“Our very life depends on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves.
Beginning precedes us, creates us. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning.
More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could."
John O’Donohue

27 April 2016


I am writing you a poem about marriage,
though I always said the topic
was not worthy of the form.
It hasn't been kind to me,
so forgive me,
with your hands and feet gripping the rungs
climbing in or out--
I can never tell the difference.

I should probably write a love poem
since I'm better at that,
and the world devours them.
But I am not in the marketing business,
and besides,
that is the story deferred.

Love is not the tie that binds.
It does more insidious work.
It searches out the knot between stomach and heart
that didn't know itself.
It fingers the spot gently,
until the whole system gives way.

But I said I was not going to write about love.
I am writing about surrender,
and its many opposites.

I confess I have been tendered.
My mind turns over all that means.
I have been bought
and sold.
I have been made edible.
Have been held,
have held.

This is not a poem about love--
yours, mine, or ours.
Don't read between the lines.

The houses we build with our hands and promises
consume us.
I'm not judging.
I want to be consumed, too.
By fire,
by the work of my unskilled hands,
by your mouth like the still surface of a lake
betraying its bottomlessness.

I knew what I was saying
on that sun-dappled day,
dolphins leaping
and the chorus of gathered minds
almost audibly stifling the collective "why?"
I knew what I was saying,
covered in beads the color of the sand
that stretched to forever outside the window.
I knew what I was saying.
But there was still a sledgehammer in the garage
that I swore was not on the registry.

He and I took off layer after thirty-year-old layer of wallpaper,
an encyclopedia of someone else's fresh starts.
We tore out yellowed carpet,
staples digging into my fingers,
to reveal the house's true past and future.
Wood floors and historically accurate paint
painstakingly chosen from indistinguishable color chips.
I, who had never sown, sewed curtains
for the only room I ever loved,
the one that let in so much light
that my newborn son squinted against it,
the one where we hosted children's birthday parties
with drunk, belligerent relatives.
The one where I hid,
but the lock on that door never worked anyway.

I keep trying to remember
what it was Maya Angelou wrote
about the memory of walls,
how our housed lives drip from them.
But it doesn't matter.

This is not a love poem.
Why do I have to keep saying that?
This is the poem where I declare that
I will never marry again.

I will write you a love poem another day,
when I can crack the window
and pretend that home
is not one of those words
that we say over and over again
until it is nonsensical.

I can only speak for myself.
My love will not be housed.
If it comes to that,
it will find a stretch of beach
and watch the waves throw themselves against the rocks,
surrendering a thousand lifetimes
to another's yielding.

24 April 2016: FCC Concord Guest Sermon, Acts 11:1-18

One of the things I have always loved most about church is the marking of time. It can sometimes seem heavy-handed. We make ritual time for happiness, for grief, for love, for sacrifice, for community, for newness. These of course don’t always correspond with our actual feelings, or our lived experience. Those beloved to us die on Easter Sunday or on Christmas Day. Babies are born on Good Friday. Those long stretches of what the church calls “Ordinary Time” are filled with very unordinary events and life changes. But we mark the time as community to begin to understand the full scope of life given to us by the Creator of Life, and to practice the disciplines of living as whole people—not one-note, one-story people, but people of many faces and many stories. 

It is always important to me to point out this time of year that it is still Easter. In the church, we celebrate the resurrected Jesus for many weeks, not just the one day. We allow the calendar to suspend on that Holy Week reality because it is so critical to our story about faith and about life. We are in “resurrection time,” which cedes to Pentecost time, and ultimately to “ordinary time” until we begin the cycle again. Each year, we find something different in the story. The novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” I always reflect on that this time of year, as the cycles of the church are so present to my mind. I wonder, always—which year is this? And I don’t just mean that I am still writing 2015 on my checks out of habit. I mean, am I—this growing, changing human—in a moment when my life is uncertain, unknown, or am I in a moment when there is a force of clarity and direction driving me? God gives us both, and I find great wonder in that. That I get to live my life in a way that allows for that pause to question the fundamentals, and to listen for the guidance that God has placed in so many people and situations around me. 

This is why, though I will not speak much about the Acts text in detail, the Book of Acts as a whole is so meaningful at this time of year. The book recounts a time when the memory of Jesus—the living, dying, resurrected Jesus—is still profoundly present to the disciples. The call to create a church emerges from their love of him, their longing for his presence. The acts of remembrance—the table we share weekly here in the Disciples Church—were still acts of love for a beloved friend, not quite entirely gone, but also missing in ways that left so many questions in their mouths and hearts. While we don’t often like to admit it, we have different questions now. We may or may not feel close to Jesus. We may or may not understand why or what the church is. We may or may not be able to make sense of the different choices, lifestyles, and plans of even our most intimate acquaintances, much less those further afield. We are a more distant community, full of intentions to follow the teaching of Jesus and to love each other, but always lost in new and different ways, if only by virtue of the profound cultural and political influences that define the world outside and inside the church. We remember Jesus at a distance—over and over again to try to bring closeness, to try to understand what the story means, and what we mean in it. 

The unfortunate thing is that, too often, we as people and we as a church hold to certainties—any certainties we can muster—to tell us what we need to know about how to live and how to love God and each other. We create rules for ourselves that assure us we are on the right path. We repeat patterns hoping that they will yield some final truth eventually. But more often than not, they fail us, and we find ourselves still adrift, and worse yet, deadened a bit by the force we used to stay tethered. 

Speaking of marking time, this is also the last Sunday of the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month. I do not know if you all have celebrated that particular milestone—I am aware that poetry speaks to some communities and not so much to others (though, as a poet and a lover of poetry, I have such a hard time understanding the latter). 

Since I am new here, and since I am coming to you today on the precipice of several major milestones, I thought I might share a little bit about my journey as a seminarian, as a pastor, and as a scholar. In the last few months of my Master of Divinity degree—the degree I need to complete my ordination in the Disciples—I was accepted to the doctoral program in religion and literature at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. As my friend Jakada likes to say, I hadn’t even finished the half marathon, and I was signing the papers for the full marathon. It is true the road is long. But for me, there is so much more work to do in my relationship with God and the words that God speaks to me through others. 

Seminary is nothing if not a sustained experiment in doubt. I imagine that some folks, from the outside, would see seminary as the shoring up, the defining and clarifying of religious truth. But I am here to testify that every step you go deeper into theological study—particularly theological study in community—the hazier the atmosphere gets. At best I think that what we achieve in seminary is summed up by the writer Ursula LeGuin: "When asked to be didactic in public [as we so often are as ministers], I try to limit myself to topics on which, without claiming expertise or wisdom, an effort to think honestly and feelingly might do some good, or matters on which I ought to stand up and be counted, lest silence collude with injustice." What we learn, in short, is that we must dwell in the sacred place between certainty and doubt that characterizes our deepest feelings and experiences. We must somehow make sense of that, day by day, week by week, season by season, in a way that nourishes the lives of others and gives the world some measure of the love and wholeness God intends.

It is for this reason that I am entering into further study, exploring the place of poetry in the multigenerational healing and response to the Holocaust. My work will focus on post-war poetry, emerging particularly from Israel and Palestine as the Israeli state lives out its stated claim to the Holy Land. I recently returned from travel to Israel and the occupied territories with a Disciples and UCC student delegation, and there is nothing I gained from that travel more than doubt. There are other ways to visit, ways where specific narratives of the rights of the Israeli state or of the Palestinian people take center stage, leaving the wings in darkness. But our travel was primarily at the border, at the site of the construction of a separation wall between Israeli claims to territory and existing Palestinian communities. We can only have questions there—well, questions, and a fierce hope for the recognition of basic human dignity currently denied. 

What poets do is travel this borderland and its questions without seeking final formulas. Poets help us to hold our questions, deeply and in detail, so that we might find a more Godly human love, one that acknowledges all that we can never know but responds and acts regardless. 

Our passage from Acts today is, as I mentioned earlier, about many things. There are important questions to engage about the nature of early Christianity, the relationship of our faith with Jewish tradition, and the theological foundations of our contemporary churches. But the passage is also a poem, a dialogue about doubt and certainty. Peter’s conversation with the voice from heaven is one that we can so often find ourselves having, and that poets document better than most of us. Of what can I be sure? What can I count on? How can I truly accept that it is all—all of the fear and the division and the hurt and the violation—working toward the good that God intends? Is it possible that we are all in fact children of a living, growing God who would not be bound by rules and certainties? 

When I first entered seminary, within a few weeks my Hebrew language professor had us reading simple passages from the work of the celebrated Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Among the first readings was this: 

From the place where we are right,  
flowers will never grow  
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves  
dig up the world  
like a mole, a plow. 

As I have continued my seminary education, I have returned to this frequently, and in particular I have fixated on the parallel drawn between doubt and love. As an adolescent, I was led to believe that love is made up primarily of certainty—of commitment and discipline and destiny. But the deeper I find myself in relationship with God, the more I know that doubt is the essence of that relationship. It is what drives our conversations, our encounters. It is what turns up the earth of my heart so that something new might grow. It is what gives me a kind of unsettled peace, that if I keep asking questions, they will yield and yield again to more questions, all of which make me softer, kinder, more open to the work that God is doing in and through me. 

The theologian and pastoral care theorist Peggy Way writes: "I myself have come to believe that the more certain you are in your knowledge of God--coupled with your certainty about what God wants from other creatures--the more dangerous you are and the more you perpetuate violence in the world that, in my theology, begins with the creature's refusal to be creature, created and not God, not the Creator. The first duty of the creature is to confess not to be God." 

The origin of all doubt is the knowledge that we are not God. and it is a sacred origin. It is the knowledge that we are beloved enough to not be put in charge. It is our doubt that sets us free, as much as our faith. It is not a doubt that holds all things--evil and good alike--as equals. But it is a doubt that leaves us open to ways of being that are not our own. They are God's. Religions that are not our own--they are God's. Sexualities that are not our own--they are God's. Governments and hobbies and languages and fashion choices and bodily abilities and financial choices and food preferences that are not our own--they are God's. 

Doubt and love. These are among God's greatest gifts to our shared human life. Neither one is comfortable, or easy. As Amichai wrote, they turn up the earth, they shake our resolve, and they change us, day by day, in ways that we cannot imagine or command. May we accept that precious work, that simple and impossible work, of dwelling with our doubts and our loves, in the name of the God who created us for change and growth, above all. Amen. 

11 April 2016


I am in my grandmother's kitchen
my elbow on the yellow marbled countertop
pushing the heel of my hand
into my sulky chin,
my hips slowly spinning the high-top stool
to tap my knee on the cabinet door.
I know the sound annoys her,
but she doesn't stop me.

She is early in cake baking,

"What's the point?" I ask.
"You put in flour,
flour comes out."

Her right hand on the ceramic-bulbed crank
is swift, certain.
Her left hand tapping the cylinder
is deliberate, persistent.
I notice they are two different rhythms,
her body's two minds working
indifferent to each other,
and in concert.

Metal on metal
completes the work of grinding stones,

"What's the point?"

"Softness," she smiles, without looking at me.

For a moment, I am in the backyard
in that patch of afternoon light
by the okra plants,
before and after
the touch of sun and air
turned from being
to being desperate refuge,
and from refuge
to promise.

Today I woke before dawn,
as she always did,
as I have always done,
to the sound of myself alone
in the low-light kitchen
to stovetop coffee
and the work of hands and heart
waiting in the still-dark rooms of the house.

The ache of other ways to rise--
your voice, your hands--
still holding.
But softer,