Friday, February 05, 2016

What's wrong with this picture?

Yesterday, the woman with the job I most envy (she's a flight attendant for American Airlines and flies regularly to Madrid!) sent me this photo from my favorite city in the world. This is the front of what used to be the central post office in Madrid - it is now a cultural and artistic center, with spaces for people to sit and read and enjoy the view over the Plaza de Cibeles.

Did you figure out what's wrong with this picture?
It's the banner.
The banner is in English - in a city where English is spoken almost exclusively by foreigners.
In a city where the language of heaven, Castillian Spanish, is heard at every turn.
So why is this sign in English?
I'm guessing - because whoever made it knew that the refugees are unlikely to speak Spanish
but far more likely to speak and understand English.
So there flies that banner, high above one of the most beautiful and central plazas and roundabouts in the city I love most in the world. Welcoming refugees. Welcoming the stranger.

What else is wrong with that picture? Absolutely nothing.

One thing I do think is wrong is that I haven't seen photos with banners like that on any central, artistic or cultural centers here in the USA. Now I confess that I don't watch the news often and I never read the newspaper, but I haven't seen or heard of any such sights here.

What I have heard is all to the contrary - keep the refugees out of our state, out of our city, out of our nation. Don't let them in. Don't trust them. They are all ______________ - fill in the blank with something horrific and racist and fear-based. Even though everyone I have ever heard say or write such things live in this country because they or an ancestor of theirs arrived here as an immigrant or a refugee from across an ocean. The people who were already here when those immigrants, those refugees arrived nearly 400 years ago, were subsequently diseased, displaced, exterminated, and those who dared to survive all that were placed on reservations.

I can only imagine what this nation would look like and be like if they had the power to enforce declarations like, "Keep them out. They are all ____________________. Don't trust them. Don't let them in."

Nowadays, we struggle with other types of refugees. Homeless people. Mentally ill people who do not receive adequate mental health care. The poor. The sick. The enslaved. The trafficked. The outcast. We refuse to allow low and mixed income housing in our neighborhoods. We refuse to allow children of all levels of income and privilege to attend school together. We refuse to worship with people who look and live differently than we do. We turn away with disdain and mutter, "Not in my backyard."

Don't even get me started on slavery, Jim Crow, and the ongoing racism against Americans of African descent. It's black history month - the shortest month of the year, of course - and I am being reminded every day this month of all that we have already overcome - and all that is yet to be done. A reasonable argument could be and has been made that African Americans continue to be treated like unwelcome refugees right here at home.

Our banner, if we were courageous enough to hang it in public, would say, "Tired, poor, huddled masses, wretched refuge, homeless, and tempest-tossed, you are not welcome here."

Here's the painful thing - I have to confess that I don't do well with houseguests. I mean, friends come and stay with us for a few days. Perhaps even a week or two. But I get antsy. I need my solitude and silence. I need to not have to drive people everywhere and make sure that food issues are resolved and floors are clean and towels are available. So I don't think I could handle having a refugee family live in my house for months at a time.

But I can and I should hang out a sign of welcome on my face, in my interactions, even in confrontational exchanges - I must be a gracious host everywhere I go. At Loaves and Fishes. When I disagree with someone's political position. When my children speak their mind. When I am approached by someone living with homelessness. When I am engaged in uncomfortable exchanges at seminary. At church when I see someone I don't know. At the supermarket, even when women remove their purses from their buggy when they see me approach. In my neighborhood, when I wave at passersby and they don't wave back (for those of you who don't live in the south: we wave at people who drive in our neighborhoods. The polite and expected thing is to wave back.)

"Refugees welcome."

Cuz aren't we all refugees?
Escaping some form of emotional, physical, spiritual oppression?
Aren't we all running away from our secrets and shame?
Aren't we all being pursued by faces and ghosts of blunders past?
Aren't we all in search of safety, refuge, comfort, and welcome?

Isn't fear the main reason that we seek to keep "them" out, whoever that "them" may be?
Aren't we afraid because we think others just might do to us what we have done to them?
We belittle and humiliate others.
We criticize them.
We reject them.
We insist on them serving us.
We harbor our suspicions and prejudices.
We mindlessly spout stories and accounts we have heard, even though most of us have never suffered at the hands of anyone we think we are justified in rejecting.
We refuse to lay our weapons of mind and soul destruction down.
What if "they" treated us the way we treat "them"?

So when "they" cross our borders,
whoever "they" are,
wherever we build our borders,
our fear of all things and all people and all practices that are not our own
dictates our response.

We say thoughtless things like, "Better safe than sorry."
Is it really better to be safe than sorry?
I read a book today at 24/7 that posed the question -
imagine if God had acted that way?
imagine if God decided that it was better to be safe than sorry,
and Jesus decided not to come to earth after all?
Being born to an unwed teenage mother in ancient Israel is not safe.
Choosing fishermen and tax collectors and former prostitutes and lepers
and hungry people and poor people and outcasts as your friends is not safe.
Rebuking the religious authorities,
knocking over tables in the temple,
touching the untouchable,
walking on the water in the midst of a storm,
remaining silent when the governor questioned him,
being nailed to a cross and buried in a tomb -
none of that was safe.

Standing with those who cannot stand for themselves,
speaking with those whose voices are usually unheard,
sitting with those who sit alone,
speaking against those whose voices dominate.
standing against perpetual mistreatment,
sitting at tables of powerful people and challenging them to be kind and compassionate -
none of that is safe.

But that is what we are called to do.
That is what I am called to do.
That is the right thing to do.
That is the just thing to do.

I wish I could spend most of the rest of my life living in Madrid, walking past that roundabout every week. Sipping hot sweet coffee a few mornings a week. Improving my Spanish. Learning how to make paella.
Unfortunately, that's not going to happen.
Perhaps where I can actually spend the rest of my life is
in the roundabout of living out the message on the banner that hangs above la plaza de Cibeles.
"Refugees welcome."

Welcome in my backyard.
Welcome in my front yard.
Welcome in my church.
Welcome in my friendships.
Welcome in my heart.
Maybe, someday, as God sets me free from my attachment to the quietness and coziness of my house, maybe someday I will even be able to welcome refugees into my home. That's a mighty big maybe...

Saturday, January 30, 2016

What if...

I love when people ask me to pray for them.
A couple of years ago, I asked people to send me an email with prayer requests.
I received far more than I expected.
Even from people who themselves do not pray, don't consider themselves religious people.
I was honored to pray for them, to kneel in my brokenness and plead for mercy for the brokenness of others.

I have no idea how prayer works.
I don't know how (or if) prayer actually changes situations.
But I do know that prayer changes me.
Prayer strengthens me.
Prayer motivates me.
Prayer gives me courage.
Prayer calms my fears.
Prayer reminds me that I am not in charge of anything.
Prayer settles my anxious heart.
Prayer connects me with people I know and people I don't know -
before the throne of God, we are all in need of healing, wholeness, and true freedom.

Who are your favorite prayer warriors?
The ones whose prayers you can count on?
The ones that, when they say they will pray for you, actually do pray for you?

What if the Bible is true when it says that Jesus is at the right hand of God praying for us?
What if Jesus is God? If Jesus is God, then is God praying for us to God?

If Jesus is praying for us, if Jesus is praying for me, then what on earth should I be afraid of?
What on earth should I worry about?

What if I actually believed that Jesus is praying for me?
How would that change the way that I live and breathe and move around in the world?

What if...?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thankful Thursday - On Worry and Gratitude

Ask the average person what they think the Bible is about and I would guess that most people would either say that they have no idea what the Bible is all about or they would say that they think the Bible is a book full of statements and chapters that begin and end with "Thou shalt not."

Truthfully, there are many times when I think the same thing - on both counts.
There are parts of the Scriptures that I cannot decipher, and there are other sections, many sections that begin and end with "Thou shalt not..." And "Do not..."

But that's not always a bad thing. For example, one of the most repeated "Do not..." statements in the Bible is this: "Do not be afraid." Angels appear to people and say, "Do not be afraid." After receiving CPR from said angel, many of those who were told to not be afraid must have been thinking, "That's easy for you to say, Angel dude. You knew you were coming to see me. I had no idea. How on earth am I supposed to not be afraid?"

Do not be afraid in the flood or in the fire - God says in Isaiah - because I am with you.
Do not be afraid - Jesus says to the disciples as he approaches their boat, walking on the water in the midst of a terrible storm - because it's me.
Do not be afraid - the angel Gabriel said to Mary - just before he informed her that she was going to give birth to the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Huge news. Huge life changing news. And a command - Do not be afraid.

Another Biblical mandate is this: Do not worry.
Don't worry about what you will eat or drink or wear.
Don't worry about tomorrow.
Don't worry about anything.

That last one is the one that has been on my mind a lot today.
Here's the verse in its entirety and also the one that follows - Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Easy peasy. Don't worry about anything. Tell God everything. Give thanks in everything. Understand that God's peace is beyond your understanding. Trust that God's peace will guard your hearts and minds. Like I said - easy peasy. Just kidding... this is one of the hardest things in life - this "not worrying" and "not being afraid" thing.

I remember reading someplace that worrying is praying for what you don't want.
But it makes sense - for me, prayer is keeping people and situations in mind, giving them to God over and over again, pleading for peace and healing and restoration and reconciliation.
Worry follows a similar pattern - keeping people and situations in mind, giving them to nobody but my own fear-filled and fear-driven self.

So I get it - I understand why fear and worry don't help anybody.
I understand why fear and worry paralyze me sometimes.
I understand why the Bible commands us not to fear.
But still I worry. Still I struggle with fear.
I admit it - I don't do this Christian walk thing, this life thing, particularly well.

So today, I'm going to tie my fears and worries to gratitude.
I am going to share with you the three things I worry about most.
And I am going to attempt to find reasons to be grateful for those fears and worries.

1. I worry about money.

What if we don't have enough to pay our bills? What if we have an unexpected expense? What if we aren't saving enough for the completion of the kids' college education? What if we aren't saving enough for retirement? What if one of the cars breaks down? What if there's another major medical expense?

Embedded within each of those questions, each of those worries, are reasons to be grateful. Our children are both college students. We have cars that run. We have good enough health that we are not currently in a major medical challenge. We have hope that at some point my husband won't have to work full time to provide for us. We have hope that someday we will be able to travel more, to sit and sip cool drinks on a screened in porch. We have money to worry about. We have savings to add to. My husband is gainfully employed, so much so that for more than twenty years, I was able to stay at home and be a full time, at home, homeschooling mother. And now I am a student again, reading, writing, learning, preparing to serve God and serve people. I am enormously grateful.

Considering how many people have lost their jobs and remain unemployed for years, how many people have lost their homes, how many have never had homes, how many live with homelessness and joblessess, I am challenged to stop my complaining and release my worry and fear. I am challenged to be grateful every day for the ease and abundance I enjoy.

2. I am afraid that something is going to happen to our house, our cars, our computers, our stuff.

In our twenty-four and a half years of marriage, we have lived in four different places: an apartment, a townhouse, and two single-family houses. In those four different settings we have had to do a lot of house repairs. We have laid out a lot of money to keep the roof over our heads and the floors under our feet.

Mold. Mildew. Ants. Cracked bricks. Cracked hardwood. Cracked foundation. Overflowing gutters. Windows that need to be replaced. A driveway in need of repair. Carpeting in need of replacement. A doorknob that no longer works properly. A storm door that no longer closes completely. Dampness. Kitchen cabinets in need of replacement. Painting to be done. Appliances in need of repair or replacement. Leaking pipes. New septic tank. Swimming pool repair. Roof replaced. Wallpaper taken down. Wallpaper put up. Computers infected, disinfected, dead, and replaced. Phones broken. One phone used underwater in a waterproof case that wasn't properly closed.

Here's the thing - that whole long list of work that has been done is also a long list of blessings. We have lived in four amazing homes, places to which we always returned with joy and gratitude. Places where we welcomed friends and families for meals, for parties, for celebrations, for sleepovers, for Bible studies, for baby showers, for bridal showers, and just to hang out together to talk. We have never had a house fire. We have never had our home broken into. We have never had a significant infestation of any kind. We have always had kind, attentive, generous, caring neighbors. They have brought meals when we are sick. They have taken care of our dog when we are away. They have invited us over for parties. Their children have played with our children.

I said I am afraid that something might happen to our house and our stuff. Well, stuff happens all the time. Things break. Things malfunction. Things fall. I am grateful that each one of those things serves as a reminder of the countless things that have been mine to enjoy, mine to clean, mine to repair, mine to replace.
Mine. Ours. God's.
Grateful, grateful, grateful.

3. And I worry and am afraid, most of all, that something will happen to my family, my friends, and other people I love.

Stuff has happened to my family, my friends, and everyone I love. Stuff does happen. Stuff will always happen. Kanswer. Diabetes. Depression. Job loss. Divorce. The loss of a parent. The loss of a child. The loss of a pet. Finding a job after many years of unemployment - and facing the challenge of maintaining relationships and a home that had been the focus of attention during those years at home. Getting pregnant within months of completing kanswer treatment - wondering about the possibility of a return of the kanswer due to elevated estrogen levels during pregnancy and beyond.

Stuff happens. Difficult stuff. Painful stuff. Frightening stuff.
Good stuff too. Encouraging stuff. Love stuff. Friendship stuff.
Lunch after too long without any time together.
Writing together with another journaling soul.
Creative activities together.
Meeting for tea and talking.
Texting someone I don't get to see as often as I'd like.
Being asked to teach, to preach, to drop by.

I am enormously grateful that even though "stuff happens" to me and to everyone I know, love remains. Friends remain. Hope remains. Joy remains. And that's not all - love grows, hope grows, joy grows, friendships grow.

Depending on the translation of the Bible you read, it is possible to find more than three hundred places where we are told, "Do not be afraid" and "Do not worry." I disobey both of those admonitions every day. But I am grateful for the people, the places, the stories, the faces, the relationships, and the many adventures that prompt me to worry and be afraid. If I weren't so profoundly blessed, I wouldn't have as much to worry about or be afraid to lose.

I hope and pray that when the rising waters of fear threaten to drown me,
when the fire of worry threatens to consume me,
that is the moment when I need to pull out my journal and make a gratitude list.
That is the moment when I need to get on my knees and give thanks to God for every person and every situation and every meal and every trip and everything I have seen and known and experienced.

Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Thankful Thursday

I am thankful for electricity and heat and running water and food.
There's a dreadful winter weather forecast for our area.
Snow and freezing rain and ice. Potential power outages.
Schools have already been closed for tomorrow.
I know it's nothing compared to what is expected a few hours north of here.
I know it's nothing compared to what is the norm in many northern cities and states.
But I live in the South. We don't do snow. We don't do ice. We don't do freezing rain.
We panic. We load up on milk and eggs and bread - an inch or two of snow can paralyze the region for days. Ice takes down our power lines and plunges us into panicky darkness.

At times like this, I worry about the folks who sleep outside in tents, in parks, on benches.
I worry that there aren't enough beds in shelters and churches for those who live with homelessness.
I worry about people who don't have heat in their homes.
I worry about those who may be indoors, may have heat, but don't have enough food.
Worry is the wrong word - I think about them often. I pray for them even more.
I know, I know - praying is good, but it's not good enough.
So after I pray, I give. I serve. I try to find other ways to help.
I encourage others to do the same.
All the while, I give thanks for the blessings of our home, my family and God's bountiful provision.

I am thankful for my children.
I have a friend who has four daughters. When they were younger, she regularly thanked them for choosing her to be their mother. She would say something like, "Before you were born, you were in heaven and God told you that you could pick a woman to be your Mom. I'm so glad you chose me."
Parenting is not easy. Not at all. But I am thankful that my children chose me to be their mom.
I am grateful that they still choose to tell me so much of what is going on in their lives and hearts and relationships.
I am thankful for the homeschooling journey we completed last year.
I am thankful for my children's independence.
Even though I spent more time than I care to admit worrying that they would never be able to handle academics in "the real world," even though I worried that they weren't really learning anything at home, but they were just glad not to have to take the school bus every day - even though I was a chronically underprepared homeschooling mom, they are both articulate, self-motivated, self-confident, critical thinkers inside and outside the college classroom.
I am grateful for all the leftover school supplies - spiral notebooks, colored pencils, folders, glue sticks, watercolor paint, stickers, staplers, paper clips, rubber bands, to name a few - that I still get to play with, journal with, and even use for seminary.

I am thankful for the tough conversations around issues of justice here in Charlotte.
School segregation and desegregations.
How churches can and should be involved in these conversations.
How uncomfortable it makes us all feel.
How we are reminded of our desire to ignore what doesn't affect us personally.
I am grateful for the many people working together and working separately to educate our children.
I am grateful for the challenge to remember that I cannot be concerned only for my children;
rather, I must be concerned for our children. All of us. All of our children.
I am grateful for the patience exhibited by those who are on the forefront of these discussions about equity and education with those of us who are less aware, less involved, less fluent in the language of justice.

I am thankful for -

* adult coloring books. No, I am thankful for coloring books.
I am not sure why some are for kids and others are for adults.

* sweet potatoes, especially when they are peeled and cubed ahead of time

* my yoga mat and the stretching and breathing I get to do when I'm on it

* my Bosu ball and hand weights - and the balancing and strengthening they provide

* stories like this one that give me hope, stories like this one that make me groan, and stories like this one that make me smile. Discussions about how to end - or at least, diminish - racism, watching Stephen Colbert, and travel planning all make me think and live more deeply.

* seminary! Have I mentioned that I love my seminary classes? Or how every Sunday I understand more of what I hear and experience at church because of what I am learning in seminary every Saturday? Or how, even though there have been disagreements and misunderstandings, there have also been moments of discovery and delight? Prayers I have prayed for decades, songs I have sung, beliefs I have embraced - some of them originated more than fifteen hundred years ago, and finally they begin to make sense to me.

Potentially dangerous wintry weather could result in cancelled classes this weekend. Because I have always been addicted to school, tonight is not the first night I have prayed that the forecasters are wrong and that school will be open. Beginning early in elementary school, I was the kid who prayed that school would not be cancelled. I was a conflicted child because I wanted to go to Sunday School five days a week and weekday school for two days. Except for when I wished I could go to my weekday school five days a week. I always wanted to be in school - whether that was at church or elsewhere.

All this writing and thinking about the winter storm approaching has reminded me that I need to get on my robe and pajamas before I strategize about what we would do in the event of a power outage. What we would eat. And what tropical island I will fantasize about living on as this cold night turns into a cold morning.

Stay warm, my friends.
Stay grateful.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Stormy Weather

Several times in the past few months, I have written about We Walk Together, a newly formed walking group here in my beloved Charlotte. Walking. Talking. Laughing. Taking photos. Learning the history of our city. Seeing the broken places. Inspiring one another to be "repairers of the breach." During the summer and fall, we walked two, sometimes three times per week. Once we completed our fall schedule of walks, we took a break. Well, now we are back on the move. 

Our 2016 plan is to walk together every month on the 15th of the month and find a way to serve the community the 30th of the month. Last Friday was our first walk of the year. And on January 30th, the group will join an organization called Perfect Provisions to serve a meal to people living with homelessness. 

Because I talk so much and write so much and like talking about what I write and writing about what I talk about, I was asked to provide an inspirational quote for each walk. Sometimes I quoted other writers. Sometimes I wrote original pieces. Sometimes I combined someone else's words with my own. Always, I felt honored and humbled to speak to those who joined us in our meandering.

This is what I read last Friday morning - There’s a magnet on my refrigerator with a quote by Vivian Greene that says, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain…” Here we are on a cold, cloudy morning, with rain threatening. It would be easy to stay indoors on a day like this, to avoid stormy weather. It would be easy to postpone a walk because of possible rain. But sometimes the best thing we can do is go for the walk anyway, dance anyway. In life, we all face storms and challenges related to our health, finances, relationships, politics and more. We can hide and pout and be afraid. Or we can dance. We can walk through the storms - and we can do it together. As we walk together this morning, can we encourage each other to find ways to dance in the rain? To be grateful and keep our spirits high and our hearts in one piece even when we are struggling to stay above water? As we walk, perhaps we can dance a little bit too. 

After I read it, someone wondered aloud if there were crosswalk signs anywhere that suggested that pedestrians dance across the street. I commented about seeing an advertisement in Spain many years ago with a photograph of a crosswalk signal that said just that: Don't Walk. Dance. And I boldly suggested that on our walk that morning, that we should dance across an intersection. 

This past Sunday evening, my daughter and I attended a service honoring Martin Luther King Jr's birthday - and the preacher's sermon was entitled: "Your Storm, His Peace." His chosen Biblical passage was the eighth chapter of Matthew - the story of Jesus being asleep in the boat while the disciples faced a terrible storm. 

"Don't you care that we are drowning?" That's the question they asked Jesus when they woke him up. For them, this was a life-threatening storm. For Jesus, apparently it was white noise, so unimpressive that he slept through it. Their storm needed his peace. They begged him to save them, and he did. He calmed the storm. Then they wondered, fearfully it appears, who the heck he was that even the wind and waves obeyed him. 

I have faced some storms in my life. I am still facing storms in my life.
So have you. So are you. 
So is the whole wide world. 
Today I heard about another school shooting, this time at a university in Pakistan.
I heard the story of a student hanging himself in a student hostel in India.
Recently, I heard the story of a woman who lost her baby just hours after childbirth.
Poisoned water system in Flint, Michigan.
Kanswer, kanswer, too much kanswer. 
Hospice care. All night vigils.
Depression. Diabetes. 
Anniversaries of tragedies. 
Wars and rumors of wars.
Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Snow. Ice. Sleet. 
So many storms. 

We don't all face the same storms.
Nor do we face them at the same time or in the same ways.
Kind of like the way storms roll around this country and the world.
Kind of like the way it's winter right now where I live 
but it's summer right now where The Australian Open tennis tournament is happening.
Their storms are different from our storms. 
Your storms are different from my storms.
Someone I love dearly was diagnosed with breast kanswer a year before I was - Stage 0. Until she told me about it, I never knew that Stage 0 even existed. A little over a year later - I was diagnosed with Stage 2B. Just a year later, someone I knew, someone almost twenty years younger than I am - Stage 3B. The wife of an old friend of mine lives with chronic Stage 4 breast kanswer. Different storms. Different times. Different stages. 
Same desperate need for peace. 
Our storms. God's peace. 
The three of us felt it, basked in it, emerged from kanswer deeply indwelt by God's peace.
Others are still in the stormy weather. Bracing for impact. For the roof to be blown off. 
For the house to be shaken from its foundation.

On Sunday night, the preacher challenged us to imagine ourselves in a flood situation.
Having climbed an embankment or a hill, we watch in horror as our houses, the whole house, floats down a swollen river. Everything. Gone. Floating away. 
We may never have to experience that kind of devastating loss, but we are not immune from suffering. We are not immune from loss. We are not immune from sorrow. 
There aren't tornado shelters strong enough or secure enough to guarantee our protection from the storms that life inevitably brings our way. 

I pray a lot. A lot. And often when I pray, I ask God the same question that the disciples asked Jesus: Don't you care that we are drowning? 

Then I create variations on that ancient query.
Don't you care that we are suffering?
Don't you care that there are children living in deep poverty and attending dreadful schools?
Don't you care that the planet is getting hotter and storms are more frequent and more intense?
Don't you care that there are so many people who are hungry and homeless and sick?
Don't you care?

As the questions arise, so does the realization that these are questions that must be asked and answered in the mirror. And out in the world. In conversation. In food banks. In school board meetings. In classrooms. In town hall gatherings. In government centers. In churches. In our neighborhoods. And yes, sometimes in our own backyards. 

In the meantime, in the in-between time, let there be dancing. Let there be singing. Let there be rejoicing. Because lives are changing. Lives are being saved. Communities are coming together to solve gang, drug, and violent crime issues. Churches are opening doors and sanctuaries and fellowship halls to provide shelter on cold nights. Protesters are making their voices and requests heard. Permanent housing is being constructed and offered to those in chronic homelessness. And larger conversations are happening around transforming our broken school systems so that our children can be educated and prepared for a productive life in their communities. This work is not easy. It is not fast. It brings its own difficulties, its own storm clouds. 

I live in an area where some news programs refer to their weather forecast segments with names like "Severe Weather Center 9." Strong storms are frequent in these parts. When there is thunder and lightning, we are advised to wait for the storm to pass before venturing outside. We are warned against using electric and electronic appliances. Stay away from windows. And in extreme cases, residents on the coast of North Carolina are forced to board up windows and head for safety inland.  

I confess that there have been many moments in my life when I have wished I could board up the windows and head inland for safety from the hardest moments. The first week of each three week chemotherapy cycle was always one of those times. During my father's bout with kanswer. During some of the early years of parenting. During the illnesses of other loved ones. Following the shootings in Sandy Hook in December of 2012 and in Charleston, SC in June of 2015. And those are just the stories that affected me on a personal and spiritual level. We have all had those moments. The world reels from those moments - every single day. 

The good news is that in the midst of my storms, every single one of them, I have felt peace. 
Inexplicable peace. 
Undeniable peace. 
Life-affirming peace. 
God's peace that passes all understanding - because I know it didn't come from inside me. 
Peace that kept me calm and hopeful during chemo.
Peace that kept me calm and joyful in Haiti and Nicaragua.
Peace that kept me calm and confident when the second Gulf War began while I was in Europe.
Peace that reminds me that I am not alone. I am never alone. Nor are you. 

I can't see God. I can't feel God. Not directly anyway. But I believe that I see God in the smiles, the eyes, the faces of those who walk and work and live with me. I believe that I feel God in the touch, the tenderness, the embrace of my friends and family. And I believe that experience the presence of God in the company of those who walk and dance with me along life's journey. 

Last Friday, we did dance across one intersection on our walk. 
Arms raised. Bottoms shaking. Laughing out loud. 

In life, we walk together.
We laugh together.
We suffer together.
We weep together.
We dance together. 
We face storms together.

I cannot and will not speak for you and your house.
But as for me and my house, in our storms, we rely on His peace. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thankful Thursday - My Dog Trainer

Our neighbors have a new dog. A beautiful little Snickerdoodle or some other extra cute combination of dog breeds. His name is Toby and he is adorable, frisky, easily excitable - like every puppy. They have hired a woman to help them train him. When to give him treats and when not to. When and where to walk him and when and where not to walk him. Leash or not. Collar or harness. Turn your back on him when he does this, face him when he does that. So much to remember. So much to practice.
How cute was Toby when he was teeny weeny?

In some ways, their three month old puppy is already better behaved and obedient than our ten year old dog. He will retrieve his favorite toy dozens of times, with increasing excitement and precision. One afternoon, we watched him run back and forth across their backyard, chasing that little purple donut toy more times than Maya has retrieved anything in all of her life. All ten years! My daughter and I shook our heads in amazement - and I came home wishing we had done a better job of training our little beast in the early years. I'm pretty sure that I don't have the patience to train our old dog any new tricks. Nor do I want to pay a dog trainer. I'm way too cheap for that.

Besides, I already have a dog trainer. Not the kind of trainer who comes to the house and trains the dog and dog owners how to interact. Not that kind. My dog is my trainer - get it? Dog trainer. For the last ten years, my sweet little Yorkie has been training me to be a better wife, better mother, and better person.

 Meet my Maya.

Here are a few ways in which Maya is training me.

1. She is training me to be contented with what I have. That dog has had the same squeaky toys for most of her life. One of them is a well-used gray hippo, small enough to fit into her tiny mouth and cart around. She picks it up and tosses her head back, throwing it across our family room, sometimes up onto the hearth, sometimes up onto the couch. Then she runs to pick it up and throw it again. How did she learn to throw it like that? I have no idea. But she loves that little toy. I am married to somebody who likes buy her new toys. But she doesn't care - she goes back to her little hippo.

I need to learn to be more contented with what I have. The people. The relationships. The clothes. The food. The house. The body. The challenges. The joys. All of it. I mean, I like my stuff. I love my study and all the books and journals that line the shelves in there. I love my clothes and my shoes and boots. And I have more than I need. But still... but still... It is so easy to go shopping for things I don't need, to stock up of stuff, just in case. In case of what? I'm not exactly sure. Doomsday prepping, perhaps. What if it snows and we lose power? We need lots of canned food and other things that don't need to be cooked. What if it gets hot and we lose power? We need bottled water. What if? What if? What if? When in doubt, buy more canned beans, more pairs of socks, and more wine. If we lose power, I may need a strong drink to stay calm.

Maya has no fear of a doomsday. She doesn't worry about the latest toy gadgets or new foodie recipes or having a sparkly new collar. She is happy to be alive, to have a warm place to lay down, food in her bowl, and water in her tea cup (yes, she drinks out of a tea cup). She exemplifies contentment. I need to follow her lead.

2. She is training me to be more alert to my surroundings. When she holds her head up as high as she can, her face is about nine inches from the ground. When she lowers her face, it is only about one inch from the ground - or closer. She sniffs everything. She wants to investigate every crumb she finds on the floor and wander through every tuft of grass outside. Her curiosity and interest in her surroundings are inexhaustible.

I need to learn to keep my head up and not down. When I walk, I tend to look down at my feet. I tend to be clumsy and have been known to trip over cracks in the sidewalk frequently. But the other night,  on a frigid Charlotte night, when I went out walking with my dog trainer, I looked up, all the way up at the sky. Stars. Millions of stars. Peering up at the starry sky, I nearly tripped over my tiny dog - who was peering down and sniffing everything around her. I thanked her for dragging me out into the cold night - not sure where my husband was and why he wasn't out there with her. But I suppose I owe him a word of thanks as well - if I hadn't taken her out, I would have missed the majesty of the heavens.

Same thing is true about my emotional life. I tend to be an optimist, always looking for the silver lining, the rainbow, the happy cliche to lift my spirits. But like everybody, I can sometimes lean the other way, finding more reasons (excuses?) to complain than to be grateful. That's when I need to look up - look up at the sky above me, look up at the journals on the shelves above my desk, look up at the roof over my head, look up at the chandeliers in the sanctuary of the church I love, look up into the eyes of my son, look up at the shelves in our pantry, look up at the photos on the shelves and walls of my family room, look up to the sky and say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, Lord, for the bountiful blessings of this life you have given me."

3. Maya is training me to get outside more. Whenever anyone opens the front door or the door that goes out onto the back deck, that little dog comes running, barking. The only time she doesn't want to go outside is when it's raining. She will chase the squirrels that appear on the deck. When she's tired of chasing squirrels and snapping at the bees buzzing around her, she will plop down under the bench and take a nap. On spring days, when she is done with "doing her business," she will plop down on a neighbor's lawn and pretend that she can't walk another step. She will bark at people as they walk past our house. (See? She's terribly trained. She's practically not trained at all.) She wants to be outside all the time.

This past summer and fall, I walked more miles than any other summer of my life. I joined an awesome group of people who decided to walk 100 miles here in Charlotte, getting to know the city and each other after the tragedy of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. I made the acquaintance of dozens of people I would never had known otherwise. We explored areas of Charlotte I wouldn't have known otherwise. We Walk Together Charlotte will gather together tomorrow morning to begin another round of walks here in our beloved Queen City. Rain or shine. Cold or hot. Get together. Get outside. Look around. Look at each other. Look within.

4. Maya is training me on how to love. That dog is madly, and I do mean madly, in love with my husband. Mention the word "daddy" in her presence and she will instantaneously wake up from a nap, jump off of whatever piece of furniture she's on, and run to the kitchen door, tail wagging. When he's at home, she's with him. When he's not at home, she's looking out for him. She wants to eat what he's eating. She wants to sleep where he's sleeping. When we are out for a walk, she stops to stare at every car that approaches to see if it's his car. Believe me, she recognizes his car when she sees it. And when it is his car, when he drives past us headed for home, she becomes my 9 pound sled dog - pulling, pulling, pulling, tail wagging, all the way home. Her love for him is immeasurable and immovable.

How cute and young were we???

There was a time when I loved him that way. There was a time when he was the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing on my mind at night. Truthfully, that is still often the case - but mostly it's me being annoyed by his snoring before I fall off to sleep and upon waking. I won't lie - there are also quick flashes of "What is that smell?"

Don't get me wrong; I love my husband. He's the most generous person I have ever known. He takes better care of his mother than any other man, any other person I know. He has siblings, but he is his mother's only caregiver. He cares for her with a level of humor, patience, and consistency that I cannot begin to comprehend. And don't get me started on how much he adores and spoils his children. 

Having said all that, I confess that I need to relearn how to love him and my kids and my friends the way Maya loves: freely, fully, unreservedly. I calculate. I keep score. I keep a journal - a written record of the ways and times that I think I've been wronged. I often don't even come downstairs to the kitchen when my family members come home from their many outings and activities. I need a transfusion of some of Maya's passionate, undiminished love potion. I need to regain my sense of humor around marriage and parenting. 

I need to return frequently to the photo albums and journal entries of earlier parenting. Back when my kids didn't talk back. Back when they volunteered to do chores. Back when they went to be before I did. At the same time, those photos and journals remind me that I had to drive them everywhere they wanted to go and then wait for them to be done. I had to do their laundry and make their beds. I had to make sure they woke up at the right time and completed their assignments. I don't have to do any of that anymore. I am enormously grateful for how well they have raised themselves.

I need to return frequently to the journal of my recent trip to Hilton Head with my husband, the written account of the best week of our marriage. We have continued to honor and enjoy other's company since that trip, but I want to do even better. I want to be even better. I want to take more lessons on love from my sweet little beastie dog. 

5. Maya is training me in trust and faith. She trusts that we will feed her and walk her. She trusts that we will pet her and scratch her back. She trusts that when we leave, we will come back. She trusts that she is safe with us. She trusts my husband the most, but she trusts all of us.

I have sooooooo much to learn about trust and faith. I want to learn how to go deeper in my trust that all is well, that all shall be well. Even when I'm angry at the tenor of politics in our country. Even when I'm worried about money. Even when I'm jealous of the success of other writers. Even when I get nervous in movie theaters, wondering if someone has a loaded gun and is planning to open fire on us in the darkness. Even when I am impatient with and critical of my seminary classmates. Even when I am journaling furiously about how much I hope to the Powerball lottery, buy a one way ticket to Madrid, change my name, and live in a penthouse apartment above el paseo de la Castellana in the only city where my soul is completely at home. I am learning to trust that God walks with me right here in Charlotte. God works with me as I sweep and dust and do laundry. God hears me as I pray, as I complain, as I give thanks, as I share my heart with dear friends and other loved ones. God's faithfulness and tenderness are increasingly evident in my life - or perhaps God hasn't changed. Perhaps I'm the one who is changing, seeing more, hearing more, believing more, trusting more. Either way, I want more faith, more trust - so much more.

6. Maya is training me that age is just a number. Well, except for the stiff joints in the morning, the teeth that have to get professionally cleaned and pulled when they rot, and the hesitation to run and jump quite as much and as vigorously as she used to. Yes, all of that is about Maya - she has knee caps that slide out of place. She needs to get her teeth cleaned every year, and this year, one of her teeth fell out while they were being cleaned. Poor thing. She used to jump down off our bed when she heard Steve come in from work - yes, I put her up on the bed every now and then. She doesn't sleep up there, but sometimes she gets to lay on the bed and watch television with me. Anyway, she used to jump down when she heard the kitchen door open. No more. She will stand at the edge of the bed, tail wagging, but she won't jump anymore. In dog years, she's more than 70 years old. She will turn 11 in May. But even the veterinarian's nurses and groomers comment on how young she seems.

I've got a few sore joints of my own - aching and cracking ankles and knees. I definitely don't jump or run as much as I used to - I am grateful to be able to walk these long morning walks and jump on the rebounder. Running is overrated as far as I'm concerned. My hairline is receding. My skin is beginning to create lines and wrinkles. I get my teeth cleaned twice a year because I don't want any of them to fall out.

Yesterday, I sat for several hours with my mother-in-law before and after her oral surgery yesterday. The last of her teeth were removed so that she can be fitted for dentures. During all the years I have known her, more than 25 years, she has commented about my teeth. "Look at those beautiful teeth." "You have such beautiful teeth, Gail." I'm not bragging about my teeth; I am pointing out that she always points out my teeth. Her compliments make me extremely uncomfortable. Every time she says something about them, I feel like a horse being looked at before being sold. "Check her legs. Check her feet. Check her teeth." Someday I will be brave enough to say, "Claire, I am neither a horse nor a slave being considered for purchase. Stop staring at and talking about my teeth." In the meantime, I will keep brush and floss these pearly whites - I want to keep them for at least twenty-five more years. To that end, I have dental floss stashed in my car, in my purse, in the drawer of my nightstand, in my desk drawer - I'm a bit of a dental floss fanatic. Perhaps because of the circumstances, perhaps because of the quinoa I had had for lunch, I flossed my teeth while waiting for my mother-in-law's teeth to be extracted.

Like my favorite doggie trainer, I too am getting up there in years - and also in experience and joy and gratitude. There are many people who don't get to live 50 years. There are lots of people whose teeth don't last 50 years. There are many people who don't survive kanswer. There are many people who don't have ankles or knees or legs.

Age is just a number. But every one of those numbers is a gift, a blessing, an honor and a responsibility. I am so happy, so grateful to be alive. No shame. No covering up. No denying my age. I have lived long and lived well. Thanks be to God.

I am enormously grateful for every mile these creaky knees have carried me. I am grateful for every smile that has etched a line on my face. I am grateful for the buckets of tears I have cried - all of which were once carried in the bags under my eyes. I am grateful for all the books I've read - even the ones I have forgotten. I am grateful for the classes I've taught and the ones I've taken. I am grateful for the photo albums and journal pages. I am grateful for the scars too - the scars I etching into my legs and knees and elbows from dozens of falls during my 50 years, the shingles scars that formed on my neck when I was in 9th grade, and the post-kanswer scars in my armpits, across my chest, and on my abdomen - because they all remind me that I have survived 100% of the challenges I have faced in my lifetime. Thanks be to God.

I don't know how much longer Maya will be with us.
I don't know how much longer I will be with Maya.
But this much I do know - I will be grateful for every day.
Every meal. Every toy. Every walk.
Every hug from my husband and children.
Every safe trip and every safe return home.
Every flight. Every ride. Every journey.
Every birthday and anniversary.
Every Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve.

I am grateful for every training session Maya has given me over these past 10+ years.

Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea #SpeakeasyBookReview

I have a confession to make: I don't really like to cook.
I like to eat, as does my family. But cooking, not so much.
I have an apology to offer:  I am woefully unqualified to review a cookbook.

What was I thinking? Here is what I was thinking: I like tea. A lot. I drink tea nearly everyday, sometimes more than one steaming mug of that elixir each day. So when I read the description of this book, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea, by Annelies Zijderveld, in the Speakeasy Book review email, I said, "Yes." Immediately after accepting the request to write the review, I began to worry and  even regret my decision. I am not an enthusiastic cook. I am not an adventurous cook. I am barely a cook at all. However, now that I've had the book for a few weeks and have had a chance to cook through some of it, I am glad I let my love of tea guide me to this lovely book about tea.

It is a beautiful book. Photographs of pasta dishes, fancy teapots, silverware, flowers, fruit, dishes of well-crafted food - it is all delightful to look at and the recipes we created were delightful to eat and drink. I must be honest - my daughter and I (she is really the better cook of the two of us) didn't make every recipe in the book. In the coming days and weeks, we plan to make more of them, and we expect that we will enjoy the future finished products as much as we have enjoyed the ones we've tried thus far.

Annelies begins the book by explaining the differences between the types of tea we commonly drink - black tea, green tea, white tea, oolongs, and herbal tisanes (she explains why they aren't actually "tea"). She goes on to explain how to brew tea - water temperatures and brewing times. She specifies kitchen utensils and pantry supplies that will make cooking with tea an easier endeavor. Those few pages piqued my curiosity and drew me into the rest of the book with greater interest.

I had no idea that breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert could be so elegantly elevated by the addition of tea. I had no idea that popcorn, ice cream, granola, smoothies, jam, pancakes, salads and even egg sandwiches could benefit from the deep flavors and rich colors of tea. I love a warm cup of matcha green tea in the morning, but seeing it poured over ice cream like a sauce, deepened my appreciation of its versatility. One of my favorite soups is corn chowder, and this book substitutes the traditional veggie broth with chamomile tea. Lovely.

One suggestion I would make to anyone planning to buy and use this book, make sure you read the recipe completely before beginning it. I suppose that's true of any recipe book, but we made the mistake of not reading all the way through and sometimes found ourselves unprepared for the steps as we read them. So if you find that you need to brew tea and let it steep for significant periods of time, or if you are making a yogurt parfait that includes the step of allowing tea and yogurt to refrigerate together for up to four days, or if you need to raise the temperature of jelly up to 220 degrees but you don't have a thermometer, you are in trouble. Trust me on that. I am somebody who tends to decide on a recipe based on whether I already have the ingredients in the house. In the case of many of these recipes, mercifully they were made of relatively common ingredients (which is a blessing) but they involve relatively adventurous techniques (which is a challenge for kitchen novices like me). Let me emphasize that this is not a complaint about the book - it is a suggestion for its readers. Even after reading the introduction and tea primer, I still managed to not be prepared for all that the recipes required. So I figured I would pass along this example of my ineptitude as a warning to others to be more attentive than I was.

If you like to cook, if you like to drink tea, if you like to rethink and reconfigure dishes that you have mastered, and if you are intrigued by the idea of mixing the teas you love into the foods you love, then this is the cookbook for you. And if you are like me, and you just like to look at beautiful cookbooks and drool over well edited photographs, then this is the cookbook for you too.

When/If you buy this book and decide which dishes you will create and recreate, please invite me over to taste your tea-soaked creations.
I'm always up for a hot cup of tea and an enthusiastic conversation while enjoying somebody else's cooking.
Just ask my daughter.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review, and the review and opinions offered here are my own. I do not receive any compensation for writing this review or posting a link to purchase the book. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Insulated or Isolated?

I really like living in Charlotte. Great weather most of the time. Good food. Lots of churches to choose from. Friendly people - for the most part.

This city and our neighbors warmly and openly welcomed our biracial, homeschooling family way back in November of 2002. As a homeschooling family, we didn't have any problems with the public school system. I never learned much about the school system - not even when our neighborhood was rezoned from one elementary school and high school to two different schools. The new high school is twice the distance from our house as the old one is, but again, it didn't matter to me because I knew my children weren't going to either one.

Last night, I attended a meeting for a local grassroots education advocacy group called OneMeck. Passionate, dedicated, determined, informed, convincing, and committed, these men and women are hard at work trying to change Charlotte-Mecklenburg (our county) Schools (CMS). I can't and won't try to quote exact statistics (check out their website if you want to know more specifics - actually, check out their website even if you don't. their work is truly impressive), but I will say that far too many of our city and county's students are segregated by race and socio-economic status. Many of the schools are more than 90% one race. Too many schools have more than 90% of their students living in poverty. There is too much data that shows the negative affects of this kind of isolation to allow this situation to go unchallenged. So OneMeck and several other groups here in Charlotte are working towards change. Last night, the topic of the meeting was affordable housing - how to acquire more, build more, scatter it all over the city, and how it will affect our entire city and county in positive ways.

Those of us who live in the suburbs of the city, those who live in the more affluent areas of the city and county, those who have the privilege to homeschool or send our children to private school or send our children to high-achieving public schools often do just that in order to insulate our children from situations that we think may be difficult or dangerous or somehow detrimental to their emotional, educational, physical well-being. We think we can protect them from life's challenges in our brick houses and school fences and fine automobiles. We use our powerful voices and influence to vote down initiatives that would create affordable housing developments in "our back yard." "Let them live somewhere else," we say. Whoever they are. Wherever they live.

One of the leaders of OneMeck, Justin Perry, works with people who are dealing with addictions. He frequently talks about how many of his wealthier clients are driven to addiction because of isolation - the isolation of wealth, the isolation of assuming that money will make life better or easier, the isolation of expectations that all is well and that money solves loneliness.

We think we can insulate ourselves from problems, but what we end up doing is isolating ourselves from one another.

Insulation is a great thing in the walls, the floor, the attic, and the basement.
Insulation is a great thing in our coats, vests, gloves and hats.

But insulation is not so great when it creates a buffer between me and my feelings,
or me and my husband and children,
or me and the people around me at church or in my neighborhood or in my city.
Insulation quickly leads to isolation.

I want to protect my children, to insulate them from pain and suffering,
but I often end up creating a bubble around them.
A bubble that keeps them from learning how to handle bullies,
coaches who are bullies,
classmates who are bullies,
pastors who are bullies,
and even extended family members who are bullies.
A bubble that keeps them from learning how to live with other people,
how to learn from other people,
how to love other people.
A bubble that keeps them from recognizing the beauty and the pain,
the talents and the trials,
the power and the weakness,
the greatness and the meanness that is within all of us.

I want to protect myself, to insulate myself from ever feeling ill-at-ease,
but I often end up creating a bubble around myself.
A bubble that keep me from seeing, appreciating, befriending, loving, and walking alongside people who are different from me,
people who aren't married and don't have children,
people who don't go to church and aren't interested in God,
people who go to church but have different beliefs than mine,
people who are homeless,
people who are addicted to one thing or another,
people whose political leanings frighten me,
people who advocate and engage in violence
- and people who are wise and gracious,
people whose strength is underestimated,
whose weakness is overestimated,
and whose personhood, whose wholeness, whose glory is overlooked.

My desire to insulate myself from those things and those people
that make me uncomfortable,
that make me afraid,
that make me angry,
that make me want to walk away,
that desire to avoid trouble and uneasiness, if I give in to it, provides me with temporary relief from the discomfort, but the long term outcome is isolation. Distance. Deeper angst. Profound loneliness.

I remember being at a student government meeting in college in which we were talking about course requirements at Williams. At the time, all students were required to take a foreign language. We were permitted to take a proficiency exam to see if we could opt out of college courses or we could choose to take classes on campus. I remember that one of the students objected to the language requirement because, he said, "Everybody wants to come live in this country anyway, so why should we have to learn another language? Let them learn to speak English."

I was flabbergasted. Struck silent by his arrogance and avowed isolationist way of thinking. Fortunately I was not the only one in the room appalled by his comment; others in the room practically leaped across the table in vehement rejection of his point of view.

But there it was - insulation and isolation at work. Let me isolate and insulate myself from having to learn anybody else's language or culture. Let me create a bubble around myself and my education and my mindset so that I don't have to welcome any other way of thinking or anyone else's way of life. I wonder if he's preparing to vote for Donald Trump in the upcoming republican primaries...

I don't know what my role is in this movement towards school desegregation. I don't know if I will have any role beyond showing up at meetings and supporting those who are doing the hard work of trying to change the trajectory of the school board and the schools they oversee.

I don't know what my role will be in the movement towards racial, religious, and personal reconciliation either. I don't know if I will have any role beyond showing up at meetings, at church services, at seminary classes, at neighborhood barbecues, at the supermarket, at the mall - and being a woman of grace, of joy, and of peace. I will listen and pray. I will ask questions and pray. I will laugh and cry and pray. I will speak up and pray. I will shout and I will sit in silence and pray. I will kneel, I will stand, I will march, I will walk - and I will pray the whole time. I will teach and preach and write - and I will pray.

There is a lot that I don't know, but I do know this:
neither insulation nor isolation are working in CMS.
Neither is working in my home or in my heart.
Neither is working in the church.
Neither is working in seminary.
Neither is working my my city.
Neither is working in our nation.
Neither is working in our world.

May God have mercy on us
and may we have mercy on each other
as we work to end the insulation and isolation
that are threatening to destroy us all.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thankful Thursday - Happy New Year

My husband and I agree that 2015 has been the fastest year of our lives.
It has absolutely flown past.
How is it that we are at December 31st already?
Whether or not we can explain it, here we are.
Looking back at a full and busy old year.
Staring a new year in the face.

There is so much to be grateful for.
People. Places. Names. Faces. Stories.
Meals. Trips. Clothing. Gifts.
Opportunities. Joys. Anniversaries. Birthdays.
Protection. Provision. Purpose.
We survived another year. I survived another year.
In good health. In good company. In good spirits.
It hasn't been the easiest year or the happiest year of my life.
But I made it. We made it.

As I sit here pondering this year that is coming to its end,
I remember many moments of sorrow, sadness and tears.
The horrible shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
The death of my Spanish mother, Marta.
The untimely death of my former neighbor's husband.
Too many kanswer diagnoses for too many people I know.
School shootings. Movie theaters. Malls. Playgrounds.
Innocent people gunned down, killed, or otherwise deceased without explanation or just cause.
Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray.
The refugee crises - in Africa, in Europe, right here in the Americas. People are on the move, running from torture and suffering.
Catastrophic floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other (un)natural disasters.
The rise of Trumpism in our country and the violence and racism and prejudice that his fear-mongering has unleashed.
Too many other sorrows to name.

I remember reasons for joy and gratitude too.
The birth of my first grand-nephew, Myles.
Two more on the way - all three of my oldest brother's children were expecting babies at the same time. One has arrived - and two more will arrive in February and April.
I started seminary.
The "royal" wedding of my dear friend's only daughter.
We hosted the bridal shower for another friend's daughter.
Another fantastic trip to Spain.
I've had two chances to preach and several other chances to teach at my church.
Hugs, tears, laughter and stories with people I met at the Loaves and Fishes pantry.
My daughter emerged from a terrible car accident without serious injury.
The confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina state house.
Reading so many fantastic books and hearing one of the authors speak at Davidson - TaNehisi Coates is an inspiring and a challenging writer and thinker.
President Obama survived another year without an assassination attempt by a deranged fear-fueled racist. (Believe me, I am not alone in marveling that he has lasted this long without coming under attack.)
I got to sit and talk to Cornel West about racism and injustice and history and the future- like old friends.
New friends, mentors, pastors, and soul sisters.
Being called "clergy" for the first time.
An absolutely fantastic, life-changing, marriage-rebuilding week in Hilton Head in September.
I turned 50!
Too many joys to name.

And there are also the shining moments that emerged from the dark moments.
Getting started with We Walk Together after We Need to Talk after the shooting in Charleston.
Getting to know an amazingly funny and determined and courageous young mom not long after she was diagnosed with breast kanswer - and being able to walk some of her journey with her. She is kanswer-free now and on vacation with her spectacularly beautiful family.
Walking another friend through the pain of deciding whether to remarry after a difficult divorce.
Watching two young people I love emerge stronger than ever from challenges faced at college.

I am thankful this Thursday to have made it to this Thursday.
There are many, many people who were around when 2015 began, but who are not alive today.
I am thankful for the gift of life itself, the gift of breath, the gift of a body that still seems to know how to keep me alive and active.

I am grateful that you are here with me, reading, thinking, finding reasons to be grateful for the blessings in your own life.

I am enormously grateful for this day, for this moment, for this opportunity to look back and look ahead. With joy. With hope. With peace. With love.
Thanks be to God.
My deepest thanks.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Thankful Thursday - Christmas Eve

If the story I've read in the gospels of Matthew and Luke is true,
if God came into the world as a newborn baby boy,
through the body of a teenaged girl,
into a small nation dominated by a larger nation,

if Love was born in a stable in Bethlehem two thousand years ago,
Love that touched lepers,
Love that fed the hungry,
Love that raised the dead,
Love that healed the broken, the wounded, the bent over, and the bleeding,
Love that opened the mouths of the mute and the ears of the deaf,
Love that delivered the oppressed,
Love that turned over the tables of the money-obsessed,
Love that challenged the powerful to become people of compassion,
Love that stood between the accused and her accusers,
Love that calmed storms,
Love that sat with and talked with outcasts,
Love that welcomed women and children,
Love that washed the feet of the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him and all the ones who would abandon him,
Love that died and Love that rose again,
Love that prays for me and for you and for all people,

If that eternal Love,
that tender Love,
that fierce Love,
that truth-telling Love,
that unprecedented Love,
that prodigal Love,
that irresistible Love,
that incomprehensible Love,
that amazing Love,
that newborn Love,
if that is the Love we are preparing to celebrate tonight and tomorrow,
then today is THE most thankful of Thursdays.
Thanks be to God.

Merry Christmas!

While preparing to teach Sunday School last week, I rediscovered this song.
And discovered this video to go along with the song.
The scenes from the video were taken from the movie, "The Nativity Story."

A Baby Will Come

The kings of this world
Have torn it apart
But we can take heart
A baby will come

To the hungry and meek
To those who grieve
To the broken, in need
A baby will come

We have known pain
We’ve felt death’s sting
God, help us believe
This baby will come

The angel appeared
Said do not fear
For peace is here
A baby will come

The advent of life
Let hope arise
We’ve our Savior and Christ
The Baby has come

We’ve waited so long
God, for Your mighty arm
May our doubts ever calm
For the Baby has come

The proud will be low
The humble will know
They’re valued and loved
For the Baby has come

Cause the kings of this world
Won’t have the last word
That, God, is Yours
For the Baby has come

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What's that sound?

So I was in my kitchen one day late last week.
Suddenly I heard a loud roaring sound, like a chainsaw.
A rumbling, revving chainsaw.
Moving back and forth.
Very close to my house.

It sounded like it was inside my house.
But the only people here at home were my daughter and I.
And she and I don't ever use a chainsaw in the house.
Neither she nor I have never used a chainsaw.
We don't own a chainsaw.

I turned my head so I could gauge the direction the sound came from.
Above me from the direction of the neighbor's house to the south.
But it's closer than their house.

I found myself repeating the following questions -
What's that sound?
What could possibly be making that sound?

Just as suddenly, I knew exactly what it is.
It was the sound of our vacuum cleaner.
Being used upstairs - while I was downstairs.

I think it was the first time I've ever heard the vacuum cleaner being used when I wasn't the one using it.

How sad and funny and revealing is that???

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thankful Thursday - Prayer for a world in labor

One week ahead of Christmas Eve. One week ahead of remembering, focusing on, pondering the birth of the baby that changed the world. The birth of that baby on a night when there was no room for them in the inn. Born to a teenager. I've spend a lot of time over a long period of time thinking about what that night, that holy night, that painful night, that frightening night must have been like for Mary and Joseph and their newborn miracle.

Tonight, I heard Amanda tell a story of labor and delivery. Of waiting. Of fear. Of trust.
Of wishing for a predictable, controllable delivery. And how rarely that happens.
Contractions. Pain. Waiting. Hoping. Relief.
After a discussion of Amanda's story, I had the chance to close our time together in prayer.
For the second time, I wrote out my prayer.
For the second time, when it was time for me to read the prayer aloud, I had to leave out parts of it due to time constraints.
For the second time, I will share the whole prayer here.


Creator God, Waiting God,
Laboring God, Delivering God,
You who came up with the amazing, inexplicable miracle of pregnancy, 
we give you thanks tonight for the gift of life. 
Thank you for hospitals and doctors and nurses and midwives and birthing centers.
We thank you for medical insurance and payment plans and the willingness of medical 
centers to care for women and their babies even if they don’t have insurance.
Thank you for mothers and fathers and babies and siblings and family.

Please be with us, Lord, as we wait, as we wait for answers and resolutions.
As we wait for healing and restoration, for reconciliation and transformation. 
Please be with us as we wait, as we labor, and as we deliver all that is ours to deliver.

We ask, Lord, that you be with us at times of miscarriage and stillborn. 
At those moments of agonizing loss, pain, sorrow, and grief, 
at times when we think we cannot handle another contraction,
yet another piece of bad news about yet another tragedy, 
be with us even then, Lord. Especially then. 

On second thought, Lord, we ask, not that you be with us, 
but rather that you help us sense that you are already with us. 
You have promised to never leave us nor forsake us
so we don’t need to ask you to be with us. 
Help us, please, to feel your presence, to hear your voice, and to follow you. 
Help us to know that we can grip your strong hand and cry out when the pain hits,
and help us to trust you enough to lean back in your everlasting, outstretched arms.

As we leave this place tonight, please guide us out in this dark and cold night,
in this world that is groaning, in labor, and racked with pain.
Help us to be people of peace and calm.
Help us to be doulas for hearts and souls that are suffering.
help us to be caregivers of the hurting and the wounded
and co-laborers with you in your work of bringing new life into the world. 

Lord Jesus, please deliver us from fear and hatred.
Please deliver us from our addiction to ease and comfort.
Please deliver us from evil.
Please deliver us from this world of darkness into the kingdom of your light,
your joy, your peace, your hope and your love.
And please help us in turn to want to accompany you and each other as you deliver others.

Thank you, Lord God, for your patience as you wait for us, as you wait with us,
and as you wait in us.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for being born, for being delivered into this world through 
your blessed mother, Mary, so that you in turn could die and deliver us. 

Thank you again for the gift of life, for the gift of the life of this community,
and for the gift of life that you came to earth to deliver in person. 

May your joy fill us, heal us, and surround us, and send us out into the world
with the good news of who you are and how you love us. 
May your peace surpass all that we understand.
May our hope be found in you, come from you, and flow from you into us and 

out into the world you were born to save. 

After we recited The Lord's Prayer together, 
I said this:
Go forth with joy.
Go forth with peace.
Go with God.
And have a very Merry Christmas. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

It's my party

Fifty years.
I keep saying it.
I keep shaking my head.
I keep giving thanks.

Today is also baby Bean's 2nd birthday.
And Evelyn's birthday. I think she's five today... or is four?
It's also the third anniversary or the horrors of Sandy Hook.
My heart and mind have spent a lot of time there today.
With Karen and her family and the schools and families there.
There is beauty. There is joy. There is gratitude.
And there is sorrow, sadness and anger.

That's life.
This good life.
This tear-soaked life.
This life of friends and family,
love and learning,
resentment and frustration,
fear, doubts, and questions.
It's all in all of us.

But we are here.
I am here.
I am happy.
I am at peace.
I am so very grateful.
Most of the time.

At the same time, the stories from Sandy Hook and Charleston and San Bernardino and
Paris and Baltimore and Kenya and so many other war-torn, dangerous, violent, lonely,
frightening places remind me to give thanks for the blessings,
to stand up and speak up for those who cannot,
to give time, energy, money, and my presence to those in need,
and to hold on to hope and joy and love when despair, sorrow, and hate threaten to overwhelm me.

It's my party today.
I have danced.
I have cried.
I have laughed.
I have opened beautiful, thoughtful cards and gifts.
I have eaten delicious and nutritious and also not-so-nutritious foods.
I have been hugged and kissed and called and messaged and loved today.
I have read and journaled and cut and glued and planned and downloaded.
I have marveled at the generosity of the people I am blessed to call my friends and family

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Thanks be to God.

This is what I posted on Facebook after reading nearly 100 birthday messages.

There's an old song of the church that begins with the line, "How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me? Things so undeserved, yet you gave to prove your love for me. The voices of a million angels could not express my gratitude..." That song is directed towards God - but today, I am gonna appropriate those first lines and turn them towards all of you, my friends and family, pastors and church family, former colleagues, teachers, students, and classmates, all current companions on this amazing journey that is my life - in the US, Spain, Haiti, Italy, Ecuador, Norway, India, and wherever Kevin, Claudio and Natalia are at the moment (I'm crazy jealous of all the travel so many of you get to experience...) I am enormously blessed to call you all my friends, and to be making this life pilgrimage with you. Your friendship, companionship and love sustain me in ways you cannot imagine. As I enter the next age and stage of my life, I forge ahead with joy, hope, gratitude, and so much love in my heart. Gracias a todos vosotros. Que bendicion es teneros en mi vida, en mi camino y en mi corazon. Abrazos fuertes a mis amigos. Due baci per voi, Graziella e Barbara. Grazie mille.

Then my amazing friends and family posted 50 more messages. 
How can I say thanks, indeed? 

My good friend, Kirk Hall, used to pray a prayer very similar to this one often at church. 

Life is short
And we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those
who journey the way with us.
So be swift to love,
and make haste to be kind.
And the blessing of God,
who made us,
who loves us,
and who travels with us 
Be with you now and forever.  Amen
(Adapted from a blessing by Henri Frederic Amiel (1827-1881)

Thank you all for gladdening my heart today.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Completing 50 Years

When expressing age in Spanish, you use the verb "cumplir." It means to complete.
So instead of saying, "I'm turning 50," you say, "I'm completing 50 years." Cumplo 50 aƱos.
That way of explaining it makes much more sense because you don't turn one year old until the end of that first year - hence you are completing one year.

I am less than half hour away from completing 50 years.
In my 50 years -
I have laughed.
I laughed at Oprah's graduation speech when I graduated from Wesleyan University with a Master's degree.

I have wept.
I wept when my father died in March of 2001 and when the towers fell in September of 2001 and when I sat at that cafe in Orvieto, Italy, writing in my journal a month after that.

I have traveled.
I have seen the Grand Canyon and the Eiffel Tower.

I have taught.
I taught Spanish to seventh and eighth graders in the same classroom where I took my first Spanish class as a seventh grader.

I have learned.
I learned how to drive a stick shift during my senior year in college when two friends of mine gave me the keys to their pick up truck and told me to go out and figure out how to drive it on my own.

I have given birth.
My daughter was born in a hospital and my son in a birthing center. Now they are 22 and 19.

I have fallen in love.
I fell in love with Madrid the day I arrived back in August of 1986.

I have read.
One of my favorite things to do is pull out an old journal and read accounts of where I have been and what I have done on this life journey of mine.

I have written.
I have kept a blog for more than ten years, journaled for more than thirty years, and have completed the first draft of my book. (Please send prayers and good vibes to me to edit it in these next few months.)

I have prayed.
Every day, I give thanks for so many blessings. Every day, I ask for peace and mercy for those who suffer. Every day, I ask for help and strength to do all that is mine to do and to release all that is not mine to do. Every day, I spend time in silence with God and with myself.

In these 50 years, I have been broken hearted beyond all I could ever have asked or imagined.
While on my kanswer journey three years ago, as I celebrated my birthday with my children at Starbucks, an incomprehensible tragedy took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Sorrow beyond sorrow. I pray that the families of all of those victims will be comforted tomorrow. The shooting at the church in Charleston this past summer. The earthquake in Japan. The girls taken by Boko Haram. I pray for peace in our fear-filled, violent, and our gun-crazed country and world.

In these 50 years, I have been blessed beyond all I could ever have asked or imagined. Even on my worst days, the day my father died, the two times my daughter was admitted to the hospital, the day I heard those dreaded words - "We found kanswer" - even on those days, blessings and grace abounded. Excellent medical care. The comfort of family and friends. Hope, always hope. Faith. And on my best days, joy prevails. Countless safe trips in my car. Walks with friends. Trips overseas. Solo adventures. Silent retreats. Sharing poetry. Being loved. Being remembered.

Completing 50 years.
Grateful grateful grateful grateful.
Thank you for walking this journey with me.
Thanks be to God.