Formations 12.9.2018: From the Wasteland

For this second Sunday of Advent, I’ll admit that part of my preference for this season is religious cover for my Scrooge-like demeanor. It persists most of the year, but November and December throw it into particular relief. Needless to say, this year I’ve surprised myself and have willfully listened to Christmas music before Thanksgiving.

Formations 11.25.2018: You are Witnesses

So far, Ruth and Naomi and Boaz and their commitments to family have anchored this story. This week we remember that their stories, like all of ours, take place within a community. This last chapter expands the scope of that community.

Formations 11.11.2018: Kindness

This week we’ll ask how we can practice kindness. We will do so when unkindness seems inescapable, even to those who can escape it most of the time. We’ve seen in the past week eleven worshipers murdered in a synagogue. We’ve heard political leaders call migrants fleeing violence invaders and enemies ridden with disease.

Formations 10.28.2018: Reward

When Jesus tells a story about masters and slaves, we hope that its promises about God’s kingdom will add up within us. But I’ve noticed more conflict than promise in this story. There is the punishment faced by the last slave.

Formations 10.14.2018: Seeing God’s Favor

I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard the stories. On some days in the summer, rising tides and east-facing winds push poorly oxygenated water toward the eastern edge of Mobile Bay. With it come the crab and flounder, and the shallow waters are overrun with all manner of food.

Formations 09.30.2018: Rust Will Be Evidence

The cut in Red Mountain, finished for the expressway in 1971, might tell Birmingham’s stories between layers where rusted hematite meets our vision. My mom drove me through this cut many times, between downtown and the suburbs I grew up in, to visit my dad at his office or to pick up my sister from dance classes.

Formations 09.16.2018: Words of Wisdom

My grandmother Joan taught me, as she did with all of her grandchildren, to pay attention to language. She had been an elementary-school teacher, so she taught us with sharp, repeated, and mostly frustrating questions.

Formations 09.02.2018: To the Twelve Tribes in the Dispersion

In the past week, my fiancée and I have spent more time than normal going through addresses. We’ve separated city, state, and zip codes from street addresses. When we saw unit numbers, we moved them to another column on the spreadsheet.

Formations 08.19.2018: The Days Drew Near

The stroke is rehearsed and memorized on a four-count cycle. So it is that Norman Maclean notes the metronome’s preeminent place in learning to cast a fly rod. Downbeats and backbeats directed him.

Formations 08.05.2018: Our Daily Bread

Studs Terkel, in the early seventies, interviewed a number of workers ranging from farmworkers to baseball players, proofreaders to gravediggers, actors to hair stylists. From these laborers, Terkel observed a twofold purpose in human labor. “It is,” he says, “about a search… for daily meaning as well as daily bread.”

Formations 07.22.2018: Inheriting Fruits

When Israel comes into the land, they are to tell the stories of ancestors who went down to Egypt. There, their ancestors became great, and then they were enslaved. And they will remember God, who heard their cries and led them through the wilderness into a land where they would learn freedom.

Formations 07.08.2018: Eating in Worship

When the Bible says, “Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places,” what do you do (v. 3)?

Formations 06.24.2018: Finding Guidance Together

When the scroll shows up in the temple’s renovation, it is taken to the prophet Huldah. And she offers a vision of what it means for Judah and its king, Josiah. She also addresses a question that has risen again and again: how are words and work related to each other, to God, and to humanity?

Formations 06.10.2018: Disruption on the Road

In front of the National Civil Rights Museum, on the corner of Mulberry and Butler in Memphis, Jacqueline Smith has stood for over thirty years. From this corner, the former tenant and employee of the Lorraine Hotel has called people to boycott the museum.

Formations 05.27.2018: Live by the Spirit

Unlike many friends and most of my family, I don’t consider myself a news junkie. Mostly, I limit my news intake to one podcast each morning. I trust it to tell me what I need to know…

Formations 05.20.2018: The Common Spirit

A few weeks back, driving home from work, the truck in front of me kicked up rainbows from the leftover rainwater. I’d seen rainbows cast by sprinklers over St. Augustine but never by tires against asphalt. Then we crossed the first hill, my angle of view changed, and the rainbows disappeared.

Formations 04.29.2018: The Traveled Gospel

The other night I washed dishes while listening to a Tift Merritt concert. After the silverware but before the plates, I dried my hands to check the YouTube description. It included the standard information—record label, band members, and producer.

Formations 04.15.2018: Acts of Encouragement

The most triumphant moment of the musical Dear Evan Hansen might come after Evan starts a club to remember Connor Murphy, a classmate who had recently killed himself. In the Connor Project’s first assembly, Evan imagines a community of encouragement.

Formations 04.01.2018: Signs and Wonders

The sign told the Vestavia Hills Lutheran Church, “you are now entering the mission field.” And so it proclaimed that the nations began in my neighborhood at the top of the mountain where Shades Crest Road crossed US-31. Four blocks from the house I grew up in, that sign bent from use was posted cattycorner to the whitewashed-concrete replica of Sybil Temple.

Formations 03.18.2018: An Inheritance of Eternal Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about inheritance lately, particularly the people who remain to sort through what’s left behind. And it seems that while this work permits us to remember joy and laughter and tenderness, it requires us to acknowledge that some things, including life and its relationships, get broken.

Formations 03.04.2018: Jesus Shows Compassion

My granddad died well before I was born. What I have of him has been given secondhand—ties and desk ornaments, pictures and stories. Among the easily believed and even the photographed, some stories are harder to accept. One of these is a healing story.

Formations 02.18.2018: Run the Race

For the writer of Hebrews, rest best describes the promise given to Abraham and subsequent generations. So the vision for Israelite society in the promised land rested in sabbath. Likewise, Christian communities would be guided by a commitment to rest. But this writer also understood that the promise did not come into fullness immediately.

Formations 02.04.2018: Living in Tensions

It’s not uncommon that I steal books from my grandfather’s coffee table. He goes ahead and tells me to take what I want, so it isn’t really stealing. Over the years, he has made sure to send me home with books that have been meaningful for him.

Formations 01.21.2018: Unexpected News

Our story this week begins as one ends. Naaman, mighty warrior that he was, filled his house with wealth and servants taken from raids in Israel. And yet, despite this resolved story of victory, success, and stability, he still suffered from leprosy.

Formations 01.07.2018: The Suffering Servant

Lately I’ve been reading about Bartolomé de las Casas. A sixteenth-century Dominican friar, Las Casas is best remembered for his protests against the dominant forms of Spanish colonial and evangelical activity—the wars of the conquest and the encomienda system.

Formations 12.24.2017: A Song of Joy and Sorrow

Because I live a few blocks from a hospital, ambulance sirens, and the occasional helicopter, form one pitch in that harmony of creation I hear. For what they signal—coming help and immediate danger—these sounds are above all interruptions demanding drivers to make way.

Formations 12.10.2017: Improvising on a Common Theme

The first standard I ever learned was the Sonny Rollins composition “Oleo.” As a drummer, this didn’t require much more than learning to sing the melody. But my friends, who played trombone and guitar, really had to know it. To solo, they had to understand how every note fit, or didn’t fit, into each chord.

Formations 11.26.2017: Innocence, Guilt, and Technicalities

The first time I heard Les Misérables, I was fifteen or sixteen. My mother had picked me up from school. Somewhere between learning it was her favorite musical and the grocery store, I asked her what it was all about. She began with the bishop.

Formations 11.12.2017: What We Stand For

Alexander Hamilton, at least as played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, asks Aaron Burr early in their relationship, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” This tension between principle and calculated ambition defines Hamilton and Burr’s relationship through the remainder of Hamilton.

Formations 10.29.2017: Call and Response

It’s a simple record with only voices and a few percussion instruments that begins when Jenkins gives the group of children accompanying her these instructions: Many of you, I’m sure, have played the game follow the leader. Well, you can play the same kind of game in song and sound. Here’s how we play it.

Formations 10.15.2017: No Longer

In 2015, John Legend and Common’s song “Glory,” written for the movie Selma, won an Oscar for the best original song. That same year, I worked for Passport camps, an ecumenical youth camp, and every night this was one of many songs that helped us to prepare for worship. As I read this week’s passage and tried to start making sense of Paul’s vision of belonging and freedom in Christ, this song returned to me.

Formations 10.01.2017: Freedom Resisted

As Paul introduces his letter to the Galatians, he speaks of “another gospel” preached in their community. It is, he says, “not really another gospel” but an attempt “to change the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). Paul quickly and assuredly rejects this other gospel so as to preserve the one that “delivered us [set us free,” NRSV] from this present evil age” (v. 4).

Formations 09.17.2017: Sowing and Reaping

Responding to an agricultural crisis, Paul uses an agricultural image to show how the Corinthians might respond to the famine in Jerusalem. He says those who sow little will reap little while those who sow generously will reap generously (v. 6).

Formations 09.03.2017: To Share the World

In Judson Mitcham’s Oblique Lexicon, the entry, “Gift,” begins with a globe given to two brothers who never asked for it. For most of the entry, Mitcham describes one brother laying on his bed and tossing the globe up and down, hoping that a mountain chain might kiss the ceiling.

Formations 08.20.2017: Return Blessing for Evil

I have my parents’ bibles from when they were children, and they are more or less what you would expect—King James, leather bound, once gilded, and marked with standard features of childhood bibles. A blue sticker in the front flap of my mother’s bible shows Jesus’ name written in green block letters and arranged as a fish.

Formations 08.06.2017: An Eternal Perspective

Josh Ritter began The Animal Years by singing these words: “Peter said to Paul, ‘you know all those words we wrote are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go.’” Ritter weaves a story together about these two characters, and in it, Peter, or at least this Peter, struggles to hold to the his proclamations of faith.

Formations 07.23.2017: Looking at the Valley

In November 2015, at the Old Salem Cemetery near Uvalda, Georgia, Emory students uncovered a grave that had been lost for nearly 67 years. These students were in Montgomery County as part of Emory University’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project. This project seeks to use journalistic and historical methods to investigate and understand either unpunished or unsolved murders that were racially motivated.

Formations 07.09.2017: Ezekiel’s Silence

John Cage’s three movement composition “4’ 33”” begins the moment the pianist sits down and closes the lid. After three sections, each one adding up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the performance is over. No notes are played, but to say that no music is up to debate.

Formations 06.25.2017: A Little Child Will Lead

Margaret Wise Brown transformed children’s literature by bringing new educational theories from the Bank Street School into her stories. She held that children, unlike adults whose understanding of the world made it uninteresting, experienced the world as strange and mysterious.

Formations 06.11.2017: A Crack in the Road

On the record Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, Patterson Hood tells a story about a man driving the Savannah Highway in North Alabama. Above an environment built with an acoustic guitar droning over two chords, a drum set playing everybody’s first rock and roll groove, a pedal steel whining, and a few voices falling and rising over one syllable, Hood speaks plainly about the road.

Formations 05.28.2017: The Lord’s Will Be Done

About poems, the poet Richard Hugo says there are two subjects—the triggering and the real. The triggering subject compels the poet to write, but poets must uncover the real subject as they write. Though the triggering subject is necessary for creation, Hugo recognizes that writers’ perceived responsibility to it may stop a poem before it even starts.

Formations 05.14.2017: Philip’s Samaritan Ministry

This week’s text begins when Philip, scattered from Jerusalem with most of the other followers, goes down into Samaria. Immediately he starts preaching and healing. There’s great rejoicing and unity. Even Simon, who had been practicing magic and confusing the citizens, believed Philip and was baptized.

Formations 04.30.2017: Casting Anyway

The boat is empty and Jesus, though resurrected, is gone. I expect the absence, of both Jesus and fish, was new for the disciples. I would be surprised if they didn’t go into the night expecting to catch fish, dreaming about their haul. Though they might acknowledge the luck involved, it’s their job to outmaneuver chance and fill their nets.

Formations 04.16.2017: In Graves and Gardens

As I’ve been asking who needs to hear my story of Easter joy, I’ve come up against another question—what story of Easter joy do I need to hear? And what I hear reminds me of a ghost story I first heard as a seventh grader.

Formations 04.02.2017: Smells and Resurrection

How much is the experience of Lazarus’s death present in his resuscitated life? How does acknowledging his death change her memories of his life? What would Lazarus’s death mean for the life he returned to just after?

Formations 03.19.2017: Light and Dark

I have a friend who cites learning to use the conjunction and more than or as the high point of his education. Conjunctions reflect the way we make sense of information. They allow us to show cause, to distinguish, to divide, to connect.

Formations 03.05.2017: Taking Off Our Masks

It’s that time of year when cheap plastic purple and green and gold masks are sold at the front of party stores. This means that it’s almost that time of year when we follow Jesus and those early Israelites before him out into the wilderness. Jesus goes out there, whether he knows it or not, to be tempted by the devil (4:1).

Formations 02.19.2017: Tension and Resolution

In the first few months of my freshman year, the university orchestra played a concert at the opera house downtown. I went and somewhere between Brazilian samba, Argentinian tango, and Aaron Copeland, they played Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”