Our house, now to look at it, is filled with icons of the Nativity. Everywhere there are images of the Holy Family: Joseph and Mary looking over the incarnate one, their child in the wonder and mystery of his first night.

Julia has always given them to me as gifts. One oil painting from years ago, most recently a carved statue, in between, the painting of the Holy Family together we hung in our daughter’s nursery in preparation for her birth. In all, there is a quiet awe, a beaming sense of the holiness of these three people, together at last, often stretched together to become one form, in all the possibility of new life… It is a little like we dreamed for our family when Julia got pregnant.

There is, of course, another icon of our faith that has been with us through the centuries, a picture that has always been holy to us: the Pietà. Mary, the Mother of God, holds the broken body of her son after his death. Sometimes, her head is bowed, tears flowing to him as the more direct sign of her emotion. In others, she gazes out at you, the observer, directly as if to say, “look what the world has wrought of my love.”

Julia, a daughter of Mary, I had always supposed was strong beyond the lightness and compassion and humor with which she engages the world. I had no idea, really. Which is not to fault us for some lack of preparation for marriage… just that marriage and other promises are ones that rely on a deep well of faith, and hope, and love… that you will rise to meet moments together and discover more in each other as you live.

Our daughter, Ivy Miriam Helen Parker, was born into this world on March 2, 2021 by the love and strength of her mother, five days before we were expecting her. The awe and wonder of that moment was only eclipsed by the earthquake of grief that Ivy had died maybe 24 hours before. She was 5lbs and 11 oz. She was beautiful and formed of both of her parents, their immeasurable love for her, and mystery made flesh. She was borne by—and born of—a woman who could love her into being knowing full well the sadness and pain that were part of the story to come, and yet did it anyway.

You see these things, and know that they are holy.

In the time after her delivery, there were too many feelings, too much grief. It was hard to walk around in them. We endlessly questioned every part of the pregnancy, the tests and ultrasounds, the kicks and movements that she had made every day so regularly until the day that she didn’t. We slept and failed to sleep, and took turns watching each other breathe because now we lived in a strange new world where people that you loved more than breath could suddenly disappear, and so you had to watch them, lest they vanish. We jokingly, because we still joke, dubbed our room in the hospital “The Crying Room,” inducting each new nurse into our club, since all of them shared some of our pain, tore through tissues with us, and bore witness to the awful beauty that was there to see.

What they saw was Julia, so lovingly holding our daughter. O God! To see her love! From the moment Ivy arrived fully, still warm from her mother, her body still rising and falling with her heartbeat and her breath… to the later times when her body had to be cooled so that we could stay just a bit longer with her, wrapped in a blanket, to know the beauty of her face, her nose, the wonders of her fingers and her ears… the softness of her skin… To behold them—mother and daughter—wrapped around one another was to know Ivy was loved so fiercely that you would be sure… as Mary must have been, that this loss would crack the very heart of God in two.

In the past, I think I meditated on the Pietà and I focused on the violence and injustice visited on Jesus’s body, the strength of the love that Mary has in the face of it. We can’t look away from that. Too many daughters of Mary hold the bodies of their children broken by systems and structures of violence, war, racism, and injustice. In the stark holding of her son before us as evidence of these wrongs, Mary invites us to imagine a world transformed one day to one where no mother will know that pain. That transformation is in the song she sang before she had ever even held her son at his birth.

But now we know more clearly the look beneath that… the second look: the pain, the wrong that lies beneath all others… the simple fact of Mary bearing her son again, as she bore him in life, into death. It is a wrong that no one should know: your child, this gift of your own life and love, before you in death and heartbreak. And yet a love you cannot imagine calls you to hold them as long as you can… this child who we loved into being and has somehow fallen through a hole in the universe (or did we?) and ceased to be… because in that moment holding them you are still complete, the whole picture: the silent, broken, reverence of the Pietà… before you have to let them go.

You see these things, and know that they are holy.

We were, and are, and always will be Ivy’s parents since that night, but now we are evidence of a thing not seen… we are parents, and yet we cannot show you our child. But still, we are… since that “twinkling of an eye” March 2nd, we have been changed.

Ivy had a birth, and a death. That she did those two things in a more unique order than most changes none of the weight—the matter—of it. It was a whole life. One that is real for us, as she was and is and will be. It is touched by pain and loss, but by divine mystery and wonder as well. A life that breaks hearts but also rends them open. One that dwells in us and still says, “Love is stronger than death and fiercer than the grave.” We do not see her, hear her, hold her as we want to, but she is not gone from us, and is and will be a resurrection of our own love and life, somehow, in the fullness of all time… though we do not know how… We know it, and we cling to it as our family heals.

Postcard to Philippi

The U.S. Postal Service’s Plan to Win Over Millennials – CityLab

Never would I have thought that a weekly chunk of my ministry would be writing notes and letters by hand… but, as it turns out, the church that was founded by letters is still sustained by letters… and the next generation is as moved by our connection one to the other as the ones before. An artifact that says, “I cared enough to create this small testimony of our relationship” bears witness when we are unable to be the church in the same room with one another. Who knew? Who’s going to get stamps?

Legal Briefs

Psalm 119:86–87

The writer of Psalm 119, the longest of all 150, is my kind of religious person: faithful, but really wanting some faith. In various ways, the writer spirals around the basic premise that meditating on the law of God keeps us close to God, and will keep us close to safety and security.


Maybe it doesn’t?

Over and over again, the psalmist insists that God’s “statutes” are true, and that keeping close to them is the way of life. And the psalmist insists on just how close to death they may be.

Meditating on God’s law, if you take the Psalm to mean some form of studying scripture, feels good for me in so many ways. It connects me to my ancestors who have wrestled with the questions of what it means to be alive for a lot longer than I have. It takes me out of the time of my world, and places me in a timeless conversation the source of my being. It connects me with others looking to these same scriptures around the world this day.

None of it makes me better or safer or smarter.

In a time of complete loss, I remember holding my grandfather’s bible in my hand, and kneeling, and opening it, and reading it… wanting so much for it to give me life when I felt so dead. Mainly I still felt hollow when I closed it.

But later I started to read with others, and to talk about what we were reading, and wonder what on earth it could all mean, and what the heck the context was for all these writings so outside our world, and how we might live in echo and response, and wonder how so many people wanted to claim laws for God that made people less alive, more oppressed, less fully themselves… and… and… and

Reading the Bible never made me more likely to live longer1, or live better. It invited me to focus more on what I was living for: at first my friends reading with me, then a church, then a whole bunch more. It made me more likely to call out with the psalmist: “How long, O God?” Because things fall apart. It still happens. But I have friends with me, and ancestors, and Jesus—oh, God, do I have Jesus with me—in that cry and complaint, and wonder. And so, in the end I read… not because it will fix me, but because it will help me not to be alone in the unfixable, and that companionship of spirit may heal all our hearts.

  1. Though, prayer, meditation, or just going on walks and being bored all seem to have pretty good health benefits, so maybe let’s all give it a shot more?  ↩

St. Barnabas and the Imagination of the Saints

There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Acts 4:32-37

Today is known in some parts of the church as the feast day of St. Barnabas, who pretty much shows up in the story of the apostles to emphasize that real people sold away their stuff and gave it to the early church.

Money, it turns out, is a thing. Even in the very beginning the work of the early church needed support to care for its own members and care for others in the community who had been left out or shut out from opportunity, employment, and plenty. And rather than having a general sense that the gospel message inspired people to give of themselves to its work, we get a real flesh and blood Cypriot to show us.

A part of the Episcopal Café series, Fearless Fundraising, gets pretty intense about some of the challenges that church communities are looking towards, including a reduction in giving close to beyond 70% for their regular giving, faithful but short-sighted insistence on ministry expenses, and no plan to bridge the gap between the two.

J and I have to think about this a lot: one of us is in a professional degree., and the other is, well, a pastor. Things will get better in time, but money is probably a bit more of our weekly conversation than we would both prefer right now. At the same time, we’ve had a commitment to not reduce, but actually steadily increase our giving to church, school, social services, monastic community, etc. I know, hooray us. But hey, it feels like an accomplishment in the midst of hard work.

The reason why, at least for me, is imagination. I’m thankful for the funds that support me in my ministry, and allow me to both work and thrive, and for our family to have the things we need. At the end of a long day, I have done what I can to do the Church’s work in the world, and I am happy. I am also tired. I know that I can not imagine all the needs in the world, all the possibilities for service, all the gifts and skills waiting to be supported and shared. I do have faith that in the space between us there is that wisdom and imagination in God’s Spirit: living in this body of Christ (or community, or school, or service). So I take what I can and lay it at the feet of the saints and wait, and watch, and wonder at what will come to be.

General Synod of the UCC – Intro

I’m in Baltimore, MD this week for the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, the gathering of the national “setting” of our church which happens every two years. Hundreds of delegates and over a thousand others come to be together, worship, and do some of the work of church: making decisions, learning from one another, listening for where this wider expression of our church is going, and hopefully carrying some of that back to our home churches and settings. 

I’m here with the delegation from the Maine Conference, our regional body that I serve in as a leader, and I’m going to try and keep this space updated with some thoughts. 

 The Maine Delegation of the 31st General Synod of the United Church of Christ. It was colder when this picture was taken. No sweaters required in Baltimore in July.

The Maine Delegation of the 31st General Synod of the United Church of Christ. It was colder when this picture was taken. No sweaters required in Baltimore in July.

Decisions, Practice, and Fatigue

I just cannot recommend enough the most recent episode of John Dickerson’s presidential history podcast, Whistlestop“Recording from the Oval.”

Of course, this is nominally about the reality of what has been said, revealed, and decided inside the oval office and the parallels from today’s scandals to yesterday’s in the time of Nixon.

What the episode is really about—because it’s always grand to decide that for other people—is how presidents and their staff create a system or culture that nurtures the most important resource a president must jealously guard: decision making…or how, sometimes… they don’t. 

Some central points that arise:

  1. Decision fatigue is real. President Obama famously kept it to gray or blue suits to try and focus his decision making energies entirely within his office and the issues that arise there. I tell you what, every Sunday morning I am thankful for a uniform. I’m trying to be present to 300 people and say something meaningful to them that won’t be entirely complete until it has been said… I am glad for traditions that get me off the hook in terms of what I’m going to wear or eat.
  2. Systems and structures are important because they can reduce this fatigue and focus decision-making. If an issue doesn’t rise to the level of the oval, it should be handled before it gets there. If it does, there should be structures in place that frame the decision and vet the possible implications so that those making the decision have the full picture present before them. (For churches this is often the big challenge: we are not well practiced in asking who should decide particular items, or what they need to know to make the decision well.)
  3. Finally, this one I’m going to add: connection to a central narrative or, in corporate-speak “culture.” 

Grounding yourself in a narrative is a massive boon to leadership because it connects us with a whole host of decisions that may have already been made (or need a revisit!), but also it frames even novel challenges in a character and direction. For church folk, we may encounter all sorts of new situations the early church couldn’t imagine, yet we work hard to find in our practice of discernment the central character of Jesus to guide us: i.e. if you find Jesus cared very little about the purity culture of his time and more about full inclusion and justice for the poor… based on that, how shall we live?

For clergy, (and I hope lay-leaders, too!) this is somewhat built into the gig: ideally, we’re spending a pretty large chunk of our time with our hands wedged in the pages of our communal stories (scripture, tradition, congregation, or otherwise) as church and a people. This sometimes bears reminding so we don’t forget that our leadership falls in that great “generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus.”

For presidents, Dickerson clearly shows, a challenge is in thinking that you are *the fix*, the one person who can solve the unsolvable complexity of the office and the nation that others have not… to complete this thought, you have to cast out much of the narrative that has come before you. Some of what we are living with in our current time is a political class that has rejected any narrative of what their offices, roles, and even our nation have been… In the absence of that narrative, we sometimes see novel approaches, but not often well thought out—well decided—ones.



The thing that keeps sticking with me as I think about my work is the bizarre tension of my job around activity and reflection, motion and rest.

At one level, I’m a leader of an institution. The church is (both/and) an organization of its own / a collection of individuals that claim an identity partly around specific tasks, goals, actions. As a leader within the church… part of my job is to help try, do, accomplish various strategies and tasks of our life together. Doing isn’t bad, in and of itself.

At another level altogether, I am a leader called to invite individuals and groups into reflection, rest, and renewal. This seems like the harder part of the work now for most of the world and the church. We’re like all those other community organizations: strapped for cash, struggling to justify our existence to the largely apathetic culture around us. And so we doLots. 

I find most people in my life, both church and not, ordained and not… are exhausted. I’m getting troubled by watching the vast majority of clergy model behavior for the people they work with that mirrors this. We look run ragged. We are (no joke) one of–if not the–sickest professions running. We connect our self-worth with the success of programs, we run insane schedules. We do, often frantically, while so often failing to be still… just as we throw up our hands at our people’s rejection yet again of our invitation to stillness, reflection, prayer, quietness of mind and spirit. We insist at constant growth and inspiration in our own programs, while wondering why our communities have become terrified of experimentation and failure. Are we really surprised?

I try a lot more these days to think about how I will model a life that invites people into more balance. Because we’re all tired. And I want to work for the one who promises to give us rest.

So, sometimes I might just talk about good things in life that help me do that. Sometimes I might talk about tech that helps me do that. Mainly, I’ll just take time and write some. Because I need some balance, too.

The Letting Go – Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Moth)

The Letting Go – Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Moth)

Great conversation starter about how we have changed our practices around death, and what that might mean for us. My theology is very directly opposed to death (as opposed to the sentiment that is often expressed that “death is just another beautiful part of life”), but that doesn’t mean I advocate hiding it from our sight. Rather, acknowledging, seeing, and naming death is important… so that we know why we seek an end to the suffering and pain of loss in that way.

On the phone map-pocalypse.

So. I drive around a lot. I use GPS to get there. I’m an active pastor involved at all the levels of church in a state that is way bigger than it looks on Ye Olde Mercator Projection. I drive to random new locations often. I’ve been listening to my phone tell me where to go for years now. (My friends know her soothing voice as “Natasha.”)

And then new maps appeared on my phone of choice, and everyone lost their minds. I don’t need to link you; you’ve seen the New York Times before. You can get there. 

Let’s just say this: I’m unmoved by the furious uproar of people who have access to technology that let’s them talk into a tiny box and magically get directions read to them as they drive who have suddenly discovered that said technology occasionally places their favorite pizza place across the street. (Yes, I know, there are more glaring errors than that in Apple’s map data. There are more glaring errors than that in Google’s data as well. As people who have been getting electronic help getting to places all over the country for years can tell you, its a process to develop a trusted system. There’s no silver bullet, you double check to make sure you’re headed in the right directions… and then occasionally… gasp! You get lost. Remember getting lost? Remember how weird, and yet reassuring, it was when a stranger helped you get where you needed to go?)

But today I just appreciate the simple beauty of some of these things: Normally, when I get directions from my phone, it displays a route and gives me information about it, and it’s up to me to press a button to begin turn by turn navigation. Today I noticed that when I used my handy, safe, hands-free device to ask for directions, my phone sensed that it was in motion and just immediately started rolling along with me. It’s a tiny touch. Tiny. But it’s one second multiplied by thousands of users that drivers won’t be distracted. Won’t be hunting for a small button in a moving vehicle. And that’s a lot of seconds that drivers will be focused on doing what they should.

We’ll figure out where to drop the pin for your pizza place soon. But technology is getting better, and smarter, and safer. And that’s what I enjoyed today.