My Death May Come

For some time now, I’ve been rather taken by Joseph’s dying request to have God’s people carry his bones with them when one day they would leave Egypt for the promised land. After a bone-weary year that largely served to highlight how far we have yet to go, it is freeing to think that we don’t have to do any more than the span of our lives will allow. God’s promises endure and whether we make it there on foot or our bones are carried there by the generations yet to come, we will make it just the same.

Our lives and our strength have never be the sure force behind the promise of the Divine. Instead, may we trust that “where ere we go, our God will see us through.”

An Election Day Prayer

Lord of all people,
God of all nations:

Save us from the naivete of thinking
that this election does not matter
and from the short-sighted thinking
that this election is the only thing that matters.

May our votes this day be an act of love
which counts strangers as neighbors
and the least of these as highest priority.

May our votes be one act among many
as we employ our whole lives
to embody Christian love.

Grant us charity in disagreement,
openness to those who oppose us,
and patience through times of struggle.

Grant us the courage of conviction
that holds every elected leader
accountable to justice and mercy.

Save us from our allegiance
to anything above Christ crucified
and from anything that restrains us
from building your kingdom on earth.

Amen.

Psalm 23 Prayer

Loving God,
who shepherds us, your children,
hear our prayers:

For we who do not know the way forward,
we pray your guidance would be made known,
that we would be led to restful waters.

For we who walk in the darkest valley,
we pray your rod and staff be with us
that we might know your protection.

For we who know the names of our enemies,
we pray for a feast too large to enjoy alone,
that we might be forced to seat them at the table.

For we who count blessings in abundance,
we pray for a cup too small to hold them,
that our blessings might spill over for our neighbors.

For we who have been hounded by troubles,
we pray for the courage to look behind us once more,
that we might see your goodness and love are also in pursuit.

For we who are wearied from the toll of living
we pray for the welcome of your embrace,
that we might know what it is to lack nothing
because in you, we have everything.

Amen.

Litany of Lament

Let us give words to the aching of our hearts,
strive to capture the groans from deep within,
and offer to God a fragile prayer from a fractured world,
for ourselves, our sisters, and our brothers:

God of compassion,
look on your people with kindness,
granting hope to the discontent and disenfranchised,
strength to the wearied and worn,
and comfort to the grieving and gas-lit.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of righteousness,
guide the people of this nation and the world
in the ways of justice and peace,
that we might see one another
and honor our shared creation.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of promise,
give us visions of your coming kingdom,
where the last and the least and the lost
are lifted closest to your heart
and all manner of things shall be well.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of wisdom,
open us to the truth of our ways,
to see our own sinful steps,
to recognize the whispered voice of complicity,
that we may walk in the way that leads to life.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God over the waters,
may we remember our baptismal vows
to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
to reject the evil powers of this world,
and to serve alongside a church opened to all peoples.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of incarnation,
who knows the pain of beatings and death,
who still stands alongside us in suffering,
and whose body is in us and encompasses us,
lead us in the work of healing.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of resurrection,
we commend to your care all who have died,
that they may share with all your saints
in your eternal kingdom without end
where we may one day join them.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of community,
teach us the prayers of our sisters and brothers,
teach us to live the prayers we cannot speak,
teach us to speak the prayers we cannot live,
and pray on our behalf when we have nothing left with which to pray.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We offer these prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A Special Dispensation

I propose a special dispensation
that all clergy and holy rollers
be granted a wholly impassioned moment
to unleash an expletive explosion
into an otherwise stunned silence.

Because sometimes the guardians
of Lucifer’s ever-burning lair
are lulled to sleep by the warmth
and the sound of Styx’s steady current
masks the underworld’s trample upward

And the guardians of the aboveworld
mustn’t let decency and clutched pearls
dissuade them from their one recourse:

To gesticulate wildly at the everything
surrounding and imposing on us all
and shout to the wind and the good Lord,
“What in the hell is this?!”
because it’s important to know

The particular type of
evil, injustice, or oppression,
to resist these presented forms
without mistaking the face of our foe
and fighting one another.

D. Burns, 2020

May God Be There

Is it even allowed to toss two extra syllables into a line just because I feel like it? Written as a creative outlet during the coronavirus pandemic, I fell for Gardiner’s achingly beautiful tune and relied on Psalm 71’s description of God as a refuge and rescue for the line that grounds the hymn — and that incidentally and accidentally added those two extra syllables into what was supposed to be a long meter text. We’ll call it creative license and not just forgetting what iambic tetrameter even is.

A Foreign Grace

Written for a February 2020 worship service at Manchester UMC using the Mark 7:24-30 text of the Syrophoenician women and intentionally designed to avoid the theologically controversial aspects of the story (did Jesus change his mind and what does that mean about the character of God?) without missing the valuable insight into God’s character as one who leaves “no space unknown to grace.”

Note: I realize that listing the hymn as doubled common meter (CMD) is being awfully generous and pretends that “to the” and “Like a” (among others examples) can be sung in a single syllable. It works with this tune and likely not many others. Such is the cost of my rebellious nature and inability to adequately edit my own work.

Good Friday #pictureLent

Re-posted from my devotional written for #pictureLent, a collaboration between the Rio Texas and Michigan conferences of the United Methodist Church to provide daily devotionals throughout the season of Lent. See the original post here or find more information about #pictureLent at picturelent.com.

First, read John 18:1-19:42

Who are you looking for?

One afternoon in college, a group of my friends burst into my dorm room insisting I drop everything and come with them to see someone who looked exactly like me. They didn’t know who it was, they had only spotted them halfway across the campus commons and were stunned by the similarity.

I followed them with interest, expecting to be similarly stunned. But when they pointed to my doppelganger from a distance, I didn’t think he looked anything like me. I said as much to a friend and they insisted, “He has the same awkward facial structure as you!”

And with an embarrassing rush of blood to the face, I watched as my apparent lookalike turned and suddenly became a mirror image of me. In profile, I could see that we shared the same gentle jawline, the same preposterous balance of head on angled neck, rolled shoulders on scrawny frame.

I never actually sought out my doppelganger after that. There was something too disconcerting about finding the most unsettling parts of myself captured so perfectly in the face of another person.

But could that be what Good Friday is for?

While the other gospels move us quickly through the arrest and trial and on to happier things, John invites us to linger a while and look closely. Jesus is not found with a quick kiss of betrayal but seeks out the band of soldiers. He steps from the shadows into the flickering light of their lanterns and torches, but no one brandishes a sword at him. They don’t know the face of the accused, only the name on the arrest warrant.

When Jesus asks whom they seek, they answer obliviously: “Jesus the Nazarene.”

Perhaps Jesus looked too much like any common person enjoying a late-night walk among the trees. No doubt they expected someone dressed like a king, not someone wearing clothes they themselves might change into from their imperial garb at the end of shift.

But after his twice-told insistence, the soldiers arrested him. They took him to the high priest Caiaphas, who looked and saw a blasphemer rather than a king. He was struck and sent to Pilate, who was puzzled by the migrant teacher and saw a political quandary rather than a ruler. At the bidding of the crowd’s insistence, Jesus was given back to soldiers who mocked him for how little he looked like royalty.

When eventually they came to the hill for his crucifixion, the soldiers quibbled over how to divide Jesus’ clothes. The next day, his shirt and shoes would be worn by four everyday men throughout the city without any indication their former owner was anything other than ordinary.

In the years since, artists have frequently seen the extraordinary and crowned Jesus’ thorn-ridden brow with a gleaming halo. They remember that Jesus responded to the soldiers in the garden with the ancient name of the divine, “I Am.”

But hidden in the extraordinary is the discomfort of familiarity. The face on the cross looks disconcertingly like mine, baring to heaven and earth the most unsettling parts of myself. Sometimes God steps from the shadows into the flickering light of my lantern looking more like me than any king I’ve ever known.

For in Jesus’ kingdom, rulers go to the grave to save those they love and prove their place in the image of God.

Look closely on him whom they have pierced. Who are you looking for?

Proud Trees

What good is the tree
standing straight up
from root to treetop?

There is no prize
for pushing upward
with unrelenting force

How much better
to wind back and forth
finding the hidden pathway

learning the weight of the wind
and the pull of the rain
to arch your back in the middle
and sigh with relief

Leave me my here and there’s
my not yet decideds and my
limber green growing limbs

The oak may cleave the sky in two
but when I am finished
I will hold the stars in my open hand.

D. Burns, 2019

Central Cabin Number Five

My call to ministry came in a ramshackle little building with creaky floors and windows that let the bugs in: Central Cabin number five.

I’ve been asked countless times by committees and curious individuals just how I ended up sensing that God wanted me in pastoral ministry, frequently enough that I’ve honed my story into conveniently bite size pitches. The polite small-talk-at-a-party answer involves a joke about God being more stubborn than I am, which is true. The heartfelt join-me-in-ministry answer tells the story of a college kid touched by his work as a camp counselor, also true. The professional please-ordain-me answer centers the whole response in a divine encounter, definitely true.

What I rarely tell is the whole story.

While I had considered going into the ministry previously, I started working as a camp counselor at Judson Collins Center with my plans firmly set in alignment with the engineering degree I had begun at my Texas college the year prior. I had wanted to find an engineering internship for the summer but no one would hire me and so, without anything else to do during the day, my church invited me serve as a lay delegate to Annual Conference. The Judson Collins director was there and, apparently in desperate need of male counselors, made sure to meet me and practically hired me on the spot. I filled out an application, stopped by the next week for an interview, and it was official.

When the camps began, I was responsible for a cabin of elementary school boys from drop-off Sunday midday until pick-up on Friday afternoon. What began as the only gainful employment which would take me was suddenly everything I had ever wanted to do in the world. I was in my element and I loved it, so much so that I started thinking again about going into ministry. But I knew the difference between having fun and being summoned – and I hadn’t heard God do the latter just yet.

That came the last night before sending the final campers of the season home. I had gotten all of these rowdy third and fourth graders to bed and was laying dutifully awake awaiting the first all-cabin bathroom break of the night. To fill the time, as I made a habit of doing, I prayed for each of the campers by name, mentally working my way one cot to another, all the way to the other end of central cabin number five.

And when I did that night, I heard God speak.

It wasn’t a call to pastoral ministry just yet. Instead, the voice I heard said to pay special care to the final day with these campers. They were held closely in the divine grasp while at camp, I understood, and far less so when they left.

I let their names pass through my mind again and wondered for the first time about the lives they would return to. It felt like a non sequitur when the disconcertingly divine experience continued with an unquestioning call to ministry – a spoken affirmation that I would go to seminary and become a pastor. And though I stubbornly got my engineering degree first, I listened.

Later that night, I understood how it all fit together.

There was a young man in that cabin who had driven me absolutely crazy: Miles*. He didn’t get along with the other kids, was slow moving making us perpetually late to activities, and (worst of all) couldn’t tie his own shoes. I spent the whole week tying his shoes everywhere he took them off, which he did with frustrating frequency. I was more than ready to send him home to wherever he came from.

So of course he was the one to interrupt the joy of my newfound call to ministry with quiet sobs from his cot.

He told me that he didn’t want to leave camp, that he loved all of the camp activities and – most especially – he loved the Bible studies. I was surprised but thankful; he had picked the one camp activity that could be duplicated absolutely anywhere in the world, and I told him as much. But Miles disagreed.

His parents didn’t take him to church, he said. I could send him home with a Bible, but they wouldn’t read it with him. And when I realized that no one had ever even taught him to tie his shoes, how could he be wrong? I sent him home the next day with a youth pastor on a church bus and we were both distraught to see him go.

God is everywhere and, yet, some places especially so. The invitation to care for campers was just a particularization of my broader call to ministry. There and now still, the call to ministry for me is most faithfully the work of making places like that camp – places where the Miles in all of us can experience the presence of God and never want to leave.

Central Cabin number five was dismantled a few years ago. It was old and in disrepair, but it still hurt my heart to see it go. This morning, I got the news that Judson Collins would be closed for at least the 2020 camping season. With all the most faithful rationale I can muster, it still hurts my heart to see it go.

I imagine that there must have been no choice, though the hurting heart always and often wrongly imagines that there must have been. All I know is this: I don’t know where else Miles could have gone but I suppose he did have to leave.

Perhaps he found another faithfully crafted place or built one of his own. Perhaps this should always be the response when we lose a place we love.

God is everywhere and, yet, invites us to make places where it is especially so.