Thursday, September 27, 2018

What I was doing last Sunday morning

I love my job. Truly I do. I get to visit people and talk to people and listen to people's stories.
I get to write notes of support and encouragement. I get to laugh with people and cry with people.

There is so much about my life at Caldwell Presbyterian Church that gives me great joy.
One of my favorite things to do at Caldwell is preach.
That is what I was doing last Sunday morning.
Preaching a sermon called: "What's in Your Backpack? Walkie Talkie."

I need to get back into blogging.
But I haven't yet figured out how to work full time, be a full time seminary student,
stay connected with my family and friends, exercise, read, journal - and blog.
Balance is crucial, and I need to figure out how to maintain it.

In the meantime, I hope you will spend just under eighteen minutes checking out what I was doing last Sunday morning.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Thankful Thursday

How does the time fly by so quickly?
It has been six weeks since my last blog post.
Life has been full and beautiful and hard and demanding.

At the end of July, I drove up to the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA, for a week of silence.
Solitude. Good food. Great prayer. Intense journaling.
I drove more than eight hours each way - and traveled safely in both directions.
I love the time I get to spend at the Jesuit Center.
I don't love long drives by myself.
But the healing that my soul experiences there,
the rest that my body experiences there,
the grace that God pours on me there -
they redeem every hour I spend on the road.
I am so grateful.

I participated at the Women's Connection conference at Montreat earlier this month.
Kate Bowler was the keynote speaker. Her recently released memoir is called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved. The story of her journey with stage 4 colon kanswer is terrifying, heart-wrenching, hopeful, funny, and life-affirming.
I am enormously grateful for her courage and for her vulnerability.

The two other folks who led us there are a mother and daughter team: Reverend Dr. Diane Givens Moffett and Reverend Eustacia Moffett Marshall. They are truly a dynamic duo of strong, gifted, outspoken, inspirational women. They both preach. They both sing. They both motivated me to continue to do what I love to do with passion and with great joy.

I shared my new favorite video with the retreat attendees who signed up for my writing workshop.

"This is me."
(I dare you to watch this video without smiling,
without wanting to dance.)

The workshop I offered was called "Your body, your story."
Our bodies are telling us stories.
We tell stories about our bodies.
Our society tells us stories about our bodies.
And our bodies are in relationship with other bodies.
We talked about all of that - and did some writing too - in an hour and a half.

I talked about kanswer and bipolar disorder and hope.
I talked about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made -
no matter what we think of our bodies or what society thinks of our bodies.
We took some time to share some of what our bodies have endured.
We also wrote and talked about some of the ways in which our bodies
have astonished us with their strength and resilience.
We laughed. We cried. Truthfully, I did most of the crying.
I am so grateful for the women who came, for all that they shared, for their questions,
and for the ways in which they supported and cared for each other as well.

We watched "American Made,"  this film made by Valarie Kaur and her husband.
Valarie will be the keynote speaker next summer at the Women's Connection retreat.
I hope I get to meet her.

Every time I get to lead people into places of deeper thought,
into deeper questions, into deeper reflection on life and faith,
whenever I get to watch people connect with each other,
discover new ways to see themselves and their roles in the world,
whenever someone approaches me after a talk or a workshop or a
service of worship, and declares that they have a better understanding
of what gives them hope
what keeps them up at night
what makes them laugh
what will get them through the crisis they are in
what they can do with the gifts they have been given
- every time any of that kind of thing happens,
I thank them for sharing their story
I nod my weary head
I say a silent word of thanks to God
because I know that I know that I know
that I have been witness to another miracle.

The miracle of growth.
The miracle of hope.
The miracle of wisdom.
The miracle of discernment.
The miracle of faith.
The miracle of life itself.
And I am enormously grateful.

I have had dozens of funny, sad, meandering conversations with people at my church.
I have listened to their heart breaking stories.
I have held their hands and wiped their tears.
I have preached. I have prayed.
For the first time, I participated in a memorial service.
It was an honor to join in the celebration of the life of that dear man.
I am so grateful.

For old friendships and for new connections,
for ripe peaches and sun-dried tomatoes,
for barber shops and yoga studios,
for rain and for cloudy days,
for chiropractors and herbal teas,
for hospice care and maternity centers,
for friendly neighbors and their rambunctious dogs,
I am grateful.

I am grateful too, for the quote by Dag Hammarskjold:
"For all that has been, Thank you.
For all that is to come, Yes!"

Saturday, July 07, 2018

LWB - at the art supply store

I went to Michael's today.
I didn't need to go to Michael's.
I already have too many art supplies.
Actually, let me rephrase that - I already have a lot of art supplies.
I'm not sure I could ever have too many.
As long as I use them, right?

Anyway, I went to Michael's because a dear friend of mine,
who will remain unnamed - (cough - Heather! - cough) -
told me that there was a sale on washi tape.
Three rolls for $1.

So I was standing at the washi tape display, rifling through roll after roll,
consciously and intentionally resisting the urge to dump it all into my basket,
when a young white woman approached and began to dig through the bins as well.

Let me stop here and say that I've been struggling with anger this past week.
Actually for the past few weeks, but it has been most intense this past week.
Anger about injustice. Anger about racism. Anger about mass incarceration.
Anger about the frequency with which the police are being called
because black people are being people.
Sleeping in her college dorm common area.
Selling water near a sporting event.
Barbecuing in a public park.
Sitting at the pool in her own neighborhood.
Canvassing for political office in her area.
Carrying out a home inspection.
Checking out of an Air BnB with their suitcases.
It's ridiculous.
The crime code should be LWB - Living while black.

So, yea, I've been angry. Very angry.
And also sensitive about being black in this country at a time when
walking through my own neighborhood, pulling something out of my trunk,
putting my cell phone into my purse, and other normal activities
could be misunderstood and considered threatening.
And prompt someone to call the police on me - or my children.

So all of that was floating in my head when that young woman approached.
I took a deep breath and decided to break the ice.
I said, "Great deal, right?"
She smiled and said, "Yes, this is a great deal."
Then she gushed about how much she loves washi tape
and how she uses it all the time and
then she said she should probably just walk away because she already had so much.
I said, "Can you have too much?" She laughed.
We wished each other a good day - and then she left.
So simple. So pleasant.
Thanks be to God.

I wandered around the store a little bit more.
Then I went to the register.
The cashier was a beautiful brown skinned woman.
Was she Indian or Latinx or ...?
It doesn't matter who she was or where she was born or what her first language is
or what she believes or who she loves.
What matters is that she was outrageously kind and pleasant in her interaction with me.
She smiled and made small talk.
She looked me in the eye when she spoke to me.
When the exchange was complete, she wished me a wonderful afternoon.
So simple. So pleasant.
Thanks be to God.

I really needed both of those exchanges today.
I needed to remember that most people are pleasant and kind.
Most people don't hate other people.
Most people really want "liberty and justice for all."
It is the minority, truly the minority of people, who want to dominate others,
who want to deport everyone who wasn't born here,
who want to use violence to intimidate anyone who doesn't agree with them.
Truly a minority.

Glennon Doyle has planted a couple of phrases in my mind and heart lately.

Earlier today, I saw an Instagram post of hers in which she said she and her wife are out "waging joy." I love that. No more staying stuck in fear, despair, or anxiety. It's time for us to "wage joy."I need to get out and wage some joy myself.

She has a sign off that she sometimes uses when she writes: "in hope and fury." Again, I love that. I can live in hope. I can work for hope. I can preach about hope. I can sit with someone who is hurting and pray that hope finds its way into their broken heart. And I can also feel a deep fury at what I see and what I hear around me. And I can also be furious about how helpless and fearful so many people feel these days - myself included.

Someone said that if you're not mad, you're not paying attention.
If you're weeping, if you're broken hearted, if you're disgusted,
then you are paying attention.
If those are the criteria at the moment, then I am definitely paying attention.

Although it could easily be argued that I didn't need any more washi tape today,
I do know that I needed the two exchanges I had there.
I needed to be reminded of the gift of kindness and conversation.
I needed to be reminded - look up, see and be seen.
Make conversation.
Smile and be smiled at.
I needed to be reminded that I can be furious and also relentlessly hopeful.

There is so much work to do.
Perhaps some of that work can be done while waging joy over washi tape.
I'm about to test that theory.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thankful Thursday

Today was a good day. A very good day.
I took my daughter with me to work this morning.
That statement alone makes me smile -
my daughter came with me to work.
To work. I have a job.
I am gainfully employed.
I am joyfully employed.

After she left to meet up with a friend for tea, I did some work on my computer.
In my office. At my job.

I have spent the better part of these past two weeks pinching myself. Smiling to myself.
Giving thanks to God and to the loving, kind, welcoming people of Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church for opening their arms to me and my family. 
I sit at my desk and stare at that beautiful window.
I stare at my computer screen - with emails coming in. With people dropping by to talk.
I close my eyes and say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you," over and over.

Later in the morning, my colleague, John, and I set out to visit one of the church members who is in a nursing home several miles from the church. Jackie Abernethy is a firecracker of a woman, with a quick smile, a warm heart, and a long history at the church. I wish I had known her when she was still actively involved at Caldwell. She has seen a lot change in Charlotte and at Caldwell - and has the stories to prove it. She appears in this video - which tells the story of how Caldwell has recovered from a near-death experience as a church.

After returning from our visit with Jackie, John and I had a meeting with two women whose excitement about how to deepen and broaden the spiritual life of the members of the church was contagious. It was exciting for me to hear their passion for growth and depth, their yearning for more, for more of God, for more prayer, for more connection, not only for themselves, but also for the people of this faith community.

This evening, I sat in on another meeting of passionate Caldwell people, talking about more ways to be people of joy, of music, of giving, people who are concerned about one another, and want to find ways to pray more effectively for one another.

It is a lot, this job of mine. There is so much to learn. There is so much to do.
I have felt supported. I have been given many opportunities to ask many questions.
I have been invited to lunch, to tea, to dinner, to people's homes, and more.
I am enormously grateful for these first two weeks and all they have brought.

I know there will be hard times, difficult decisions, and disappointments.
I know that I will mess up - and they will mess up.
I know that phone calls will be missed, emails will go unanswered, and disagreement will arise.
That is the nature of life in community. That is the nature of life.

We will hurt each other - mostly unintentionally, but there may be times when it is not unintentional.
We will misunderstand one another. We will judge one another.
There is brokenness, woundedness, and humanness at Caldwell,
because we are all broken, wounded, and human.
That is the nature of life in community. That is the nature of life.

But there is also something beautiful, holy, and hopeful afoot at Caldwell.
There is joy and love and grace afoot.
God is on the move at Caldwell.
Comforting, healing, restoring, and renewing us.
Inviting us to come closer, to dig deeper, to bear witness to the movement of Spirit
in a world that desperately needs beauty, hope, joy, grace, and love.
I am excited to see and to live into all that is yet to come.

On this Thursday evening, I am thankful for this new phase,
this new stage, this new adventure in the adventure that is my life journey.
Thanks be to the people of Caldwell for taking a risk and inviting me to join them on their journey.

Most of all, thanks be to God.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Ten things: "Oh, it's happening, sweetheart."

Have you seen this commercial? I'm sure you have. I have seen it dozens of times. It makes me laugh. The part that cracks me up the most is when the car owner is looking at the remains of his car, which is up on cinder blocks. He says, "This can't be happening." The onlooker says, "Oh, it's happening, sweetheart."

Indeed. It's happening. I am about to start a new job. At a church. Serving a community of faith. Serving my city. In one of the early conversations with the senior minister of the church, Caldwell Presbyterian Church here in Charlotte, I asked him what the church needs in the person who would be called to work and serve there. He said, "The church needs someone who wakes up in the morning thinking about ways to love them." I smiled and thought, "I can do that."

Here are ten things that have come to mind as I ponder the start of this new and next stage of my life journey.

1. I remember being a child in Sunday school class at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, and wishing I could go to church five days a week and go to school only two days. Well, it looks like that wish is about to come true; actually the reality will be better than that childhood wishful and wistful dream. I will be in church five days a week - or out in the community loving the church and its people, loving the city and its people - but I will be going to school only one day. Yes, I will continue my seminary studies, and I look forward to putting these studies and lessons to work on a daily basis. Before you write and warn me about the reality of work in the church, the brokenness of people, the division and difficulties, the hypocrisy and deceit, please know that I am fully aware of all of that. Because if I am going to be there, I am going to bring my own healthy dose of brokenness, woundedness, hypocrisy, and inconsistency. That's part of the human experience. Thanks be to God - part of the church experience, certainly what I know of the experience at Caldwell, is openly and honestly admitting our brokenness and walking together towards healing and wholeness.

2. Back when I was a kid, the youth group at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church was called "The Liberators." You had to be 13 years old to join, and unfortunately I wasn't ever able to join them because our family was asked to leave the church when I was 12. (Yes, I bring my own church hurt as well.) Anyway, my parents were youth leaders. And my three older brothers were all members of The Liberators. While they spent time down in the basement of the church, while they laughed and learned, played games, and listened to dire warnings about being left behind when the rapture happened, I would be upstairs in the main part of the church, wishing desperately I could be down there with them. Anyway (again), there was a young guy who was part of The Liberators who was a bit of a loner. He was one of the few kids in the group who wasn't African American. He was Puerto Rican. Looking back now as an adult, I think it might be reasonable to guess that he had some developmental delays; physically, socially, and intellectually, he was more like a twelve year old than a fifteen year old. That young man and I would would talk to one another often. We would go for walks in the neighborhood. Sometimes we even talked on the phone. We weren't romantically involved at all. We were just friends. I liked listening to his stories. I liked walking with him.

Those walks I took with Noel back then were preparing me for the walks I will take with the folks at Caldwell. They will talk. I will listen. They will share. I will pray. Together we will walk each other back and forth to the church. Back and forth out into the community. Where we are developmentally delayed, where we are physically, emotionally, intellectually, financially, relationally challenged, we will walk together. We will pray together. We will be both the liberators and the liberated - together.

3. A young woman named Hope was also a member of that youth group at Sixth Avenue. I remember that there were often whispers, nudges, nods, and shifted chairs when Hope was around. Why? Because "she likes girls." I remember realizing, not fully understanding but definitely sensing, that the folks who were talking about her and saying those things were saying something more than those words expressed. I remember her well. I remember, even at a young age, wishing I could do something or say something to let her know that I didn't care who she liked or didn't like; I liked her. I loved watching her play basketball and football and whatever other games the young group played. I liked that she didn't have to wear dresses to church like I did. I liked that she wore her hair short.

Watching Hope and admiring her strength and independence prepared me for the position I am stepping into, for the church God has called me to serve. This church welcomes everyone, no matter who they like, who they love, or who they marry. This church welcomes people from all walks of life, from all along the many spectrums that exist in our society and our culture. This church wrestles openly and actively with its checkered past, related to slavery, related to bigotry, related to the brokenness that plagues all of us.

4. I spent my elementary school years attending PS 307 in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. I think I was in 4th grade when I began to serve as a buddy for a blind boy who was in my class. His name was Lodi. He was the only white kid in the class for a while, then another boy came, but, as I recall, that second boy didn't stay at our school for long. Lodi and I became good friends. He held onto my elbow sometimes when we moved from one room to another in the school. It wasn't long before he didn't need my elbow because he knew his way around, but we remained friends and spent a lot of time together. He taught me how to use his braille machine and also how to read braille. He taught me how he arranged his food and his belongings. He told me stories about his life. I told him stories about mine. Whenever I had the chance, I would go with him to the room that was set up in the school for the blind students to do whatever they needed to do that couldn't be done in their classrooms. I loved hanging out with him and his buddies there.

Three doors down the block from where I grew up on Bedford Avenue, there was another blind friend. He was older than me by several years. His family was from Panama. Tall black man who walked with the long, thin cane often used by the visually impaired. He and I became buddies too. When I saw him coming home from work, and I often spotted him while he was still a block away, I would run to where he was, greet him, and offer him my shoulder.

Plus there were the blind adults that my dad used to drive back and forth to the New York School for the Blind in Manhattan. During the summer months, I would ride with him in the van, hanging out with folks three and four times my age, marveling at their ability to navigate their world without one of the senses that I took so much for granted.

Once again, it was all preparation. To learn from folks that so many other people ignored or belittled or underestimated. One day when I was no more than ten or eleven years of age, one of the adults who held onto my elbow as I led her from my father's van to the front door of the School for the Blind, said, "You are going to be tall when you grow up." I asked her how she knew that, and she responded, "I can tell by your elbow, by your arm." She had wisdom in her hands, in her fingers, deep within her. Wisdom that had nothing to do with what she saw, because she couldn't see me.

It was all preparation to lead and be led. Preparation to see and be seen. Preparation to listen and learn. Preparation to welcome the stranger, the outcast, the neglected. Preparation to not discount anyone. Preparation to recognize my own blindness and my need to learn to live by more than what was apparent to the physical eye or the societal eye.

5. During my growing up time, we attended churches where women were not allowed to be pastors or elders or deacons. Women could be deaconesses and Sunday school teachers, but not pastors. I had female cousins and aunts who were ministers, but we didn't go to their churches. In fact, before I began to attend First Presbyterian Church here in Charlotte, the church I attend now, I had never been a member of a church where women were ordained ministers. That's all I'm going to say about that...

6. One evening when I was teaching a series on journaling as a spiritual discipline at a church where I had been reprimanded for the fact that a man attended one of the class sessions, at the end of the class, one of the attendees, a woman who wasn't a member of the church approached me and said, "You belong in the pulpit. You think you are teaching a class, but you are preaching in here." I nodded and smiled - and I thought, "Total heresy." Looking back now, I am enormously grateful for Bonnie's boldness in speaking the truth to me that night.

7. I am grateful for Katie Crowe, the pastor who initially mentored me at First Pres and encouraged me to pursue seminary study. She suggested that I visit Union Presbyterian Seminary here in Charlotte and speak to Dean Richard Boyce. I never went. But God wasn't letting me off the hook that easily. One evening, at a training session at First Pres, the dean of the seminary came to the church to teach. I don't remember a whole lot of what he said, but I do remember thinking, "Okay, Lord. I didn't go to see him at the seminary, so you brought him here." I approached him after the session that evening. He invited me to visit one Saturday. I am nearly finished with my third year of a five year program.

8. Back in October of last year, I was sitting in my car in a local park, eating lunch. My cell phone rang. I looked down at it - but didn't recognize the number. Normally, I don't answer calls from unknown callers, but that time I did. The caller asked me to consider applying for a job at Caldwell Presbyterian Church. I said no, that I wasn't yet done with seminary. I wasn't ready. I said no three times. He was gentle but firm, and he pointed out that my repeated declines meant that I was taking the job and the work of ministry seriously. I hadn't thought about it that way, but he was right. So I finally said yes; I would put my name in the hat.

Resume updated. Prayers prayed.
Forms filled in. Prayers prayed.
Facetime interview completed. Prayers prayed.
In person interview completed. More prayers prayed.
Trial sermon preached. Prayers prayed.
Questions asked and answered. Prayers prayed.
An offer made. Prayers prayed.
My profile and candidacy presented to the church (while I was in Guatemala!).
More prayers.
The church stepped out in faith and said yes.
I start two weeks from tomorrow.

9. I have spent a lot of time in the past several months shaking my head, pinching myself, journaling, and praying. A lot of praying. I pray out loud while I'm out walking. I pray silently while lying awake in bed. I pray in the car. And yesterday, for the first time, I stood in the pulpit at Caldwell, and looked out onto the empty pews. I imagined the congregation, the beloved and beautiful, the broken and lonely, the fearful and joyful people of God, sitting out there, looking at me, looking at my colleagues, looking towards us for a word of encouragement, hope, challenge, and exhortation. I stood there and cried - and prayed.

10. I stepped out from behind that sacred desk, walked down those steps, approached the friend who was giving me the detailed tour of the church, and asked her if she had seen the commercial I mentioned and linked at the beginning of this post. With tears in my eyes, I said to her - and much more to myself - "This is really happening. (deep breath) Oh, it's happening, sweetheart."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Remembering El Salvador

(Trigger Warning: there is a photo in this post that shows someone who was shot)

Four weeks ago today, we arrived in San Salvador, El Salvador.
The layers of clothing I needed to stay warm on the airplane were 
excruciatingly unnecessary once we deplaned.
As we stood waiting for our luggage,
as we waited for our passports to be stamped, 
as we watched dozens of American military personnel drag their enormous bags
out of the terminal,
as we drove from the airport to our guest house,
every step along that journey,
I was reminded that we weren't in Charlotte anymore.
This was a whole different world.
A world of barbed wire and locked gates.
A world where coconut water straight out of the coconut was available at every turn.
A world of street food and hustlers sold at every traffic light.
A world with a bloody past and a resilient people.

Actually, that sounds a lot like Charlotte after all...

On our very first day there, we went to a place called CRISPAZ.
Christians for Peace.
After decades of bloody and brutal repression by the government,
after the ongoing horrors of political and economic corruption,
there has been yet another assault on the people through gang violence.
The poorest people are always the most vulnerable.
That's true in El Salvador and Guatemala - and also these United States of America.
So people like the man on the left have made it their goal 
to advocate, to work, to speak up, to march, to live for peace.
I was honored to be there and also challenged by what I heard and learned there.

Hope and joy regained a foothold when he told the story of his own father - 
who went from a life of military service against the people
to a life of guerrilla warfare and life service on the side of the people.
Later as we reflected on his account, I said, 
"Sometimes we use the word 'conversion' when we talk about stories like that."

One of the things I loved most about El Salvador and Guatemala
was their practice of incorporating green spaces in the middle of their homes and work places.
This photo was taken from an office at CRISPAZ -
looking across their green space into the room where we had listened 
to that gentleman tell his story. 
Notice the gorgeous greenery in between. 
The sunlight you see on the right is streaming into open space.
How lovely is that?
Imagine having a space like that just feet from your desk?
Especially a desk that is so often covered with accounts of brutality and suffering...

I wrote about Monsenor Oscar Romero in my last blog post.
I wrote about how he was assassinated while serving communion.
That act of horror took place in this chapel, behind this table.
His body lay on that floor, bleeding out,
while nuns and nurses, parishioners and visitors,
cried and screamed for help,
cradling his body, loving him
to the end. 

I had his book with me as I sat in that chapel.
I read portions of his homilies and speeches in the very place
where his life was taken from him - 
and I pondered the sorrow that must have gripped those present on that fateful day.

Oscar Romero's love for the poor exposed the violence in those who hated the poor.
His love forced others to recognize their violent tendencies.
His love pushed those who don't believe in the love or justice
so far into their hatred, injustice, and fear that they thought
they had no choice but to act violently against his love.

Once again, that sounds a lot like Charlotte, 
a lot like these United States.
More than that, it sounds a whole lot like the One I Love Most of All -
it sounds a whole like like Jesus.

Although much attention has been paid to Archbishop Romero and other who were brutally murdered because they loved and cared for the poor among them there in El Salvador,
although I spent thirteen days exploring the themes of martyrdom and oppression 
in two Central American countries,
the truth is that the poor and vulnerable have been martyred and oppressed 
dispossessed and discarded everywhere
throughout all of history.
they still are being martyred, oppressed, neglected, hated -
and also blamed for creating their own circumstances.

Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, 
farmers, coal miners, store clerks,
community organizers, small business owners,
preachers, priests, nuns, lawyers,
teachers, doctors, nurses,
people from every walk of life,
from every level of education and privilege,
have seen and heard the cries of the needy and the desperate.
They have stood alongside, spoken up for,
protested and sought justice on behalf of,
and given their lives for others. 

As I remember my time in El Salvador,
as I am reminded of their history,
may I not forget my own,
the history of my own oppressed people
here in my own broken country.
May I never abandon the work of peace and justice
here in my home city
and in my home country. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

I'm Back!!!

Actually, I've been back for more than a week. But I have needed every one of these days to readjust. To reconnect. To rediscover my land legs. To rebound from the nasty virus I brought home with me. And to recover my heart. Truthfully, I hope I never recover my heart. I remember feeling the same way after the trip my daughter and I took to Nicaragua in 2008 and my trip to Haiti in 2012. Heartbreak, poverty, hunger, mixed unrelentingly with hope, resilience, and strength in the stories, the homes, the meals, the hugs, and the faces of everyone we met. Stories of deportation from the United States. Gang violence. Military massacres. Loss of life. But never a loss of hope. Never a loss of joy.

In the face of the worst that people do to people, colors shine bright 
in San Salvador, El Salvador. 
Art emerges. 

 Monsenor Oscar Romero was called an indefatigable defender of 
human rights until his martyrdom.

Oscar Romero said, "A church that doesn't suffer persecution,
but enjoys the privileges and support of the bourgeoisie
is not the true church of Jesus Christ." 
For such statements and convictions, he was assassinated
 on March 24, 1980 - while serving communion.
At the table. Body broken. Blood poured out.

On December 2, 1980, four American nuns were raped and murdered
because they dared to involve themselves in the work of justice
and peace in El Salvador.
The priests and catechists and nuns who famously lost their lives
during those years are far outnumbered by the hundreds of thousands of adults and children
who were burned alive, shot, thrown into wells while still alive,
forcibly "disappeared," and massacred -
during a period of decades.
The stories are horrific.
The suffering continues - there are signs, posters, photos on walls
all over both countries - asking for answers,
seeking for those who are still missing.
But hope remains.

Doors were opened to us.
We were welcomed.
We were fed.

We were honored to stand on sacred, blood soaked ground.
Where shots were fired.
Where lives were taken.
Where blood was shed.
Where power was misused.
Where powerless were mistreated. 

I'm back. 
But my mind wanders back to El Salvador and Guatemala daily.
I wonder about how Esvin and Ana Silvia and Daniel are doing.
I wonder where Emerson and Roberto are.
I wonder what Father Cirilo is talking to his students and church members about.
I remember the women who cooked and cleaned and the men who drove.
I remember the women who walked with impossible loads on their heads and shoulders.
I remember the children in their pristine school uniforms, walking to and from school.
I pray that they are safe, that they are filled with hope, that they are surrounded by love.

On one of the early nights of our trip, as we sat together reviewing the day, talking about what we had seen and experienced, I felt something shift. Literally. My chair shifted and shook. I looked over my left shoulder, at the man who served as our group facilitation, making sure that we arrived safely at all our destinations, called ahead and made hotel and restaurant arrangements, Esvin. He looked at me and said, "That was a tremor." What? A tremor? As in earthquake tremor?

I confess that I spent a significant amount of time every day after that praying, pleading with God that there not be an earthquake while we were there. Then I expanded my prayer requests to pleas that there never be another earthquake there. Or anywhere. Here's how I see it - if I'm gonna pray, I may as well pray big. Ask for big things - never another earthquake anywhere ever.

What I didn't yet realize was that the tremor I noticed that evening was a physical manifestation of what was beginning to happen inside me - the shaking of the foundation of what I used to know and used to understand about migration, the indigenous peoples of Central America, social and legal policies in our own country, and what all of that has to do with the faith I claim to practice. How will what I learned and saw and experienced there affect the ministry I have been called to join at Caldwell Presbyterian Church? (More about that yet to come...) Will those lessons affect my understanding of justice and state-sanctioned violence here in my own country?  May the spiritual and emotional shifting never end - and may I never have to live through a true earthquake.

I'm back.
And profoundly grateful.

PS. Here is a reflection I wrote toward the end of our trip. Each member of our class and travel team was given the opportunity to write a blog post for the Union Presbyterian Seminary website.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Thankful Thursday - On Pilgrimage

Has it been nearly a month since my last blog?
Where does the time go???????? 
Time flies - whether or not you are having fun.
I confess that I have been having a lot of fun lately. 
I have also been working hard.
But the hard work is paying off.
I am enormously grateful.

Spending time with friends.
A job interview.
A job offer.
(More info on that amazing development will come soon...)
Hope and a future. 
I am enormously grateful. 

And tomorrow, I get to do the thing I love to do most of all - travel. 

I will be going on a trip to Central America.
El Salvador and Guatemala.
To listen to the stories of history and hope.
Pain and triumph.
Joy and despair.
Power and courage.

Thirteen days. Flying. Riding buses. In vans. Walking.
Talking some.
Listening a whole lot more. 
Crying a lot. I'm sure there will be many tears. 
How can there not be many tears? 

My beloved Spain sent emissaries and priests, soldiers and business people to conquer the people and the land of the Americas five hundred years ago. Repression, slavery, brutality ensued. The United States was often, mostly, on the wrong side of history in deciding which side of internal conflicts to support with weapons and training. We supported the wealthy and powerful, the oligarchs and the military - against the people who were seeking a way to feed themselves and own the land they were obligated to work. What a concept! That those who actually did the backbreaking labor should have a voice in where they lived and worked and how much they were paid. We armed the dictators and the military juntas - and turned a blind eye on the horrors perpetrated against the people of those nations. We claimed to be afraid of communism, but apparently had no fear of militarism gone rogue. Hundreds of thousands of people "were disappeared" - they didn't disappear; they were made to disappear. Tortured. Murdered.  Lost. Forever. Bodies left on the street. Buried in mass graves. Thrown into wells. So much pain. So much sorrow. So much suffering.

And we are going, ten of us, to learn more of their experience first hand.
To hear how they have overcome. how they are overcoming. how they will overcome.
To hear about our own country's involvement, ignorance, and ongoing interference. 

It won't be an easy trip. It won't be a fun trip. 
But it will be good. 
I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to go.
I am grateful for the ability to put my Spanish to good use there. 
I am grateful, in advance, for all that I will learn and experience there. 

As I prepare for and ponder this journey, I am reminded of one of my favorite moments in 
Susan Pevensey, one of the children who discovered Narnia, wonders about Aslan, 
the great lion - that represents God.
Her question - "Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
The answer - "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he is good."

As I prepare for and ponder this journey, I have been asked and I have asked, "Is it safe?"
Answer: 'Course it isn't safe. Who said anything about safe? 
But is that what this life is supposed to be - safe? 
Am I supposed to do everything within my power to make sure I am always safe? 
Is it even within my power to stay safe? No. 
Life isn't safe.
As far as I know, life, all of life, ends in death.
Not safe, but good. It is good to be here. It is good to be alive.
I am enormously grateful. 

And if I'm living life to the fullest, it's not going to be safe. 
But it is good.
Travel is good.
Learning is good. 
Putting my studies and learning in context is good. 
Not safe, but good. 

Keep me (and the other nine people going on this trip) in your thoughts and prayers.
Light candles for us.
Burn incense for us. 
Pray for us. 
Remember us. 
I thank you in advance.

I am excited.
I am hopeful.
I am joyful.
I am grateful.

I leave early tomorrow morning and return on Thursday, May 3, at midnight. 
Another thankful Thursday. 
Thirteen days.
On pilgrimage.
Going deeper. Deeper still. 

Thank you.
Thanks be to God. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Seen and Unseen

I love going to the supermarket. All those apples and peppers and bananas and eggs. All that bread and cheese and tea and kombucha. So much to choose from. I am enormously grateful that I get to go to the supermarket and buy what my family needs - and more than that, to buy many of the things we want. What a gift. What a blessing.

My favorite local supermarket is the Trader Joe's that is just over a mile from our house. Over the past few years, we have thought about selling our home and downsizing, moving out of the suburbs, out of our rather insulated neighborhood, closer to where there is more activity here in Charlotte, closer to uptown, closer to we go to church. But one of the main things that holds us back is that we love how convenient it is for us to get to Trader Joe's.

There is a man who works at Trader Joe's, an African man, whose country of origin and name I cannot recall (my memory is fading day by day). He is one of the friendliest people I know. It seems like every time I am in the store, he will come over and say hello. He asks how my husband is doing and how our children are doing. And he readily shares that his children are growing up, eating more and more every day. I remind him that he's working in the right place to solve that problem! When I am shopping in the store and he is working in the store, I know that I am seen.

This morning, as I walked through the store, sure enough, he greeted me. Warmly. What a kind man.

This morning, as I walked through the store, sure enough, I was reminded that I am sometimes unseen. Or perhaps seen and unseen.

As I scanned the shelves with the baking items - sugar, vanilla, flour, but no sweetened condensed milk - I noticed that a woman a few feet away looked at me - and then she turned and grabbed her purse out of her carriage. Once she found what she was looking for, she put it and her purse back into the carriage, and then she walked away.

I would imagine that she wouldn't consider herself to be racist. Or ignorant. Or blind.
But she looked directly at me. She saw me. She saw brown skin. She saw short hair.
She decided that her purse and its contents were not safe in my proximity, and so she grabbed it.

She saw me. At the same time, she was blind to me.
She knew nothing about me, other than what her eyes saw.
And she reacted to that by protecting her stuff.

To be fair, I am making all kinds of assumptions about what she saw and thought.
But I know what I saw and what I thought.
I saw her act in an offensive, hurtful, insulting manner towards me.

I was soooooooo tempted to ask her why she did what she did: what prompted her to remove her purse from the carriage at exactly that moment? It had to be me, because as soon as she moved away from me, she put it back into her carriage - but again, that's my assumption.
I was soooooooo tempted to tell her that she didn't have anything I wanted or needed.
But I said nothing.
I walked away. Angry.
Seen and unseen.

Two aisles later, a man and two children approached me. The man and the older child with him were each pushing shopping carts. The child wasn't paying attention to where he was going and steered his cart in my direction. I stopped so that he would have room to redirect his cart and go past me. The boy looked up at me and apologized for almost hitting my cart. The man spoke to the child, "Watch where you're going, _______ (once again, I can't remember what name he spoke.) We need to let this gentleman pass."

What? Me? I am no gentleman. I literally laughed out loud.
Like the woman I had encountered only moments before, the man saw brown skin.
He saw short hair. But he did not see me.
I'm wearing five earrings. FIVE!
I know that men wear earrings, but they don't usually wear dangling earrings in both ears.
And even if I weren't wearing all these earrings, I want to believe that my face looks like the face of a woman. My body, flat chested though I am, is the body of a woman.
I am a woman - and those _____________ almost heard me roar at Trader Joe's today.
I give the children credit because both of them did something of a double take when the man, who I assume was their father, said what he said.
I am most definitely NOT a gentleman.
Once again, I said nothing.
Once again, I walked away. Angry.
Seen and unseen.

I came home and I knew that I had to write about those two incidents.
About being seen and unseen.
I was angry. I'm still angry.

But after a few deep breaths and a few choice words thrown around in my kitchen as I unpacked my groceries, it hit me.
How often do I do the same thing?
How often do I encounter people and not see them?
Or see them and make assumptions about them based on the most superficial criteria?

How often do I make assumptions about the relationships between people when I see them together? Parents and children? Spouses? Friends? Lovers? Co-workers? How can I possibly know?

How often do I misgender people?
How often do I make assumptions about people's sexual identity and expression?
Just a few moments ago, I wrote that I have the face and the body of a woman.
What does that even mean? What kinds of assumptions do I need to make in order to even write that?

How often do I assume that people who "look Latino" are in fact Latino and that they want to speak in Spanish? What does "Latino" even mean?
How often do I assume that people who "look Asian" were not born in the United States?
How many times have I asked people, "Where are you from?"

How often have I assumed that people in wheelchairs need my help?

How often do I assume that white people in pick up trucks are racist members of the NRA?

How often does my heartbeat rise when I see a police car approach?
How often do I check to see if the car that has been stopped by the police or highway patrol is driven by a person of color?

How often do I assume racist, sexist, classist motives for the things people say and do in my presence? 

And how many times have my assumptions about the people around me offended or angered them?

I got my ego handed to me once outside of that very same Trader Joe's a few months ago.
I approached a young woman who was bald and asked her if she was in treatment for kanswer.
Before she even answered, I told her that I had had kanswer too, and I wished her well in her treatment.
She thanked me for my concern, explained she had alopecia, but she said she was glad that I am on the other side of the kanswer journey. Ouch!

On a retreat in Kanuga last November, I insisted on helping a woman with her suitcase because I had made an assumption that she wasn't able to handle it herself. She had packed and transported that suitcase without my help. She had traveled there from thousands of miles away without my help.  But I assumed that, because her body didn't look like my body (as though my body is a standard!) she needed my help. I still cringe when I think about how proudly I displayed my ableist prejudice. I wrote her a note and apologized for my idiocy. I hope she has forgiven me.

I will leave my home in the not too distant future and head to a small town outside of Charlotte to watch my beloved son play tennis. He is one of the brightest lights in my life, and I thoroughly look forward to seeing him and hugging him and watching him on the tennis court. As I drive south and east, however, I will pay attention to the assumptions I make about the people I see in the cars and trucks around me. I will try to notice how quickly I decide about the origins of the people I see, the worth of the people I see, the intelligence of the people I see, the socio-economic status of the people I see.

I hope and pray that I will be just as angry at my own habit of "seeing and not seeing" the people around me as I was about being seen and unseen in Trader Joe's this morning.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Thankful Thursday - Ten Things

I think I've mentioned Alisha Sommer before. I hope so. She has inspired me in my journaling a lot lately. Keeping it simple - ten things. everyday. tell your story in lists of ten. groups of ten.

So here goes.

1. I have rediscovered the humor and wisdom, the moans and groans, the cynicism and the deep faith of Anne Lamott. I had the honor of hearing her speak in person last April (thank you, Gibbs) and I have started the book I received that night - Hallelujah Anyway - Rediscovering Mercy - twice before. I started it again yesterday and it feels like this time I might actually get through it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the book. It's me. I have been struggling of late to not do work for seminary. To put the books away and to put my computer away. To not read ancient texts and ponder Biblical Hebrew. My insistence on trying to be the perfect student has kept me from doing a lot of things. Reading for pleasure is one of the them. Exercising regularly is another. Blogging is another. Gotta get my act back together and remember that I am much more than only a seminary student. Anyway, is there such a thing as a perfect student? If there is, is "being a perfect student" my goal? or is my goal to prepare to serve and teach, to walk alongside and come up behind the people I am in community with? is my goal to listen and learn, to dream and pray, to grow and be transformed so that I can accompany others on their faith journeys, as they too listen and learn, dream and pray, grow and be transformed by the Spirit of the Living God?

2. Greeting cards for 99 cents at Trader Joe's. Please don't ever spend more than 99 cents on a greeting card for me. Better yet, just grab an index card or a plain sheet of paper, and handwrite the note. In your own words. It's is only greed that prompts card companies to charge $5.99, $6.99, or $7.99 or more for a single greeting card. Even the best card, the most poetic, the most perfectly worded card is not worth $8! So go to Trader Joe's and stock up on birthday cards, friendship cards, sympathy cards, wedding cards, new baby cards, all kinds of cards so that you don't have to rush out and overspend at the last minute. They have quite the colorful and creative collection.

3. Green grapes for 99 cents a pound this week at Harris Teeter. Yum yum.

4. Preparing to preach. Doing the reading. the thinking. the praying. the writing. listening for a word for the people from the Word of God. All I want to do is honor the One who is the source of my life and the center my joy. (For those in the Charlotte area, I'm gonna be preaching at noon at Wednesday Worship at First Presbyterian Church on April 4th, the Wednesday after Easter. We will have greeted each other with "He is Risen. He is Risen indeed." We will have celebrated the good news of new life, of resurrection, of life after death. We will have put the Easter dresses and Easter hats and Easter baskets away. What do you do after such a triumph, such a victory? That's what I'm planning to explore. Be there or be square.)

5. Virginia - one of the most faithful readers of this blog. I met her at church when we were still living up in Connecticut, and she sends me email responses to things I write here. She sends links to articles and explains how something I wrote speaks to something she has been thinking about or dealing with. Thank you, Virginia, for your encouragement and support. Stay warm up there.

6. a good haircut. I've found a fantastic barber. He keeps me looking sharp and also gives me great ideas on how to eat well and exercise too. I love when people in my life encourage me and teach me on topics that don't directly relate to what they do, but they recognize that our lives are not divided into separate categories. I am one person, living one life.

7. finding Moleskine journals on sale at Target. Actually my husband found them.

8. Black Panther. I've seen it twice. I'm not normally a fan of super hero movies. I'm not normally someone who goes to see a movie in the theater twice. But I couldn't help myself with this one. And I will certainly buy it when it comes out on DVD. So good. Go see it. Go see it. Go see it. And ignore all the criticism and the haters. They are just jealous!

9. being seen. being heard. being made to feel welcome. while walking with a friend. while sipping tea. while talking about a job possibility. in the pulpit. in the classroom. at home. in church.

10, my son. my beloved son. check him out. doing his thing. making us proud.

11. drinking tea out of big mugs - even as I am weaning myself off of honey in my tea. I'm trying to cut out as much sugar from my diet as I can. But don't worry - I still have the occasional cookie and piece of chocolate. and when there is bourbon in the vicinity, I will like to pour some ginger ale in it and sip it slowly.

12. heat and hot water and electricity. too many people in Puerto Rico are still without power, months after Hurricane Maria. And with the heavy snow that has fallen on the east coast, hundreds of thousands are without power tonight. I am grateful. May I never take these things for granted. Never ever.

13. solitude and silence. when I don't take enough time to get away, to withdraw from my life, to breathe, to write, to think, I feel pain in my soul. heart ache. I'm going back to the Jesuit Center this July. to be with God. to walk. to journal. to pray. a lot. to breathe. to swim. to sleep.

14. Gus. an older man from Greece who lived in a house around the corner from us. A kind man. Thick accent. Big smile. He walked nearly every day - in rain, in sunshine, on cold days, on hot days, in long pants, in shorts, with a hat, with gloves, with a hood, in a baseball cap. He would stop and sit on people's rock walls to rest. He would watch traffic go by and wave at drivers.  he had a heart condition, but nothing stopped him from his morning exercise. he was attacked by a dog in a nearby neighborhood one day while out on his morning walk, so after that, he carried a stick with him for a brief while. He would talk to me when he saw me outside. A few years ago, he asked why I had cut off my hair. I told him about my kanswer journey. Since that conversation, whenever he saw me, he would ask me about my health and how I was doing. Truly he was the kind of man I wish my children could have had for a grandfather figure after my own father passed away. Several weeks ago, I noticed that I hadn't seen him out walking for a while. A neighbor told me that he died. He contracted pneumonia and passed away. I miss him. I miss his gentleness and his kindness. I am glad I took the time to stop and talk to him as often as I did. I am grateful that he cared about me enough to ask how I was doing.

15. I guess I had more than ten things to be thankful for.
Thanks be to God.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Reading the Bible - Reading the World

I am in the second half of the third year of a five year seminary program. My classes demand a lot of reading and writing and thinking and asking questions. All of which is right up my alley. My studies also involve rethinking some of the Bible's stories and figuring out how those stories relate to us today.

Several of the prophets wrote about the mistreatment of the poor, widows, orphans, and aliens and how their mistreatment led to some of the hard times that the people of God faced during the centuries leading up to the common era. Over and over, the people were told to "Do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)." "Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:17)." Do what is right for the most vulnerable among you. Protect the land from overuse and misuse, and do not steal land from those around you. These were repeated themes. These demands of God were repeatedly disregarded and disobeyed. Those demands of God are still widely disregarded by many who claim to be God's people.

Another of the repeated themes in the books of the prophets was the disregard for the lives, the dignity, the health, and the safety of women. Books like Jeremiah and Hosea offer several accounts of women who were described as unfaithful wives and prostitutes, worthy of being cast aside, humiliated, treated violently. Some Bible scholars say that these accounts were metaphorical, that the images were intended to demonstrate that in comparison to the high standard that God had for the people in their lives and interactions, they were like unfaithful wives and prostitutes.

It's not pretty stuff. It's not easy to explain away. And we shouldn't explain it away. We need to be courageous enough to wrestle with the stories in Scripture. Some of them are indefensible. Some of them are inexplicable. My professor said that not every part of Scripture deserves to be fodder for our sermons. Some of this stuff is just plain dreadful.

Yet some of the most dreadful stuff can still be pulled apart and salvaged. It can serve as fodder for deeper thought and analysis of some of the dreadful stuff that is happening in our world today. Let's not kid ourselves; women are still the objects of scorn and humiliation, and we are still victims of violence, rape, and murder. That hasn't changed.

We still don't care for our planet as we should. We almost never let land lie fallow, to rest and recover from our industrial over-farming. We dig up hallowed ground in order to extract resources that we could certainly live without - if we learned to care for the planet and its resources more carefully and tenderly. We steal land from its rightful owners. (I like the quote I recently saw: "How can you talk about banning immigration while living on stolen land?")

Three weeks ago, the professor asked us to write a one page piece that tied together some form of suffering in our world with a stark image that is commonly known in our collective psyche. The prophet, Hosea, had written about his wayward wife and the waywardness of God's people. We were to come up with a similar type of comparison: a difficult image that points to the need for repentance and restoration. Does that make sense?

Anyway, here is what I wrote. I hope it makes my explanation more understandable.

Out in the fields of Iowa and Nebraska, here in the fields North Carolina and Georgia, farmers sow seeds of corn and soy, cotton and kale. Over those seeds, within those seeds, there are pesticides and poisons, and below ground the seeds murmur, “I can’t breathe.”

As those fields are watered during spring time and harvest, the water is laced with chemicals and herbicides. Therefore, both the water and the soil cry out, “I can’t breathe.”

Field workers bend low for strawberries and reach high for apples. They gently pull the grapes from the vine and vigorously shake almond trees so that they will release their fragrant and flavorful fruits. As they pick, as they work, as they bend, as they sweat, those underpaid, overworked migrants are exposed to the same chemicals that poison the water and deaden the soil. When they lie in their beds at night, when they cough their way through the day, when they arrive at emergency rooms and urgent care centers, coughing up blood, they whisper, “I can’t breathe.”

At processing plants and slaughter houses, tomatoes are steamed and canned. Beans are boiled and canned. Tuna is filleted and canned. Cows are shot, chickens are beheaded, sausage is ground. Bread and cookies are baked. Oranges and clementines are sealed into nets and plastic bags. Factory workers are diagnosed with emphysema, COPD, asthma, and the coal miners who produce the coal that powers those processing plants die with blackened lungs and mesothelioma. They gasp for air day and night, choking out the clipped words, “I can’t breathe.”

We buy those poisoned, breathless products at Food Lion, Aldi, Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter, Publix, Earth Fare, Fresh Market,  and Whole Foods. How can we be surprised that we are dying of kanswer at unprecedented rates? Lord, forgive us and heal us, we pray. Because we can’t breathe.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Thankful Thursday - The Simple Things in Life

Some of my best times of prayer are when I look out my kitchen window while washing dishes.
Those are often the moments when I am most grateful.
After all, doing dishes means that my family and I have eaten.
And eating means that someone planted, tended, harvested, packaged, and transported the food to a market where my husband or I (or more recently my gainfully employed daughter) bought the food and brought it home.

I am thankful for food.

And if we've brought the food home, that means our cars are working well.
There is electricity to keep the traffic lights in order, so that we can travel safely,
so that we can keep our food cool or frozen, and later we can cook it.

Someone made made these pots and pans and dishes and silverware.
Someone made kitchen appliances.
Someone built this house we live in.
Someone made the bricks that keep our house upright and strong, warm and cool.
Someone laid out this street and this neighborhood.
Someone engineered the streets and turns, the tunnels and bridges, the overpasses and underpasses through which all these materials, these appliances, these pots and pans, these groceries traveled to reach our house, down at the end of our street, so that we could eat and be strong.

I am thankful for engineers and manufacturers and construction workers.

I cannot forget about the folks at the water treatment facilities who keep clean water flowing in and out of our homes. I know that many would and do argue that the water we drink is laced with chemicals and medications, with chlorine and other things that aren't great for our bodies and our health. I don't argue with those people. I drink the water that is filtered through our refrigerator filter. But I wash our dishes with tap water, and I shower in it, and I use it to brush my teeth. It may not be the purest water, but it is pure enough to keep us alive and hydrated.

I am thankful for water.

In order for us to have water and food, a home and working automobiles, someone has to work. In our home, that someone is my faithful husband. For more than thirty years, he has worked consistently to provide for our family. And for the three months in 2002 when he was unemployed, he searched diligently until he found and was offered the job he has now. I was enormously blessed to be able to quit my job as a teacher, coach, and college counselor so I could raise our children, homeschool them, and usher them off to college. Now I'm a seminary student. All because my sweet husband works so hard and earns enough to support us and provide for us. It is my fervent hope and prayer that I will soon be employed as well, serving God and God's people with my whole heart... and also earning a paycheck that will contribute to the upkeep of our home, our son's college tuition, and a couple more trips to Madrid too.

I am grateful for a husband whose diligence has made my life and my children's lives much easier than many other people's lives. I am grateful for the possibility of work, for the hope of contributing to and participating in the work of God in the world.

I have often stood at our kitchen sink, hands submerged in warm, soapy water, and thought, "I am so thankful for this life I get to live. I am thankful for the simple things in life, the simple pleasures."

I am enormously grateful for simple things like
* salt grinders
* loose tea leaves
* local honey in my tea
* olive oil from Spain
* matcha green tea from Japan
* strawberries from California
* fragrant India temple massage oil from Yogaville
* flowers in bloom
* the sound of rain
* the scratch of the pen on the pages of my journal
* chopping up almonds and dried cherries, dried mango and crystallized ginger for homemade dark chocolate bark
* the steam from the iron as I iron my clothes
* clean sheets and warm towels
* laughter with a friend
* prayer with someone facing a challenge

But as I have gotten older, as I look back on the battles we have won around here, as I contemplate the many journeys we have taken and the fact that, almost without exception, we have arrived home unscathed, uninjured, minds and souls intact, I am reminded that very few things in life are truly simple. So much goes into the production of the things and moments and people that make up our lives and our days.

As I scroll back through the many blog posts I have written here, as I take journals off the shelves here in my study and flip through them - sometimes looking for specific information tucked away in them; sometimes just rereading accounts of moments long forgotten - I am reminded of the great blessings of my life. The love I have known. The fear I have felt. The hope I have clung to. The dread I have endured. I am reminded of the trips I have taken both out into the world, and deep inside my own heart and soul.

I am grateful for every moment of this life
the good, the bad, the ugly
the spectacular, the messy, the ordinary
the painful, the joyful, the hopeful
all that is, all that has been, and all that is yet to be

Francesca Johnson said it well at the end of the movie version of "The Bridges of Madison County:"
"There is so much beauty."
Indeed there is so much that is beautiful, even in the midst of pain and ugliness.
So much for which to give thanks.

As the days of my life have become the decades of my life, I am reminded more and more frequently of the final words of one of the best books I have ever read. It's called Interpreter of Maladies, and it was written by Jhumpa Lahiri. It was her first book, a book of short stories, and it earned her the Pulitzer Prize.

The final chapter of the book is called, "The Third and Final Continent." It is the tale of a man from India who is reflecting on the wonder of his life and how he ended up where he ends up. This is how his memoir ends: "While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."

Yes and amen.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Love and Ashes

Next Wednesday, a week from today, is both Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday. Leading up to that day and over the course of that day, exorbitant amounts of money will be wasted, I mean spent on cards and flowers and chocolate and jewelry. (Steve, if you are reading this, please don't buy me any of those things. Just invest the money in the "Gail goes back to Spain" fund. I am not joking.)

Over the course of that day, many foreheads will be darkened by ashes. The charred remains of incinerated palms from last year's Palm Sunday processions will be mixed with oil and applied to the foreheads of thousands, perhaps millions of Christian people, around the world as a reminder to us of our mortality.

We will be told some version of this statement by the person whose thumb will make the sign of the cross on our foreheads: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Not the happiest or merriest of salutations.
But one of the most important.

We are dust. Stardust. Dust of many shades and hues. Beautiful dust. Invaluable, priceless dust.
But dust nonetheless.

Life is short.
And getting shorter daily.
Although some people "reported" that last month, January, was 74 days long.
That it felt interminable.
It felt fast to me.
As does every week, month, and year since 2008 or so.
It feels to me like time is flying past.
Which means that I am getting closer and closer to my return trip to the dust.
So are you.

But here's the thing I love about Ash Wednesday this year.
It is also Valentine's Day.
Love day.
Whether we are hitched or not, in love or not, engaged or not,
we can celebrate love next Wednesday.
The love of family
The love of friends
The love of neighbors
The love of our faith communities
The love of work colleagues (I do not recommend that any of us express that love out loud)
The love of animals
The love of nature and the planet
The love of beauty and color and art
The love of simply being alive
There is so much love to celebrate and enjoy
- even in these times of discord and uncivil discourse.

And the love of God - which is the ultimate love in my life
Love that gives
Love that forgives
Love that allows the runaway to run away
Love that awaits the return of the runaway
Love that welcomes the runaway back home
Love that offers itself to the child that doesn't know his or her belovedness
Love that gives its life for the beloved
Love that never ends, never fades, never fails

Love and ashes
Love and loss
Love and fire
Love and messiness
Love and sorrow
Love and falling down
Love and fallenness
Love and dying
Love and death
Love and hope
Love and prayer
Love and longing
Love and passion
Love and peace
Love and grace
Love and joy
Love and mercy
Love and forgiveness

Love and ashes and all that other stuff too
Mixed and smeared on my forehead
Mixed and smeared and then brushed down onto my eyelashes and spread down onto my cheeks because I forget that anything is on my forehead and I absentmindedly rub my face
By the time I get home next Wednesday evening, my face will be a mess -
a sooty, oily, crumbly, beautiful, well-worn mess -
love and ashes and life visible for anyone and everyone to see.

May love and ashes and hope and healing and joy be smeared all over you too.
And not just next Wednesday, but everyday.
Because time is flying.
Our day of returning to the dust is coming on fast.
I don't know about you, but I've still got a whole lot of loving to do before I'm done here.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Let there be light

On Wednesday morning, I woke up to an odd sound coming from the street outside of our house. In truth, I didn't know where the sound was emanating from when I first heard it - is that inside the house or outside the house? I raised my head from my pillow and tilted it in several directions, like my dog does when she hears my husband call her name, trying to assess what I was hearing and why I was hearing it. It didn't sound like the heat blowing down over me. It didn't sound like the blender being fired up for morning smoothies. I got out of bed, looked out the window, and saw the truck.

Let me back up a month or so. Back in late December, I went out to walk the dog with my daughter. It was unusually dark on the street - darker than it should have been, even for an early winter night. My daughter responded to my observation with an observation of her own: "The street light is out." Well, duh. How did I not notice that? And how long had it been out? She parks her car on the driveway while my car is safely and warmly tucked away in the garage. Perhaps that's why she noticed the darkness before I did.

As we walked up the street, I made a soon forgotten "note to self" - call Duke Power to report the outage. I soon forgot. Days passed. Many days. Old lady that I am, I don't go out at night much, so I didn't notice for several more days.

Then one day I remembered. I pulled out my cell phone and called Duke Power.
I was put on hold.
For a long time.
As I waited, I thought back to the last time I had requested service on that very same light.
I didn't remember having waited so long to be helped.
Then I remembered something else: I had made the request via the internet.
I hung up and sat down in front of my computer.

I don't know about you, but I have no idea how the internet works.
I don't know how computers work.
I don't know how my cell phone works.
How is it possible that I can touch a screen on my phone and call someone thousands of miles away?
How can that someone hear their phone ring, touch their screen, and then we are looking at each other's faces? Even if they are across the ocean? How can this be?
How can I move my aging fingers across a keyboard, type a few letters, enter a few numbers and have a package arrive at my door within days, within hours? How can this be?

I remember when I was in college and MTV came into existence. You see - I'm old. Old as dirt. Anyway, I remember walking into my dorm and seeing people sitting on the couch in the living room watching MTV videos. I just shook my head and said to anyone who cared to listen, "This won't last. People are not going to want to waste their time watching music videos."

I remember when Tiger Woods first burst onto the scene as a golfer. Winning tournaments by huge margins. Blowing away the competition without as much as a strained look on his face. I also remember saying to my husband, "He's a flash in the pan. This kind of dominance won't last. It can't."

When the internet became accessible and popular for regular people like us, once again I made a meaningless and completely erroneous prediction: "This won't last. People won't want to sit in front of their computers all the time, reading things. And who will trust that they can send their personal information out into the ... I don't even know what the 'internet' is, so why would I send my personal information out into the great whatever-it-is?"

(Please don't ever buy or sell stock based on my intuition.)

Anyway, after all that wasted time on the phone, I hung up and went onto the Duke Power website and reported that there was a light out on my block. There was actually a map on the page that showed an outline of all the houses on our street and indicated where each streetlight was located. I filled out their little form, and within minutes, I received an email saying that my request had been received.

I shook my head in wonder. I've come a long way from being skeptical about the endurance of the internet, that's for sure. Certainly there are problems with web security. I still have no idea how or why it works, except that I know it does. I toss my questions and requests out into The Great Interweb and answers come back. Books appear on my doorstep. Repair people show up at my door. It's amazing. Truly a wonder.

Actually, I know that there are people out there someone who do know exactly how and why the internet works the way that it does. I am not one of those people. I live by faith. I shop by faith. I make streetlight repair requests by faith.

Here's what happened - a few days later, actually a few nights later, I looked out my window and the light was back on. I asked and it was done. Someone read my request and sent out a work order to someone else and that someone else came to my street and fixed the light. "Let there be light."

Then something odd happened. I got an email from Duke Power. I expected it to say that the repair had been completed. But it said that the repair was going to be completed within the following week. What? Literally, as I read that email, literally in the middle of reading the email, I pulled back the curtain next to my desk and peered out at the street light. On. Lit. Burning bright in the darkness of the night. Hmmm... Is someone at Duke Power confused? I could see the light myself. Once again I shook my head in wonder. I laughed at the mistimed email and went on with my evening.

Light is a strange and wondrous thing.
The sun rises every morning and sheds light over all of us and over everything.
On the stormiest days of life, the sun is hidden behind the clouds, but it is still there.
On the stormiest days of life, hope gets hidden behind the clouds, but it is still there.
The clouds clear. Eventually they clear. No matter how deep the darkness, light reappears.
The folks in Houston found that when those clouds cleared, destruction was revealed.
In Santa Barbara, California, when whose clouds cleared, there was mud everywhere. Rocks.
Homes were destroyed. Lives were lost. Roads and highways were impassable.

In our own lives, homes are lost. Lives are destroyed. Relationships become impassable.
And still I believe that there is always light on the other side of our clouds.
I know that there is pain and suffering. Death is real.
Still I believe that there is light. There is love. There is hope.
Hiding behind clouds. Hiding behind debris. Hiding behind despair.

Have you seen the light of hope shine through your computer screen lately?
When funds are raised to rebuild homes lost.
When families are reconnected. When children are adopted.
When people who don't have money to contribute to the cause get out into their communities
and find animals that have been left behind when natural disasters happen.
When meal plans are set up to support families in the midst of medical crises.
When messages of encouragement are sent to those who are grieving.
Let there be light.

Back in 2001, just a few weeks after the tragedy of September 11th, I took my first solo trip to Italy. Rome. Florence. Siena. Orvieto. Mind blown. Heart wide open. Tears shed. I will be eternally grateful for the encouragement I received to go see The Eternal City for myself. To experience the art and architecture firsthand. I cried a lot on that trip. For a lot of reasons.

One moment stands out for me now as I ponder the wonder of light.
I was sitting on a stone staircase across from the duomo in Orvieto.
Alone. Me and the cathedral. Face to face.
It was the second or third day from the end of my trip.
Evening was falling. The sun was beginning to go down.
As I sat there looking at the facade of the duomo, it glowed.
Truly it was aglow.
The sun's light was shining on it from behind where I was seated.
And the gold and glass and stone in the building reflected that light magnificently.
I stared at that church for as long as it reflected that light.
I took a mental photograph that I can see clearly in my mind as I type these words.
And I wondered - do I reflect Light that way?
Does my facade, my face, my life reflect The One who Is the Light of the World in a similar way?
The broken chards of my life, the gold purified by the fire of pain and suffering -
does the Light of Life reflect off all that remains and shine through my eyes, reflect on my face?
What am I reflecting?

At a time in our nation and in our world when it feels like darkness is falling,
when it feels like war is looming closer than the horizon,
when despair and fear threaten to consume us all,
am I reflecting light? Am I bearing light into the darkness?
Sometimes the temptation is to stare helplessly into the darkness.
To wonder if our, if your, if my tiny beacon of light makes a difference.
The Book that guides my life more than any other says this in the first verses of John chapter 1:
In [Christ] was life, and that life was the light of all humankind.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Darkness has not overcome light.
Darkness cannot overcome light.
I believe that The Light is already in the world.
I believe that we are called to reflect that Light, just like the cathedral in Orvieto.
We aren't called to be the Light, but rather to reflect it.
We aren't called to produce the energy that powers the light,
but we are called to be lamps in the darkness.
I am not the source, I am merely a light post, a lamp post, shedding light.

Sometimes the light goes dim. Exhaustion sets in.
Dirt and dust get into the light fixture and dims the light.
Sometimes the light goes out. Power gets cut off somehow.
So I pray. I send out requests in the Interweb of Prayer.
I ask others to pray with me and for me.
I am asked to pray with and for others.
I have no idea how it works or why.
But something happens. The light is restored. Hope is rekindled.
Let there be light.
Let there be light.

So back to that early morning whirring sound.
I looked out the window, and there was the truck.
The man was up in the little bucket thing, looking down into the top of the light post.
I have no idea what he did because the light had already been turned back on.
Some additional tweaking and changing of internal parts must have been necessary.
I have no idea and there is no reason for me to know.
I watched as he did whatever it was he needed to do.
Then he lowered himself down in that bucket thing.
Picked up the orange cones. Removed the blocks that were stationed around his tires.
(It would suck to be up in that bucket thing and have the truck start rolling down the street, right?)
He got into the truck and sat there for a while.
I imagine that he was checking his schedule and the route to his next stop.
What a job he has - everywhere he goes, shedding light.
Making skeptics and non-tech savvy people like me,
people who don't even understand how the internet works,
look out of our windows and think,
"I asked and I received. Let there be light."