Author Archives: Johnna

About Johnna

I am a Christian educator and writer.I have worked in churches, denominational offices, and seminaries. I have a PhD in Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, with a focus on Practical Theology and educating in faith. In 2010, my book, "How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses and partners," was published by Pilgrim Press. I believe that words can build doorways that lead to encounters with God through the Spirit.

What Do You See?

They were nineteen years old when I threw them away. I bought them before Jared was born, when Dave and I lived in New Hope with our toddler son, Colin. You can’t see it, but the soles are split, the laces are frayed (this is the second set of them), and the stitching has given out on the heels. They are permanently bent, as if my feet were still in them, lifting up to take my next step. I took the picture to remind me of how much care and talent went into their creation, and of how they carried me in comfort over countless miles.

Images evoke feelings and memories. The same image can mean different things to different people – over time, they can also mean different things for the same person. For these summer days, I’ll share some images that speak to me – like the boots above. I’ll also post a second picture – one at the end of the post. Without words for a few days, then with a story.

If you are so inclined, tell me what you see. A second set of eyes can bring a new perspective…

Next Image: What Do You See?

 

 

The Words of My Mouth

July 16, 2021

Twenty years ago today, just after eight in the morning, Jared Embrey Fredrickson arrived. For these twenty years, I’ve watched him grow from an infant to toddler, elementary student to high school graduate. That first day, I didn’t know what his favorite color would be, what would make him laugh or cry, or where he would find God’s presence in his life. What I did know: the words I would say and the words I would leave unsaid would matter to him. Tone of voice and eye contact would make a difference; whether I was talking to him or at him mattered.

Words matter, and the heart behind the words matters even more. There are a few prayers that I say because of this truth.

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.

Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray thou thyself in me.

And most important:

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Psalm 19:14

Marc Cohn, The Things We’ve Handed DownThe Best of Marc Cohn

Proud Thoughts

Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.

Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Psalm 19:13, NRSV

Keep back your servant also from proud thoughts – the alternate translation of that first part of the verse. This isn’t a prayer for God to keep me away from the insolence of others: it’s a prayer to God that I don’t become insolent. But, as like attracts like, if I hang with an insolent crowd I’m probably guilty of the same vice.

Proud thoughts (the ones that make me see myself as comparatively better than others) aren’t the same thing as self-confidence or self-love. Proud thoughts are those internal conversations that demean others so that I can feel inherently superior. They shrink my soul even as I diminish the worth of others. There is no doubt: this is a great transgression. Evil comes easily from such thoughts.

The Buddhists list right thought as one of the chief elements in a holy life. This is having the right perspective more than it is the lack of thinking mean thoughts. Their point is that everything else springs from this basic starting point. Wrong thoughts cannot lead to right judgement, speech, or action – harm will come from the wrong perspective, damaging others or damaging self, and often both.

Perhaps there’s no better way to avoid proud thoughts than asking for God’s help. Knowing I cannot rely on my own strength of character, and knowing I can rely on God’s love, is a good starting point.

 photo by Donna Eby

How Will We Find Our Way?

Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. 

But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Psalm 19: 11-12. NRSV

There’s more: God’s word warns us of danger and directs us to a hidden treasure.

Otherwise, how will we find our way? Or know when we play the fool? 

Clean the slate, God, so we can start the day fresh! Psalm 19: 11-12, The Message

[For the whole psalm, click Psalm 19 above.]

A couple of years back, just past midnight, street work closed my usual route to Logan airport. The detour signs put me on an unfamiliar road, then left me stranded in the middle of a bunch of warehouses. GPS was no help: it kept directing me back to the closed street and refused to guide me to another route.

I couldn’t see any familiar streets or landmarks, so I picked a street and drove. After a couple of attempts, I came upon a familiar place and was able to make my way through Boston and arrive at Logan from the North. My knowledge of Boston streets was just enough to get me to my destination.

At times, my spiritual life feels like that drive. My usual routine can’t get me where I need to go, and I end up in a dark and unfamiliar place. It’s during those times that I need to find a familiar intersection, somewhere that reveals where I am. Once I find that, I can reorient and find an alternate road. It may take some time, but I’ll find my way.

That night in Boston, the familiar place was South Station.

When my soul is lost, that familiar place is God’s word: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind – and love your neighbor as yourself.

 Art by Margaret Hill

Deeds of Justice

The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

More desired are they than gold, even fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Psalm 19: 9-10, NRSV

Ps 19:7-10 – This is often viewed as the start of a separate psalm, due to the focus on law.But Torah connotes God’s “instruction” or will, which involves justice and righteousness on a cosmic scale; so “law” and creation belong together. The concept of justice is explicitly present in v. 9, where ordinances is more literally, “justices” or “deeds of justice.”

[the Discipleship Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version including Apocrypha; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p.752, footnote]

The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the Lord’s deeds of justice are true and righteous altogether; 

More desired are they that gold, even fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Change that one small word and the whole thing has a different feel for it. This isn’t about ordinances, things that insure my property lines are honored and I get everything that I’m owed. This isn’t about dancing on the right side of the legal/illegal line, making sure I take whatever I can out of any situation. This is about justice, doing what is right by my neighbor and fostering whatever is holy and life-giving. This is how I walk through this world and my life doing good rather than harm.

Such a life is worth more than gold, isn’t it? Such a life is la dolce vita, isn’t it?

Such a life is worth lifting my voice to God in song/psalm. And dancing a happy dance, too.

In Memoriam: Tom Nordquist

 Christmas Greetings from the Nordquists

 

Tom sent a work of art every year – a Christmas card. Always beautiful, with a wonderful sense of proportion – the kind of art that the heart and soul appreciate as much as the eye.

 Angels on High

These images graced our living room for the holidays, and now keep my place in the Bible and Book of Common Prayer. I see them every day, and every day I am grateful for the beauty they bring.

That would have been enough, the gift of beauty. But Tom also brought other gifts: a wonderful, quiet sense of humor; music to fill the worship space; and art in many forms to gladden the hearts of all who sat in the sanctuary of Christ Church.

This past year, Tom’s generosity brought joy in a holiday overshadowed by Covid-19. He let me send his Three Kings to the parish and beyond as an Advent Sunday school activity – the magi on a journey to unknown places, bringing gifts of beauty and hope.

Tom didn’t have to be generous, but he was. Tom didn’t have to gladden the hearts of others with his talents, but he did. The world is better for Tom’s presence, and I am better for spending time in his presence.

 Three Kings by Tom Nordquist

Blessings and Peace, and Grateful Thanks for you, Tom.

It’s Not Just About Me

…the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;

the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;

[Psalm 19:9-10a, NRSV. For the complete psalm, click psalm 19 above.]

 

English doesn’t quite get the point across. This isn’t fear in the sense of afraid-for-my-life/scared-to-death; this fear of the Lord is the quickening of the pulse, the scared-to-life sense when holiness shows up. This isn’t fear that harm will come, but keen awareness of the difference between creature and Creator.

This awareness of my own limitations, this encounter with the love that created all that is, this is what I should desire more than gold. My finitude in the presence of the loving Infinite doesn’t diminish me: it just gives me the slightest glimpse of God’s sacred love of everyone and everything else.

It’s a wonderful and humbling gift of truth: I am God’s beloved, and I walk a world full of other beloveds.

 

Big Picture, Human Law

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

[Psalm 19:6-9, NRSV. For the complete psalm, click psalm 19 above.]

What revives your soul and makes your heart rejoice? What makes the simple wise and enlightens the eyes? My off-the-cuff answers:

Beautiful images revive my soul.

The moon path on the water makes my heart rejoice.

A compassionate heart makes the simple wise, and meeting a beloved enlightens the eyes.

I can’t say that law comes to mind as the answer to these questions, but it should – especially the law of the Lord. Maybe something like this…

Not looking at my neighbors’ possessions with envy makes it possible, even inevitable, that the sight of them will bring joy.

Avoiding eating and drinking to excess honors the work that went into growing and preparing the bounty on my table, and keeps my body nourished.

Laziness wastes the precious hours, days, years, and decades I have been given; using my time and energy wisely (including rest!) satisfies my body, mind, and spirit.

Loving God above all other things keeps me from enslavement to money, status, and other harmful masters.

Seen this way, the Law of God is a gift, the path to a loving, joyful, sacred life. Not fetters, but freedom.

How is it that the Law of God is so rarely framed in this way?

Like a Bridegroom

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,

and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

[For the whole psalm, click “Psalm 19” above.]

 

Anthropomorphism: the attribution of human characteristics to a god, animal, or object.

 

It’s frowned upon, this attributing human characteristics to non-human entities. It’s considered naive at best, woefully ignorant and dangerous at worst. This is something children do because they don’t know any better.

But poets do the same, as do holy women and men. Metaphorically, perhaps, but they do it. And our lives our better for it because we find ourselves in relationship with beings and things we would never be otherwise.

The sun rising like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, finding joy in the daily run across the sky. The cosmology might be a bit off, but the gist of it is true: there is nothing in this entire creation that isn’t connected in one way or another.

It’s better to see in the arc of the sun a living spirit than to look upon this creation as nothing but a collection of objects without purpose or soul.

 

Tuning In

Offered by Bill Albritton, teacher, singer, prayerful writer…

There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.

When I was a young lad, sitting through a sermon on a hot Sunday morning in  Tennessee wasn’t always a very pleasant experience. Yet I will never forget one such experience when the preacher started out his homily with something like: God’s voice is everywhere. He went on to say that God is talking to each of us all the time. He used the analogy of radio waves being all around us that morning but we don’t hear them because we don’t have radios turned on and tuned in. And then he said something like: We need to tune in to God’s station to receive God’s message to us. 

As Johnna suggested in the first verse of this magnificent Psalm, it is good to get our heads up and look around in order to appreciate the Creator’s handiwork. Perhaps it is good to spend time tuning in as well.

I know I need to be doing more of it, and that means I can’t be doing all the talking. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young asked the musical question back in the early ’80’s: when everyone is talking and no one is listening, how can we decide? 

Indeed.

[Quote from Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Daylight AgainDaylight Again, 1982; Rudy Records, Devonshire Sound and Sea West; recorded 1980-1981]