail dust, remember, you are splendor!”

Categories
My poetry

the pillar of salt contemplates the stars

           i.

i will not worship
my husband’s god – not now
i’ve witnessed how he acts in wrath:

how he burns children and cornered women with the men
who long tormented them

and scorches tortured earth and bodies
that maybe could have bloomed again
if given time and proper nourishment.

            ii.

anyone who dares to preach to me
on necessary evil, or collateral damage,
or how everything happens for a greater purpose

while stepping deftly over charred corpses
to avoid soiling their shoes

should thank their bloodthirsty gods
they are out of range of my frozen fists.  

           iii.

i will not worship
the god of my husband, no! – he never belonged
to me or mine anyway, nor made us his.

in his search for just ten righteous people in
this sand-and-soldier-blasted city
he overlooked us women and our little ones.

of course he found no innocents among
the men perverted by the war they’d lost
who would not let themselves give in to grief
but let their self-contempt and wounded pride
corrode into distrust of all outside
their little sphere…of course!

O god of men like mine! of course you failed
to round up righteous men in such a place
where strangers are condemned as enemies
and difference is dragged out and disciplined!

but had you thought to look
where men never look
you would have found
us.

iv.

if any god will make room for my wrath
i’ll worship them till my last crumbling breath!

           v.

the sex slave of my husband’s uncle claimed
she found a god who saw her as she languished –
a goddess not too proud to meet her gaze
nor too ashamed when faced with Hagar’s anguish
to hear out her complaints.

o desert deity of the attentive eye
and ears that hear the tortured woman’s cry,
are you the one who turned my frantic flesh
into this silent sentinel of salt?

           vi.

let me worship whatever Being it was
who took my broken heart and salted it
so that never again will it have to bear fruit
only to watch it trampled and consumed
by men not worthy of it.

yes! let me worship whatever Being it was
who came in mercy, not in wrath
to wrap my limbs in unbreachable brine
so he can never, ever
touch me, take me, again –

not after what i heard he’d let men do
to the fruit of our union, the girls of my womb;

not after he proved willing to turn his back
on women and children going up in flames.

that is the Being i’ll worship now: the One
who stood with me transfixed upon despair,

who empowers my bearing witness for all time
to the screams of burning women, left behind.

with my face to them
my back is turned on him
forevermore…

though i worry
who will protect my daughters now
from him
from all men.

           vii.

if any deity swears to defend
my little girls, i swear i’ll worship them…

           viii.

from my fixed point in the sand
i watch the stars
flow across the overturned bowl of the sky.

i alone watch long enough to learn
by heart the patterns stretching over years
traced by these winking fish
wheeling in their pool of perfect black.

but i who chart the arc of time
unblinking
discern no promised bend towards justice.

evil breeds and grows as strong as good.
knowledge is slaughtered, lies fallow for centuries
before it raises a slender shoot again
that is seized and hailed as something New…
only to be mangled, murdered, dis-membered again.

nothing new, nothing new
under the stars.

            ix.

with sleepless eyes i mark the cyclical slaughter
the rich slip underneath their laden tables
while sipping from their cups that bubble over
red as the blood they’ve trampled from the neighbors
they choose not to re-member.

and, far away and high,
as eons wheel by
i watch the stars wink out
one by one.


This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem:

I intend for this poem to make two points:

  1. That to bear witness is holy and necessary, particularly when moving quickly on from history’s atrocities serves the Powers That Be. This is why in my poem, Lot’s Wife interprets her transformation not as a punishment for looking back but as a gift or act of mercy — affirmation of her need to bear witness, her refusal to turn her back on her neighbors.
  2. That we must actively reject the God of Patriarchy, the God of Genocide, the God of Xenophobia, in order to embrace the God Who Sees those whom the world discards. See Shirley Guthrie’s commentary on God the Heavenly Tyrant being dead, along with all other “gods that were really nothing but a projection of our own fears, wishes, insecurity, greed, or speculation.”

Meanwhile, I acknowledge this poem’s shortcomings, particularly the over-simplification of implying all the women of Sodom were “innocent” or that all the men were guilty; gender dynamics are much more complex than that, especially in our own time and space. To say nothing of nonbinary people like me who do not fit within that man/woman dualism anyhow.


I have long held a deep compassion for Lot’s (unfortunately and tellingly unnamed) wife of Genesis 19, ever since first reading Slaughterhouse Five in middle school, in which Kurt Vonnegut writes,

“And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

Vonnegut’s was the first voice I found that pushed back against the predominant interpretation that Lot’s wife was wrong to look back. Since then, I have found others who also treat this woman with love instead of scorn — including the primary inspirations for this poem: Miguel A. De La Torre’s Embracing Hopelessness (2017); and Peterson Toscano’s and Liam Hooper’s Bible Bash Podcast episode 26, “Sodomy, Terrorism, and Looking Back.”

In a different work of his, a short essay from 2010, De La Torre explains that Lot’s wife has been vilified across the ages in order to “justify her demise”: “If she is not portrayed as a foolish woman with a self-indulging heart, then her punishment would appear capricious.” If we are to believe in a fair God who doles out punishment only on people who deserve it, we must conclude that Lot’s wife was wicked somehow. To suggest that she was right to look back, and unjustly punished, is to call God’s goodness into question — or at least to question the biblical text.

De La Torre argues that we will never know the motives of Lot’s wife (and of course I agree, even while using this poem to imagine what those motives may have been). Chances are, he says, this woman was neither perfectly innocent nor horribly wicked:

“Rather than depicting Lot’s wife as either the totality of worldliness or the other extreme of virtuousness, maybe we should see her like we see the rest of us: a human who falls short of the glory of God. As an invisible member within a patriarchal society, she probably did the wash with her neighbors – also nameless women. They might have been present when she twice gave birth, as she might have been when they gave birth to their own children.”

It is this woman who carved out a life — as so many of us must — in “the entrails of empire,” who befriended her fellow unnamed women in patriarchy’s shadow, that I with Vonnegut love dearly.

As we come to accept that we cannot know much but only conjecture about Lot’s wife, the biblical text does provide us more background on Sodom than is often explored in discussions of this story.

In the Bible Bash episode from which I drew for this poem, Peterson Toscano brings in Sodom’s painful military loss in Genesis 14 to contextualize the xenophobia and brutality of Sodom’s men in Genesis 19. In the biblical world, defeat in battle sometimes resulted in the rape of defeated soldiers by the victors — sexual violence that is much more about humiliation and domination and toxic masculinity, of course, than sexual orientation. Moreover, Sodom’s enemies proceeded to loot the city of everything. After such a painful loss, it seems in Genesis 19 that the men have been twisted into hateful, fearful beings — in a way that Peterson skillfully connects to the United States’ response to 9/11. These defeated men of Sodom would enact sexual violence on any foreigner who dares enter their domain, as if to regain some of their (toxic) masculinity by acting as the victors, not the defeated.

It is this war-wounded city that Lot, his wife, and his daughters flee — but only his wife looks back. And therefore, according to Peterson,

“In the end the only righteous person I can think of is Lot’s wife, who can’t turn her back on this destruction. Who can’t turn her back on the women and children who weren’t even considered when they were counting who was righteous and who was not.”

(The counting of the righteous being a reference to Genesis 18, wherein Abraham persuades God to refrain from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah if just 10 “righteous ones” (masculine plural) can be found within them.)

Later in the episode, Liam responds to Peterson’s declaration that Lot’s Wife is the only righteous person the Sodom story shows us by relating her choice to look back to the present day:

“What I see around me is many, many people who also cannot turn their back on the suffering around them, and the destruction, and the ways that we are complicit in that. There are still those of us who can’t turn away. And she’s been vilified, right, as being disobedient – ‘you were told not to look back; you looked back.’ Well. Maybe that’s an interesting place to enter the story, right? What does it mean to look back, and when do we disobey?”

Whenever God is constructed in the image of fearful, vengeful, violence-hungry men, we must like Lot’s wife disobey. We must face the atrocities we would much rather turn away from.

And therein comes the influence from Embracing Hopelessness, wherein De La Torre rejects triumphalist histories that sweep suffering past and present under the rug for the sake of the comforting lie that humanity is making constant progress towards God’s reign. In accepting that history is more disjointed and arbitrary than we’d like to think, and that it has no certain happy ending, we join the poor in their state of insecurity and uncertainty (see pages 47-49 of Embracing Hopelessness).

According to De La Torre, we must let go of our salvation histories wherein suffering will be revealed to have meaning in the grander scheme of things, in favor of active solidarity with the world’s most disenfranchised. We reject ideologies that paint them as less human than us, or as coerced “living sacrifices” on the altar of progress (p. 55). With Lot’s wife in my poem, we do not turn our backs to the pain that is accepted as a necessary evil to fuel the luxuries of the elite few. And unlike with Lot’s wife, we cannot compel individuals to shoulder the burden of bearing witness alone; it must be a communal act.

As De La Torre explains, only when a community — its privileged and disempowered alike — dares to acknowledge atrocity can collective healing begin. He shares psychological findings that show how “Refusing to forget the horrors of history can bring healing,” as making space for survivors to be heard “contributes to a collective healing process that publicly condemns the past while attempting to prevent future violations” (p. 103 of Embracing Hopelessness).

Without a communal acknowledgement of atrocity, there can be no healing. Thus there will be no healing for Lot’s wife: she is quite literally frozen in her act of re-membering her destroyed city, because none join her in it. Just as marginalized persons are dehumanized into mere objects in the dominant culture’s epic history, Lot’s wife is denied personhood as well — her very name has been lost to time along with her human form.

Meanwhile, in turning their backs to the destruction, fleeing from acknowledgement of Sodom’s suffering, Lot and his daughters likewise will find no healing. Their story as developed in Genesis 19:30-38 brings more atrocity, more fracturing of personhood and relationships. As De La Torre explains, “Trying to forget past traumas…leads to emotional disorders with consequences for the individual and community” (p. 103). Trauma unaddressed begets trauma across generations.

With the generational trauma that has built up and festered over centuries in our own time, it becomes clear that “present social structures are the end product of a history the dominant culture prefers to forget. These events may have taken place in the past, but the power and privilege squeezed out of them continue to accrue” (p. 105). In the face of this reality, we must admit that the notion that history’s arc naturally bends towards justice is nothing but a comforting lie.

And when we reject that comforting lie for the truth that the future is uncertain, we must also scrutinize the certainty that a wholly good, all-powerful God exists — the question of theodicy. Alongside the righteous Job of scripture, as well as with Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, De La Torre puts God on trial; he insists upon holding God accountable for not preventing the horrific suffering that is the disowned and forsaken offspring of Eurocentric, imperialist “Progress.” And for any who may worry that such a trial would constitute some manner of blasphemy, De La Torre writes,

“I fully understand the trepidation of placing God on trial. I would rather follow the lead of others and say at the conclusion of time, it will all be explained and make sense. I too feel a pull toward fixing my gaze at a happy ending, joyfully proclaiming ‘it is well with my soul.’ Oh, how much more comforting it would be to proclaim, ‘God is good – always!’ With all my heart, soul, mind, and being, I wish to become intoxicated with the simplicity of an unquestionable and uncomplicated faith. But to do so would be an insult to the God in whom I claim to believe.

To challenge God, to yell out in protest, to place God on trial is not the ultimate act of arrogance; rather, it is to take God seriously by crucifying our Christian-based idols for an honest appraisal of the metaphysical – whatever that might or might not be.

And maybe this is the ultimate beauty of faith – to doubt, to wrestle, to curse, to question, to disbelieve, to oppose, to joder, and to hold accountable God in defense of God’s creation.” (p. 78)

I imagine Lot’s wife joining in the outcry of Job, of prophets and psalmists, of Elie Wiesel and numberless others who respect God enough to demand answers from Them. I myself will continue to grapple with the stories of scripture as well as the stories of my own nation, to wrestle until a blessing for the oppressed is shaken out.

May we all band together for the difficult work of dismantling false gods and false histories, in order to make room for truths that empower and restore dignity to the most disenfranchised of our world.

Categories
Autistic pride My poetry

Poem: at that banquet

there will be straws
at that banquet

and all the bread will be gluten free

and no one will go away hungry because
there was no food that fit their dietary needs

and the table will be high enough
for wheelchairs to slide easily beneath it

and no one will gawk at those of us
who have trouble sitting still so long
and stand instead, and stomp our feet

and no one will grab our flapping wrists and hiss, “quiet hands!”
(God, i cannot wait to never hear that hateful phrase again)

and Jesus, there you will be,
not at the head of the table

but in the middle of things
breaking bread with hands that struggle a little,
impeded by the damage done to your fine motor skills
when the nails pierced your wrists

and with a wheelchair stationed behind you
that friends can push you in when the chronic pain
in your nail-damaged feet becomes too much

and we will all share in the lopsided chunks
of gluten free bread that is your body
or the cups of juice with straws in them that is your blood

and there will be laughter, oh there will be laughter
loud and carefree

communicated through AAC
or sign language or smiling mouths
as we finally learn what it means to be

truly One: united, not in spite of but through
diversity.


[image: a mural by Hyatt Moore based on Luke 14′s parable of the banquet. There’s a blue background and lots of people gathered at a long table with a white tablecloth piled with food. There are persons of many different races and cultures and with various disabilities, including several in wheelchairs or with canes or crutches, several who have down syndrome, one with a service dog, and so on. Jesus stands near the right end of the canvas, conversing with a child of color in a wheelchair and an older Black man in a wheelchair. /end id]


This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem: I wrote this poem as part of a project on disability theology for a class in seminary. I began my research into Luke 14’s parable of the banquet during that project, and I’m pretty sure at this point I’ve read more articles and books on Luke 14 than any other scripture passage (except perhaps Exodus 4). You can watch me discuss this text at length on my YouTube channel in the video “Luke 14 – Disabled persons are vital guests at God’s banquet.”

This poem is one of a few in which I try to envision what “perfect accessibility” would look like. In our own world, such a thing is nigh impossible, because sometimes what accommodates me may actually harm another disabled person. For instance, I struggle with loud chaotic noises and crowds, which are pretty much unavoidable at a banquet scene like the one in Luke 14 or in this poem! Could the banquet hall include a side chamber for people like me to calm down when needed – but somehow not isolate us? Will my autism manifest itself differently in heaven so that I do not become so overwhelmed by crowds – without losing what makes me me? These are important questions to explore as we work to make our faith communities as welcoming and accessible as possible – even while knowing we probably will never get it perfect for everyone. Being willing to own up to our mistakes and truly listen to what individuals say they actually need is key.

Some notes that might help in the reading of this poem:

  • Straws are mentioned a couple times as they are a vital tool to some disabled people and movements to ban straws were spreading across the United States when I wrote this poem. See this article for more information: https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/7/19/17587676/straws-plastic-ban-disability
  • the mentioned phrase quiet hands is one frequently used in abusive therapies (such as ABA) that try to get autistic people to be as “normal” (read: non-autistic) as possible. “Quiet Hands” is a command to keep one’s hands still rather than stimming with them. Being forced to repress behaviors that come naturally, such as stimming, can go so far as to cause PTSD in autistic people. See this webpage for more information: http://autism.wikia.com/wiki/Quiet_Hands
  • AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication – methods of communicating apart from verbal speech. AAC devices include writing in a notebook and electronic speech-generating devices. See this webpage for more information: https://www.prentrom.com/caregivers/what-is-augmentative-and-alternative-communication-aac
  • For more on Jesus’s own disabling wounds, with which he chose to rise and ascend into heaven, check out The Disabled God by Nancy Eiesland or by listen to/read my sermon on John 20 The Wounds of Jesus: Goodness Embodied.”
    …Or just email me – it’s like my favorite topic ever and I’m always thrilled to get to discuss it!

“The disabled God is God for whom interdependence is not a possibility to be willed from a position of power, but a necessary condition for life. …For many people with disabilities, too, mutual care is a matter of survival.

To posit a Jesus Christ who needs care and mutuality
as essential to human-divine survival does not symbolize either humanity or divinity as powerless.
Instead it debunks the myth of individualism and hierarchical orders, in which transcendence means breaking free of encumbrances and needing nobody and constitutes the divine as somebody in relation to other bodies.”

– Nancy Eiesland in The Disabled God

“The text [of Luke 14] clearly situates people with impairments at the final banquet just as they are, not with their impairments erased or made invisible. …Consistent with the presence of the scars on Jesus’ resurrected body, here the marks of impairment are not cured or expunged.

What would a world in which impairments
will not be eliminated but rather “redeemed” look like? For Eiesland, such a world is one in which justice comes for disabled people in the form of perfect accessibility and mutuality:
a justice that removes the barriers which constrain our bodies, keep us excluded, and intend to humiliate us.’”

– Amos Yong in The Bible, Disability, and the Church

Categories
Christmas communion meditation Holy Days Liturgy Reflections for worship services

Communion Meditation for Christmastide – Jesus of the House of Bread

Two thousand years ago, 

Divinity entered the world in the form of an infant 
born in Bethlehem — a town whose name means “House of Bread”!
He was swaddled by parents poor in the eyes of the world,
but rich in love,
and laid in a manger —

a food trough for cattle!

Thus it is that from the very moment of his birth,
Jesus made known his intention to feed the hungry world
with his very being —
to be bread for empty stomachs
and nourishment for flagging spirits.

His life was a continuation of a Movement that God had begun
long centuries before Jesus:

a Movement that glimmered in the starry sky laid out for Abraham,
that invited Jacob to wrestle faithfully and fervently
until he came away wounded and blessed;

a Movement that carried the enslaved Hebrews out of bondage
and taught them how to live into true freedom;

a Movement kept alive in times of corruption, and empire, and exile
by fearless prophets who would not be silenced
and who looked forward to the liberation of all prisoners, the uplifting of the poor.

It was those prophets’ message that was boldly sung by Mary,
and that she and Joseph, faithful Jewish parents,
taught to the boy Jesus
with the help of their community’s synagogue. 

It is this message, the proclaiming of God’s World-Upturning Movement,
that infuses the bread and cup we share today.

Eat, drink, and let the sharing of this meal unite us across the miles
into one Body of the liberating Christ
who walks and breathes among us even today. 


I wrote these pieces for a virtual service on December 27, 2020 (First Sunday of Christmastide) centered around the story of the Presentation at the Temple as told in Luke 2:22-40.

Categories
advent My poetry Reflections for worship services

poem: God’s Revolution

if you are content now
you will be devastated then

for when the world is flipped upside-down
all your riches will go spilling into space.

a voice cries out in the wilderness
cries out: prepare the way! prepare –
for what? for peace? perhaps, eventually

but first a revolution – woe to you
(to us) who sit too comfortably! for soon
all thrones will be upturned, and those who served
as footstools wear the crown!

(o come, Immanuel! come and turn
the whole world upside down!)

if you are satisfied now
you will be inconsolable then

when all that succeeded in filling you up
is razed to the ground to make way for a table

built of once-rejected stones – the ones
too crooked, too jagged, too small,
too broken to ever be chosen before.

…will those of you (of us) accustomed to
places of honor at the table
accept the humbler seats
when those once trampled underfoot
are seated at its head?


This poem was written by Avery Smith and belongs to them. This is a revised version of a poem included in their volume The Kin(g)dom in the Rubble. Please do not publish it anywhere, or use it in a service, without permission from the author. Reach out to Avery at queerlychristian36@gmail.com for that permission, or just to chat!

About this poem: Many of the Bible’s prophets speak of the End of Days and God’s in-coming Kin(g)dom as a fearsome time indeed for any of us who are comfortable with the status quo. In this poem I follow in their footsteps, and hope to remind myself that even though I belong to several oppressed communities, as a white middle-class US citizen there is much indeed I will “lose” when God transforms the world. Will I be ready? Will I be able to let go of my comfortable seat and embrace the revolution?

For more on these ideas, see this sermon I preached in 2018: “When the Good News Feels Like Bad News” on Amos 7 and Mark 6. Here are a few excerpts from that sermon:

“But it turns out that always being accepted, always being liked, is not what following Jesus, what sharing God’s news for the world, is all about. Because sometimes, sharing God’s news for the world comes as bad news for the people who have to hear it, ourselves included. And no one likes the bearer of bad news. …”

“There’s no denying the similarities between our society and the one God called Amos to prophesy against: we too have gross income inequality, the mistreatment of immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable people, the worship of money at the expense of the marginalized…

Our fancy homes and all we have in them, our malls and factories, all razed to the ground to make way for a system that does not exploit the poor?

In theory, sure, I like the idea of no one being exploited…but does it have to mean I must sacrifice some of my favorite luxuries? Must there be chaos, must there be destruction of the old, to bring in this new world of justice?

When we are at the top of the social ladder, when we are the ones benefiting from other people’s suffering, God’s good news about the world flipping upside down sounds a lot like bad news.”