A Blessing for the End of the Year

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The poetry of John O’Donohue has long held the serendipitous capacity to speak to me with the right 51wdthjonnlwords at the right time. His collection of poems in To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008) has accompanied me most recently through the summer I spent as a hospital chaplain intern and now as a pastoral intern (vicar) during my penultimate year of seminary. O’Donohue’s poems are at once full of a clarity and a vagueness that lend themselves to devotional and contemplative practices.

While he does have two poems most appropriate for this turning of the year (“At the End of the Year” and “A Blessing for the New Year”), I want to share another that I think equally, if not surpassingly, offers me, and I hope you, wisdom in this interim between ending and beginning.

Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

May the forms of your belonging–in love, creativity, and friendship–
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

May the one you long for long for you.

May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness with which your body inhabits the world.

May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

– John O’Donohue, “For Longing” (35-36)

With blessings for graceful endings and hopeful beginnings this new year that fulfill your deepest longings, and as always,

Peace be yours,

Josh

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Close the Gap: A Prayer for Health Care Justice

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This weekend, I had the opportunity to join in an interfaith prayer vigil with the advocacy group Insure the Good Life, a project of Nebraska Appleseed that aims to urge state legislators to close the Medicaid gap – a gap that currently leaves tens of thousands of hard-working Nebraskans uninsured and without access to quality health care. It was a powerful event of prayer, solidarity, and witness. The bulk of the day’s program consisted in sharing stories – personal or on behalf of friends and family members. I firmly believe that we can quote all the facts and figures we want, but that it is the power of personal stories that is crucial in creating change.

Following these testimonies and words from other speakers, I offered this closing prayer (the inspiration for which came during a midnight stroke of insomnia…the best kind!). I offer it here as a resource to fellow clergy and faith leader colleagues. You are free to use this prayer as inspiration for your own, or in whole with proper attribution.

O God,
you are life,
source of all that is.
By your word
you brought forth sun and moon,
stars and planets,
plants and every green thing,
animals and all that has breath.
By your wisdom
you evolved our fragile home
through the millennia.
By your mercy
you sustain your creation,
today and everyday.
By your might
you guide your people
through sunshine and storm.

In one particular time and place,
you made yourself known to us in Jesus,
whose ministry took him to the margins,
to those whom society had declared
unclean, undeserving, unworthy.
In a spirit of mercy and holy rebellion,
Jesus reached across boundaries
and healed by his touch,
restoring life and life abundant
to those who had been cut off from community.

Your healing is known
across all faiths and among all cultures.
So inspired by the great love you have shown us,
make us agents of that same holy rebellion–
the divine obedience that manifests
your love and mercy for all whom you have created.

Bless the work of our elected officials
and the ministry to which you have called them.
Remind them of the communities they have promised to serve,
and inspire them to strive for justice,
especially for those most vulnerable,
that all may have access to quality health care,
and so all may be strengthened in body and spirit
to serve your planet and your people.

Send us forth with your blessing,
on this assembly gathered here,
to be a blessing to all we meet,
to receive blessing from those we least expect,
to bear one another’s burdens,
and to love, fiercely and unapologetically;
in the strong name of the Holy One
to whom we pray.
Amen.

A Sermon About Rejoicing and Not Worrying (Really?!)

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
3 November 2015
Philippians 4.4-7 (Advent 3C)


[Click here to listen along!]


I hate to break it to you, but you realize that we’re now just a mere five weeks and three days away from the end of the semester, right? That’s only 38 days to research and write those final papers and give those final presentations. And I know most of us in this room are doing MIC (Ministry in Context), so let’s not forget about preaching or leading adult forum or teaching confirmation at our congregations. And Thanksgiving’s just around the corner, with Christmas lurking not all that far behind: the gift shopping, the cookie baking, the extra worship services, the stress of awkward family gatherings. But you know, don’t worry.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably take issue with what overly optimistic Paul has to say in this passage from Philippians. Rejoice always. Don’t worry. Pray continually. And by the time he rolls around to his conclusion, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” his maxims and platitudes have reached their pinnacle of gag-worthiness.

I learned the lesson about vapid platitudes and overly optimistic maxims the hard way during a summer of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). During one patient visit, I was listening to a woman, Amy, talk about loss upon loss in her life: her son’s unemployment, her own tenuous employment and lack of sick pay during multiple hospitalizations, the uncertainty of whether or not the bank would foreclose on her house and leave her homeless for the second time. So at one point when I said, “Well, you’re here now, and it sounds to me like you’re a survivor,” she basically told me to shut up. I imagine if Paul were in the room telling her to rejoice in the Lord always and not to worry about anything, she might have said something similar.


There’s been an article floating around Facebook this week titled “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades.” The author reports that about 62% of students suffer from “perpetual, toxic anxiety.” Stress, she says, is “a force to be reckoned with.” It can have damaging effects on our sense of well-being and our ability to function, resulting in fear, doubt, and depression. In response, the author conducted a study focusing on what her students were doing to actively combat stress. Among her conclusions: you don’t have to be a perfectionist, and you’re not alone. In other words, stress isn’t worth it if it costs you your mental health and your life in community.[1]

The Philippians appear to have been no strangers to stress, either. There’s evidence throughout Paul’s letter that the church at Philippi experienced both external persecution and internal conflict. But Paul offers them encouragement. “Rejoice,” he says, and “let your graciousness be known to everyone.” The Greek word for graciousnessepieikes—means, essentially, not insisting on the letter of the law and instead being gracious and forgiving. It’s also the word Paul uses to refer to the graciousness of Christ in another letter to the Corinthians. As one commentary puts it, epieikes evokes a sense of generosity toward others, and Paul uses it here as a model of living for the Philippian community. Be like this because Christ was.

In this passage, Paul is basically telling the Philippians the same thing as the author of the stress study tells us: Your unity and graciousness to others are more important than getting it right all the time. Paul is concerned for their unity, and against the background of conflict and anxiety, his words remind the Philippians that they’re in this together. As one biblical scholar puts it, “Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another.”[2]


So: rejoice in the Lord always, let your graciousness be made known to everyone, do not worry… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul ends with a promise of God’s peace, but it’s not just another vapid platitude. The word Paul uses for guard can also be used in the sense of confinement in prison. I don’t think his word choice is just a coincidence. Paul knew what confinement was like, since at the time of his writing to the Philippians he himself was locked up in Rome, pending capital charges. So if Paul could be reassured of the peace of God in his situation, the Philippians could believe it in theirs. Paul wasn’t offering empty words; he was offering his lived experience.

We can rejoice in the Lord always and not allow ourselves to become confined by stress or conflict. We can rejoice not because circumstances are always ideal or easy, but because in the end God’s peace endures even in those dark places—be it the stress of the rapidly approaching end of the semester or the depression that accompanies the ever-shortening days until the winter solstice. Advent is the season we anticipate the inbreaking of God’s new reality in Jesus, culminating in the angels’ proclamation: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”


[1] Kristen Lee Costa, “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reset-247/201510/your-mental-health-is-more-important-your-grades.

[2] Jacob Myers, “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1505.