Monday, May 04, 2015

Make Up Day

Back in January or February, it snowed here in Charlotte.
Less than an inch of snow. But there was a thin coating of ice on everything.

Trees. Grass. Cars. Minivans. Driveways. Roadways.
Which meant that my hometown became a home town.
As in - everybody stayed home.
It was a Tuesday - which meant that my writing class was cancelled for the day.
I spent most of the two hours I would have been in class sitting at the kitchen counter writing and editing, journaling and reading, and also wasting time on Pinterest.

The writing class was originally scheduled to end tomorrow.
One final gathering, followed by a potluck lunch, and summer break.
But because of that icy Tuesday a few weeks back, we will have a make up day.
Next Tuesday will be our final class, followed by lunch.

Tomorrow, after spending time with the writerly crew I have come to know and respect, I will drive up into the mountains of North Carolina to pick my daughter up from college.
My daughter who will graduate from college in December.
My daughter who is still the bravest person I have ever known.
My sweet girl will be home for the summer.
Her brother, my sweet boy, is already home for the summer.

How is it that they are both done with their spring semester in college? When I was in college, back in the last century, we packed our bags and left for home the week after Memorial Day. How is it possible that college is almost four times as expensive now as it was back then, but they spent nearly four fewer weeks on campus?

Anyway, my babies are coming back home.
Our nest will be full again. So will my heart.
But neither the pantry nor the refrigerator will be full again for quite some time.

How is it possible that my two babies are college students?
Where have the years gone?

Today, I had a follow up visit with my oncologist. All is well with this aging and scarred body of mine, thanks be to God. Toward the end of the appointment, I asked the good doctor how he was doing, and I asked about his family as well. (Why should he be the only one who asks questions?) He spoke about wanting to go on a golf trip with his father and brothers. Perhaps returning to Scotland - a trip they took a year or so ago. He said that his sons, who are 14 and 10, would be upset if he went on another golf trip without them. I suggested that, before they try their hand at golf overseas, they could visit a few golf courses near the coast in South Carolina. He also spoke about going away with his wife to celebrate their anniversary. Life is so short. Life is too short to work as hard as he does, to see as much suffering and death as he has seen, and not enjoy time with his wife and sons.

I reminded him of what he already knew: time flies. Love the ones you're with, Doc. Don't wait. Don't save the money for some future time when you have more time. None of us will ever have more time than we have right now. This is the time that we have. This is the day that we have. This is the moment.

There are no make up days for our lives.
No make up days for trips not taken.
No make up days for conversations not had.
No make up days for hugs and kisses not given.
No make up days for stories untold.
No make up days for lessons unlearned.
No make up days for grudges held.
No make up days for relationships neglected.
No make up days for love unspoken. 
We cannot go back and do any of this again.
But we can do it now.

Say it now. Experience it now. 
Write it now. Pray about it now.
Whatever "it" is.
Love them now. Forgive them now. 
Listen to them now. 
Whoever your "them" may be. 
See your beautiful, wise self now. 
Love yourself now. Listen to yourself too.
Now is the time. Today is the day. 

Thanks be to God for the gift of this night.
This day. This hour. This moment.
This wonder-filled life.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How long, O Lord, how long?

How long will we keep killing each other? Abusing each other? Robbing each other?
Breaking each other's bones? Shooting each other? Beating each other with impunity?
How long will we keep responding to injustice with more injustice?
How long will we allow for such inequality in our schools, in unemployment rates, in pay scales, in imprisonment rates, and in sentences for crimes?
How long will we disregard human dignity because a person looks a certain way, has a certain level of income or education or sexual orientation or religion or way of dress?
How long will we try to explain it all away so that we don't have to work to make it stop?
How long will we wait until we work to change, truly change our violent, angry, retaliatory ways?

How long will we make excuses for the people who are most like us and condemn the people who are least like us?
How long will we maintain these boxes,  the ones that divide "us" from "those people"? Who are "those people" anyway? Are they not mother and fathers, daughters and sons of somebody? Are we not all somebody's baby? Who are they if they are not us?
How long will we justify our fearful acts?
How long will we excuse our hateful acts?
How long will we dismiss our ignorant acts?

How long will we have to wait until good news is broadcast as readily as bad news? Good news about those who are protecting the vulnerable and not taking advantage of them? Those who are providing safe places and nutritious food for the disenfranchised? Those who are working to end homelessness and joblessness and hopelessness so that crime becomes less of an attractive option? Those who are working for freedom, justice, and peace?

How long will we ridicule those who still, after all this, maintain the audacity of hope? Hope that the violence can cease? Hope that executions will cease? Hope that peace will prevail? Hope for change, heart change, soul change, life change?

How many more videos do we need to see?
How many more stories do we need to hear?
How many more sons and daughters need to die?
How many more parents and spouses and children need to grieve?
How many more cities need to burn?
How long, O Lord, how long?

Dear Prince of Peace,
Our world, our nations, our cities, our homes, our very hearts
are being torn apart by fear, by greed, by anger, by sorrow, by poverty.
Our young men and women are being abused, beaten, kidnapped, trafficked, killed.
Cities are burning. People are rioting and looting and weeping and pleading for justice.
The earth is shaking under the feet of our brothers and sisters in Nepal and Oklahoma.
The things that some of us used to take for granted,
our wealth, our homes, our health, our families,
our skin color, our gender, our religious affiliation -
those things have proven altogether insufficient to protect us from much.
Please forgive us for our callousness, our selfishness, our fear.
Please forgive us for thinking we can ignore the needs around us and within us.
Please forgive us for trying to diminish the suffering of the vast majority of people in the world.
Please forgive us for trying to take advantage of their suffering.
Please, Lord, please have mercy on us and forgive us. Forgive me.
Please strengthen us to be people of peace, people of grace,
people of courage, people of forgiveness, people of joy,
people of hope, people of love.
Please give us eyes to see the things we have tried so desperately to not see.
Please give us ears to listen to the stories of those we know and those we don't yet know.
Please give us compassion to work on behalf of others and not only ourselves.
Please give us the will and the wherewithal to have mercy on each other
and forgive one other all the grievances we have against one another.
Clearly, we cannot do all of this on our own.
Clearly, we cannot fix this mess we've made on our own.
We need your tenderness. We need your love.
We need you, God. We desperately need you.
Draw us to our knees. Draw us to your table.
Draw us toward each other. Draw us toward you.
For the sake of your great name, for the sake of our wounded souls,
For the sake and salvation of all people everywhere,
please, Lord, have mercy on us.

Monday, April 27, 2015

And I Like Boxing

Thousands have lost their lives in Nepal as a result of the earthquake.
So much suffering. So much loss. So much sorrow.
Thousands of women, men, and children are sleeping outside there tonight and will have to do so for many weeks.
Thousands are hoping and praying for rescue, for food, for water, for medical aid.
Today on NPR, someone mentioned the fact that human traffickers take advantage of the chaos and separation of family members to kidnap and traffic people into sexual slavery.

Help is on the way - airplanes loaded with supplies and personnel are jockeying for space to land nearby and provide aid and assistance. Much more is needed. So much more.

There are many aid agencies asking for donations and sending donations.
Millions of dollars are needed. Thousands of flights.
Hundreds of organizations. Ceaseless, countless prayers.

Earlier today, I turned on the television and watched about three minutes of an episode of a show called Fast N Loud. The guys on the show buy old cars and repair them, refurbish them, rebuild them. Today they were working on two old Firebirds. They said they had a budget of $365,000 to refurbish the two cars. WHAT?!?!?!? To refurbish TWO CARS!???!

This coming Saturday, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather will box. In Las Vegas. At a casino. The plan is that millions of people will watch from their homes and from bars - at the ridiculous price of $99 each on Pay Per View. I cannot imagine what they charged for tickets to attend the fight. It has been suggested that they will split $300,000,000 between them. Three hundred million dollars.

While thousands sleep outside in Nepal without food or water or safe shelter.
In New York. In North Carolina. In Las Vegas. In Los Angeles. In Boston. In Chicago.
In Spain. In England. In France. In Italy. In India.
In tents. In cars. In doorways. In the homes and on the couches of friends and family.
I remember hearing that there are entire generations of people born in certain places that never sleep indoors. They weren't talking about people who live in remote villages or in the outback. They were talking about people living in big cities, babies born on the street, raised on the street, become adults. have children of their own, and never live in a house, never sleep under a roof.

I am rendered almost speechless about the injustice and imbalance of such radical misuse of money. Nearly four hundred thousand dollars to work on two cars - more money than many people spent on houses they were then foreclosed out of.
Three hundred million dollars for two men to punch each other in the face as hard as they can without being knocked unconscious by the opponent.
Preposterous. Outrageous. Brutal. Unfair.
And I like boxing - at least I used to.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Thankful Thursday - Everyday is Earth Day

For the beauty of the earth - 

I am thankful today for the beauty of the leaves on the trees in our backyard, providing shade from warming light of the sun and privacy from the gaze of our neighbors.
I am thankful for the bounty of fruit and vegetables, eggs and nuts, milk and meat, bread and blue chips that I rediscover every week at the supermarket.
I am thankful for the farmers who plant the seeds, the migrant workers who harvest the crops, the packers, the truck drivers, and those who stock it all in the stores. (Sometimes I wonder if I talk about food and the supermarket too often in these thankful Thursday posts, but then I remember that I eat many times each day, so being publicly thankful for the wonder of food once or twice a month is dwarfed ten thousand fold by the abundance this earth pours into my life on a daily basis.)
I am thankful for the sounds of the birds and squirrels and dogs and owls, for the giggles of children and the laughter of adults.
I am thankful for the buzz of wasps (as long as they don't land on me) and the fearless gaze of deer (as long as they are not advancing in my direction).
I am thankful for the variety, the exquisiteness of each person I see - in the supermarket, at church, on the street, in their cars, on television, online, in magazines, in books, and in my memories as well.

For the glory of the skies -

I am thankful for rainclouds that bring the sweetest, most necessary liquid blessing - rain.
I am thankful for the rainbows that appear after the rain has ceased.
I am thankful for the brightness and warmth of the sun.
I am thankful for the deep Carolina blue sky that the sun illuminates every day.
I am thankful for the sliver of moon that blossoms into the full circle of glorious light.
I am thankful for the stars that I don't often see because of the bright lights of this big city.

For the love which from our birth over and around us lies - 

I am thankful for the love of my mother - who calls me and cooks for me and always welcomes me into her home, her heart, and her life.
I am thankful for the love of my brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, the in-laws, and the outlaws.
I am thankful for the two children I have been blessed with and the love they lavish on each other, on my husband, on me, on their friends, and on those that matter to them.
I am thankful for being invited to the weddings, the funerals, the celebrations, the laments, the pool parties, the bridal showers, the baptisms, and also the quiet thrill of wine and conversation shared in the homes of friends and neighbors.
I am thankful for coffee dates, lunch dates, dinner dates, drive-by hugs, and sleepovers.
I am thankful for Facebook, WhatsApp, Facetime, and texts because they all keep me connected with friends and family who live far away.
I am thankful for the courageous, thoughtful, determined, and passionate women, men, and children whose love for the earth and its inhabitants move them to defend, to demand honor and respect for, to stand behind, to sit with, to kneel beside, to speak up for, to protest injustice against, and to work on behalf of those - both human and otherwise - who cannot do those things by themselves or for themselves.

Lord of all, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.

Lord of all, to you I offer thanksgiving for these and all the gifts of life.
I thank you for life itself, for breath, for strength, for courage, and for love.
I thank you for the chance to share these gifts with others.
I thank you, Lord of All, that even when loved ones leave,
when cherished relationships shatter,
when drought devastates the land,
when excess rain does the same,
when the pantry is empty,
the bank account too,
even then, we can, I can find reason to give thanks.
For the earth. For beauty. For love.
For who You are, Lord, and not only for what you provide.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

I Still Hate Kanswer

Kanswer sucks. Don't let my quietness on this topic of late lead you to believe that I'm not still pissed off about having gone through that journey. I'm doing great. I'm feeling great. I still love my short hair. I'm loving the fact that I will never have to wear a bra or undergo a mammogram ever again. That is a beautiful thing.

Life is good right now.
But kanswer still sucks.

I still hear way too many stories about this dreadful disease.
Stage 4 pancreatic kanswer diagnosed in a friend's husband.
A missed breast kanswer diagnosis, late treatment, rapid advancement, and the far-too-quick death of a dear friend's mother.
Breast and uterine kanswer in a very young friend of mine.
Skin kanswer removed. Several times.
I hate it, hate it, hate it.

But even in the midst of it, even in the worst of it, I hear stories of strength and courage, beauty and honor, dignity and love abounding even in the midst of the suffering. Stories of life well lived even while facing down the demon of disease. Stories of stopping treatment in the interest of peace and a gentle end. Stories of being surrounded by friends and family to the very end. Stories where the very end was postponed after treatment, surgery, and a whole lot of prayer.

Recently I read an article about black women and kanswer - how often we are diagnosed late, not offered curative care, and for those and other reasons, black women in the country tend to die at a higher rate than white women with similar diagnoses. Here is a link to the article I read. Powerful stuff. Beautiful women. Sad stories.

Speaking of beautiful black women and sad stories about kanswer...

Flipping through a photo album a month or so ago, I was reminded of a trip I took to Portland, Oregon, more than ten years ago to see my best friend from college. She was dying of colon kanswer that had returned and spread to her brain. She was a medical doctor, so she knew what was happening to her and had a pretty good idea of how her story was going to end. Soon.

She spent most of her adult life as a vegetarian, then a vegan, then she and her husband stopped eating food out of pots that had ever cooked meat. They were serious about eating well. How does someone who lives like that get colon kanswer?

I sat with her for two and a half days. I read to her. I told her stories. I held her hand. I offered her food. I watched her sleep. I prayed with her and for her. I cried. A lot. She wasn't yet 40 years old, and she was dying.

On my last full day there, she asked for something to eat.
One of her Portland buddies and I knelt down beside her to listen closely.
"What do you want? Anything you want, we will get it for you."
Her voice was weak. Her eyes were closed.
But she spoke clearly - "I want barbecue ribs and Pepsi."
Then she named the place she wanted the food from.
"No problem. We will be right back."
Her husband was not as agreeable - "She can't eat that. It will make her sick."
"Sick? She's dying of kanswer. If she wants ribs, she can have ribs."
"If she wants Pepsi, Pepsi it is."
He said NO. We said YES.
We left. We bought it. We brought it back.
She ate two or three bites of the ribs and took two or three sips of the Pepsi.
That was all she needed before slipping back into a morphine induced slumber.

Before leaving her house to return to my hotel later that evening, I leaned over her, kissed her smooth forehead, and told her I was going. She opened her eyes, thanked me for coming to see her, and told me to travel safely.
I told her to do the same - I wished her traveling mercies on her final journey.
I left for home the following morning.
She moved into a hospice center a few days later, and then she left for her eternal home very soon thereafter.

Kanswer sucks!

Back in January, my Spanish mother died. One of the kindest, most generous, loving, family-oriented, God-loving people I have ever known passed away. The breast kanswer didn't kill her. The pneumonia didn't kill her. But they both seriously complicated her life. Her daughter and I are sisters of the heart. Whenever I go to Spain, I stay with her and her husband and their two sons. Whenever I face a challenge, she supports me from afar. And I try to do the same for her. After watching her mother die, after watching one of her dearest friends die of bone kanswer not long before that, my friend sent me a message today reminding me of what I try to remind myself of daily, hourly - Life is meant to be lived. So live it fully. Live it well. No holding back. No second guessing. Be grateful. Be grace-full. Be joy-full.

I still hate kanswer, but I am grateful that because of its attempt on my life,
I have learned to cherish each day as the gift that it is.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Thankful Throwback Thursday

In some circles, today is also known as "Throw Back Thursday." On Facebook, many people post photos of themselves or their friends or family members from days, months, years, decades gone by. Today I posted this photo.
It is a photo of an image on the wall of my mother's home.
My college graduation portrait.
I knew so little then. So very little.
I was madly in love.
I longed to return to Spain.
I was about to begin life as an adult - but I was such a baby.
I look at the face of my 21 year old self 
and I thank God 
for protecting me from more foolish decisions 
than anyone ought to escape from unscathed.

These are my parents around the time of their wedding in 1956.
In the 1980s, their wedding album was stolen from their car in Manhattan.
My mother and I recently talked about how sad we still are about that loss.
We are convinced that the thieves discarded it once they saw what it was.
I'm glad she still has several photos of them from those early days.

Sitting at the piano in the sanctuary of the 
Sixth Avenue Baptist Church,
Brooklyn, New York. Circa 1973.
I am the youngest of four children and the only daughter.
Was I already daydreaming of escape?

A few years later in my parents' living room.
We had come a long way since that piano portrait.
I miss my father - so much.

I shouldn't even be alive. I should never have been conceived. Let me rephrase that - I could never have been conceived if my parents' plans hadn't been drastically altered. When my parents met each other, they were each already engaged to other people. 

But God...

My father had returned from World War II and settled in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Mount Pisgah Baptist Church where he sang in the choir. My mother was a student at Shaw University here in North Carolina and went to Brooklyn one summer to work and earn money to pay for college. She spent that summer living with one of her brothers - who was a member of Mount Pisgah Baptist Church. My mother joined the choir. Before long, their other engagements ended. They were married less than a year after they met. 

Three sons.
Then me.

My mother tells the story of being heavily sedated for my birth and upon awakening being told that she had a daughter. She says that her response was, "Doctor, you better not be kidding. I have waited a long time for a daughter." Well, there I was. 

I owe my mother a deep apology for being such a tomboy during my childhood. I wanted no part of ribbons or fancy dresses. I wanted to know why I couldn't wear pants all the time like my brothers. I remember telling her that God didn't care what I wore to church; she said that she did care. Why couldn't I play football and basketball and baseball with them all the time? I played with them a lot, for sure, but I wanted to be with them all the time. 

One day, in a vain attempt to keep up with them on a bike ride, I fell behind, and was pursued, overtaken, and bitten by a dog that had broken free from its chain. My rear right bumper - butt cheek - took the hit. Ouch. 

I owe her another apology for disobeying her direct instructions and running directly across the street from my cousin's house instead of walking to the corner and crossing at the light per her direct order. As my mother watched in horror from our front door, I was struck by a car. Ouch again. 

A concussion at Sunshine Acres - the summer camp I attended and worked at for years.
A fractured ankle during a basketball game when I was in tenth grade.
Suspended from school for (not) drinking a beer on a choir trip during my senior year in high school Full disclosure: It was the spring of 1983; the legal drinking age was 18. In the company of several other students at a restaurant in Georgetown, I ordered a beer, took one sip, hated it, and left it on the table. Unfortunately for us, the choir director and the other chaperones arrived at the same restaurant soon thereafter, saw our drinks, and very graciously/foolishly allowed us to finish our meal with the assurance that justice would be meted out later. But the choir director and the headmaster didn't care about the technicality of not drinking it. I was punished just like everyone else who got caught. I wonder if that incident is part of why I have never, ever liked beer. 
Anyway, I messed up. (Mom, I'm sorry for bringing dishonor to our family.)

Throwback Thursday.
Thrown back into memories of mistakes, accidents, bad choices, and bad behavior gone by.
Thrown back into memories of blessings, protection, and adventures gone by.

I look at photographs, journals, letters, postcards.
I look at notebooks filled with sermon notes, class notes, teaching notes.
I look at mementos, posters, artwork.
I look at scars, wrinkles, laugh lines.
And I remember the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
I remember falls and breaks, crutches and stitches.
I remember hugs and tears, kisses and farewells.
I remember safe landings and flat tires. 
I remember late nights with fevered children and early mornings with chemo chills.
I remember wedding parties and funeral processions.
I remember so many names, so many faces, so many stories.

On this thankful Thursday, my thankfulness goes all the way back to 1955,
when Otis and Eleanor linked eyes, hearts, and futures,
took a chance on each other, even after having committed themselves to two other people.
My thankfulness goes back to early 1965, when they chose to try one more time for a daughter.
My thankfulness goes back to the God who made all of this possible:
a man from South Carolina met a woman from North Carolina in a church in New York.
A man who loved God more than he loved himself or anyone else.
A woman who loves and follows hard after God to this day.

 Their love created space for our love 
and our love created space for these two amazing people

who have grown up to be two young adults that I now count among my best friends.

My thankfulness goes back and includes 
every step, every stumble, 
every laugh, every love,
every friend, every frustration, 
every trip, every treatment,
every book, every ballad,
every hymn, every hiccup,
every joy, every journey,
every prayer, every promise,
every sorrow, every secret,
every grace bestowed,
every pardon granted,
every day, every hour, every moment
that has brought me, carried me, welcomed me,
to this place, to this time, to this night.

Where and how far back does your thankfulness go back tonight?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Retraining My Eyes

When I was a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York, one of my favorite things to do with my family was taking the subway into Manhattan, to Times Square, and walking a few blocks to a Christian bookstore on 43rd Street near 8th Avenue. My parents, walking behind me and my brothers, would often say, "Don't look to the right or to the left, kids. Just look straight ahead." To the right and to the left of us, back into the 1970s, were pornographic theaters and sex shops, prostitutes and trangendered men and women in drag. My mother and father wanted us to retrain our eyes, to not look around us with curiosity and intrigue at the fear and strength, the loneliness and the courage, the desperation and the searching that must have been palpable and visible on the faces of the people behind the neon signs and the thick layers of makeup. They instructed and directed us to look towards our destination, an oasis of books and records, toys and games that would help us stay focused on our faith, our beliefs and on our God. I confess that I peeked both right and left a few times, but I have always wished that I had looked around a little more often. That I had had enough compassion to look into the eyes of those who must have looked curiously at our blinkered family rushing single-mindedly past them.

On one of our epic family vacations one summer, we drove from Brooklyn all the way to California, camping in a tent nearly every night for the three weeks of our adventure. At one point we stopped at "an Indian reservation." That is the term that comes to mind every time I recall that day. We watched a "wild west" reenactment that involved cowboys in large hats, heavy boots and leather chaps fighting against indians in feathers and "native attire." Even at the tender age of eight or nine, I was horrified by the whole thing. Terrified and horrified. How could they be shooting at each other? Why were men falling off of roofs onto the ground below after being shot? Why didn't someone bring this violence to an end? And why were we, as children, forced to watch?

At the end of the show, the spectators stood in line to have our photos taken with the actors. There is a picture of me in a recently purchased bonnet with one of my brothers in his replica of a cowboy hat - and three Native Americans, headdress, war paint, moccasins, feather fan, weapons, and all. One of the people in the photo is younger than I am and several inches shorter. I vividly remember thinking, "These people must hate this, hate these photos, hate being looked at this way. I wish I didn't have to be in this picture. I wish they didn't have to be in this picture. I hate this."

That was a moment when I wished I could have retrained my eyes - to look away from their pain, their anger, their suffering at the hands of a nation and a world that would want to pay and make money based on their annihilation. Tears fill my eyes even now as I gaze down at this sad photograph.

During chemotherapy I was told to drink as much water as possible. A gallon a day was recommended. Although I don't think I ever consumed quite that much, I made several valiant attempts over the four month treatment period. One of the inevitable side effects of increased liquid intake is frequent urination. Day and night, I made trip after trip to the can in the john. At night, as I made my way across our bedroom towards relief, I would inevitable glance at the clocks on both my nightstand and my husband's. For weeks, I saw hours I had not seen with any regularity since my children were nursing infants - 2:17; 3:28; 4:09; 5:35. All in the AM.

Did I mention that fact that there was an old-fashioned, battery-operated clock hanging on the wall above the toilet? Tick tock. You're awake. Tick tock. You're awake.

Often, upon returning to bed, I would stare up into the darkness, praying that sleep would sweep me away from the reality of why I kept having to pee. One night as I prayed for healing and peace and sweet dreams, I also resolved to stop looking at the clock every time I got up. I began by turning my brightly lit digital clock-radio away from my bed. Within days, I unplugged it and donated it to Good Will. I wanted to turn Steve's clock in the opposite direction as well, but recognized that it wasn't fair of me to keep him from seeing the time if he wanted to. So I retrained my eyes - forcing myself to divert my eyes from the glow on his side of the bed and the clock staring down at me in the next room.

Not long after chemotherapy ended, I underwent transformational surgery. I instructed my doctors to cut away and cut out as much as possible to keep me from having to repeat the trauma of breast kanswer and to prevent me from ever dealing with uterine, cervical, or ovarian kanswer. Snip, snip, chop, chop. Done. Or so I'm hoping and praying.

The time that I used to spend staring into the mirror at my long dreadlocs and at my aging body, at the ravages of pregnancy, weight gain, weight loss, gravity and time, morphed into time spent staring at the after effects of kanswer, chemotherapy and surgery. I had to retrain my eyes, to stop looking at and looking for what was no longer a part of my physique and to focus instead on the short hair and the long scars that reminded me of all that I had overcome.

As I take long walks through my neighborhood, I have learned to gaze down at each footfall, to look out for cracks in the asphalt and divots in the grass in order to avoid twisting an ankle, or worse. I have learned to listen for dogs that emerge from shadowy driveways and beneath thick bushes. I have also learned to look far enough ahead to calculate if I will have to walk around a garbage or recycling bin while avoiding oncoming traffic. I have learned to look ahead to see if there will be anyone working in or mowing lawns so that I can wave to them if they look up or cross the street if their machinery is spewing debris in my direction. I have learned to scan the street for roadkill not only so that I won't step on it, but also so that I can retrain my eyes to not look at it as I pass it by.

On this, my life journey, I am learning to retrain my eyes in my home, to look at the scratches on the hardwood floors and stains on the carpet and seeing signs of life fully lived rather than messes long ignored. I am retraining my eyes to see scratches in my pots and pans and stains on my countertops as evidence of meals prepared and enjoyed rather than signs of my ineptitude as a housekeeper. I am retraining my eyes to see my husband and children as loving, attentive, funny, generous, forgiving co-travelers on the pilgrimage called life rather than as selfish, sneaky, remorseless, formidable competitors vying for a limited supply of Trader Joe's organic corn chips and peach salsa.

On my faith journey, I am learning to retrain my eyes as I look around at the broken, the beautiful, the lonely, the lovely, the desperate, and the delightful people who walk with me on this journey. I am learning to look to the right and to the left and straight ahead, to look others and myself in the eye. As often as possible. As deeply as possible. As tenderly as possible.

I am learning to retrain my eyes as I read the Bible, recognizing myself in stories of betrayal and denial, in stories of judgment and forgiveness, in stories of wanting to stone the adulterer and also knowing that I deserve that same punishment, in stories of forgetting how blessed I have been and complaining, in so many of our sacred stories. I am learning to retrain my eyes to see my family members, my friends, my neighbors, and even those I dislike, distrust, and fear in those same stories. May the light of grace, peace, and love radiate from the stories of Christ in the Scripture and increasingly blind me to the faults of all people and my own as well, retraining my eyes to see in all people a flicker, a glimmer, a reflection of The Light of Life.

I hope and pray that my sight, my hearing, my taste, my touch,  my heart, my soul, that all of my senses and all of who I am will be continually retrained. That I will see and hear and feel all of life, with its complexity and simplicity, its allure and its repugnance, its catastrophic storms and its eerie calms, more deeply, more fully, more completely.

There are shadows and fears and tragedies and roadkill everywhere in this life.
There are people suffering and being stared at and ignored and exploited everywhere.
There is prostitution and addiction and desperation everywhere.
There are scars and sagging skin and tears everywhere.
Splintered relationships. Fractured trust. Deflated hopes. Inexplicable abandonment.
Unconscionable violence. Immeasurable fear. Prolonged adversity.
There are also trees in bloom, flowers budding, farmers' markets and backyard gardens.
There is laughter and storytelling and grace and celebration and welcome.
There is also so much healing and connection and beauty and love and joy.
I am grateful for the ways in which faith and God and people and life are all retraining my eyes to see more of both the former and the latter.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Thankful Thursday

Last night, I spent a few hours with a group of Christ-loving, people-serving, hope-infused folks in a small city about an hour from here. Together we watched a movie called Life of a King. A story of fear and violence, power and hope, determination and perseverance. It is a story about the lives of teenagers in Washington DC, a few cons and ex-cons, and what happens when one man stands up for what he himself never had.

After watching the movie, we talked about what stood out for us, what challenged us, what questions came up for us. We talked about how hopeless we sometimes feel when we think about and see the challenges that young people face. Especially young African Americans. So many of them live lives that are framed and defined by violence, poverty, neglect, drug use, abuse, addiction, and gang banging. When they have not seen others escape their neighborhoods, how can they hold on to hope?

Of course, the reality of despair and hopelessness is not true only in the inner city for young people of color. Addiction, abuse, violence, rape, alcoholism, eating disorders, anxiety, fear, neglect, and gang activity all happen in the suburbs and in rural areas as well. Suffering is impartial and does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, national origin, language, or religion. No group or individual is exempt from suffering.

Earlier this afternoon, I watched the second half of Waiting for "Superman." Our public school system is failing millions of children every year. Some statistics show that, although the United States is among the top five or ten countries in terms of how much we spend on education per student, we are ranked only in the top 20 or 25 in testing for reading, math, and science. If we are going to be global leaders in innovation, we need to do better than that. If we aren't going to make improving our school system a higher priority, then we forfeit our right to complain about jobs being outsourced and engineers, doctors, computer scientists, and others being imported from countries that have bypassed us in these areas.

Last night, as we talked about the film and the desperation that so many children feel in this country, as we talked about the fact that many children don't have birth certificates, children born here in the USA of American citizen parents fluent in English (so we aren't even talking about people for whom English is a second language), we listed several ways in which their progress is hampered, their prospects are curtailed, their hopes are dashed because they don't have that one piece of paper. How does one obtain a driver's license or any form of acceptable ID without a birth certificate? Or a passport? Or registered to vote? How does one apply for a job or join the military without a birth certificate? Actually, the pessimist in me is willing to be that one CAN join the military without a birth certificate. You can be trained to kill for your country but not trained to be a teacher or a lawyer in your country.

Even though we know about the ways in which some states are trying to make it harder for disadvantaged people to vote, last night we heard that the Social Security Administration is also making it harder for people to obtain Social Security cards. If you don't have ID, it's hard to get anything else. But if you don't have any other proof of who you are, it's hard to get ID. Deep sigh. Deeper sorrow.

Today as I watched the documentary about American's schools and the lottery that so many parents enter in the hopes of getting their children into better schools than their local districted ones, tears came to my eyes. Tears of sorrow for those parents and their beloved children. No matter where we are from or what we have accomplished, all parents want their children to be healthy and happy and well educated.

Unfortunately, there are a few abusive, drug and alcohol-addled parents who might not want that for their children, but blessedly, they are the exception rather than the rule.

I wept for those parents whose children were not chosen for their dream schools.
I wept for those children who understood how crucial it was for them to be accepted to those schools in order to have a better chance at a better future - and watched helplessly as their number wasn't called.
I wept for the thousands and thousands of parents and children who aren't even aware that they have options, that there are educational lotteries they can even apply to enter.
I wept for those who were accepted and pray that they were able to take advantage of the opportunity they had been afforded.

I also wept tears of gratitude for my children, for the ease with which we obtained birth certificates and passports and driver's licenses for them, for the gift it was to homeschool them, for the way in which they have both adapted to college life.

I am grateful for the privilege of being able to stay home, of not having to work outside our home since 1991, so that I could teach them and travel with them and cry with them and laugh with them and go for long walks with them and pray with them and read to them and cook with them and learn right along with them.

I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given to work with, to walk alongside, to talk to, to laugh with, and also to cry with mothers and fathers as they guide their children through traditional and non-traditional education. Through opening schools. Through the choice to remove children from traditional school and begin to homeschool. Through the choice to return to school outside the home. Through college decisions. Through the undoing of college decisions. I am grateful for every text and email and tear and giggle and conversation and heart-wrenching decision.

I am grateful for the advocates, the teachers, the superintendents, the principals, the parents, the guidance counselors, bus drivers, the janitors, the cafeteria workers, the athletic directors, the coaches, the trainers, the tutors, the lawyers, the judges, the community organizers, and everyone else who is dedicated to the teaching, the coaching, the training, and the preparation of our children for their future and for the future of our world.

I am grateful for the many people and stories and movies and books and documentaries that have opened my eyes not only to the rich blessings of my own life, but far more than that, I have also been reminded that it is imperative that I too get involved in making a way for others to be blessed, to learn, to live, to laugh, and to love freely.

I am grateful for the invitations to join in on conversations like the one we had last night, for the "co-incidence" of seeing the film today about our failing schools, and how all of this ties to many of my own hopes and dreams about how I will live out the rest of my life.

I am grateful for the ways in which those stories have broken my heart wide open.

I am grateful that there is always, always, always cause for hope.

If you've got a couple of extra hours and a box of tissues nearby, I would recommend both of these films: Life of a King and Waiting for "Superman." And also this one, a film about how the educational system affects the lives of the highest achievers as well: Race to Nowhere.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Thankful Thursday

If this story of Jesus is true, if on a Thursday night just over 2,000 years ago, Jesus ate the Passover feast with his disciples, broke bread with them and drank wine with them, if they went to the garden and Jesus was arrested, if Jesus was crucified, and if, by some unimaginable, unfathomable miracle, Jesus rose from the dead three days later, if this story is true, then this ought to be the most thankful of all Thursdays.

If this story is true, then this also ought to be the saddest of Thursdays because it means that Emmanuel, Jesus, God-with-us, was betrayed by someone he loved and served and whose feet he washed the same night on which he was betrayed. It means that the one who swore he would die with Jesus denied knowing him. It means that the others who followed closely for three years all ran away when their leader was taken. 

It means that I am no better, no different, not an exception.
For I too have betrayed the One who loves me most.
I have denied how much I love my Lord and how much Christ means to me.
I have worried what others would think about my commitment to my faith journey with God and because of that concern haven't spoken the truth of what I believe and have experienced. 
I have walked away, sometimes run away, when discussions begin about religion and spirituality and faith and God and Christianity and the Bible and how to interpret the Bible and how Christianity relates to other religions.
I have avoided situations where I knew I would be called upon to defend something someone else has said or done in the name of Jesus and against the name of Jesus.
I am no different from those men and women who fled when the trouble started on a Thursday night so many years ago.

But if this story is true, if Jesus knew everything they were going to do and loved them anyway,
if Jesus knew how fickle they would be and washed their feet anyway,
if Jesus could feed them, heal them, talk to them, tell them stories, walk with them, 
eat with them, drink with them, and promise not to ever partake of that feast again until
all those who love him are with him again,
if Jesus kept the promise to be with them until the end of their lives,
if Jesus kept the promise to give us the Spirit to lead us and guide us, teach us and empower us,
if Jesus is now before the throne of God's amazing grace praying for us, for you, for me,
if all of that is true, then this is back to being the most thankful of all Thursdays. 

It's gonna be a quiet couple of days around here.
Good Friday - the day of the crucifixion and the burial.
Holy Saturday - the day the stone sealed off the tomb.
A lot to ponder. A lot to pray for and through. 
Darkness. Silence. 
Sitting. Waiting. 
Praying. Hoping. 

Spoiler Alert: SUNDAY IS COMING!!!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

It's Getting Harder and Harder

With each passing day, it's getting harder and harder to live this life of mine.

Harder and harder to keep my house clean when I would much rather be out on a walk
or reading or journaling or talking on the phone or meeting friends for lunch or planning getaways or watching NCAA basketball.

Harder and harder to eat well when there are bagels, Snickers bars, slices of pizza, licorice, sour cream and onion potato chips and corn muffins and chicken wings and bottles of Cherry Coke and Cheerwine everywhere.

Harder and harder to cut down on spending when the organic fruits and vegetables, the kombucha and green matcha tea, the gluten free crackers and hummus, the quinoa and millet are so much more expensive than the less healthy stuff.

Harder and harder to be away from people I love and haven't seen in a long time.
Friends who live too far away for regular visits.
Friends whose children are growing up without seeing my bright and shining face often enough to know who I am and why I love them.
Friends who work too hard and whose calendars are too full to engage in regular phone conversations or text exchanges.
Friends whose lives are being lived in other time zones.
Friends and family members, soul sisters and soul stirrers who are simply too far away.

Harder and harder to think of Maundy Thursday, Jesus' last night with his disciples, when he washed their feet, broke bread and shared a cup of wine with them. He knew they were going to abandon him. He knew one would deny him. He knew one would betray him. But he ate with them anyway. He loved them anyway - all the way to the end.
Harder and harder because I want to believe that I wouldn't have been like them, that I would have listened more closely and believed everything Jesus said.
Harder and harder because the better I get to know myself, my fickleness of mind, my insistence on concise answers to my clarifying questions, my yearning for safety, security, and ease, the more certain I am that I would have been no different, no more reliable, no more trusting, no more faithful than any of them.
Harder and harder because, even though I am more aware of my own faults and broken places, I still have precious little patience for people who abandon me or deny me or betray me - for the people around me who are so much like me.

Harder and harder to know what to think or say or write or do on Good Friday and Solemn Saturday. The days of his accusation, torture, mock trial, crucifixion, and burial. Those days when those who were closest to Jesus closed themselves into rooms and locked the doors, lamenting the death of the one they had hoped would redeem them and set them free from fear. Those days in which the women who followed most closely prepared burial spices to care for his beaten, bruised, lifeless body.

Harder and harder because it's far too easy to skip past those solemn, silent, and serious days. It is far easier to spend the days between now and Easter doing other things - baking cookies, planning Sunday's menu, and deciding what to put into Easter eggs and baskets. It's too tempting to plan my time so that I arrive at Easter morning without ever walking in the shadows, in the darkness, through the suffering, facing the sorrow, all in the knowledge that it was love that kept him praying in that dark garden, nailed to that rugged cross and subjected to the indignity of that tomb. Love for the people who walked with him and then abandoned him. Love for the people who accused him and framed him. Love for the people who were yet to be born - people like us, like you, like me. Which reminds me of that old song, "When he was on the cross, I was on his mind."

I want to skip the bloody, barbaric parts.
I want to get to Sunday morning.
I want to put on my Easter dress and shoes.
I want to sing hymns. I want to see the lilies.
I want to celebrate. I want to be happy.

But with hundreds of families mourning the intentional crashing of an airplane,
with far too many people recovering from difficult diagnoses and traumatic treatments,
with two hundred school girls missing from their Nigerian families for nearly a year,
with unjust wars that rage on unresolved for years,
with random acts of terror, rage, and violence happening around us, between us, and within us,
I need to find ways to be still and watch,
to be still and wait
to be still and weep,
to be still and know
that even though this life of mine is getting harder and harder,
even though it is getting harder and harder to remain tethered to hope,
even though it is getting harder and harder to believe that we won't completely destroy the planet in the next four to six weeks,
even though the list of earth's sorrows grows longer and longer,
even though it's only Tuesday and there is a long way to go between now and "the first day of the week,"
between now and then,
I will recall and recount the goodness of God,
the provision and protection,
the help and healing,
the love and laughter,
the touch and tenderness,
and the friendships and faithfulness of so many.

I will love the ones I'm with and receive their love
- even though I know how broken and flawed and afraid and lonely we all are.

And I will remind myself over and over again:
It's Tuesday, but Sunday is coming.
It's Wednesday, April Fool's Day, and this fool is clinging to the fact that Sunday is coming.
It's Maundy Thursday, which will end in the darkness of a silent sanctuary - but Sunday is coming.
It's Good Friday, which always feels so God-gone bad - but Sunday is coming.
Shhhh, it's Silent, Solemn Saturday - just one more day.

Hang on - because Sunday is coming.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thankful Thursday - "It's a boy!"

Arthur and Claire already had a set of twin daughters, four or five years old already.
Then they heard this announcement - "It's a boy."
Fifty years ago today, my sweet husband was born.
My joke is that he was born, and my parents immediately celebrated.
I was born a few days less than nine months after him.

Today we will celebrate his life.
We will eat, drink, and make merry.
We will tell stories and remember our 28+ years together.

Nope, it hasn't always been smooth sailing.
His birth family wasn't the Waltons or the Huxtables.
That's all I'm gonna say about that.

Nonetheless, he grew up into a bright, determined, hard-working young man. He graduated from St Peter-Marian Catholic High School in Worcester, Massachusetts, and joined me in the class of 1987 at Williams College. One cold night in January of our senior year, he shook off his mantle of shyness and asked if he could sit next to me at a movie on campus - and we have been together ever since.

After such an unceremonial start, we have traveled many miles, celebrated many milestones, and endured much sorrow since that first night. Four and a half years of dating before being married. Two amazing children. Connecticut. San Francisco. Hawaii. San Diego. Florida. North Carolina. GE. Bank of America. Spain. England. Costa Rica. Puerto Rico. Never missing a college reunion. Kanswer. Bipolar disorder. The death of both of our fathers. Both of our mothers moving to Charlotte.

 This man adores his children

 Giving direction to his boy

Who wouldn't love a man who looks at fashion exhibits at the local museum?!?

Clearing snow - fearlessly

Headed onto the beach

A Hilton Head sunrise

Even though not everyone thought we were a good match, even though we (may) have had that same thought ourselves on occasion, I am enormously grateful that we have stayed together. Through the very difficult times. Through sickness and health. Richer and poorer. Family problems and rejection.

He has blossomed into the most generous, gentle, encouraging husband and father and son.

Hugging his mom 

And today, he reaches the half-century milestone.
Still bright, determined, hard-working.
Still loving, kind, gentle, generous.
Still peace-loving, protective, and loyal.
Still funny, thoughtful, and caring.

I thank God for this man everyday.
Here's to 50 more years, my dear.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thankful Thursday

It's a rainy Thursday evening in South Charlotte.
Daffodils are in bloom, past their prime in some yards.
Trees are budding. Spring is springing.

What am I thankful for - other than all of that?

I am thankful for our empty nest. My husband and I talk more and laugh more and spend more time together than ever. On Sunday evening, he was on his way back from visiting our son and I was on my way back from dropping our daughter off at the end of her spring break. I called him and we set up a date at the airport overlook - we leaned against the hood of my car and enjoyed the view. We wondered where each aircraft was headed and dreamt aloud about our future travel plans.

I am thankful for new recipes that my hubby and I are enjoying. I don't like to cook, but since I have to do it on a regular basis, I may as well try new things every now and then. Earlier this week, I made taco soup, a spinach salad, and pan-fried polenta - delicious vegan dinner. Tonight it was salmon and broccoli and what we call dirty rice - brown rice with cranberries, pine nuts and pecans. Both of our children are allergic to most nuts, so we are taking advantage of their absence to incorporate pecans and walnuts. Small things, I know - but I am hugely grateful for the small things. Aren't you?

I am thankful that my children are healthy and strong and doing well. I am thankful that even when they aren't feeling well, when they are stressed, and when life isn't easy for them - even then, I am thankful they are mine. I am thankful that they call us and text us and share their needs and tears and sorrows with us.

I am thankful for the simple process of printing photos - sending them to a local printing place directly from my computer. I am thankful for a seven year old laptop that still functions perfectly. I am thankful for pots and pans and a functioning stove. I am thankful for the washing machine, the dryer, and the hanging racks in the laundry room. I am thankful that every time I pull into a gas station, there is gas available. I am grateful for the drastic reduction in gas prices during the past six months. I am grateful for pens and paper, for staples and thumb tacks. I am thankful for thank you notes and for the gifts that motivate me to both write and receive them. Again, these may seem like small things, but they are all amazing things.

I am thankful for the connection I have made with the young man I tutor in Spanish. His parents adore him and want him to do well, not only in Spanish but in all of life. His smile is sweet and quick. Today I had the chance to meet his teacher. Hard working, dedicated, encouraging, and direct, she has high hopes for him, and so do I.

I am thankful for the tremendous outpouring of support and encouragement about my admission to seminary. From church friends. From the pastors at my church. From friends who don't go to church. From neighbors. From family. I am excited. And nervous. And looking forward to the next phase of my life journey. (I cannot wait to meet Katie Cannon, one of the professors at Union in Richmond, VA. I may have to go up there for a summer course or some other class that she teaches.)

I am thankful for Anthony Smith. He and his wife, Toni, are heavily involved in community development up in Salisbury, NC. They have founded Mission House, a new worship community there. Night crawlers, a group that walks through the town at night, talking to folks, sharing blankets on cold nights, offering friendship and connection to many that are on the margins of their community. Man Up Mondays, getting men involved in the lives of needy boys around them. Challenging everyone who will listen to stop complaining and do something, touch somebody, make a difference. My daughter and I got to hear him speak last Saturday, and he introduced me to a new way of reading Scripture and understanding what God is up to in the Word and in the world. He talked about how God disturbs us, disrupts us, and interrupts us. We've got our plans and ideas and hopes. We know what we want and expect and what we dream. But God has a way of disturbing our complacency, of disrupting us in the midst of our feeble attempts to protect what we think we deserve, and interrupting us when we are trying to go back to sleep, to crawl back into our safe cocoons. As I have thought about Luke 24 this week, I have been stunned by the illusions and disillusionment of the women who went to the tomb expecting to find a dead body and the disciples who were hiding away in a locked room in despair over their slain Savior. Thank you, Anthony, for moving me to a deeper place, to a deeper reading and understanding of the stories of our faith. Thanks to you and Toni for all that you do for those around you. Toni, I'm praying for your Mom.

I am thankful for all that is yet to come -

* my son is coming home for the weekend
* I will talk to my dear friend, Lisa, tomorrow morning
* time on Saturday morning with a friend from Ecuador
* dinner on Saturday evening with a friend from Puerto Rico
* speaking a lot of Spanish, the language of heaven, this weekend (you'd better start studying, people!)
* writing class next Tuesday
* I will be speaking next Wednesday at noon at First Presbyterian Church (Why do I still hesitate to use the verb "preaching" in a sentence that begins with the word, "I"? I'm gonna have to process that in my journal one of these days.)
* planning a date with my friend who lives on the lake (I miss you and I miss us!)
* Finally, I am thankful for the banana dessert I am about to go make. Two ingredients - ripe bananas in the skin, cut open the long way. Lay them face down (fruit side down) into a saucer covered with soft brown sugar. Then lay the sugar side down in a hot non-stick pan. After the sugar begins to bubble around the edges of the skin, let it sizzle for about 30 more seconds then lift it out with a spatula. Eat it with a spoon out of the skin. Once you take the bananas out of the pan, if any brown sugar is still bubbling in it, toss a few almonds into the sugar and make a quick almond brittle. Your eyes will cross with delight. Simple, bubbly, sweet, and (mostly) good for you. Yum yum.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A few questions for Jesus

I have spent a lot of time this Lent reading and rereading and pondering and writing about Luke 24, the final chapter of that gospel. Early in the chapter, we read, "Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened."

Today my mind has snagged on the linen cloths that had been wrapped around the body of Peter's crucified friend, rabbi, mentor, and redeemer. Like the tomb in which they were discarded, the cloths were empty.

That image prompted me to think about the One who had abandoned those linen cloths a few hours earlier. That image prompted me to pen a few questions for Jesus.

* What was that morning like for you, Lord?
* What did you see when you opened your eyes?
* Was it still dark in the tomb or had the stone already been rolled away?
* How did you remove those linen cloths if you were wrapped in them?
* Were angels with you in those early hours or were you alone?

* What were your thoughts as you exited the tomb?
* Did the soldiers outside see you as you walked away?
* Is that why they fainted?

* Where did you go first?
* Did you go see your broken-hearted mother?
* Did the world look different to you after death than before death?
* Were you thinking about how scared your disciples would be when they saw you again?
* Did you smile with the knowledge that Mary Magdalene and the other women would come to the tomb and find you gone?
* Did you shudder with the thought of their story being considered an idle tale?
* In this chapter, you appear first to those two men who are walking to Emmaus? Why them? Why not the larger group of your followers?
* What is so special about the breaking of the bread? Why were their eyes opened then and not sooner?
* Why did your stories and your presence make their hearts burn?
* Why did your disciples and friends sometimes not recognize you?

* And what about the rest of this crazy story - your virgin birth, your miracle-working life, your brutal execution, your resurrection from the dead, your amazing grace, and your death-defying love - how are we supposed to explain it or prove it or convince other people to believe it? 

* What are the dark places in my life where stones need to be rolled away so the light of your love and healing can enter?
* How often are my eyes blinded and my mind darkened so much so that I miss your presence and don't see you walking with me along the way?
* Who am I supposed to tell about the ways in which you show up and show off and show yourself faithful and true, loving and ever-present in my life?
* What will be the first thing or person I will see when I open my eyes on the other side of death? Sweet Lord Jesus, I sure hope yours is the first face I see. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Does anybody remember how to create footnotes and bibliographies?

Back in 2006 or 2007, I taught a class on journaling as a spiritual discipline to a group of women at the church I attended at the time. One of the women in attendance was not a member or even an attender of the church, but there Bonnie was. Attentive, asking questions, taking notes, sharing her thoughts and questions. At the end of the class, she approached me and said, "You belong in the pulpit."

I was shocked, stunned, silenced. And certain she was wrong.
How could I, a woman, be in the pulpit?
That certainly wasn't an option at the church in which we stood.

Not long after that I began to attend another church on Wednesdays at noon, the church I attend now, and the woman who preached at that service every week showed me, and continues to show me, the beauty, wisdom, strength, insight, compassion, and unique perspective that women bring to the pulpit, to loving and serving the world as ministers.

Within a few months, she invited me to teach a few classes at the church.

Again, I was shocked, stunned, silenced.
How could I teach at a church where I was not a member?
Weren't there hoops I had to jump through in order to prove myself, to qualify?

I had no idea how deeply I had absorbed a mindset of inferiority and inexperience and lack of qualification. I had learned my lessons too well.

There I stood at First Presbyterian Church - and continue to stand - before groups of men and women, pouring out my heart, my questions, my failures, my doubts, my joy, my gratitude, and my love for God and God's Word. I often wondered when some angry man would stand up and tell me that I was out of line, that I needed to sit and learn in silence while the men led the way. That has never happened.

Soon after meeting Bonnie, she introduced me to Larry. In turn, Larry introduced me to a group of funny, gracious, welcoming, kind, thoughtful and prayerful senior citizens at a retirement community here in Charlotte. They meet every Wednesday morning for Bible study, with each invited speaker bringing a month-long series. I was invited to lead a series not long thereafter. I remember vividly my prejudices as I entered that room the first time: I was convinced that those rich old white Southerners would hear me speak once and be done with the crazy black woman who moved down here from Connecticut with my strange accent and foreign ways of thought. I am glad that I was completely wrong on all counts.

There are retired missionaries in that room, retired pastors in that room, retired teachers and poets and business people. There are parents, grandparents, single men, single women, widows and widowers. Every one of them decides over and over to return, to listen, to ask questions, to listen to my rambling answers, to watch me cry, to listen to me try to weave Scripture into our lives and challenge us all to be people of joy and love and gratitude. And they have made that decision over and over for the many months that they have invited me to be with them on Wednesday mornings.

Over these past five years, there has been a steady stream of invitations to speak and teach, emails, voice mails, text messages, and even snail mail - all expressing support and encouragement and gratitude for my presence at church and at the senior living center and my involvement in the larger community of faith. In addition to that, many men and women have repeated what Bonnie told me way back when: "You should be in the pulpit."

After years of hearing that same message, I decided to ponder it.
To question it. To pray about it. To investigate the possibilities.

I also pondered the reactions I assumed I would get from people I know who believe that women should not be leaders in the church, that half of God's people have nothing to say to the other half. I questioned interpretations of Scripture that I had accepted for the first 45 years of my life. I tried to imagine conversations I would have with those whose opinions used to matter so much to me, what I would say to try to convince them to see things the way I now see them. With the help of my spiritual director, pastors, teachers, friends, books, journaling, praying, and reading, I have been able to let go of the urge to convince the unconvinceable. That is not my job. That is no longer my concern. This is my story. This is my journey.

Someone once told me: "I would rather stand before God and have to explain why I preached when I was supposed to be silent, than why I stayed silent when I was called to preach." That is the risk I too have decided to take.

I applied to Union Presbyterian Seminary here in Charlotte after meeting the Dean of the school late last fall at a meeting at church. He invited me to visit the school, to sit in on classes, to join them for worship and lunch. I arrived late on the appointed Saturday, slipped into the chapel and found a seat during the sermon. When I stood with the group to sing the last hymn, I knew that I had arrived at the place where my ravenous soul could feast on the Bread of Life and gulp down mouthfuls of Living Water.

I have been accepted and will pursue a Masters degree in Divinity.

I will spend the next five years taking classes on Saturdays and the occasional Friday evening. I will read and write and learn ancient Greek and Hebrew and theology and preach practice sermons and intern at a local church and learn about baptism and communion and things I cannot even imagine now. I will learn how to submit papers online and relearn how to write papers with footnotes.

It will be a long uphill climb, but I am excited. Thrilled. Grateful. Joyful. I look forward to figuring out where God wants me to serve and love and listen and teach and walk alongside people on their spiritual journeys and how to welcome others to walk with me on mine.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Thankful Thursday - Be Careful What You Pray For

Yesterday morning, I had to get up early as two people near and dear to me were going on a trip. In the fog. On the highway. When stuff like that happens, unavoidable things that feel dangerous or uncertain, I pray. A lot. Neither of them were looking forward to the drive, so I felt prompted to pray that they be "surprised by joy." I prayed that they would have moments and experiences that would cause them to smile, to give thanks, and to reflect on the goodness and generosity of God. I prayed those prayers incessantly for about four hours. When I heard that they had reached their destination safely, I gave thanks to God and went about my day.

I walked my little doggie and chatted briefly with a neighbor. I took the tiny beast back home and set out on a much longer walk by myself. By the time I got back home, the temperature had risen at least ten degrees - a warm front approached and promised us a respite from the cold we've experienced over the last few days.*

I got into my car and began the drive to church for two Wednesday activities. As I drove up a nearby street, I saw a license plate that said the following: "EPH4UNC." Unbeknownst to most people, the nickname for Williams College students is "Ephs." That word, which rhymes with "reefs," comes from the name Ephraim Williams, who was the founder of my alma mater. There aren't too many mentions of "Ephs" here in Charlotte, so I was intrigued. By way of answering my as yet unasked question, a Williams College sticker was affixed to the back window of the car. I set out in hot pursuit of the license plate. A half mile later, we approached a red light.

I pulled up next to the car in question and signaled to the driver, an elderly gentleman, to roll down his window. While I waited for him to notice me,  I offered up a quick prayer that he wasn't an advocate of "stand your ground" laws who traveled with a loaded pistol by his side. He rolled down the driver's side window, which would have been great if I had been on the driver's side. I was not. He finally figured out how to open the passenger window.

Me: "Sir, did you go to Williams?"
An enormous smile spread slowly across his wrinkled face as he responded proudly, "Yes."
Me: "I did too."
Him: "I was there back in 1948."
Me: "I graduated nearly 40 years later, in 1987. I don't see many Williams stickers in these parts."
Him: "You sure don't." His smile never faded. Nor did mine.
The light turned green, and we both drove on.

After the noon service at church, I sat in the sanctuary thinking, prayed a few more quick prayers that my beloved ones be surprised by joy throughout their day. Then I chatted with a few friends before setting out on an errand - to find a birthday gift for someone I adore.

I ventured into a shop called The Boulevard - no luck with birthday shopping. But I did find an excellent sale corner - 60% off all winter clothing. Jeans, dresses, leggings, skirts, tops - and none of it was exorbitantly priced to begin with. Jeans that were originally $36 were marked down to $14! Even though I don't need any clothes, I picked two pieces anyway: a pair of jeans and a beautiful deep jewel-toned greenish blue top. After the owner rang up my purchases and put them into a bag, we chatted for a couple of minutes about how much she wants to get the winter clothes out of the store. She said that if I knew anybody who needed those things, she would make them a great deal, and whatever she didn't sell would be given to a local women's shelter. Then she asked what color thread (I think she used the word "piping") was in the jeans I had purchased. White or orange? I responded, "Orange, I think." I pulled them out of the bag and, sure enough, it was orange. Then she PUT A PAIR OF THE SAME JEANS WITH WHITE THREAD INTO MY BAG and said, "Just take them. I really want to get this stuff out of the store." What??? And to top it all off, she recommended a nearby shop as a better place to find a gift for my friend. Her suggestion yielded excellent results.

After a successful gift purchase, I drove to a nearby park where I sat and read for about an hour. It was a gorgeous, sunny, warm day - nearly 70 degrees. Delightful. I watched two little red headed sisters as they stared and pointed at bulldozers at work. I watched boys run and play. I watched other children defy gravity and good sense on skateboard ramps. A carload of teenaged boys pulled into the space next to my car, music blaring, heads bobbing. They got out of their car, still singing, and set out on an adventure in the park - as happy as the little to be out in the warm sunshine.

The book I was reading was delightfully insightful and encouraging. About silence and writing and learning to trust that one leads to the other in life-affirming ways. I nibbled on almonds, drank cool water, and gave God thanks for the wonder, the beauty, the warmth, and the joy of that moment.

Tears sprang into my eyes as I realized that my fervent prayers had been answered. I had prayed that two people I love be surprised by joy. But as it turned out the joyful surprises landed on me. Seeing another Eph in Charlotte. Receiving communion at church. Spending time with others on the journey of faith. A gift of a pair of jeans. Meeting a woman who would rather give her goods away than see them go unused and un-enjoyed. Time in the park on a gorgeous day. Observing adults and children, families and single people basking in the warmth of the afternoon. I was the one who had been surprised over and over by laughter and grace and joy. How could I not be thankful for the many answers to my prayers?

Later in the evening, back at church, I saw a woman I met a few weeks ago in a journaling class I taught. She came into the fellowship hall with her husband and three adorable children. After her two daughters spotted me, one ran back to her mother and excitedly pointed me out, "Mom, there's Gail!" I was honored that they remembered me and recalled my name. I look forward to getting to know them all better. Surprised again by joy.

I attended a class entitled, "Race Matters," later in the evening and was profoundly affected by the stories we shared of how race has mattered in our lives. We each told when and how we began to notice our own race and the race of the people around us. Rich, deep, sad, and painful stories. Stories of open minded family members, racist family members, and oblivious family members. Stories that must be acknowledged and told so that dialogue and change and healing and reconciliation can happen. There we all sat, listening, asking questions, opening up, and being held tenderly in community. Surprised by honesty and surprised by joy.

I drove home from church, from the entirety of yesterday, thankul, so very grateful for every moment of it, every conversation, every meal, every story, every phone call, every mile I had safely driven.

Be careful what you pray for - it just might come to pass.

* Okay, okay - if you are in Connecticut, or anywhere north of Virginia for that matter, you can stop rolling your eyes in response to my comment about it being cold down here. I know that our definition of "cold" is far less nuanced than yours. But still, it has been cold for us. We've gotten as low as the single digits a couple of times this winter. We've also had snow - only an inch or two - but that's enough to close schools down here. And ice too. Nothing compared to what you all have endured. I bow in respect for your perseverance and in prayer for a respite from the brutal conditions you have endured up north over the past three months.