Monday, September 26, 2016

A Three-Church Sunday

Yesterday morning, my daughter and I attended three different churches. We started at our home church, First Presbyterian Church, a predominantly white church here in Charlotte, at the 9 am service where my heart was deeply touched and my spirit fed by the senior pastor's powerful sermon about prayer and suffering, about our responsibility as people of God and his responsibility as a white person, in particular, to be people of peace, love, faith, and reconciliation. 

After his sermon, we left for Sunday school at First United Presbyterian Church, a predominantly African American church, where they are in the middle of a series of classes related to the Belhar Confession and the Confession of 1967. The Belhar Confession was written in response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s. The writers of that confession intended it to confirm their faith in God, the authority of God's law, and the need for Christians to obey the law of God rather than the laws and teachings of the German state, especially where those laws contradicted the teachings of Scripture and sought to dictate the life and actions of the church. The Confession of 1967 was written in response to the injustices prevalent in this nation during the time of Jim Crow and segregation and all other racially motivated wrongdoing. The continued relevance of those confessions more than 50 years later reminds us that there is much work to be done, much healing to be experienced, and many barriers to be taken down so that we can be reconciled with one another. 

After the SS class, we went back to FPC for the baptism of the grand-daughter of one of my church friends - how timely it was, after the week we've had here in Charlotte, a week in which division and fear have driven people apart yet again, that the baby baptized and welcomed into the family of God and the faith family of our church today was a beautiful little African American girl. 

On our way home, my daughter and I decided to visit Caldwell Presbyterian Church - where the Pastor used the time of his sermon to open the mike, as it were, for the people of the congregation to speak words of grief and hope, sorrow and truth after the events of this week. Then the mayor of Charlotte added her voice to calls for reconciliation and unity in the city. Following the service, Kristiana and I joined that welcoming, loving congregation for a potluck lunch.

Do you hear a theme running through all of this? The work of reconciliation in the family of God, in the church of Jesus Christ in this broken, beautiful, hurting and hopeful city. At three different Presbyterian churches, we saw gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, republican and democrat, and many who don’t fit neatly into any of those categories - together, singing, praying, and being baptized into the family of our great and merciful God.

It would be easy for us to think that we as individuals have done nothing wrong, nothing to cause the division that became painfully and angrily evident in our city this week or in our nation over these past few years. It would be easy for each of us to think, "I’m not part of the problem, I’m not part of the group of agitators that has sown seeds of fear and hatred in the aftermath of Tuesday’s tragic shooting." And that may be true, but I don't think we can let ourselves off the hook that easily. 

One of the mainstays in our Presbyterian liturgy is our time of confession. We read responsively and as one voice words of confession of sin, sins of thought, word, and deed. I must say that there are times when I read those words of confession aloud with the congregation, but inwardly I recoil and think - “I didn’t do that. I didn’t act that way.” Whether or not we have committed the specific sin being confessed, we pray those words on behalf of ourselves and others. We pray those words as a part of the ongoing work of being reconciled with God and one another after we wander away from the work God has called us to do. 

In his book, Fear of the Other, William Willimon, former bishop in the United Methodist Church, says this, “Christians, on the basis of the great grace we have received from Christ, are always apologizing, confessing, repenting.” 

There is a lot of apologizing, confessing, and repenting that is needed.
I almost ended that sentence with, "in our city and our nation."
But it's broader than that, and it is also narrower than that.
We need to apologize, confess, and repent before God, before ourselves, before those we don't know, and before those yet to be born.

Do we not need to apologize, confess, and repent for:
* the damage we do to our planet, to our future, and to the future of our children with the chemicals and poisons we spray so freely and frequently on our lawns, trees, fruit, vegetables, and soil?
* our unwillingness to take seriously the repercussions of our way of life? the size of our houses and the number of our cars, the overabundance of clothing and shoes we own, the staggering percentage of our food that we discard, the number of paper towels and paper napkins, disposable cups and plates we have donated to landfill, most of which will never decompose?
* the ease with which we shrug our shoulders and just head back to the mall for more stuff we don't need given to us in plastic bags we don't reuse while sipping excessively sweet drinks from plastic cups that will be in plastic bags in landfills for many, many, many years?
* the ways in which we perpetuate fear and anger and hatred against others, against anybody and everybody we don't understand? people of other religions, other language groups, other nations, other customs? people who don't look like us or think the way we think? 
* our willful silence when we hear and see people we know and love do and say things that we know are wrong or racist or sexist or homophobic or xenophobic?
* our indifference towards the suffering of the homeless and poor, the weak and infirm, the imprisoned, as well as refugees who are victims of undeserved violent acts at the hand of the state? 
* our willful blindness when we are confronted with evidence that contradicts our strongly held beliefs about other people - and about ourselves?

Last night, I went back to my church for a meeting of the elders. I participated in that meeting by reading something I wrote about reconciliation and building the beloved community here in Charlotte and included a description of my three-church-morning. As some of us made our way out of the church at the end of the evening, one of my friends said something like, "I'm worried about you, Gail. Three churches in one day? We've gotta keep an eye on you..." I responded, "It's an addiction, brother. It's an addiction." We all laughed as we made our way out into the darkness of the downtown area of this city we all love - just one block from where so many of last week's protests were concentrated. I know the hundreds of National Guard soldiers and police officers patrolling the streets had a lot to do with that. I also know that the thousands of people praying and preaching and talking about and taking the leadership related to peace, real peace, the peace that we have to work relentlessly to create and maintain had a lot to do with that as well. I know that discussions like the one we had just concluded, hard discussions, uncomfortable discussions, at seminaries like the one I attend, at white churches, at black churches, at other churches that more accurately reflect the diversity of the city and the church of Jesus Christ are having an impact as well. I know that the work of people of every faith and people who claim no religious affiliation or interest at all - all the work that is being done towards peace, wholeness, reconciliation, and connection, it is all making a difference. I felt it all day yesterday. I felt it last night. 

The work that is ahead of us is staggeringly challenging.
The work that must be done within each of us is too.
But if what I saw at the three churches my daughter and I visited yesterday is any indication,
if the videos I have seen posted on Facebook by my friends, videos of peaceful people talking to and hugging police officers and National Guards, videos of choirs singing in the streets of Charlotte, are any indication, if the work being done to challenge the imbalances and injustice embedded within our city's public school system is any indication, then we have reason for hope.
It won't be easy. It won't be quick. It certainly won't make the news.
But every act of mercy, every act of kindness,
every act of forgiveness and reconciliation,
every apology offered, every pardon granted,
every friendship that develops across boundary lines that have been established to keep people apart,
each one will be a brick, not thrown through at a person or through a window,
but rather a brick that forms part of the foundation, the piles, the decking, 
every part of the bridge we so desperately need to connect us one to another. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tonight I am an angry black woman

I am so sick and so tired of seeing black men gunned down in the streets of our nation.
I am so sick and tired of seeing men who look like my brothers, my nephews, my son,
and the sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers of people I know and love
shot and killed by people who have sworn to protect them, to protect all of us.

I am so sick and tired of all the killing.
The excuses.
The explanations.
The rationalizing.
"If only he had/hadn't ________________, he wouldn't have been shot."
Haven't we seen every permutation?
Armed. Unarmed. Compliant. Non-compliant. Standing. Laying on the ground.
In their cars. Outside of their cars. Walking. Running. Silent. Belligerent.
Reaching for their license. Reaching for registration.
Asking for help. Pleading for breath.
Selling CDs. Selling cigarettes. Teenagers. Pre-teens. Adults.
Dead. Dead. Dead.
With the notable exception of the teacher who was intervening for a student with autism.

Just stop shooting black people.
Stop killing black people.

Cuz even if he does have a gun, a real gun and not a toy gun,
even if there are weapons or drugs in the car,
even if he doesn't comply with the command to prostrate himself on the street,
even if he is drunk or high,
even if he is a thief,
even if all those things are true,
(by the way, in most of these public cases, none of those things turn out to be true)
no one deserves to be shot and killed the way these men are being shot and killed.
Left to bleed out on the street or in their vehicles.
Without medical aid or CPR or assistance of any kind.
Why not start with the taser?
Why not shoot in the legs?

Oh wait, they did shoot the teacher in the leg. The teacher who was on the ground with his hands up in the air, pleading for his life and the life of his student. That guy still got shot.

Just stop shooting people.
Stop killing people.

I know I've posted this link before. But the song means more and more as the years pass.

We who believe in freedom cannot rest. 
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes -
until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, 
is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons.

People, go stand in front of a mirror or pull out a journal and talk to yourself about how you feel about black people and black men in particular. What comes to mind when you think about your personal interactions with black people? If you don't have any interactions with black people or anyone who doesn't look like you on a daily basis, then that's part of the problem - ignorance.
Not knowing. Not being exposed to people who aren't like you.
That needs to change. Period.

Then talk to your neighbors about your fear and their fear and your racism and their racism.
Talk to your families. Talk to your spouses and your children.
Be honest about your prejudices, your privileges, and your pride.
Tell the truth about the ways in which you have diminished the value of the lives of other people.
People who don't look like you. People who don't live the way you live.
People whose sexuality, country of origin, first language, manner of dress, or religion don't match yours.
People you dismiss, disregard, disdain.
People whose public executions no longer move you or make you angry.

Think about it. Talk about it. Journal about it.
And then do something.
Stand up. Speak up. Stand out. Speak out.
Let your voice be heard - this shit is just not right. Not right.
Enough is enough.
If any of this is going to change, it has to start with me. It has to start with you.
Right now. Tonight. Think. Ask yourself hard questions. Seek difficult answers.
Make a plan. No excuses.
Enough is enough.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Water water everywhere

About an hour ago, I was seated at our dining room table working on a project. My daughter came in from babysitting and informed me that a fire hydrant just up the street from us was on. Gushing water. There was a truck there with workers doing something or other, and water was running down the street. She declared that she was going to walk up and wet her feet in the water.

Immediately, I closed my computer, abandoned my project, and joined her and our teeny tiny dog on a wet adventure. I was the first one out of my flip flops, and I plunged my feet into the narrow stream. Perfection. I dropped my head back and laughed out loud.

How many times have I read and heard about the importance of allowing my feet to touch the earth, the grass, and the dirt? To be fully grounded on this planet of ours? Well, I'm not doing that. Not with all the ants making anthills in the grass and all the chemicals that are spread all over our lawns. (Please forgive us, Lord, for the myriad ways in which we poison the very earth beneath our feet.)

This afternoon, I put my feet in that water and I kicked it up on the lawn of the house we were standing in front of. I splashed it onto my dog - who was obviously as happy to be wet as my daughter and I were. All the people who drove past us smiled broadly at us. I bet they were jealous of how much fun we were having. A couple walked past with their dog and told us that it looked like we were having fun. But they didn't take off their shoes. They didn't step into the magnificence of that abundant flow. Too bad for them.

I worry about water. Drought. Flooding. Melting glaciers. Rising sea levels. Busted pipes. Aging water heaters.
And what about the residents of Flint, Michigan? Subjected to some politician's bad idea about how to save money by getting water from a different river. Complaints were lodged for months. None were taken seriously. Bottled water. Filtered water. What about people who can light their water on fire because of fracking and other industrial experiments that use unwitting citizens as their canaries, their guinea pigs?
What does it feel like to be afraid of your tap water?
Water water everywhere. Except when there isn't any water anywhere.
Or the water you have access to is too dangerous to drink.

Earlier this summer, I went on a silent retreat. My third visit to The Jesuit Center.
I should write about those eight blissful, tearful, beautiful, wonder-filled days of prayer and journaling.
Anyway, there were two women on the retreat who, when they brushed their teeth,

The first time, I chalked it up as a fluke, convinced that she was the only person in the nation who practiced such a wantonly wasteful habit.
The second time, I nearly screamed.
Different woman. Different age bracket. Different race. Same horrendous act of excess.
I was grateful that we were in silence, or I might have said something mean and insulting.
I was incredulous that there are still people who let the water run,
waste that precious life-sustaining resource while they brush their teeth.

After the second sighting, I took a few deep breaths and asked myself, "Why do you think you saw this twice, Gail? What are you supposed to learn from this double take?"
Almost immediately it came to me: Abundance. Provision. I have been blessed with so much in my life. Beyond all my imagining and dreams. Even though I can be so frugal, with money, with water, with food, with my love - there is abundance all around me. Be grateful, Gail. Give thanks.

Thankfully, I didn't see either of those two women or any one else repeat their water wasting offense.

Today, standing in that water, I thought about the drought we have been experiencing here in the South. I thought about wildfires out west. I thought about people all over the world who would have been incredulous at the intentional, unrestrained release of that liquid gold, from the fire hydrant directly to the gutter. For a split second, I asked God to forgive us for airing out the water line or rebuilding the pressure or whatever else the workers were doing. And then I went back to splashing water and waving at my jealous neighbors.

Friday, September 09, 2016

School's Back from Summer

The bulletin board in the front hallway at a school I visited last week

The school year has begun for most students in the US.
Supplies have been picked over at Target and Walmart and Staples.
School uniforms still look fresh and new.
Teachers are still energized and excited about their lessons.
White boards are still white.
Textbook pages are still tight and unstained.

Even as a homeschooling mom, never granted a break from my kids all year round (except for my escapes across the sea to my beloved Spain), I looked forward to this time of year. New pencils and erasers. New planning books. Computers lined up. The printer filled with unwrinkled paper and fresh ink cartridges. Renewed hopes that I would become an enthusiastic cook and organized instructor. Hopes that were inevitably dashed within the first two or three weeks of the year - but I was incurably optimistic every fall.

Last Monday, August 29th, I spent over an hour welcoming students into the cafeteria of the Westerly Hills Academy here in Charlotte, a high poverty public school that serves both elementary and middle school aged children. Every weekday morning, students arrive at school between 7:30 and 8:00 am for breakfast. Classes begin at 8:15. Along with a gaggle of other volunteers, I sat in the lunchroom giving students their meal codes, the number they would give to the cashiers in order to have their meals provided for them all year long.

Crisp white shirts. Khaki pants. Blue pants. Sweaters.
Hair in braids or curls. Beads and ribbons.
Mothers and fathers accompanied some.
Others wandered in by themselves.
An entire family dropped off the oldest sibling. The youngest child in that family cried vigorously as they left.
Mostly smiles and excitement about being in school that first day.
Some sad, nervous, unsure expressions.

One little boy took his number from me and, as he walked away, tears welled up in his deep brown eyes. Based on his name, I made the assumption that he was Latino, so I switched over to Spanish. When I asked him if he needed help, his eyes brightened momentarily, then he shook his head somberly as he took his leave. A moment or two after he sat down to eat his morning meal, I noticed a man who looked like he was the child's father sit down beside him at the table. At that point, the little guy lost his composure completely. The tears that brimmed his eyes cascaded down his cheeks in torrents. The man rubbed his back and spoke tenderly to him. One of the teachers sat down on the other side of the young student and whispered assurances of her own. As the three of them made their way out into the hallway, presumably to take the first grader to his classroom, I wished him a happy first day and a great year in first grade.

I toyed with the idea of keeping the multi-page handout with all the children's names, grades, and lunchroom codes. That list would have served as a prayer guide for me all year. So many names and faces. So many stories. So much need. So much need. I decided to err on the side of respecting the privacy of the students and left the sheets there. I can and will still pray for those precious children as they work their way through their studies, their fears, and their many challenges. I don't need to know their names. God already does.

Tomorrow morning a new set of new students will begin a new school year.
Tomorrow I go back to seminary for my second year of study.
Tomorrow a new cohort of seminarians will join the journey.
I don't expect there will be many crisp white shirts - other than those on the professors.
There won't be many pairs of khakis either.
And no one will be given a meal voucher code to use at a cash register.

But we will all arrive with our own adult fears and challenges.
We will hide tears - although some will probably shed a few. Myself included.
We will disagree with other students.
We will disagree with our professors.
We will wonder how we could ever have been so naive about so much related to our Christian faith.
We will question and we will doubt much of what we have heard in church all our lives.

And then we will try to figure out whether and how any of these readings and discussions affect the ways in which we live and move in the world, the ways in which we interact with those whose faith is not our own. Those whose lives do not parallel our own. Those whose stories we cannot possibly fathom. We will wrestle with whether our understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ really is good news for the world - and if it is, how do we share that good news? We will wonder aloud about just how much we have corrupted that good news and tried to make it good North American news or good Protestant news or good Presbyterian news or some exclusive form of good news that only the chosen few (us, of course) can understand and benefit from.
There will be blood, sweat, and tears.
And I cannot wait to get there and wade into the fray.
Theology 1 and New Testament 1 - here I come!

School's back from summer.

One of my favorite books of prayer is The Book of a Thousand Prayers, compiled by Angela Ashwin.
This prayer was taken from that book. I have modified it, making it personal by adding "we" and "us."

Grant, Lord, to all of us who study and those who teach us,
the grace to love that which is worth loving,
to know that which is worth knowing,
to value what is most precious to you,
and to reject whatever is evil in your eyes.
Give us a true sense of judgement,
and the wisdom
to see beneath the surface of things.
Above all, may we search out and do
what is pleasing to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
after Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)

Can I ask a favor of you? Whenever you see a school bus, when you see students on public transportation, when you see students being dropped off by weary and wary parents at school, when you see students walking or biking or skateboarding to school, would you say a prayer for all students everywhere? For enough textbooks and notebooks. For passionate and compassionate teachers. For enough food to eat not only during the school day, but also over the weekend when one or two meals per day are not provided by the school. For safety and security at home. For hope in their future. For peace.

I know there are millions, perhaps billions of school-age children in need around the world. I remember the children I saw in the cities, towns, and villages of Haiti, in their brightly colored uniforms, intently pushing their way through traffic and crowds, through fields and down rocky narrow paths to school. Very few of them are likely to leave their villages for college or for a better life. But each of them, all of them deserve just that - a better life. Praying for all children everywhere is a big ask, I realize, but I believe in a big God.

I remember the faces of children in the ironically named "Paradise" in Nicaragua, in Sevilla in Spain, and the faces I saw at Westerly Hills last week. I remember their bright and fear-filled eyes. I remember their ready smiles and their nervous giggles. I remember seeing glimmers of hope in spite of the tremendous and mounting odds that are not ever in their favor. Will you join me in praying for them?

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Thankful Thursday

Don't let my silence fool you.
Don't let my lack of Thankful Thursday posts fool you.
Gratitude overflows down here in Charlotte.

Flipping back through my journal tonight, I found things like this:

"I just ate a delicious peach. Lord, thank you for its delightful deliciousness."

"My son is leaving  for college tomorrow. Lord, in your mercy, please protect my beloved child. Your beloved child. In whom we are both very well pleased. Thank you for the gift that he is and has been for us. I will miss him, but I know this is good."

I described an encounter I had with a little girl at an outdoor children's science museum. She was probably five years old or so. She approached me and commented, "I like your earrings. Are you a mama?" I responded: "Thank you. Yes, I am a mama, but I don't have my children with me today." As I walked away with my friend and her son, I turned and bid her farewell. She turned to me with confusion on her face and set me straight by clarifying: "I'm not leaving." So sweet.

One of the highlights of this summer for me was watching the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Certainly there were many issues and problems and fears. Would there be proper facilities? Would the athletes be safe? Would there be terrible traffic issues? I kept thinking about all the years of hard work, the years of not having dessert, the hundreds of competitions and practices and tryouts, the miles traveled, the money spent. How did the equestrian competitors get their horses to Rio? I wondered about the athletes who trained for years in their chosen discipline, were sponsored by their families, friends, and countries, arrived in Rio and lost their first race. Truly they were "one and done." I thought about those had a false start in a racing event - and never got to even run their races. I watched athletes weep with joy and gratitude at the end of events. I watched others weep because of injuries. So much passion. So much courage. So much joy. So much wonder. I am grateful to have been a witness to it. I am grateful that there were no terrorist acts. I am even grateful for the Ryan Lochte foolishness because of all the conversations around white privilege that have come out of that series of idiotic events.

The man who won the 400 meter track and field race is from South Africa. That young man's mother was a world class athlete earlier in her life, but she was never permitted to represent the country internationally because she was (and is) a woman of color in a nation governed by the brutal and racist system of apartheid. Anyway, for those who are not familiar with track and field, the 400 meter race is one of the toughest. It is a full lap around the track, run at top speed. The longest sprint. One of the most painful races a track athlete can run. The athletes who compete in that race stay in their lanes the whole way around the track, so they have what's called a staggered start. They begin the race a yard or two away from each other. Lane 1 is the inside lane, the one closest to the infield, and the runner in lane one begins the race with all the other runners further ahead on the track. Lane 8 is the outside lane. The runner out there cannot see any of the other competitors when the race begins. The athletes placed in lanes 1 and 8 in a final heat are only rarely in contention to win the race.

For the first time in Olympic history, the winner of the 400 meter race was in lane 8. Not only did he win the race, but also he set a new world record. He ran the entire race without ever seeing any of his competitors on the track. He led the way from start to finish.

And that got me to thinking and wondering - how hard is it to keep going, to keep running as fast as you can, even when you don't know where the other guys are and whether they are catching up to you? How do you press on and do what you know you need to do, even when there is no one else to push you and keep you motivated? Where does that inner strength come from? I am grateful for the lessons and questions and hope and excitement the Olympic games brought to my life this summer.

I had the tremendous honor and responsibility of participating in the baptism of the daughter of a dear friend of mine. To stand with their family, to present her for baptism, to ask the congregation to commit themselves to teach her and walk with her and "strengthen her family ties with the household of faith" was one of the highlights of my summer, of my year. I love that little girl and her entire family. Her mother and I are soul-sister friends. I am grateful for my church family and for the deep friendships I have with people there. I am grateful for the welcome my family and I have received there and for the many opportunities to use my gifts, to teach, to preach, to ask questions, to listen, and to love these co-travelers on my faith journey.

Standing in my study recently, I pulled out a few journals, both my regular journals and my travel journals as well. Flipped through a few pages. Reread a few pages. Looked at stickers and ticket stubs and magazine clippings tucked between pages. I have met some fabulous people in my life. I have traveled to beautiful and devastated places. I have laughed and wept. I have been blessed going out and blessed coming in. For all of that, I am grateful. For the journals that record so much of it, I am grateful. For the bookshelves, the walls, the roof, the floor, for this home we have, I am grateful.

For life and breath, for hope and joy, for strong shoulders I can cry on, for my husband's ability to make me laugh, for my daughter's cooking, for my adorable little dog, for our new neighbors, for my ongoing friendship with the neighbors who moved away, for x-rays and band-aids, for my reliable car, for silence, for prayer, for the love of God, family, friends, for all of this, I am grateful.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Goodness of Life

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a favorite author whose every published word found its way into my hands and my heart. After reading one of her books for a college English class, I remember leaving my dorm and running, literally running, to the bookstore in my tiny college town to buy more of her books. An African-American female writer whose books are commonly assigned in high school and college classes, she became a mentor to me, a guide on the path towards understanding myself as a woman of color in the United States. She writes about black women's bodies and hair. She writes about our relationships with our own daughters as well as the men in our lives. She writes about travel and music and cooking and love and loss and flowers - and does so with a passion and expressiveness that enthrall me still.

I have never met her in person, but I dialogued with her books for years. I still do.
In those early years, when I closed the covers of her books, I sighed. Deep sighs of longing.
Longing to meet her. To sit under her teaching. To look into her eyes. To watch her cook.
To learn from her interactions with her friends, her neighbors, and her daughter.

Although I never met her, in the early 1990s, I met her daughter. Back in the days before computers. email, text messages, and Facebook were all the rage, her daughter and I became pen-pals after I wrote her a letter in response to a magazine article she had written. Letters and postcards flew between us. I drove to the college she attended and met her in person. Not long after that, I flew out to California to visit my then-boyfriend (now husband) who was working out west. My favorite author and her daughter lived in northern California at the time. The daughter invited me to drive up to the house and hang out for a day.

What? Me? Your house? Your mother's house?
I went. With great excitement and trepidation.
The house was beautiful, peaceful, joyful.
It smelled of incense and essential oil and spicy food.
She and I talked and laughed and ate our way through the day.
With great sadness, I said good-bye to her and drove the three hours back to San Francisco.

A few months later, much to my shock, amazement, and surprise, I received an engraved invitation from her and her mother. They were hosting an annual gathering of friends and other loved ones to celebrate "The Goodness of Life." And I was invited! I received the invitation two or three years in a row.

Looking back in shock, amazement, and surprise through my memories, I confess that I never went to the parties. Was I too cheap to buy the plane ticket and find a nearby hotel? Did I really forfeit the chance to meet her mother, one of my favorite authors, at her own house, surrounded by their friends, as one of her invited guests - all because I didn't want to spend a few hundred dollars? Yes and yes.

My friend, the prize-winning author's daughter, has since become quite famous in her own right. She is a widely read author, an internationally renowned speaker, a mother, a teacher, an actor, and more than all that, she is a woman of strength, courage, intelligence, and breath-taking beauty both inside and out. We have fallen out of contact. But I still google her and read her writing. I follow her on Instagram and marvel at just how fabulous a woman she is.

Even though I never attended their parties, the name stuck: "The Goodness of Life."

For years, that was the theme and subtitle of all my journals; even on the pages soaked in my tears, I kept a record of the goodness of life. Life isn't always good or easy or pleasant. But there is always goodness to be found if I look. There is always something worthy of gratitude and celebration - at least there has been for me. And anybody who has read this blog for more than five minutes knows that I have run into a few obstacles in my life - but through each challenge, through tears, through chemotherapy, through battles with mental illness in my family, through it all, I have been repeatedly reminded of the goodness of God and the goodness of people and the goodness of life. There is so much beauty. There are so many gifts.

I was reminded of the goodness of people and life early this morning. I went to Trader Joe's to pick up some goodies for a dear friend of mine whose final round of chemotherapy was this morning. I chose some of my favorite snacks and breakfast food and fruit and even some special soap. Cuz who doesn't like a goodie bag? I remember back in my kanswer days, perfect strangers sent me care packages after my story landed on the blog of another famous writer. I loved every single bar of soap, piece of licorice, card, note, sticker, pen, stick of incense, and tea bag they sent. It was magical, the effect of all that love and encouragement.

Anyway, this morning I told the woman at the cash register at Trader Joe's about my friend's last chemo treatment. She was appropriately happy for my friend and spoke kindly of my desire to drop off a gift bag. As I waited for the machine to read the chip on my debit card, she stepped away from the cash register. She returned with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and said, "Please give these flowers to your friend and say they are from the folks here at Trader Joe's. This is a big day and we want to honor that." I am glad I was wearing my sunglasses at the time - because the goodness of life that she showered on me and my friend welled up in my eyes.

Kanswer sucks.
Chemotherapy sucks.
Surgery sucks.
Each one of us has five or ten or a thousand things we can add to the list of things that suck.
Flooding in the south.
The earthquake in Italy.
The fact that one of my fabulous neighbors moved out of their house today.
The divisive presidential campaign.
The fear mongering that has gripped and divided our country.
I could go on.
So could you.

But there is goodness and beauty that emerges even during chemotherapy. There are kind, funny, and infinitely patient nurses in the oncology office. There are generous and thoughtful employees at local grocery stores who send flowers to people they don't even know as a random act of kindness.

I am determined to remember the joy of sitting with my friend back in the early 1990s and looking out onto the trees and flowers and zen garden and fields of flowers in her yard in Mendocino, CA.

I am determined to remember the wonder of standing at the base of the Cristo Redentor statue, the same one that I saw on television dozens of times during the recent Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, and gazing down onto the beaches and buildings below.

I am determined to remember the immediate and inexplicable feeling of peace, the sense of "finally being at home, my true home" on the day I arrived in Madrid the first time - back in August of 1986, thirty years ago. I barely spoke Spanish. I was hot and sweaty. I had been groped by the train conductor on the night train between Paris and Madrid. But when I arrived in Madrid that late summer day, backpack on my back, bus map in my hands, I looked around me I knew: I was finally at home. I still feel that way every single time I arrive at Madrid Barajas Airport - "I made it back home."

I remember the blessing of food in the fridge, the freezer, the pantry, and my not-so-secret stash of snacks. (My family knows exactly where it is, but they also know that they cannot ever, ever, ever dig into it or take anything out of it!)

I remember the gift of arriving home safely every night after all of our driving and walking and working and volunteering and spending time with friends. There are many people who leave home each morning, but do not return home at night. Safe passage is a miracle, every single day.

I could go on. Couldn't you?

I am determined to remember the goodness of life.

PS. I am enormously grateful to Alice Walker and her daughter, Rebecca Walker, for bringing so much goodness into my life through their words, their convictions, their womanism, their powerful wisdom, and simply for being who they are in a world that has often criticized them fiercely and attempted to silence their provocative voices. I don't always agree with everything they say and write, but everything they say and write makes me think deeply about what I say and write and how I live my life.

Monday, August 22, 2016

That New Baby Smell

On July 17, 1981, my brother, Glen, came home with the best news I had heard all year. He said that my older brother, Otis, and his wife, Joy, had had their baby. Kevin!!! As the words fell from Glen's mouth, I leapt into his arms with joy. Besides the fabulous news that the baby had arrived safely, we rejoiced over the fact that Glen and I had not tumbled down the stairs he was standing on at the time. The two of us could very well have ended up in the same hospital that Kevin had been born in if we had fallen down the brick stairs on the front of our house.

I would imagine that Otis and Joy got sick of my near-daily visits to their apartment to see and hold bathe and snuggle with their sweet baby boy. I spent hours with him in my arms, sniffing that new baby smell. Certainly there were moments when there were other smells as well, but the smell of his breath, the smell of the top of his head, the smell that lingered after I uncurled his tiny fingers and laid his hands on my face - that smell became an addiction that has yet to be broken.

Kevin's little brother, Matthew, was born during my freshman year in college, so I didn't see him for several weeks - but when I got home from college, I had another baby to snuggle with and sniff. I know that sounds a little weird, perhaps a little creepy, but that new baby smell is unrivaled in its miraculous bouquet.

Otis and Joy's third and final gift to me, I mean their final addition to their family, Raquel, was born when I was in England. Why I felt the need to be so far from home when they were bringing new life into the world is beyond me, but there I was. She was born in July, and I didn't get back to the States until December. Far too long to wait to meet my first niece, but not so long that I missed out on the wonder of holding her little body in my arms, closing my eyes, and taking my first hit of the splendorous scent of new baby girl curls.

Three more nieces were born to my two other brothers in the years that followed.
I changed their diapers. I bathed them. I fed them. I babysat them all for free.
And when nobody was looking, I lifted their arms and smelled their perfectly formed armpits.
I peeled off their socks and smelled their tiny toes.
I nuzzled them and sang to them and shook my head at the magnitude of their beauty.

If my memory has not failed me and my calculations are correct,
Kevin is now 35, Matthew is 32, and Raquel is 30. They are married.
And they all now have babies of their own.

On July 21 of this year, Kristiana and I were on the tail end of a two day visit with Raquel and Jay and their gorgeous little girl, Aurora. On the final day of our visit, we met up with Matthew's wife, Monisha, and their son, Myles, and Kevin's wife, Susan, and their daughter, Pem. Raquel's husband was in the room with us - but he hardly counted - no offense, Jay, but that visit was all about the babies! Matthew and Kevin were both out of town for work - we were sorry to miss them, but again, it was all about those babies.

Right - Kevin and baby Pem
Top left - Matthew and baby Myles
Bottom left - Jay and baby Aurora

That afternoon, I watched those three new moms care for their babies, feed them, nurse them, and change their diapers. I watched them love those babies and nurture them, speaking to them with tenderness, laughing with them, playing with them, mothering them as though no one else was present. Even as I type these words, tears well up in my eyes as I think of the love that filled that apartment, the adoration, the intimacy between mother and child, between husband and wife, between the three new mothers, as they helped each other resolve the issues and challenges that came up in the few hours we spent together. One by one, I took each of those children into my arms, held them close, silently prayed over them, and breathed in that new baby smell.

There are far too many families in which terms like "sister-in-law" and "niece by marriage" designate some level of separation or formality. There are far too many families in which the presence of a mother-in-law in the room - be it the birthing room or the living room or the baby's room - means there is tension in the air. There are families in which an aunt and a cousin who live six states away are not easily or quickly folded into the new life of a newly formed family. I am blessed to say that none of those things is true for or among those three siblings and their spouses and new babies.  My sister-in-law, Joy, is about as adoring, patient, generous, available, and encouraging a mother and mother-in-law as I have ever known. And those three new mothers are more like sisters than most "real" sisters I know. They all welcomed me and my daughter with open arms, generous hospitality, and complete trust in our love for them and their babies.

In this day and age where some people insinuate that immigrants need to be kicked out of our country, in this day and age in the world when some people insinuate that people of different backgrounds and cultures and languages cannot live together in peace, Kevin and Susan, Matthew and Monisha, and Raquel and Jay are proof that those insinuations are far off base.

My African-American brother, Otis, married Joy - whose family originated in Honduras.
Kevin married Susan - whose family originated in Cambodia and Laos.
Matthew married Monisha - whose family originated in Jamaica and Aruba.
Raquel married Jay - who is a first generation immigrant from Poland. He is the only member of his birth family living in the United States.
Truly a uniting of nations.

But back to the babies and that new baby smell.
Two days and two nights with Jay and Raquel provided me with many hours of bliss with Aurora.
How could I possibly be expected to resist this face???

Indeed I could not resist kissing her and holding her and taking in her sweetness.

 Pem is more serious than Aurora,
and her hard-earned smiles are dazzlingly beautiful.
Awake and asleep, she was comfortable in Auntie's arms.

 Myles, Myles, Myles. So handsome, so strong, so active.
Most of the photos I took of him are blurred because he is a little man on the move.

Monisha hanging out with Myles and Aurora
while Jay played with Pem.
One family. One love. 
One beautiful moment for Auntie.

The only thing I didn't like about my time with my nieces and nephew and their babies was the knowledge that I would soon have to leave them in NY and make my way back home to Charlotte. Truthfully, I try not to look at the pictures or reread my journal from those days too often - because I miss them so much. I am beyond sad when I think about all the days and weeks and months I will not share with them because of the distance between us. The milestones. The celebrations. Their first words and first steps.

If you scroll back up and look at the photos of these three little people in my arms, you will notice that my head is down in most of the photos. Do you want to know why? Because I am trying to draw in as many deep breaths of that new baby smell as possible.

Thirty five summers ago right now, I was most likely on my way home from Otis and Joy's house, after spending the day with Kevin... and his parents. I was most likely trying to figure out when I could get back there. Not much has changed. I am still trying to figure out when I can get back there and see Myles, Aurora, and Pem... and their parents.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Sabbatical Over: "This is Now"

Last week, I went to hang out with my mom and watch the Olympics for a couple of hours. We watched television and talked and ate. That's our routine every time I visit her: watch tv, talk, and eat. She always has treats at her place that we don't have at our house. Things that I would consume in large quantities over brief periods of time. Nutter Butter cookies. Fresh roasted peanuts. Miniature Hershey's chocolate bars. Mixed nuts (without peanuts). Lance cheese crackers. Cheesecake. K-cup coffee and tea pods. Those butter cookies that come in huge dark blue cans.

Yes, my mother, who lives alone, is a member of BJs. Why? So she can buy huge quantities of food to feed her family and friends as often as possible. She is one of the most hospitable people I have ever known. I remember many parties and meals and gatherings at our home during my childhood, many of which would include several friends spending the night, sleeping on couches and on the floor in our Brooklyn duplex. True to form, she is hosting the family reunion for the family of her birth, the Elliotts, this coming weekend. She already has the chairs set up in her living room, and she has made one of several trips to BJs and other stores to buy all kinds of goodies.

Anyway, last week I was sitting with her in what she refers to as her "woman-cave" watching television and eating fresh roasted peanuts. Except they weren't too fresh. Actually, they were quite stale. She apologized for the status of the peanuts and followed her apology with an invitation to me to open the large jug of mixed nuts she had recently bought in anticipation of the family reunion. I thanked her for the offer, but said, "Don't you want to save those nuts for next weekend?"

She answered, "This is now. You don't know what's gonna happen between now and next weekend. One woman who was supposed to come to the family reunion recently had to have emergency surgery and she can't come. This is now, Gail. This is now."

Her response landed immediately in my journal.
I am the queen of postponing things I like,
things I like to eat, things I like to do,
things I like to read, things I like to experience -
the more I like to eat something, the more likely I am to postpone eating it for some future time.
For some special occasion.
I spend more time than I care to admit figuring out ways to do things I love -
next week, next month, next year.
Just not right now.
Gail, this is now.

A little more than fifteen years ago, after getting undressed after church, it occurred to me that I always felt my best when I was wearing a dress or a skirt. Getting ready for church, choosing my outfit, was one of the highlights of my week. As I stood there looking at my "church clothes," pondering what pair of baggy sweatpants or uncomfortable jeans I was going to don, it hit me: if I save these clothes I love, these comfortable dresses and clothes, for exclusive use on Sunday, then each item will be worn only three or four times each year. And the rest of the time, the other 300+ days of the year, days of homeschooling and driving my kids to their music lessons and athletic practices and trips to the supermarket, all of which composed the majority of my life, I would be wearing clothing I didn't like nearly as much and that didn't look nearly as good on me. Sooooo - I decided to start wearing my favorite clothes every day. I no longer own baggy sweatpants or uncomfortable jeans. And every day, I get to pick dresses and skirts and jeans and tunic tops that I love to wear.
This is now.

When one of my kids wants to have breakfast or lunch with me, when they come into my bedroom and plop down on the bed to watch television or talk or just hang out, I say a silent prayer of thanks, and turn up my emotional/relational/parental hearing aid and listen closely. My children will soon be 20 and 23 years of age; the fact that they still like hanging out with me, telling me their secrets and asking my advice is miraculous to me. I will go out for a mother-son breakfast date tomorrow morning. Sure, I could have offered to cook breakfast here at home for him and the rest of the family. But when my 19 year old son asked me to go out on a date with him two mornings before we take him and get him set up for his sophomore year in college, I said "YES" - and thought to myself, "This is now, Gail. Go out with your boy. This is now."

When friends write or text or call and ask to get together for tea or lunch or dinner or a walk, I try to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Life is short.
This is now.

Drive six hours one way to visit the incarcerated son of a dear friend?
Go with her, Gail.
This is now.

Tell someone my story about kanswer,
my family's story about mental illness,
about the challenges of marriage and parenting,
about how hard this faith journey, this life journey can be,
even when telling those stories moves me to tears?
Cry if you need to, Gail, but this is your story to tell.
This is the time to tell it.
This is now.

Speak up against racism and prejudice of other kinds, even when it feels uncomfortable?
When I feel uncomfortable and those who are listening are also uncomfortable?
People are dying now because of fear and misunderstanding.
Say something now, Gail.
This is now.

Don't keep postponing the good stuff.
Don't even postpone the challenging stuff.
Don't save your best dishes or dresses or smiles or compliments for some other time.
Don't save your hard-won wisdom or deepest convictions for some more convenient time,
for some more comfortable conversation.
Tell the truth now.
Stand up for justice and peace now.
Live with joy now.
Go for a walk and watch birds flitter from tree to tree now.
Eat the Nutter Butter cookie -
or better yet, make some vegan homemade chocolate chip cookies - now.
This is now.

Thanks, Mom, for challenging me to rethink how I live my life.
And all it took was an offer to eat some mixed nuts.

PS. Thank you all for your comments and encouragement during this month of blogging sabbatical. Thank you for coming back to read my ramblings.
Thank you for coming along for another leg of my life's journey.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Thankful Thursday - Sabbatical

I'm going on sabbatical from the blog.
I need to take some time to refuel, recharge, to be refreshed and renewed.

I'm heading off on a journey.
With my daughter for a few days.
Then alone for a few days.
Then back home.

I am thankful for the chance to rest.
Thankful to the friends and family who will be rest stops along the way.
And to those I don't yet know who will be encountered on our journey.
And then on my solo journey.

Thankful to those who will be praying for our safety and for our enjoyment.
Thankful to and for those whose prayers have made this journey, this adventure possible.
Two months ago, I wasn't so sure this trip would happen.
But it is happening.
I am enormously grateful.

May hope abound in you and around you.
May joy, indescribable, inexplicable joy, surprise you.
May you find reasons to give thanks every day.
Peace be with you.

I will be back in a month.
Well, I will get back home in less than a month,
but I will return here to the blog in a month and a day - on August 15.

Adventure awaits.
Traveling mercies to you.
Go well.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Thankful Thursday - Thankful for tears

So much sorrow.
Too much sorrow.
A man was shot to death in his car - with a woman and a child in the car.
As he reached for his license.
And explained that he had a gun in the car.
A gun he was licensed to own and carry.
In this country so obsessed with the 2nd amendment, the right to bear arms, it would appear that a black man exercising the right to bear arms is fair game to be shot - in his car. Without even having the gun in his hand. A black boy with a toy gun in a park is fair game too. A black man with a toy gun in Walmart too.

My heart is broken.
This is incomprehensible to me.

I am a tall black woman with extremely short hair.
I couldn't be any more flat chested - after the double mastectomy.
So I wear earrings every time I leave my house, dangling earrings.
I try to wear bright colors and other things that make me stand out as a woman.
Because I don't want to be mistaken for a man
walking through my predominantly white neighborhood.
I don't want to be gunned down because someone things I'm a black man
walking through my predominately white neighborhood.
And I always carry my cell phone with me because in my photo file,
I have a photograph of my driver's license  -
to prove that I live in the neighborhood.
I have rehearsed my appeal should I get stopped -
"I'm reaching into my pouch for my cell phone to show you the photo of my driver's license.
I don't have any weapons. Can I lower my hand and take out my cell phone? Is that okay?"
I could carry my license, but since I take my phone to listen to music anyway,
I took a photo of my license.
(Most of the time that I'm out walking, I am not using earphones, mind you,
so I can hear what's going on around me. I can't afford to be unaware of my surroundings.)
It sucks that I have to think about all this stuff - but I do.
Every time I leave my house to walk alone.

Black people everywhere are praying over our children more.
Especially our sons.
Giving thanks every time they arrive home safely.

I've told my son that if he goes out running,
he can't wear a sweatshirt with his hood up.
He can't run with earphones in -
he needs to be able to hear if someone speaks to him or calls out to him.
I've told him how to respond calmly and cooperatively if he is ever stopped by the police.
And I give thanks to God every time he arrives home safely.

How long, America? How long will we allow this brutality to happen?
How many must die this way?
Are justice, fairness, and equality even possible in this country?
Today, I am thankful for tears.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Knowing Place - Take Two

This is what I wrote yesterday about the knowing place.
I woke up at 4 am this morning thinking about it.
I turned on my light, took some notes in my journal, and went back to sleep.
Here's what woke me up - the fact that the knowing place exists,
the fact that I have discovered peace and rest there,
doesn't mean that I am free of all doubt and fear and uncertainty.
Not even close.

During the hardest times in my life - this spring, four years ago on my kanswer journey, back in 2008 during another family crisis, and during the other major storms in my life - the knowing place has held firm. I knew that we weren't alone in our trials. I knew that we were loved and being prayed for and supported by many, many beloved friends and co-travelers on our life journey. I knew that God was with us. I knew that all would eventually be well.

But still.
But still.

I doubted. I had questions.
I wondered. I worried.
I held my Bible up and reminded God of the promises contained therein.
I battled despair and wondered if life was better than death.
I had no blessed idea of how the crises would be resolved.
Or if they would ever be resolved.

My journal is filled with pages of large letters -

Pages of questions -
What if I die?
What if he dies?
What if she dies?
What if she lives and this is as good as it gets?
Is this a life that will be worth living?
What if insurance won't pay for this?
Will I trust God even then?
Will I believe God's promises to be true even then?

There are pages of Bible verses - particularly verses and passages taken from the book of Job.
"Job 1:21 - Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; 
the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Job 13:15 - Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.
Daniel 3:16-18 - Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego answered the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up. 
Mark 9:21-24 - Jesus asked the father: "How long has this been happening to him?" And he said, "From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us." Jesus said to him, "If you are able! - All things can be done for the one who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief."

For anyone unfamiliar with the stories of Job and the three guys mentioned in the Daniel passage, here is a very brief synopsis. Job was a rich man who lost everything, including his children (but not his wife), in several tragic incidents that all took place on the same day. After hearing about all that had gone wrong, Job responded with that noble quote in Job 1:21. Later in the book, he declares his trust in the God who is said to have allowed all those tragedies to happen. Spoiler Alert - at the end of the book of Job, all of his stuff and family are restored, in even greater abundance.

The three guys mentioned in Daniel are captives of the king to whom they are speaking. They have been summoned and required to bow down to a statue the king has made of himself, ninety feet high and nine feet wide. These three young men refuse to bow down and are threatened with being tossed into a fiery furnace. They stand in defiance to the king's order, declaring their belief that the God they worship could deliver them from the fire, but even if God didn't deliver them, they still wouldn't worship that statue. They end up being thrown into that fiery furnace. Spoiler Alert - God protects them, they are not burned by the fire, a fourth person (could it be God?) is seen in the fire with them, they are delivered out of the furnace and promoted into high positions in the king's service.

In Mark, Jesus is introduced to a father whose son has suffered with "a spirit" that made his life horrible. The father asks Jesus' disciples to heal the boy, but they are unable to do so. Finally, the father appeals to Jesus himself - and he simply states what I have felt often - "I believe; help my unbelief." Spoiler alert - the boy is healed!

My appeals to God went something like this - "I'm here in the knowing place, God, trusting in your power to heal. Believing that you can deliver her and me and us from the fiery furnace of illness and fear and worry and helplessness. Don't you want to deliver us? Since you are able to deliver us, Almighty God, why won't you do it - and do it right now??? What about the happy endings that appear so often in Scripture - like in Job and with those guys in the book of Daniel? When do we get our happy ending, our healing, our deliverance?"

These passages and several others rested comfortably, or rather uncomfortably, in my journal and in my heart during the horrors of this spring's doings and undoings. There were moments when I had enough strength and faith to stand firm in the knowing place and declare, like Job, "Blessed be the name of the Lord" and "Yet will I trust in God." But there were many, many moments in which I read and spoke those words through clenched jaws and gnashing teeth.

These passages and several others also reminded me that not all Biblical accounts end happily. In fact, very few of them do. Execution and exile and enslavement are not uncommon responses to those who declare their trust in and reliance on God.

One of my favorite Bible passages temporarily lost its shine, but after I broke the rose-colored glasses through which I had desperately tried to see my life and the world, it was restored to its luster... John 16:33 records Jesus saying to those he loved, "I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

I used to like the parts that talk about me having peace and Jesus overcoming the world. What I didn't want to think about or experience was the part where he talked about us having trouble. When I encountered difficulties, I retreated into "Why? Why me? Why her? Why us? We are so good." I couldn't even finish that last statement without laughing to myself, sometimes laughing through my tears. We are so NOT good. Nor are we immune to the pain and suffering that are part of the human experience. Who are we not to suffer? Who are we not to face trials, tribulations, and difficulties?

But still.
But still.

On those same journal pages, on those long drives to the hospital for visits, during the wee hours of the morning when I would find myself awake and on high alert, even as abundant tears flowed and unsavory language found its way through my furious fingers, even then I knew. I knew that our story would not be one of bitterness and sorrow and fear forever. I knew that God was working - even when I didn't feel it. I knew that I would not devote myself to the worship of despair and fear. I knew that I believed - even in times of unbelief.

I knew and I wondered.
I believed and I doubted.
I questioned and I was convinced.
I rested peacefully and I woke up in the middle of the night.
I felt God's presence and I felt God's silent absence.
All of the above.
All in the knowing place.

The way forward was not (and is not) always lit beyond the very next step.
The way forward was not (and is not) easy.
The way forward passed (and passes) through unspeakable sadness.
But it was and it is ever and always moving forward.
Thanks be to God!

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Knowing Place

Today I told someone a story about the past four months of my life. I told her that several people who knew what was going on suggested that I take a leave of absence from seminary while we groped our way through the dark valley of shadows and sadness. I explained to my friend today that I never even considered taking a break. That seminary classes were an oasis for me. And I told her that I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be - reading, writing, studying, learning about history and the Bible and the church.

She asked where I knew it - where in my body or mind or soul I knew that I was where I needed to be. My answer was: "In my entire being." Every part of me knew. I never doubted that I was on the right path, doing what I have been created to do. Preparing to do what I'm already doing - listening to stories, walking with other pilgrims, stumbling along the rocky path of life with others, sharing some of the lessons I'm learning about how to walk fully, hope-fully, joy-fully, peace-fully, and gratefully.

Fifteen years ago, a pastor-friend of mine, Ian Cron, wrote and recorded a CD that included a song called, "The Knowing Place."

I have no words for it 
It is a sureness in my soul
I have no words for it 
In the flood, it is my stone
I have no words for it
It is a chamber in my heart
I have no words for it
My only candle in the dark
It has come to me through losses
It has come to me through pain
It has struck me like a clear blue sky 
in the pouring pouring rain.

Chorus - 
The knowing place is here in my heart
It's where I can know I'm safe in the dark
The knowing place is where I'm sure
That here in his arms I'm always secure
Oh here in the knowing place.

I cannot take you there
It's down a road I've walked alone
I cannot take you there
It's paved with blood and broken bone
I cannot take you there
I cannot share this private view
I cannot take you there
There's only room enough for two
He has thrown my windows open
He has trampled down my gates
He has honored me with burdens
And the weightlessness of grace

I have spent hours singing and pondering this song since it was recorded in 2001.

I like the first verse.

"I have no words for it" - for the peace, for the calm, for the knowing
even in the midst of the storm, even as the tears flow.
Knowing that all shall be well - even when it didn't look that way.
Knowing that we were not at the end of our story.
Knowing that hope remains. Knowing that joy is possible.
Even in the midst of the storm.

"It has come to me through losses. It has come to me through pain."
Losses? Pain? Oh yes.
Physical losses. Emotional losses.
Some relationships lost. Confidence in other relationships lost.
And in the midst of all that loss, in the midst of all the pain -
knowing even then.
Knowing that I am not alone. I am never alone.
Knowing that I have hope and a future.
Knowing that the loss of body parts to kanswer,
the loss of my father,
the loss of connections with people I thought would be with me forever -
even then, I know that I am well, that all is well.
And whatever isn't yet well, shall be well.

But the second verse is the one that resonates more deeply within me.

I have been loved. I have been supported. I have been held. All life long.
She sat with me through chemotherapy. He sat with us in the Emergency Room.
They put our names on prayer lists. She keeps us in the center of her prayer circle.
She has been my friend since my daughter was three weeks old.
He has been my companion on this journey of faith since the fall of 1989.
He has been my husband for 24 years and 363 days.
There have always been people with me, around me, near me.

But this life, this journey, this painful and beautiful life pilgrimage, is a road I walk alone.
A road that is paved with blood, broken bones, pieces of my broken heart, and so many tears.
In the painful recuperation from chemotherapy and surgery,
in the wretchedness of mourning my father's death,
in the sorrow of being abused be someone whose job it was to help me,
in the pain and the power of childbirth,
in the helplessness of watching the daughter I love suffer unrelentingly,
there was only room enough for two - for me and God.

It's strange to write that - to write about being alone with God.
Talking to God in prayer and in journaling.
Crying out to God - literally shouting and screaming at God.
Listening for God in The Word and in the words of others.
Pleading with God for visible signs of mercy and healing.
Knowing that God was listening and feeling that God was actively working.
Even when I couldn't see it or explain it or prove it.
I just knew.
I just know.

That's exactly what the song is about.
That's what this life of faith is about.
Having no words for it.
But knowing that God is present.
Knowing that God is at work, even when it looks like nothing is happening.
But resting, basking, living in that knowledge anyway.

I cannot prove that God had anything to do with the conversation I had with friends at the wedding reception in which I broke down and cried as I told some of my story. I cannot prove that God had anything to do with the phone call that he made after that emotional outburst of mine. I cannot prove that God had anything to do with the fact that the doctor that wasn't taking new patients accepted one more. I cannot prove that God had anything to do how great that doctor has been for our family. But I believe God had everything to do with all of it - because when she asked how things were going, I could have said, "Things are going fine." I could have held myself together, but I didn't. I told the truth about how things were going and they listened and he acted and things shifted.

I cannot prove that God had anything to do with guiding that woman to the journaling class I was teaching more than ten years ago. She didn't even attend the church where I was teaching. But there she was. I cannot prove that God had anything to do with her saying to me, "You belong in the pulpit." I cannot prove that God had anything to do with her suggesting that I think hard about leaving that church and finding someplace that affirms the voices and wisdom and teaching of women. I cannot prove that God had anything to do with her inviting me to attend my first eight day silent retreat in 2011. I cannot prove that God had anything to do with her recommending that I develop a relationship with a spiritual director - the woman who asked the question I mentioned at the start of this blog post - "Where did you know it, Gail?"

I cannot prove that God had anything to do with any of it.
But I know it's true. In my entire being.
In the knowing place.

***Part two is here.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Thankful Thursday - Top Ten List

One mass shooting after the other. Hatred. Fear. Prejudice. Discrimination.
Members of our government vote to keep it legal for anyone and everyone to buy weapons of war without a background check, even people who cannot legally board an airplane. 
Sixty five million people displaced from their homes during the past year due to war and other horrors.
Someone we know arrested for child molestation.
In the face of all that, I must give thanks. 

Here's my top ten gratitude list. In no particular order.

1. One of my nieces flew down here to Charlotte from NYC for a few days. 
She was recently engaged to be married - and is blissfully happy.
She has never needed help in this area, but she is positively glowing.

2. The ridiculously sweet cherries and watermelon we have bought this week.
The bounty that we are privileged to enjoy every day.

3. Being hugged by an almost-two-year old. 
Being called by name by a three year old. 
Having that sweet little guy ask where my daughter was.
The love of a child is a precious gift.

4. The House Democrats who sat down in the Capital chamber for gun legislation.
Their determination to demand a vote in the face of the ridicule and dismissal of their political opponents. 
NO ONE will ever be able to convince me that private citizens need to own assault rifles. 
The same constitution that allows for gun ownership allowed for slave ownership. 
That same constitution prevented women and people of color from voting. 
I think that at least one more part of that constitution needs to be changed.
Cuz enough is already enough.

5. Barbara Brown Taylor's books - including Bread of Angels, When God is Silent, God in Pain.
Lately I have been reading her sermons - which I probably shouldn't do because it will be very hard to NOT want to just read them from the pulpit when it's my turn to preach. 
She will certainly inspire me to study hard, to write thoughtfully, and to preach with fear and trepidation - that is a profoundly serious and important work, standing behind that sacred desk and speaking words of truth, challenge, encouragement, and joy.

After describing the Biblical phenomenon of manna, BBT challenges her listeners and readers to ponder, "how you sense God's presence in your life. If your manna has to drop straight out of heaven looking like a perfect loaf of butter-crust bread, then chances are you are going to go hungry a lot. When you do not get the miracle you are praying for, you are going to think that God is ignoring you or punishing you or - worse yet - that God is not there... If, on the other hand, you are willing to look at everything that comes to you as coming from God, then there will be no end to the manna in your life. A can of beans will be manna. Grits will be manna. Bug juice will be manna. (You've got to read the sermon, Bread of Angels, to understand that reference...) Nothing will be too ordinary or too transitory to remind you of God... Because it is not what it is that counts but who sent it, and the miracle is that God is always sending us something to eat. Day by day, God is made known to us in the simple things that sustain our lives - some bread, some love, some breath, some wine - all those absolutely essential things that are here today and gone tomorrow. " (Bread of Angels, pages 10-11) 

6. Arriving at the airport overlook area five minutes before my niece's flight was scheduled to land. I love sitting there watching airplanes land and take off - dreaming of faraway cities I would love to disappear in and explore. Seconds after I pulled into a parking space - I hadn't even turned off the engine yet - I looked up to see an aircraft approaching the runway to land. Delta - the airline she was flying on. I hurriedly pulled out my cell phone and took photos as the jet landed. Then I sent her a text telling her that I had seen a Delta plane land and wondered if it was hers. One minute later, she responded and said that, yes, she had just landed. Yay! Perfect timing. 

7. During the worst four month period of our lives, from the middle of February until the middle of June, we had to hire a lawyer. She is fantastic. Truly a wonderful lawyer and a kind and compassionate woman. Today we spoke on the phone - and she said, "You're one of those good clients who makes all the tough ones easier to take." It sucks to have to hire a lawyer - no offense intended against any lawyers, but having to hire one usually means something is wrong - but if you've gotta have one, let it be a kind one, a generous one, and an highly competent one. Our lawyer is proof that such a combination is, in fact, less rare than the Lochness Monster. (Again, no offense intended.)

8. Laughter with my family during a lively round of Cards Against Humanity
That is one wild and crazy, crude, and very funny game. 

9. The opportunity to live vicariously through people I know who are traveling and on vacation.
Horseback riding near rivers and mountains and open plains. 
Sitting poolside near the lake.
Crossing the ocean.
Long pilgrimage-style walks overseas.
Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Reading at the beach. 
Those who live in their favorite places - no need to own a vacation home when you can live in your dream house, looking out over the water every morning.

10. Looking forward to eight days at this place.
This quiet, prayerful, beautiful, thought-provoking place
I haven't been there since the summer of 2012 - the summer before I was diagnosed with kanswer.
May the silence envelop me and heal me - and may that healing overflow beyond me.
May the prayers raised from that sacred space join the millions of other prayers raised every day -
for peace and mercy and salvation and the healing of the whole world.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Thankful Thursday - Never Alone

This coming Saturday, I will sit through the final seven hours of what my seminary professor calls, "Baby Greek." Ten weeks of Biblical Greek will come to an end at 5 pm, just under 48 hours from now. Twenty five or so students laughing, groaning, stumbling, stuttering our way through New Testament Greek. We have had to learn about prepositions, participles, particles, aorist, pluperfect, and case. We have been introduced to terms like nominative, genitive, ablative, vocative, accusative, and dative - words that meant absolutely nothing to me ten weeks ago. Honestly, I'm not sure how much more they mean to me know, but I've had to memorize them and figure out when they apply to the nouns they are related to. For the first time in decades, I have had to create index cards with vocabulary words - in Greek. I have had to learn what a lexicon is and how to use it. Once again, I confess to you, my patient readers, that I am a geek: I have loved this class. 

The professor cracks himself up - bending over in laughter several times during each class. But then he snaps to attention and blows my mind with insights on Scripture and the life of Jesus and what it means to be a follower of Christ. How he ties it all to the vocab lists and new grammatical terms moves me to tears even as I keep my hand tightly gripped around my pen taking copious notes. We do translation work with our classmates. We look over our shoulders at each other with impatient glances when someone in the class asks one too many questions. We huddle over our weekly quizzes and plead with God to remind us of the stacks of cards we have perused all week. We count down the hours until the end of the day - class goes from 8:15 am until 11:45 am. Chapel service at noon, then lunch. Class resumes at 1:30 and ends at 5 pm. Together. 

I am enormously thankful for the hard work, the piles of cards, the new alphabet, the deeper appreciation for the Holy Scripture. 

Two weeks ago, my daughter and I went to the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. As we explored the gardens, we stopped and sat down on nearly every bench that was in the shade. I especially liked the rainforest greenhouse - misters keep the plants damp and the visitors as well. 

There weren't many other visitors - it was a very hot day. But there were a few. Children in sun hats. Older couples also scampering from shady bench to shady bench. Empty walkways. Gratefully, I had my daughter. We walked and talked and laughed and sipped water from our thermoses. I am thankful for the simple pleasure of a walk through a garden with my dear, dear daughter.

Last week, I attended the graduation of three dozen preschoolers from the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool here in Charlotte. I think I was the only person in the room who was neither related to a child nor a member of the school staff. Children singing in English and Spanish. Adults taking photos and videos. After they received their diplomas, the new graduates were asked if any of them wanted to say anything to the audience. Several bravely took the microphone and said things like: "I really like this school and I don't want to leave." "I like everything about this school." "I really want to stay here." Could any teacher ask for a better compliment or higher praise?

As I watched and listened and looked around the room at all those proud parents and grandparents, hailing undoubtedly from a dozen Central and South American countries, I wished I could hear their stories - why they left their home countries, how they got to the U.S. and why they chose Charlotte. I wanted to know how many of the people around them they knew before sending their children to that innovative and inspirational school, and what their hopes and dreams are for the precious boys and girls they celebrated that day. I wanted to know who their companions have been on their life journeys. I hope and pray that they have never known what it is to be alone.

I am thankful for how welcoming they were to me - the stranger in the room, the one taking photos from the corner, the one who teared up as their favorite little people marched into the room to the tune of "We Are the World." I hadn't heard that song in more than fifteen years. Those rising kindergarteners had no idea just how relevant that song is to their situation - We are the world. We are the children. Together. Never alone.

On Tuesday night, I attended a support group gathering for family members of people dealing with brain conditions and sensitivity (often called "mental illness"). There is something encouraging, sobering, and heartening about sitting in a room surrounded by others whose loved ones are dealing with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety and personality disorders. Some have children as young as eleven years of age. Some have children who are in their late 50s, adult children whose guardianship rests in the hands of these brave older adults. We look into each other's eyes, sharing sorrows and victories, rubbing each other's shoulders and offering tissues to wipe each other's eyes. We hope for the best and prepare ourselves for the worst. We share email addresses, medication compliance tips, and tales of sleepless nights. Together. In our darkest hours, on our scariest days, during our longest nights, these monthly gatherings, these support group sessions remind us that we are never alone.

Recently, I've had coffee and tea dates with friends facing their own challenges - with children, with spouses, with ex-spouses, and also celebrating their new joys - with new friends and lovers, jobs they enjoy, new homes being built and renovated, and upcoming trips. Today I had lunch with a new friend, another mother who is on a similarly heart-breaking parenting journey with her beloved children.  I laugh and cry with my friends. We tell stories. We share tips and suggestions. We sit in silence. We journal. We share food, wine, water, and long, fast paced walks. Together. Even when I'm sitting in my study, writing and editing these blog posts, I know that I am not alone. What a gift friendship is. Companionship. Tenderness. Compassion. Love. Co-traveling along life's journey. Never alone.

The moment in Greek class that I like best is the last one. Not because I want to leave and go home - remember, I'm a geek and I love Greek. But rather because of the benediction that Professor Carson Brisson prays over us each week. He wrote it years ago (I know because I Googled "Carson Brisson benediction" and discovered that it has been quoted many times.) and apparently he prays a version of it at the end of every class he teaches. I have videotaped it twice, taken notes on it twice, and edited it three times in a computer document. I love this prayer. It is a reminder, another fantastic reminder, that we are not alone. Never alone. He prays it. We hear it. We live it out. Together.

May joy and nothing less find you on the way.
May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing.
And may light, Love’s own crucified risen light
guide you and uncounted others
(I cannot make an ultimate judgment;
I am not in charge of that number.
God’s in charge of that number, thanks be to God)
you and me and uncounted others out of every darkness,
some of which are absolutely beyond imagining,
heartbreaking darknesses that kill us and 
we have to be resurrected,
out of every darkness and then the darkness itself,
all the way home.
I speak of home with trepidation, I admit that, 
perhaps some of you would speak of home with trepidation too.
But I will speak of home.
I tell you, this is what I believe about home:
those most home,
you can see them, you can find them,
those most home, relentlessly,
those most home, most seek the very least home.

Dr Carson Brisson, June 4, 2016.

Benediction after Greek class.

May we seek those least home, those who feel least loved.
May we reassure them, each other, and ourselves, that we are never alone.
Never ever alone.