prayer incarnate

How did you pray, body and breath,

those wilderness days beneath

stars that made promises,

sand through your hands

counting moments since creation,

each grain an erosion of the whole;

how did you pray, body and spirit

sticky with honey and blood;

how did you pray between

the river and salt sea, between

the jackal and the night owl, eerie,

between soft camel hair

and the hard-nosed rock;

how did you pray, body and soul

when you were prayer incarnate?

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Between fire and the sky-

cold stars trading embers,

we are smoke:

dust, ash, and air rising

and falling

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Book Review: Dessert First – Preparing for Death while Savoring Life, by J. Dana Trent

Dessert First – Preparing for Death while Savoring Life, by J. Dana Trent (Chalice Press, September 2019) launches a week from tomorrow!

We’re all going to die.

Dana Trent has some experience with death. In her latest book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death while Savoring Life, she draws on the deeply personal as well as her strong professional association as a hospital chaplain with mapping that passageway that leads from this life to whatever comes next. The book, then, turns into a companion that offers with authority its recommendations for conversations, paperwork, and the after-work of grief; but as one that sits beside the reader, a friend in the hard places, and even a co-conspirator in the whispered graveyard giggles.

I should disclose here that I do count the author as a friend – we met at a writing workshop – which is how I came to read an advance copy of this book. Already, though, before I had finished reading it, I was borrowing Dana’s wisdom to help me through conversations at the bedside of a dying parishioner and their spouse.

So is this a book about death, or about grief, or about life? Well, yes. The story is framed by the author’s journey through the death of her mother and the rituals that marked her first year as an adult orphan. From that perspective, it has much to offer about allowing grief into our lives, acknowledging its reality, and learning to work with it. Grief makes us human, and forces us to find out who we are as human beings. In one of those passages in which I felt myself painfully seen and quietly encouraged, Dana writes:

Mom was my source and mirror – a significant part of what I thought made me me. When she died, I had time and ability to process who I was without her.

Grief can happen before death arrives – its anticipation is as exquisitely wrought as any other – and Dana slips back behind that curtain, into the hospital rooms of her “Death Chaplaincy” as a young woman, the ER departments of sudden death, and the holy places of life relinquished, in faith and fear, by the terminally ill.

The author’s own mother chose a medical path of non-resistance that would place her definitively on the road to death. We are all going to die. Some of us have more time to manage our exit than others. The chapter describing Dana’s midwifery to her mother as she pulsed from one state of being to the next was the hardest for me to read, because of the memories it brought back, related but so un-similar, of my mother’s death. And yet, and still, there was sweetness, especially in that image of midwifery.

There is no honest and faithful way of writing about dying, death, and its aftermath without connecting to the grief of others. The reader may find tears cloud their reading. But we “do not grieve as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). There is plenty of laughter, too. Without making light of any of the many experiences, relationships, and their human qualities that inform it, Dana is able to share much of the joy, the lightness, and the complete absurdity that the mortal journey offers:

“All done,” I said, as we poured the last bit into a glass skull-and-crossbones bottle. Fred smiled. You’ve found your life partner if someone willingly helps you transfer creamted remains into souvenir wine bottles for Barbies.

This is not a gloomy book.

While I am a sucker for stories, I recognize that the usefulness of this book for many in ministry, in families, in communities full of humans who are all going to die will be the practical considerations woven through the narratives, and pulled out into a helpful guide at the end. From conversation starters to theological considerations across religious traditions (Dana herself is a Baptist minister, married to a devout Hindu), legal considerations to funeral reading suggestions, as ever, the author is a mine of information, advice, and sound research.

So why does a book about death and grieving have such an odd title? Dessert First is a nod to Dana’s mother, and yet one more acknowledgement that death is coming for each of us, so we might as well embrace our mortal life and enjoy it, grief and all, with all of its sweetness, tartness, and saltiness.

We’re all going to die. And it’s going to be alright.

Dessert First: Preparing for Death while Savoring Life, by J. Dana Trent, is published by Chalice Press (September 2019)

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The table

A sermon for the Sunday before Labor Day, after yet another mass shooting, Proper 17 of Year C. Readings include Jesus’ parable of the banquet seating plan.

Later in the morning, we signed condolence cards, including pledges to work, with God’s help, to reduce gun violence to the communities most recently afflicted, and we circulated a petition to close background check loopholes in our state.

Here is a question that the story told by Luke doesn’t appear to answer: where was Jesus’ seat at this dinner table?

Was he invited to sit at the host’s right hand, in the place of honour? Were the lawyers and the Pharisees jealous? Or did no one offer him a seat, too busy finding their own place and attempting to assert themselves in the pecking order of the local leadership? Were they watching, once they had secured their own spot, to see whether Jesus would accept a place among the also-rans, the charity cases who filled out the leader’s dining hall?

If you have been following Jesus’ story for a while, you may have noticed that he is less concerned with the manners and rituals of genteel society than he is with the earthy goodness of God’s great love for the great unwashed, the rank as well as the file.

His parable, then, should hardly be construed as advice on how best to achieve the most beneficial seat at an influential dinner table – “Play your cards right, and you may be invited up to the inner circle.” That’s just not the kind of game Jesus appears to have played.

So what is going on here?

In the opening verse of the episode, we are told that Jesus has been invited to the Sabbath meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, and that “they” were watching him closely.

The question of who “they” were is answered in the next verse, which we skipped in our gospel reading. In fact, there is a whole little healing episode that we jumped over, perhaps because it is too similar to last week’s Sabbath-healing, boundary-breaking, argument-inducing episode from last week. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow: nothing if not consistent.

But while he was on his way to dinner, watched closely by the other religious leaders and scholars, Jesus came across a man in need of healing. And he stopped, and asked the lawyers and the other religious types, “What do you think? Should I heal him? Is it lawful to do so on the Sabbath? Is it right to do good?”

And for all of their close watch of him, they had no answer. So Jesus, of course, healed the man, and then he accused them for their silence, “Which of you would not pull your ox out of a well on the Sabbath?” And still, they made no reply.

The lawyers and the Pharisees made no answer, in case they fell foul of their neighbours. No one wanted to be the one to say, “This poor man’s life and happiness is worth more than the law.” No one said, “Perhaps we should amend some of our dearly-held convictions about what is acceptable on the Sabbath, in order to accommodate such cases, as God intended.”

There is so much we could say that would apply to our own situation. Is it good to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus asks. Yesterday, a church group in Odessa, Texas, was organizing a blood drive to aid gun violence victims in El Paso. They were doing their piece of good when yesterday’s violence erupted in their own community. At the hospitals, in Odessa and Midland, and in Mobile, Alabama, healing mercy was dispensed, bad news broken, families relieved or wrecked.

Is it right to do good yet, Jesus asks, or will you cling to your traditions that may not be infringed?

The lawyers and the leaders were curious about Jesus’ healing power, but they were not ready to let him heal their hard hearts just yet. As much as they longed for God’s salvation, they were not prepared to trust it to this Jesus, who broke all of their carefully constructed moulds and tapped into something wild, something dangerous, some Spirit from the heart of God. They were afraid to step out of the ruts and the roles they had created for themselves to join him and his weird band of disciples.

No one wanted to show his hand in case they made a political mistake, or a social faux pas; no one wanted to speak out of turn, in case they were diminished in the eyes of their peers.

But while they were watching Jesus, Jesus was watching them.

He told a parable, about socially striving people using one-upmanship and underdog-manship, anxious for their own honour before others, and in his closing line threw out the whole system: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Not those who boast, nor those who go cringing to the end of the line, for the sake of the pleasure of being invited to move up, but those who are truly humble before God: who put Christ in the place of honour, not for their own sake, but for Christ’s sake.

To borrow a phrase from the hymn, he “poured contempt on all our pride.”
(When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, words by Isaac Watts, 1674-1748).

And all this on the Sabbath.

In the parable, Jesus describes not the situation at the Sabbath table where they are sitting in ancient Palestine, but a wedding feast. Of course, we recognize from other parables and places in the Bible that the wedding feast is a metaphor for the coming of God’s kingdom, for the celebration of the consummation of creation, the Second Coming, the resurrection.

In that kingdom, at that feast, it hardly matters where we sit, as long as we are present. There is no poor seat, there is no place of honour except surrounding the throne of God in an ecstasy of worship. There is no competition for the host’s attention, when God sees all, and knows all, and invites everyone to see God.

If you want to see what the kingdom of God will be like, Jesus offers, forget your fancy dinner parties and your social calendar. Do not use abuse your hospitality as a form of trade, nor for profit. Invite instead the down and out, the poor, the needful, those who can do nothing for you, and offer them the places of honour at your own table.

Do you want to be like God, elevated and adored? Well then, says Jesus, be like God, generous to a fault, merciful to the point of madness, squandering social status and respectable reputation for the sake of that Sabbath whereby the captives are freed, the work-worn receive their rest, creation is restored to its goodness, on which “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).

But do this, Jesus says, not because it will earn you a better seat before your peers nor even in heaven, but for the sake of righteousness itself. For the sake of doing good on the Sabbath. For the sake of solidarity with Jesus, whose name means Saviour.

After he has said all of this, where do you think that Jesus is seated at the table of the religious leader? Does the host rise up and offer Jesus his own seat, astonished at his teaching and in awe of his honour? Or is he relegated to the rump of the table as a troublemaker?

When Jesus asks us to do good, do we answer? When he challenges us to speak of mercy before the judges, do we speak up? When he comes, in answer to our prayer, to settle into our homes, our lives, our bodies, do we offer him the place of honour, or, unsettled, hope that we can hide him in the corner? Are we prepared for his life-changing mercy, or do we harden our hearts, for fear of frightening the horses with his outrageous grace? Do we try to move him out of our way, or do we let him move us? Will we harden our hearts, or enthrone Christ within them?

Ironically, while we are deciding where to seat him, Jesus is busy setting the table himself. And his invitation is clear:

Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.
Come to me, you who are thirsty, and I will give you living water to drink.
Come, eat of the bread of life, and I will raise you up.

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Release to the captives

Trouble and grace, commandment and covenant. At their best, they work together for the good of God’s people and the glory of the one who loves us, forgives us, corrects us, makes us good. In the little drama enacted at the synagogue by Jesus and the other religious leader on the Sabbath, we are not witnessing the opposition of Law and Gospel, Old Testament and New. Christianity has not been invented yet, and Jesus was a Jew, so for heaven’s sake let’s not make the mistake of opposing those. Instead, what we see is the perennial conflict between a human being who insists on seeing the world in black and white, and the one who admits to the full spectrum of colour, of nuance, of grace that God has created for us to live out.

The laws of the Sabbath were made for us and for our delight. They were made for us to share, for a moment, in the satisfaction of God who made all things and saw that they were good, and rested in their shade for a while, as the old story goes. The Sabbath laws were made for us to understand that the world does not turn at our command, nor by our labour; that our work, our product is not the only good purpose for our lives; that breathing itself is a miracle to be wondered at and savoured.

The leader of the synagogue had been teaching his congregation these lessons rightly for generations, to keep the Sabbath sacred, and he was angry when this upstart Jesus came into their midst and, ignoring the rabbi’s preaching, intervened where he was not invited, and straightened the back of a woman whom others had learned to overlook. The liturgical leader was angry, and he was afraid. He was afraid that he might lose influence, that he could lose control, that he might have neglected something that Jesus now provides to his people hungry for healing. 

See how he doesn’t address Jesus directly, but instead appeals to his congregation, even blaming the woman herself for being healed, for presenting herself for mercy on a day of rest – does he even hear himself? Yes, he does, and he is afraid of losing face before Jesus, before his people, before his God.

This is not an argument about the Sabbath, but about power and influence. Jesus is not dismantling the Sabbath. Instead, he is perfecting it, releasing this woman from the burden and work of her constricted body; setting her free to enjoy the miracle of breath, the wonder of rest, the satisfaction of the Sabbath. 


In August of 1619, a pirate ship landed at Comfort Point in Virginia. Four hundred years ago this week, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was born out of the sale of some twenty or thirty kidnapped women and men from Angola. In one of the most abject and cynical blasphemies ever committed against the Holy Spirit, people created in the image of God were bought and sold as goods, their humanity denied by slavers whose own humanity was crippled by their sin.

By the time, more than a century later, that the colonists decided to make for themselves a country, the use of people as commodities, with all of the abuse, the carelessness and callousness that such a concept implies, had become so second-nature that the men who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” were themselves so hidebound by their pursuit of power and wealth that they deliberately and willfully crossed their fingers as they wrote the Declaration of [their] Independence, of their freedom, and pretended for all the world not to see the dreadful irony in their words.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In her essay for the 1619 Project, a series of essays, podcasts, and other materials examining the legacy of that pirate ship and the horrors of its hold, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes,

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘‘all men are created equal’’ and ‘‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. 

I don’t know. I think that Jefferson and the others who crafted the Declaration did believe their words to be true for the people they held hostage; they just chose not to apply them. Those white men, most of whom held slaves in an unequal, unliberated, life-sapping, unhappy state, knew the truth, the goodness, the rightness of what they proclaimed – that every person is equally created in the image and goodness of our loving, liberating, life-giving God; that the prophets have proclaimed liberty for every captive and that Jesus has confirmed their words through his defeat even of the ultimate jailor, death; that the pursuit of happiness, the relief from work, the enjoyment of the life that God has created us – the laws of Sabbath, drawn from the blueprint of creation – apply to all people. 

Those men knew what they were saying, but they allowed the interests, the influence, the greed of White nation-builders, White nationalism, to override the very principles of equality, liberty, and life that they were articulating. They held these truths to be self-evident, but they blinked. In the moment that they signed their Declaration, like the leader in the synagogue, they would rather hold on to their own power and influence than apply what was right to those over whom they held the most sway.

Then, as in the synagogue, Jesus, with his liberating influence and indiscriminate healing power, was an inconvenient voice of conscience, too easily ignored, talked past, silenced. Yet, Hannah-Jones continues,

Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.

Like the right of the woman in the synagogue finally to be set free from affliction, to enjoy fully the satisfaction, the ease, the rest of the Sabbath.


This afternoon, at three o’clock, our church carillon bell will toll for one minute, remembering, honouring, lamenting, and giving thanks for those twenty or thirty women and men traded by pirates to English settlers on the coast of Virginia. Their legacy still calls us to account, to do better, to live more broadly, deeply, honestly into the promises that we made to ourselves as a nation, to make evident the truth that every person is created equally in the image of God, and that everyone is deserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The people of God have always struggled with commandment and covenant, and the people of this nation have had trouble with our promises from the start, and we struggle with them today. Still, powerful people cross their fingers behind their backs, rewriting the poem on the Statue of Liberty, redlining history to make it more appealing, less troublesome.


But do not listen to me. The leader of the synagogue had the pulpit and he talked right past Jesus, and he was wrong. The people – the people had more sense – they saw what Jesus was doing, bringing release to the captive and rest to the weary, spreading the grace of God thick on the Sabbath bread, and they rejoiced at his incendiary kindness, his audacious mercy, his lawless love.

They heard Jesus say, “You are set free,” and they were jubilant.

Go, then, and do likewise.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Introduction” to The 1619 Project, in the New York Times Magazine, August 18, 2019, retrieved online August 24, 2019 at

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A prayer for the absence of miracles

Swimming as an act of faith:

Faith in the friendliness of the great lake,
doorway to the deep-
seated sediment of creation;

Faith in the body to carry its cargo through the waves,
inspired by the brooding, hovering breath of the beginning;

Faith, first and last, that the Creator will not,
for pity’s sake,
suspend for a moment, in answer to a prayer,
the cry for a miracle,
the order of creation, letting loose
chaos to overwhelm me.

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Everything comes with a side of guns

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were in the upstairs balcony of a large sporting goods store. Somewhere downstairs, I heard a door alarm beeping, and a woman’s voice urging, “Everyone get out!” She did not say, “Gun.” She didn’t need to. Everyone who heard her knew what she was telling us. (Not everyone heard her. That’s a whole other story.)

This time, it was a false alarm on a balmy Friday evening in a busy shopping district. But the fact that she didn’t need to say the word for everyone to recognize that this could be it, this could be us speaks encyclopedias about the state we are in.

All are impressed with the imminence of death.

(Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker, Volume XII, Number 9, 1 November 1945, p.2)

It was Thursday. I was finishing up the funeral booklets, and emailing hectically back and forth with the other organizers of the evening Vigil and Call to Action against gun violence. There had been too much death in the past week, natural and unnatural. I was shaking like a caffeine addict on the adrenaline of survival, pushing through the business of gratitude for the life that goes on.

A petitioner came to the door. His genial disposition, artfully easy, introduced him as a salesman. He worked with a construction company, specializing in restoration after an unanticipated building disaster: flood, fire, storm. They would make videos of water shut-offs, gas valves, weak spots. No cost to us upfront, just a promise that we would call them first in the unfortunate and unhoped for event.

Still flipping through his folder, he pointed to the tab in the middle and asked, “Oh, and Active Shooter Drills. Have you done those yet?”

I did not have the time to wonder deeply why a construction company, expert in damp recovery and replastering, thought that an active shooter drill would be right up their alley (nor why we would call them first in the unfortunate event). I did not have the wherewithal in that Thursday moment to explain my theological aversion to drilling fear into our worship, or the stubborn resistance to the inevitably of guns everywhere that stems from the sanctuary of my foolish faith.

I wondered if the man had seen the signs outside, advertising the evening Vigil. I wondered whether that would make him more or less inclined to offer a side of gun violence with his list of anticipated disasters. I wondered what he read in my face. He switched gears so quickly that even he, smooth as oil, almost snagged.

All are impressed with the imminence of death, not only for themselves but their dear ones.

(Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker, Volume XII, Number 9, 1 November 1945, p.2)

In the meantime, I was reminded (via Twitter, redeeming itself) that Dorothy Day declined to participate in the nuclear air raid drills that followed the detonation of the American atom bomb, and the Cold War that followed hot on its heels.

In an Introduction to Day’s Selected Writings, Robert Ellsberg wrote,

Dorothy considered this situation in the light of the Gospel. In the face of weapons of indiscriminate destruction, the teaching of indiscriminate love had, she believed, become a practical necessity, an imperative. To live under the “protection” of such weapons without resisting, without raising an outcry, was, in her view, to participate in the ultimate blasphemy.

Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, Edited with an Introduction by Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books, 2005), xxxv

Try reading the introduction to the column Day wrote three months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and substitute for the atom bomb the AK-47, the AR-15, the assault rifle, the semi-automatic, and tell me it doesn’t ring true. She wrote:

Wherever we go there is talk of the atom bomb. All are impressed with the imminence of death, not only for themselves but their dear ones; for all about them.

And she added,

Down in Washington … The great ones of the earth are conferring. …What to do?

We can only suggest one thing – destroy the two billion dollars’ worth of equipment that was built up to make the atomic bomb; destroy all the formulas; put on sack cloth and ashes, weep and repent.

(Catholic Worker, Volume XII, Number 9, 1 November 1945, p.2)


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