A Story of Sara

So, in preparation for a writer’s retreat this fall, I’m working through “One Day I Wrote Back: Interacting with Scripture through Creative Writing” by Jane Herring. Today I worked on interacting with the story from 2 King 5:1-16 and was invited to retell the scripture from the perspective of the nameless Hebrew slave. I rewrote it in a modern context from my own experience as a grocery store cashier after college who was struggling with debt. I borrowed a few details about practices like using fake names from colleagues who dealt with a lot of sexual harassment from customers while earning minimum wage. I hope you enjoy and remember: creative writing occasionally takes liberties with the source material! Special credit to “Dave” from Trinity Church, Grand Island, who always gave me extra strong coffee when I’d show up 2 hours early for church! What a saint!


I work the weekend swing-shift at the grocery store. A few years back everything was going well until my car broke down on a cold winter’s day. Now I bag groceries, deal with drunk customers, and clean off registers while the day shift sleeps.

My name is Sara, although I wear a nametag with a different name to keep the customers at a distance. If they see me on a different day, I will know who they are if they call out for “Jackie.” I learned my lesson early after one of the Saturday night customers walked up to me on a Tuesday to try and sweet talk me as I tried to eat my lunch in peace. It is bad enough having people stare at my body while I work. I don’t need more of it on my own time.

Sometimes, my job makes me want to scream, especially when the bills come in. I pay minimum balances but the paycheck doesn’t stretch. I’ll never save up enough to get out of here. I’m drowning in debt, cannot afford a car, and will probably live my whole life in walking distance of the store where I spend my evenings and nights. It sucks.

Sunday mornings are the worst. I go to church after my shift and drink enough free coffee to get me through until the service begins. I do my best to stay alert and attentive, but it is very hard when the warm air from the heater hits me after the seemingly endless days of going to bed at sunrise and waking up after twilight. It’d be different if I weren’t swinging my sleep schedule back and forth, but it is hard when the church is full of safe people that remind me of home, the air is warm, and the music is peaceful. Thankfully, I sit by the couple who have grandkids that work retail. They wake me gently with a smile before the offering if I fall asleep. It is hard to sleep with an usher handing you a plate, you know?

So, yeah, I still go to church. I try my best to live out my faith, but it is not exactly easy. So many people come in hammered on Saturday nights. They act as if they are having a great time, and here I am working to just cover the bills for minimum wage. It sometimes feels like I’m the biggest sucker around, but I believe. My faith is at the core of me.

My manager and I talk about it sometimes. She can be nice when things are going well. On quiet nights we sometimes talk for a few minutes after she comes and buys something for her break. Her husband is sick. I feel like she talks to me because she just needs to talk.

It isn’t surprising she talks to me. I’m often alone on the front end as she manages the stocking of the shelves. It can be hours between when we see each other and I’m the person who smiles and does her work quietly because the alternative is… just standing here staring at the clock…

There are nights I am done by 2:00 AM despite my best efforts and those are the worst. Talking with anyone on a slow night is a treat. When anyone interrupts me on those nights, I am happy to see them. I don’t need cajoling to work, smile when she comes up, and I’m not surprised she doesn’t mind talking with me. I’m her easy “no-drama” employee who clocks in on time.

I guess her husband is pretty sick. It has to be rough. All of those medical bills, all of those appointments, and absolutely nothing to show for it. She’s so weighed down by it that it is just painful to see at times.

Back in my hometown, we had this service once a month where people would go to pray for their illnesses and lives. I have been looking for something like that near here, but there was something different about that service back home. It was a holy space: the way the community gathered and prayed together. Even the air felt different in that sacred space of prayer. I only went once for myself. I was heartbroken and didn’t know what to do. When the minister and the church prayed over me, it lifted my soul. I still think about that feeling of peace as their hands hovered over me. The air sparkled with care and… the only way I can describe it is grace. It was a merciful, blessed, holy space.

Perhaps I will tell my manager about the service this weekend. There’s another one coming up pretty soon: last Sunday of every month as it has been forever. Maybe her husband will want to make a trip of it. I’d go with them, but I work Sunday nights. I’ll still be sleeping during the service, hopefully thinking of anything but straightening magazines and finding warm meat stuck behind candy because someone couldn’t be bothered to give it to their cashier.

Poem for a rough day

All people have rough days. Ministers are no exception. Today has been a difficult morning for me. I have wept, I have prayed, and I have reached out to friends. One friend recommended I read two psalms, so I did the natural thing: I turned to a completely different psalm. I am, if nothing else, predictable.

I spent time in Psalm 127 trying to get my head back on straight. The following poem is inspired by the first two verses. It is a rondelet, which is my favorite syllabic poetry form outside of the various forms of Japanese Haikai.

Find rest with God.
Anxious thoughts do not give life birth.
Find rest with God.
There will come no bread from poor sod:
Unless the Creator brings forth
There will come nothing of true worth.
Find rest with God.

“Find rest with God” Rondelet (inspired by Psalm 127:1-2) by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

Humility and Forgiveness

For the season of Lent we have been focusing on two scriptures each Sunday at the Maine Federated Church. The second scripture is the scripture that primarily informs our message and liturgy. The first scripture we read is read after our prayer of confession. For the last two Sundays we have focused on passages out of Epistles.

This Sunday we are drawing on Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:11-17. In the New Revised Standard Version that teaching is described as a parable by the text. I honestly see it more in the realm of practical teaching.

When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11-17, NRSV

The basics of this passage are pretty apparent. Do not fight over places of honor, but instead sit in places marked by humility. For some reason, this passage always reminds of Thanksgiving as a young man at my aunt and uncle’s house. If you’re invited to a meal, offer to sit at the kids’ table if there are not enough seats at the “adult” table. As an adult I have come to realize that sometimes there is more fun at the kids’ table anyway.

If this is practical advice why connect it with the prayer of confession? Here’s my rationale. Jesus is trying to teach the guests at this meal a lesson about humility, but the issue is not actually where they are sitting. They are jockeying for positions because they believe they are more important than other people at the table.

When we come for forgiveness to God, we are invited to come with hope, confidence, and faith; however, we do not come with the assumption that we deserve forgiveness more than our neighbor. We are called to a place of honest humility. If we come with repentant hearts, the response is always “Friend, move up higher.” If we come with a sense of arrogance or superiority, then we have perhaps missed the point of this teaching.

Another piece of early Christian writing called “The Didache” says this in part 1.3: “Do not parade your own merits, or allow yourself to behave presumptuously, and do not make a point of associating with persons of eminence, but choose the companionship of honest and humble folk.” If we are indeed called like the early church to cultivate the companionship of the honest and humble, then it would seem that humility and honesty are traits we should seek to emulate with our lives. Perhaps there is no better time to practice these traits than when we come before God seeking forgiveness.

My Jesus…

Two weeks ago I had the privilege to learn from Professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi from Baylor University at the recent session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Learning from Professor Cardoza-Orlandi was a challenging experience. We were challenged on multiple levels about our understanding of Christianity in the global south. The lesson was very timely the week before General Conference.

One lesson has rung through my mind the last few days. The good professor taught us that the world’s Christians do not have the same privilege that I had in my community as a child. When you’re not the dominant religion in an area, some assumptions of both the world around you and your own traditions can shift. I keep hearing the question “Who is your Jesus?” It has been running through my mind.

I want to be clear. I appreciate the Professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi enough to note that his opinions are not my opinion. I also want to be clear that my opinions do not need to be shared by everyone else in the body of Christ and this is alright with me. There’s enough room in the Kin-dom of God for there to be diversity.

So, who is my Jesus? My Jesus is radically loving, radically inclusive, and adept at turning the world upside down without people realizing what has happened.

My grammar checker had an issue with the phrase: “My Jesus is radically loving, radically inclusive, and adept at turning the world upside down without people realizing what has happened.” I find this to be semi-hilarious.

My Jesus is the Jesus whom Paul comes to know and eventually says “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).

My Jesus is the Jesus who throws the door open to a larger kin-dom (kindom) than imagined. My Jesus used the Apostles to share the gospel beyond traditional bounds. In Acts 8:26–40 the family is stretched to include a eunuch, which lest we forget is absolutely forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:1. Why shouldn’t you be baptized, Eunuch of Ethiopia? Well, because: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” I guess that rule did not apply anymore.

My Jesus reached out to Romans and other Gentiles through Peter who is unequivocally told in Acts 10: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” My Jesus was there in the Holy Conferencing that took place in Acts 15:6-29 which opened the doors further. By the way, the Holy Spirit continued to pour itself out on those who engaged in fornication, hence we still have children’s moments where children born of believers come to be blessed. Thankfully, the United Methodist Church has not attempted to remove folks who are married and have children from leadership like several other major Christian denominations.

What’s more and what keeps ringing through my head is the story of the woman accused of adultery. In John 8:1-11 we read the story of a woman who is accused of an extramarital affair. Jesus tells her accusers that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.

Nobody stones her. Nobody there is apparently without sin. Jesus says “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” Now, first of all, yes Jesus says do not sin again. To be entirely fair, she is very fortunate Jesus is there to offer this moment of protective grace. I may prevent a child from being beaten up in a parking lot on an afternoon, but if the child keeps walking through the parking lot when I am not there… There is more than one way of looking at that second sentence.

What is amazing is that in all the readings of this scripture, one thing was never pointed out to me. Jesus says “I do not condemn you.” Who is the one who has the ability to condemn sins? Who has the authority to forgive sins? If it is Christ, Jesus’ words “I do not condemn you” hold divine authority. She is forgiven.

What’s further, in a crowd full of people who have sin (including the woman accused of adultery), it is this woman alone who leaves forgiven of her sins. Hebrews 10:4 says “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The folks may leave to go and make an offering for their own sinful behavior, but it is Christ alone who forgives.

Now, I cannot say that God’s love does not extend to these folks. Judgment is God’s alone, but I can say that in this moment there is only one person in the crowd we can claim is absolutely forgiven by Christ’s own words. The woman accused of adultery is the only one explicitly told “I do not condemn you…” We can even go further to point out Jesus did not stop the crowd from leaving by saying “Wait! Hold on! God understands and your sins will be forgiven. Throw those stones!”

My Jesus is the Jesus who forgives. My Jesus is the one through whom I baptize children into the Kindom of God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My Jesus is the one who accepts those children even before they grow up into whatever person they may become in their adult days.

My Jesus is the Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors. My Jesus hangs out at Alcoholics Anonymous and in rehab centers. My Jesus sits with the homeless in the cold. My Jesus does a ton of caring through the children of the Kindom who bring food for community suppers, supply food pantries, donate towards medical supplies, walk alongside LGBTQIA+ folks as they struggle with depression and expulsion, cry with those imprisoned falsely in jails, mourn with those who are imprisoned fairly, and do every sort of thing they can in order to be with God’s children. Yes, all children are God’s children.

My Jesus is a pretty awesome Jesus. My Jesus is the reason I did not give up my faith after I grew up into adulthood. Some behavior that I have seen recently does not square up with that Jesus, but I need to be clear: My Jesus is worth following down the narrow path of life. I most certainly will follow that Jesus and will not be one of those who trample “under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?… It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:29-31, NASB)

For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,

“Sacrifice and offering You have not desired,
But a body You have prepared for Me;
In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure.
“Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come
(In the scroll of the book it is written of Me)
To do Your will, O God.’”

After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,

“This is the covenant that I will make with them
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws upon their heart,
And on their mind I will write them,”

He then says,

“And their sins and their lawless deeds
I will remember no more.”

Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews 10:4-31, NASB

Alouette Ode to Psalm 150

Praise God with loud drum.
Praise God with low hum.
Praise God with rocking guitars.
Praise God with your voice.
Praise God with your choice.
Praise God beneath all the stars.

Breathe deep as you strum.
Breathe and let soul thrum.
Breathe deep and cry with your heart.
Breathe with open mind.
Breathe deep and be kind.
Breathe, rise, and make a fresh start.

“Alouette Ode to Psalm 150” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Today’s poem was inspired by Psalm 150. We’ll be reading the psalm this Sunday in church. I wrote it in the “Alouette” poetry form. I tied together the two stanzas by rhyming the first two lines in each stanza.

My process was to envision the first stanza as a response to God’s Presence (which echoes powerfully in Psalm 150) and the second stanza as the body breathing in preparation of living with that Presence in the world.