What Makes Angels Scary?

This sermon was written for the good folks of Osage (Iowa) United Church of Christ where I was scheduled to preach on Sunday, December 18, until a Winter Storm Warning and a Wind Chill Warning changed our plans.

How many of you have played an angel in a Christmas pageant – maybe when you were children?  In my experience, churches always want every child to have a part in the pageant, so the kids who aren’t playing the major roles get assigned to be shepherds if they are boys, and to be angels if they are girls.  And it always feels a little bit like being chosen last for a team at school recess.

Well cheer up, angel alumnae!  Angels are not incidental Continue reading

The Liturgy of eBay

So, I have become an eBay seller.  I come from a family that saved things, and as an only child, all those saved things ended up with me. They sat in boxes in the basement, full of memories and nostalgia.  When we moved to a new home last fall, it became painfully clear that they had become burdensome and I promised to get them out of the house.  I call it “finding them new homes.”

It turned out to be an odd assortment.  Continue reading



We are planning a remodeling project for our home.  The architect/designers that we chose came to the house and made detailed drawings of its present configuration – they call it the “as built” drawing.

Then they imagined some of the ways that our space could be transformed to work better for us.  They drew those plans on translucent paper in exactly the same scale as the “as built” drawings – these are the “overlays.”  When you put the new plan on top of the current one, you can see exactly what is to be changed and what will remain.  Pulling back a corner of the overlay is like a time machine – from the present to the future.

Earlier this summer I spent a night in the Illinois town where I grew up. Continue reading

Finish Carpentry

I used to believe that the little molding at the bottom (and sometimes the top) of walls was just a decorative accent. Then we remodeled a home we were living in and I learned the harsh truth: molding covers the places where the walls and the floors don’t meet quite perfectly.
And of course, the walls and the floors hardly ever meet perfectly. Tiny mis-measurement in one corner is magnified by the time you get to the other corner. Or little shifts in the foundation put everything slightly askew. Or a worker is not quite as careful in installing plumbing or wiring or lighting as might be wished, and things are knocked a bit out of line.
It would be a shame if all those little oddities were obvious – so we cover them up with molding and half round and sometimes caulk and paint.
I do the same thing when I am making stoles for ministers. It is hard to get the hems exactly even and straight if they are handsewn – so I don’t sew them by hand. I cover the bottom edges with fringe, which has the bonus of adding a little weight so the stoles hang gracefully when they are worn.
Ceremonies are another kind of finish carpentry. Going to school can be a messy business with setbacks and disappointments along the way. Graduation covers them up with robes, speeches, and pageantry. Courtships (to use an old fashioned word) have their ups and downs, but weddings more or less disguise all of the complexities of love with music, flowers, and banquets. Even retirement can be a mixed blessing, gracefully hidden by cake, balloons, and good-bye gifts.
Every day etiquette is another example – we cover up the rough edges of our relationships and interactions with “please” and “thank you.”
Still, even wide molding cannot cover up poor workmanship or shoddy materials, and no ceremony or etiquette can repair deep wounds or estrangement. Finish carpentry only works because it finishes a process that began solidly with the basics. It makes good work look even better.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to build healthy relationships and strong connections, so that only a little finish carpentry is needed. Amen.


Before it was a verb, “interfacing” was the stiffening fabric that goes inside a garment to give it body and crispness.

I use a particular kind of interfacing in the stoles I make for my small business, Woman of the Cloth.  It is called “hair canvas” and it is a blend of several fibers, including 4% horse hair.  It is used in the collars and lapels of good quality jackets and coats and it costs almost as much as the beautiful cotton fabrics that are visible in a finished stole.

But the beautiful fabrics that are visible could not do the job without the interfacing hidden inside.  The hair canvas gives them substance, helps them to hang evenly, and insures that they will last for many years.

Sermons have interfacing, too – the study and reflection that the preacher does before composing a single sentence.  It may not be obvious to the listener that there were hours of research and several discarded drafts, but it is because the pastor has invested time and heart in those that the sermon has strength, coherence, and impact.

Once you start looking for it, interfacing is everywhere:  teachers put it in their lesson plans and lectures, carpenters put it in their framing, musicians in their practice, authors in their editing, hostesses in their cooking … a lot of things depend upon sturdy internal scaffolding.

When people buy a stole, they are always choosing a fabric that they love.  But what they are buying is just decorated interfacing.


Prayer:   Gracious God, we thank you for the sturdy internal scaffolding that makes things strong and beautiful.  Be present in our lives like interfacing, making our work strong and beautiful, whatever it is.  Amen.



On Mindless Repetition

Most Protestant ministers preach, at least once, a sermon or sermon series about the Lord’s Prayer. We look carefully at the context in which it appears in scripture; we analyze the verbs and the order in which they appear; we look at different versions and translations, and pretend that we have the original Aramaic text to study. We try to make it relevant or modern or at least interesting. The goal is to make the prayer more “meaningful.”

Maybe all of that is, well, wrongheaded. Maybe the thing we ought to be preaching about the Lord’s Prayer is not what the words mean, but what saying the words means.

It means, in the first place, trying to take the words of Jesus to be our own words. It is an imperfect effort, of course, because we don’t have a transcript of what Jesus said to the disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. What we do have is the record of the early church about the prayer he gave them as a model. So we speak those words as a kind of verbal Eucharist – bringing something out of memory and into the present in an embodied way.

It means, in the second place, to pray with Jesus-followers in all times and all places. When we recite these words together in worship, I often see that whole company in my heart’s eye, spread out in great ranks around and behind and ahead of me. I am reacquainted with the great cloud of witnesses that share my longing to follow the Jesus-way.

And it means that when we recite these familiar words, we can enter a kind of meditation in which the words are no longer central and the possibility of connection with the divine is heightened. Think of the Lord’s Prayer as a Taize chant that you sing until you are done singing, or a Hail Mary that you repeat as you finger the beads. “Mindlessly” repeating these words can restore their sacredness in surprising ways.

Prayer: Holy One, help our prayers to be deeper and wider than our words. Amen.

Herod Is on the Throne

It was the most chilling benediction I had ever heard:  “Do not go in peace.  Herod is still on the throne and the children are not safe.”  It was spoken at a seminary chapel service; the text for the day had been the “slaughter of the innocents,” – Herod’s order to kill all of the baby boys who might be the announced “King of the Jews.”

These disturbing words came back to me as I saw pictures of children whose parents had tried to send them to the United States.  And photos of injured children in Gaza and Israel.  And words in church about Minneapolis kids who won’t get breakfast or lunch after summer school is over.  “Do not go in peace.  Herod is still on the throne and the children are not safe.

I read recently read about the Maternity Box that is given to pregnant women in Finland.  It contains everything a new baby will need:  bedding, clothes, diapers, toys, even a book.  The box itself can serve as a bassinette.  To receive the box, the only thing the woman needs to do is to see a health care provider early in her pregnancy.  The box is a public investment in infant health (prenatal care) and well-being (clothing and supplies).  Herod de-throned.

I love the idea of every child being welcomed – not because the parents are prosperous (and can afford it), and not because the parents are needy (and can’t afford it).  Imagine what it would be like if every baby got a box like that. Imagine what it would be like if every refugee child received a box of clothes and vitamins and books.

There is no single “Herod,” of course.  Herod’s threat in our midst comes from institutions and ideologies that give lip-service to children’s welfare, then fail to embody that concern in programs or practices.  I get pretty discouraged about how much time and energy it will take to change all of that – especially during those weeks when there are also wars and plane crashes and various other calamities of human life.

That preacher’s words about Herod were not really a benediction – a benediction is, after all, a “good word.”  They were, however, prophetic words – words that spoke a truth we would rather not see.  May they never stop disturbing us, and may we never stop trying to keep the children safe.