Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Today's Sermon was called - "We Walk Together"

I love my church - for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that they have taken several huge risks in invited me to teach and to preach there. I mean, how do they know I'm not going to say something completely heretical and off base? Like I said, it's a risk. I have been honored to preach there several times over the past two or three years. Today I had the chance to do so again.

The rest of this blog post is the manuscript for the sermon.
I hope you are able to find some word of encouragement and hope.
Here goes -

Today's Scripture passage is taken from Luke 24, verses13-19A.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ 


On the morning of Thursday, June 18, 2015, I received a text from a friend, asking me how I was handling the news out of Charleston. I answered - “What news?” About the shooting in the church down there. I stopped texting her immediately, logged onto Google - and nearly fell to my knees. Nine people gunned down during a Wednesday night Bible study. Lord Jesus, have mercy. There is no place safe anymore, not even church. Four days later, on the following Monday, Mecklenburg Ministries, more commonly known as Meck Min, began a series of gatherings they called, “We Need to Talk.” The tragedy in Charleston served as clear proof that we needed to talk about race and hate and our responsibility to know our history and to work for justice. Those conversations were raw, engaging, disturbing, and long overdue. Not long after attending that first gathering, two dear friends decided that they wanted to do more than talk. They decided to walk and talk. They invited anyone who wished to join them to walk 100 miles here in Charlotte, getting to know each other, getting to know the city, getting to know what makes us tick, and trying to figure out what they could do to challenge the status quo in this beautiful, broken, separate, and profoundly unequal city. They called their new movement,“We Walk Together.” 

Following a tragedy of cosmic proportions, a brutal and unjust execution, the two men we just read about in Luke 24 set out on a walk of their own. They had watched their beloved leader die a horrific death. And later in this account, they explained to the Jesus they did not yet recognize, that a group of women had told them that they had seen angels, angels who proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead. So not only was their leader dead and gone, but also they were dealing with the outlandish claim that he was alive again. My vivid imagination pictures them sitting across from each other at the table in that locked upper room, surrounded by other terrified followers of Jesus, and one of them raised his eyebrows and tipped his head toward the door. When they got to the bottom of the stairs, they decided to leave Jerusalem and make their way to Emmaus. I imagine that Cleopas said something like, “We need to talk as we walk together.”

It seems like a simple statement, like an ordinary thing. But I think that if we take a closer look at that simple and ordinary statement - we walk together - we will discover that it is far from simple and even farther from ordinary. 

First of all: Who is the “we”? In the Scripture reading for today, the “we” is Cleopas and his unnamed travel companion. That “we” was an offshoot of a larger “we” - the twelve disciples, the other companions of Christ, the women, the lepers who had been healed, and people like, Nicodemus, who was a member of the established religious elite. And that “we” was part of an even larger “we” - the rest of their religious community, their neighbors in the towns where they lived, all of them with the boot of their Roman occupiers on their necks. Which takes us out to another level of “we.” The occupying political and military forces and all they represented. Those two disciples on that road to Emmaus may not have seen it that way, but their “we” was far broader than they knew. 

Who is the “we” in our world? Look around you in the pews. We are the we. We gather here in the middle of the day in the middle of the week to be with others who also seek to know God better. This meager gathering connects to the larger “we” that makes up the body of Christ in the world. Our “we” also extends to the people we will encounter when we leave this place. The people in our families. The people in our extended faith community. The people with whom we work and interact on a regular basis. Our “we” goes beyond that as well. Our “we” includes the homeless people we will see lying on the sidewalk and occupying benches. It includes the people at homeless shelters and the ones unable to get there. Our “we” includes the people we serve at the Loaves and Fishes pantry. Our “we” includes the people to whom we are sending aid in Houston and Puerto Rico and Mexico. Our “we” includes people on the other side of the political aisle, and those who choose not to engage politically at all. Our “we” includes the athletes who kneel beside football fields and those who boo at them and threaten their livelihood. Our “we” includes white supremacists and those who stand against them. 

Despite all the pontificating to the contrary, there really is no us and them, we are all we. Just ask the rich and the poor people, the immigrant and the native born who are staring at water-logged, uninhabitable houses in Houston. Ask the people staring at the smoking hulls of their homes and businesses, recently consumed by wildfires in Northern California. Ask the millionaires in post-earthquake Mexico City whose children were trapped in collapsed schools right along with the children of their poor neighbors. Earthquakes and fires, hurricanes and droughts, illness and death - affect us all. We are all we.

Listen again to a portion of today’s Scripture, “Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” Seven miles is a long way to walk, and they had a long time to talk about all those things that had happened. What do you think was the pace at which they were walking that day? What do you imagine they talked about as they walked? “What do we do now? Where do we go? Can Peter keep this thing going? Can we feed more people? Should we even try? We weren’t doing it anyway. It was Jesus who did it all. I still can’t believe He is dead and gone. I thought this was only the beginning of his work in the world. What about all his talk of “the kingdom of God”? What next? What now?” 

If you were to set out from this gathering today, walking and talking for seven miles, what are some of the things that you would talk about? Would you talk about the shooting in Las Vegas and the senseless gun violence that plagues our nation? Would you talk about that young man from South Charlotte who committed suicide last week? What about the epidemic of drug use and abuse in our country? Would you talk about the fear mongering and political turmoil that have dominated our national conversations? Would you talk about someone near and dear to you who recently received a terrible diagnosis or is out of work - again? Would you talk about the refugee crisis in Sudan or Syria or Europe or right here in our own country? Once you start listing all the things that preoccupy you, all the things that preoccupy all of us, then seven miles doesn’t feel like too long a walk at all, does it? 

Walking seems like such an ordinary thing. That’s what Mary and Catherine thought when they began what is now nearly a two and a half year old walking adventure here in Charlotte. It’s easy to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. Because walking easy - until it’s not. I know someone whose wife suffered an aneurysm that has resulted in her no longer being able to lift up one of her feet. She can lower her foot, but the muscles in her lower leg no longer respond to her brain’s message to lift that foot. Lift up one of your legs right now and flex your foot. Pull your toes up towards your knee. Such an ordinary act, but if your feet can no longer carry out what your brain is asking for, then walking is impossible. The ordinary becomes impossible. It is that recognition of the impossibility of forward movement, that moment when hope is lost, that hour when despair sets in - that is exactly when, where, and why we need to remember that we are all “we,” and we are on this journey together.

Nowadays people say things like, “We used to be able to talk to each other more easily. But now there is so much anger and animosity that ordinary conversation is impossible. They are so angry. They don’t listen to anybody. They refuse to hear our side of the story.” Have you ever heard anyone say that? Have you perhaps said that yourself? Us and them. Us versus them. Despite every effort to convince us that “they” are not “ like us,” that white and black, rich and poor, republican and democrat, gay and straight people, cannot live and serve and walk together, the truth is that YES, we can, because we are all “we.” They are us. And we walk this planet and this journey together.

So where exactly were Cleopas and his companion walking to that day? Some Bible scholars and archeologists say that there were a few towns within twenty miles of Jerusalem that could be where Emmaus was. Others say there were no towns in that area that went by that name. Frederick Buechner, the well known Presbyterian writer and preacher wrote, “Emmaus can be a trip to the movies just for the sake of seeing a movie or to a cocktail party just for the sake of the cocktails. Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to Church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred; that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that men have had - ideas about love and freedom and justice  - have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends. Emmaus is where we go, where these two went, to try to forget about Jesus and the great failure of his life.” (The Road to Emmaus, page 85, The Magnificent Defeat) I suspect we can all relate to that. Sometimes we are compelled to turn off the news, turn away from the heartbreak, and head for our own private islands of Emmaus. We escape into shopping and food and alcohol. We escape into television and Hulu and Netflix. I confess that my escape of choice these days is seminary study and church committee meetings. The alternative, looking this world’s suffering people in their eyes, is often too much to bear. So we turn and walk away.

Cleopas and his friend turned and walked away from their downcast companions, embarking on one of the most painful walks of their lives. But hallelujah, they did not walk alone. In my earlier exploration of the “we” that traveled with them and the “we” that travels with us on our life journey, I intentionally left out the most important member of their little travel party: The travel guide. The One who created the road on which they walked, the One who had always been with them and always walked with them, the One who had, in fact, brought them thus far on the way. 

Cleopas and his friend had no idea that they were about to experience the truth of Matthew 18:20 first hand, for themselves. That’s where it says: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. There they were, the two of them, and there he was among them, the One whose loss they were lamenting and whose presence they were too blind to perceive. There he was, among them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Perhaps they were walking with their heads down and just didn’t bother to look up and see the face of their Risen Rabbi. But how is it that they didn’t recognize his voice? That we do not know. But what we do know is that they left Jerusalem and made their way towards a place the writer identified as Emmaus, and as they walked together on the afternoon of resurrection day, they were approached and accompanied by Jesus, the Risen Christ. 

Can we let that soak in for just a moment? That Emmanuel, God with us, the God who came to earth in human form, died and rose from the dead, appeared to them on the road and walked with them. Put yourself there on that road as the unnamed companion of Cleopas. You and Cleopas may not know it, but Jesus is with you. You and your neighbor there in the pew may not know it, you may not recognize it, you may not remember it, and you may not even believe it, but Jesus is present. Listening to your prayers and your cries for mercy. Listening to you as you recount your losses and your dashed hopes. 

Jesus turned their ordinary and mournful walk, their ordinary and simple meal, into the most extraordinary walk and meal of their lives. Their eyes opened. Their hearts burned. Their spirits rose. And then so did they - a few verses later, we read that they got up and returned to Jerusalem. How different do you think that return trip was from their earlier walk? They went back to the upper room, eager to tell their story, to share their experience with the risen Christ. But guess what? Christ had already shown up for and with Peter. The disciples were already talking about what God had done. These two went back to the upper room - back to the place of despair, the place of loss, the place of fear - but they went back with Jesus on their minds and on their lips - and they discovered that Jesus was already there. They had no answers, no solutions, and no plan for how they would endure the oppression of the Romans or how they would move forward as a community of faith - but they were going to walk that road together. 

Like them, we have no idea of how we will endure the oppression of fear and greed, anger and racism. We don’t know how we will stand up against injustice and inequity. We don’t know how we will bring an end to war or sexism or homophobia or any of the other “isms” and “phobias” that divide us. But here’s the thing: we walk together. We are learning, some of us for the first time, that we are all “we,” and we have to find ways to disrupt every narrative that tries to tell us anything different. We have to find ways to break down the barriers that have already been erected and prevent the building of border walls that are threatening to be erected between us and everyone else who is included in the “we” that Christ Jesus came to seek and to save. We walk together and we walk with Christ in our midst and in our hearts. We can leave this place and walk together in hope, in faith, and in joy. We can leave this place humming the tune of today’s first hymn, that song of Easter triumph. 

It’s a simple choice, an ordinary choice, and a life changing choice to walk together. Even if we don’t know where we are going - Wait, let me rephrase that - even though we don’t know where we are going or what we are going to do when we get there. We walk together. We don’t know what we can do or say to relieve the pain and suffering we encounter. We don’t know and we can’t possibly know. But we walk together. We don’t have the answers. We don’t even have clearly articulated questions. But we walk together. We don’t have enough power to shift the balance of power - but we have been given power from on high by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have enough money to build everyone a house or feed every one a meal. But we have the Bread of Life, the Risen and Living Lord, interceding for us beside the throne of grace. We have the God of the Universe on our side. And we have the Holy Spirit within us. 

Even as we reel with unspeakable sorrow after yet another mass shooting, yet another white supremacist march, another gang war, another bombing, another hurricane, let us go from the comfort of this place and walk back into the places of despair, darkness, and fear, with the good news of Christ’s resurrection. And if we pay attention, if we raise our eyes and look around, we may very well see glimpses of the Risen, Holy One. If we look up and listen up, we will see and hear stories of peacemaking in war torn places- and I hope that we will recognize Jesus in the company of the peacemakers in our midst. We will see ships, airplanes, and trucks filled with food and water destined for our desperate Puerto Rican neighbors - and I believe that we will recognize Jesus in the company of those being fed. We will hear about medical clinics being built at a time in our country’s history when access to medical care is being rescinded - and I pray that we will recognize Jesus in the company of those who are being healed. We will tutor students in our local schools - and I suspect that we will recognize Jesus in the company of those precious and precocious little ones. We will get involved with programs that provide housing, food, education, and sanctuary for immigrants in our midst - and I bet that we will recognize Jesus in the company of the desperate and the disenfranchised. We will discover that our previously dashed hopes are being undashed  - honestly, I’m not sure if there is such a word, but I’m going with it - undashed by the God of hope. Listen, my friends, I know and you know that we can’t do any of this alone. But we are not called to do this alone. We are called to be the people of God - together. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation - together - seeking and finding the risen Christ in the eyes and in the faces and in the company of all who desperately need to be reconciled with one another and with the One who gave us life. We have been called to walk together. And let us never forget that we walk together - and Jesus Christ our Risen and Triumphant Lord, walks with us. Amen.

Will you pray with me? Holy and Risen One, we come to you now thanking you for your  call on our lives, your call to walk this life journey together, not only together with those who sit near us in this sanctuary, but also with those who by all appearances live light years away from us. Lord, please help us to recognize that we are all part of the “we” you have created. We are called to walk each other home, literally home to places where we can sleep at night, home to welcoming and inclusive communities of faith, and most of all, home to you. As we cower in our own locked rooms and our locked homes, in our gated communities and behind our gated hearts, Lord, please open our eyes so that we can see you right here with us, even behind our locks and gates. Help us to see you in the eyes and faces of those who travel this road with us. Guide us, O thou great Jehovah, weary, fearful, and divided though we may be, along your path of peace. And we will be careful to give you the thanks and praise, the glory and the honor that you alone deserve. We ask all this, we plead for all of this in the name of the one who taught us to pray saying - (The Lord's prayer was recited here.)

As you leave this place, may you walk together with courage and hope. May you go from this place, knowing that, even when you feel lonely, afraid, and abandoned, Christ the Risen Lord walks with you. Go in peace.

Addendum - This movie scene was sent to me by a friend from long ago and far away. 
He is right - this scene touches on theme that is similar to what I tried to say in the final paragraph of my sermon. Thank you, my friend. Thank you very much. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thankful Thursday: This is my story...

So I've been telling my story here for more than ten years.
Recently, I've had the chance to share my story in two other settings.

First, it was an honor to be invited to share my story with my high school alma mater.
I entered Poly Prep in the 7th grade in 1977. (Yes, that was 40 years ago!!!)
It was the first year that girls were admitted to Poly.
When I graduated six years later, in 1983, I was the first African American girl to graduate.
Now THIS is a senior yearbook picture taken straight out of the early 80s -
nice look, right???

The other story was an inspiration and invitation from my dear friend, Mel. She is a gifted photographer, a thoughtful therapist, a loyal friend, a passionate wife, a creative mother, a loving sister - and I am so grateful that she's one of my dearest friends and companions on this journey that is my life. Although we have written many emails and messages to each other for years, although we have spoken on the phone and had deep and soulful conversations, I only met her in person for the first time less than a month ago when I flew out to Phoenix to be with her and a mutual friend named Natalia. After wishing we could meet together for years, when we finally found ourselves in the same place, the three of us immediately slipped into a groove of soul sisterhood that is rare. Truly. We walked and talked, ate and drank, told stories and spent time in silence. We wrote and cried and laughed. We gave each other gifts and cards and reason to believe in the goodness of God and the healing power of true friendship. It wasn't nearly enough time. But it was so good. So very good.

As part of a storytelling project she is doing on her blog, Mel asked me a gaggle of personal, intimate, tear-provoking questions - which I answered with all the honesty I could muster. Then we went out into the desert where she took photographs of me.

This is my story - and it goes beyond the surface of my life into some of the deepest recesses I've got. Please read it with tenderness. Read it with patience. Read it with grace. Read it and know me better.

(Before you click over to this story, you should know: 
there are photographs in her blog post that include the kanswer scars on my chest.)

This is my story.
Thanks be to God.

PS. Why do I spell it "kanswer"? The pronunciation is exactly the same as the dreaded "c word" but the spelling is different because I needed to exert some power over that disease. But my explanation goes back farther than that. I have a 23 year old daughter, an amazing young woman, whose name is Kristiana. We knew it was a unique spelling, but we knew she was going to be unique and we went with it. At the beginning, many people got it wrong, spelling her name with a "Ch" instead of a "K." To this day, many people get it wrong the first or second time they attempt to write her name. But there are people who have known her since she was born, since before she was born, who still misspell her name. I've come to believe that that is a matter of disrespect. They just can't be bothered to get it right. 

Well, just after I was diagnosed with the dreaded c-word disease, when I was in the middle of all the tests and scans and appointments and scary conversations, I decided that I didn't want to give respect to something so awful, so life threatening. I began to spell it kancer, then kanser. But neither of those resonated with me in a meaningful way. As I continued to ponder my life and my future, I began to think, to hope, and to pray that the entire ordeal would teach me new things about life and faith. I hoped and prayed it would answer some of my bigger questions. That's when it hit me (and at the same time it hit a friend of mine who lives in Kentucky! Talk about sisterhood/friendship/connection to the max. We hadn't even talked to each other about it, but we began to spell it the same way right around the same time) to spell it "kanswer." A combination of lack of respect and looking for answers became a new spelling: k + answer = kanswer. 

PSS. Yes, I have a tattoo. Many years ago, I attended an art workshop in Vermont where we were invited to create a personal logo. Mine emerged as a spiral, a labyrinth which represented my life, the twists and turns of my life and my life story - all under the cross. Last year, I took an online class led by Patti Digh, a new friend and long time mentor, and one of our assignments was this: "Surprise yourself." The first thing that came to mind that day was to get a tattoo over my left kanswer scar. That's where the kanswer had been discovered. That's where my heart is. So, with the help and support of my dearly beloved Sarah, I went to a tattoo shop, had a consultation, and then returned a few days later to have the tattoo done. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Poor deer...

A few weeks ago, while I was out on my early morning walk, I saw a deer walking across the road ahead of me. Limping, really. Limping badly. Its front left leg appeared to be broken.

Normally, when I see deer in my neighborhood, I see them in groups, in families. Big and small. With and without antlers. They usually stop and stare at me, checking to see if I am watching them, advancing in their direction. Such regal, quiet, elegant, unobtrusive animals. At least, that's how they have always been in my company.

But that morning, the aforementioned morning, I saw only one deer. Slowly making its way across the street. Seemingly unaware of my presence. Unaware of anything but its wounded leg. It hobbled into the woods, down a steep embankment, and out of sight. I shudder even now as I think back on that sighting.

Questions flooded through my mind.
Where are you going, deer?
Who will be with you?
Who will keep you company in your pain?
Will your leg get better?
Will this injury be the cause of your death?
You poor deer.

My eyes teared up that morning.
They tear up again in this retelling.

I confess that I have had similar stirrings in other situations, more frequently of late.
I ponder the pain and brokenness of so many thousands of people who have been wounded,
emotionally, financially, relationally, nationally,
by earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires.

Where will you go now?
Who will be with you?
Who will accompany you in your pain?
Will your island, your city, your grieving heart get better?
Will this tragedy be the cause of your death?
You poor dear.

I ponder the loneliness and desperation of the people I see on the street, begging.
One man's sign reads, "I need a miracle."
His is not one of the usual small requests for food or money.
Nope, he needs a miracle.
I drove past him once and gave him a pack of cigarettes the second time I saw him.

Where will he go?
Who will be with him?
Who will accompany him in his pain?
Will whatever put you out on the street be the cause of your death?

I wonder about the outrage being expressed towards athletes and others who have chosen to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. I think of those who support their decisions. And the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken stands - and taken their knees - in the face of all kinds of injustice, prejudice, violence, systemic and institutional racism, and so many other ills that our nation and our world have faced and continue to face.

Where are you going now, dear ones?
Who will be with you in your insistence on justice?
Who will keep you company in your pain?
Will our nation get better?
Will our nation's injurious behavior be the cause of our death?

As I make my way, slowly, sometimes tediously, always hopefully, through seminary,
(this is the beginning of the third year of a five year program)
I am becoming increasingly aware that those questions will come up in many conversations with present co-travelers on this faith journey I'm on, as well as future parishioners.

When momentous life decisions must be made -
marriage, divorce, parenting, job change, moving to other cities -
when sorrowful moments happen -
the death of a loved one, the end of a meaningful relationship, the loss of a job -
when confusion arises,
when fears mount,
when life's questions overwhelm,
I will ask these same questions -

Where are you going, my dear one?
Who will be with you?
Who will keep you company in your pain?
Will your leg/heart/soul/family/life get better?
Will this injury be the cause of your death?
You poor dear.

There will undoubtedly be times when it won't be appropriate to ask if things will get better.
And most people won't want to talk about death. Even in their final days and hours.
There will be many times when the best thing I can do is simply show up
and be a silent witness to their lives and their suffering.
But my heart will be filled with these and other questions.
My eyes will be filled with tears.
(I'm already planning to inform any search committee or agency or anyone who considers hiring me that if they aren't comfortable with tears, with people who cry, then I am most assuredly NOT a match for them. No shame to these tears - and no end to them either.)

And I will do my best to go forward with them, when invited.
To walk the journey of life with them.
To keep them company in their pain, their fears, their anxiety -
and things may not get better. Some things never do get better.
But I will do my best to be present.
Attentive. Alert.
Listening. Loving.

Most mornings when I go for my walks, I spend most of my time looking down at the sidewalk. I am one of the clumsiest people I know. I trip and stumble readily and easily, so when I'm walking on cracked sidewalks, I keep my eyes on the ground. Not only do I fear being embarrassed by a pedestrian blunder in front of my neighbors, but also I fear falling down a breaking a wrist, a hip, or a tooth. Yes, I'm that clumsy.

That morning, on the morning when I saw that wounded deer, I wasn't looking at my feet. I was looking up the road. I had raised my eyes from my own situation and my own potential injury just long enough to observe that another creature had already suffered harm. In the case of that poor deer, there was nothing I could do to help.

In the world in which I live, there is much I can do. I can donate to organizations on the ground, bringing relief to the hungry, thirsty, and those recently rendered homeless because of natural disasters. I can donate food and water and baby goods to food pantries right here in Charlotte. I can listen to the stories of veterans with PTSD, kanswer survivors, the recently widowed, and so many others who simply want to be seen, heard, respected, and welcomed. But it all starts with me looking up and listening up.

In the world in which we all are living these days,
storms seem to be churning up every few days.
Hurricanes, yes, but also political storms.
Storms of anger and protest, storms of disagreement and hatred.
There are broken promises, broken relationships, and broken families.
There is broken trust. There are broken hearts.
Deep wounds are readily and unapologetically inflicted.
With knives, with guns, with tasers, and also with words, with attitudes, with sarcasm.

There are desperate people all around us.
There are desperate people here among us.
And there are desperate people staring back at us from our mirrors.
These same questions apply - even when we are facing the lonely, hurting, angry,
shocked, reckless, restless, hopeless people we know ourselves to sometimes be.
Perhaps especially then.

Where are you going, my dear?
Who will be with you?
Who will keep you company in your pain?
Will your heart, mind, soul, spirit, and body get better?
Will this injury - whatever it is - be the cause of your death?
You, dear, yes you, are indeed dearly beloved.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Way Forward...

My heart is breaking over here.

Flooding in Texas and mudslides in Sierra Leone.
Homes, livelihoods, and lives ruined, lost, destroyed.

Missile launches from North Korea.
Retaliation threatened.

Racism and white supremacy surging.
Violence threatened and actualized.

Ineffective, disinterested leadership - in the community, in the city, in the state, in the nation, in the world.
Distrust on all sides.

Stage 4 kanswer.
For the first time.
For the second time.

I'm reading a book called Evicted. About Milwaukee.
Living on the edge of eviction. Landlords. Tenants.
Trailer parks. Condemned living spaces.
Churches that don't help, can't help, won't help.
Local government that sides with the landlords, not the tenants.
Is decent housing a human right or isn't it?

Last weekend, I went to visit someone in prison.
On Friday, his mother and I drive almost five hours east from Charlotte.
We spent the night in a hotel.
Got up early and drove another half hour to the prison.
We sat with him for four hours in the visitation room, talking, laughing, telling stories,
and then we left and drove back home.
Long two days.
Even longer for him - he's serving a 20 year sentence.
Upon his release, he is likely to be immediately deported back to a country he hasn't seen in
nearly thirty years.

I'm not gonna lie - I'm struggling with all of this.
Emotionally, I'm feeling more than a little overwhelmed these days.
How long, Lord, how long? How much pain and suffering and sickness can we endure?
How much injustice and discrimination can we inflict on one another?

But life is not all doom and gloom around here. Thanks be to God!

I spent most of yesterday with a dear friend with her two year old son. He's a delightful child.
Together, we spent most of yesterday at the home of another dear friend, a mutual friend, eating, talking, laughing, telling stories, in her boat, out on Lake Norman. She has a new dog, all energy, all love, all joyful activity. It had been far too long since we had been together, the three of us, and that sweet little boy.
I drove home from the lake yesterday, listening to Rob Bell's podcast about the lie of redemptive violence. (Please start with this podcast - the first one in the series on "the thing in the air.")
Rob Bell inspires me to think differently about my faith and my life and this world in which we find ourselves.

Tomorrow some friends and I will spend two hours hanging out with some young women who are pregnant and living in a supportive community while they seek work and housing for themselves and their unborn children. We will give them manicures and listen to their stories and tell some of our own. We will leave them with diapers and sheet sets and our best wishes for good health and happy babies.

I spent a couple of hours at the seminary today.
Reading. Journaling. Staring out the window.
Thinking, praying, wondering about my future, the future of my church, the future of our nation.
I found almost all the books I need for one of my classes this semester in the seminary library.
I came home and got my study space organized for the fall.
New spiral notebooks. Textbooks. Dictionaries. Folders. Pens.
Back to school I go.
It is, indeed, the most wonderful time of the year.

My son is back in college - for his junior year.
My daughter is gainfully employed.
As is my husband.
I'm reading a lot, doing a lot of yoga, journaling, taking Patti Digh's 137 Days class online.

The fridge is full. So is the pantry. (I am enormously grateful.)
And so is my heart.
Full of sadness and sorrow for the vast suffering in the world.
Full of hope and anticipation for all that is happening to combat the suffering.

The way forward is with a broken heart, as my dearly beloved Alice Walker once wrote.
The way forward is with a broken heart and also with a hope-filled heart.
The way forward is with tears flowing and also with joy unspeakable.
The way forward is with friends close at hand and also in solitary places.
The way forward is with music and also in silence.

The way forward is not going to be easy or quick or simple.
The way forward is going to be painful and frightful.
The way forward will cost us time, energy, money, and so much sweat and tears.
But the way forward is just that - forward.

There's work to be done.
There's community to build.
There's love to be shared.
There's new life to be born.
There's good news to give and to live.
There is no going back.
There is no turning back.

As the now familiar chant goes -
Forward together, not one step back.
Forward together, not one step back.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Different World... but not really

I spent this past weekend up in the mountains of North Carolina at a women's conference. Over 350 women gathered together from all over the country for a conference called "The Fullness of Life - Montreat Women's Connection 2017." I had the honor of leading the group through a discussion of Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans. And I had the joy of leading two workshops on journaling as a spiritual discipline. I called it "The Fullness of Life: Keeping a Written Record." There was laughter. There were tears. There were stories. There were questions, tons of questions.

In a different world... but not really, some angry, hate-filled people gathered in a city in Virginia, carrying flags and guns and torches and centuries of rage that they unleashed on any and all who were there and any and all who turned on their televisions or looked at their handheld devices. There were tears. There were prayers. There was singing. There was violence. There are questions, tons of questions.

It would be easy to say that those two events, those two gatherings took place in completely different worlds. But they didn't. They took place in the same country. I have no doubt that these two gatherings involved people from the same states and the same cities, the same communities of faith, perhaps even the same households.

It would be comforting to think that no one we know,
no one I know
would spew such anger and hatred,
would avow such violence and mayhem.
But the reality is that we all know people who feel that way about
brown people, black people, Jewish people, Muslim people,
about immigrants, the ones with documents and the ones without documents,
about people on the LGBTQ spectrum.
We all know people who want to "take Am*rica back" and want to make Am*rica great again"
- and what they really mean is to make this country white again,
even though it has never been white.
They sit next to us at church.
They stand in front of us in the pulpit.
They sit next to us in our office cafeterias.
They stand in front of us at work gatherings.
They live next to us in our neighborhoods.
They stand in front of us at political events.

It is not a different world.
"Those people" are our people.
They live among us.
They are us.
If we remain silent,
if we make excuses related to the first and second amendments,
if we deny the true message of those hateful flags,
if we say that it's okay for them to show up with torches and machine guns
shouting about wh*te power,
but it's not okay for black and brown people and their white allies
to gather and march and say that black lives matter,
(which does not mean "ONLY" black lives matter, but rather black lives matter "TOO")
then that is proof positive that it is not a different world.

At the retreat this past weekend, I had many opportunities to sit with new friends,
to talk and laugh and share life stories
and ponder both the fullness and the messiness of these lives we live.
The challenges and the joy of motherhood.
The brokenness and woundedness that we all carry with us.
The terrible decisions we've made in our lives and the grace that we have received.
We hugged each other and cried with each other.
We spoke words of encouragement to one another.
And we also pushed one another to speak up for justice.
To teach our children about race and racism, justice and righteousness.
To stand up for what is true and right - even at difficult times like this.
Perhaps most especially at difficult times like this.

At the end of the conference, we all got into our cars or someone else's car
or onto airplanes and made our way back to our real lives.
Down from the mountains into the valleys of shadows.
Into the hatred and anger that assaulted us from every news outlet.
Into the anger and fear that some of those beautiful women deal with at home.
Perhaps some of those women went home to men who had carried a torch
or some other symbol of hatred in Charlottesville.
All of us are now back in this world we all share.
This nation we all share.

It is my prayer and my hope that each of those women,
myself included,
has reentered her life renewed, recharged,
determined to do the work that will make this a different world.
A different nation.

It is my prayer that we will not only wear pink hats and safety pins
(thank you, Patrice, for this)
without doing anything that makes a real difference,
but that we will stand strong and speak up when we hear racist rants,
sexist slurs, and anti-Muslim or anti-gay bigotry spoken in our presence.

It is my prayer that we will teach our children and our grandchildren,
our partners and our spouses,
our faith community partners and our neighbors,
our co-workers and our friends
that justice is what love looks like in public (Cornel West)
that hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that (MLK Jr)
that the way forward will be with a broken heart (Alice Walker)
and that we who believe in freedom cannot rest
until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons,
is as important as the killing of white men,
white mothers' sons (Sweet Honey in the Rock).

There is work yet to be done. So much work.
There is justice yet to be carried out.
Because a retreat in the mountains followed by a retreat back into our safe bubbles
(for those of us who have places of safety - not everyone has such a place)
can no longer be our modus operandi.
Because the hatred and racism and injustice that have always been
and still are present in the very foundation of this nation
must be named for what they are and they must be eradicated
if we have any hope of this being a different world, a different nation.

But if we remain silent, if we do nothing,
if we aren't willing to be uncomfortable in the ugliness of it,
if we refuse to learn our nation's history around these issues,
if we resist the fact that that history is still being lived out in 2017,
then we will only see more of what we saw this past weekend.
And all our yearning and hopes for a different world will never come to fruition.

What are you willing to do to make this a different world,
a different country,
a safe world,
a safe country
for all who live here and all who come here?
Where are you willing to take a stand for justice?
What are you willing to say at your dinner table,
at your office water cooler,
at your family reunion,
and in the mirror?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Thankful Thursday

There's this thing I do in my journal, an odd thing, a somewhat random thing, and it almost always turns out to not be "random" at all. To not be odd. It usually turns out to be absolutely perfect.

What I do is this - when I start a new journal, I write quotes on random pages. I glue in images from magazines on random pages. I tape in titles and headlines from articles. I stick in pieces I've cut out of church bulletins and programs. All on random pages in the otherwise blank journal. Then as I write my way through the journal, I'm often pleasantly surprised by the perfection of the placement of the journaling prompts and ephemera that I rediscover as I fill the pages.

Earlier this week, I thought about wanting to get back to my light-hearted blogging.
The Thankful Thursday posts.
Writing about what I eat and drink.
Telling travel stories.
Posting pictures of my kids and describing their antics.
But then I thought, "how can I focus on myself and my family, food and travel, when there is so much pain and suffering in the world?"
Deep sighing ensued.

I turned to what I expected would be two blank pages in my journal yesterday, and this is what I found pre-written on the lower left hand side page: "Wendell Berry: Be joyful - though you have considered all the facts."

I don't remember where I saw that quote, but it was exactly what I needed to see yesterday.
Having considered several facts of late - facts about our country, its history, our world, its turmoil, to name only a few -  I was reminded that being joyful, being grateful, being intentionally attentive to the goodness of life, the fullness of life, are exactly what I need to focus on. Not "though" I have considered all these facts, but rather "because" I have considered all these facts.

That "random" act of journaling I performed several weeks ago as I prepped this current volume for use has served as a motivational and encouraging reminder to be joyful always, to give thanks without ceasing, and to not be ashamed or afraid or apologetic for the joy and gratitude that dominate my life.

Tonight I am thankful for:

* every time I check my phone and I've hit 10,000 steps

* summer fruit, especially when it's on sale: cherries, nectarines, watermelon, grapes, peaches

* homegrown tomatoes and the neighbor who shares them freely because her uncle grows them in vast quantities. I didn't know how delicious tomatoes could be until I ate these tomatoes - grape and cherry tomatoes that could be classified as "nature's candy"

* yoga, especially with Kelley

* home cooking (especially when I didn't have to do the cooking)

* lemon water in the morning, coffee too

* steel cut oatmeal with chia seeds and flaxseed and banana and a drizzle of maple syrup

* sitting with my family at the dinner table, talking and laughing about the bizarre topics that come up between us. Serial killers. Cannibalism. Tattoos.

* eating out too

* traveling light (backpacks and packing cubes are my favorite means of keeping it light and simple and organized and efficient)

* rubber stamps and washi tape

* time with friends, walking, talking, sipping tea, laughing, and me taking notes the whole time. That's a natural response when your friends are as funny and thoughtful and wise and insightful and articulate and generous as my friends are. They tell me the best stories and share nuggets of truth that I simply must capture on paper.

* deep sleep

* the discovery of a tv channel that plays binge-a-thons of "Law and Order" almost exclusively

* the chance to celebrate with my brother that he graduated from college at the age of 52! I am so proud of him for working so hard for so long to get it done.

* finding feathers on my walks

* babysitting a sweet little four month old. Holding her. Making her smile. Giving her a bottle and watching her drift off to sleep in my arms.

* the trust her parents have in me, welcoming me into their homes and their lives

* being invited to lead a workshop on journaling and also to lead the book discussion session at the retreat I linked to above. Check it out here - and please consider coming to the conference.

* Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How do you define "expert"?

I don't remember where or when or who said it, but many years ago, someone said, "The definition of an expert is someone who has been flown in from out of town." I still chuckle when I think of it that way. I have attended many conferences and workshops in my lifetime. I have led many workshops and events in my lifetime. I haven't often been referred to as an expert, but I have been asked and expected to dole out expert opinions on many topics - homeschooling, breast kanswer, the Bible, faith, Spain, travel, packing light, journal writing, just to name a few. I am not an expert on any of those things, but I do have years of experience in all of those things.

I heard part of a segment on NPR yesterday morning that got me thinking about this question -  "how do you define expert?" - and connected it to the Thursday night class my new friend, Patrice, is leading with great distinction. Yesterday's piece is entitled, "Charlotte Talks: Ex-Offenders and Challenges on Transitioning back to Society." In this segment, one gentleman, who is himself an ex-offender, spoke about his experiences and about the difficult transition out of prison and back into the world. A world that is increasingly more difficult to navigate after incarceration. A world that denies those who have been imprisoned, those who have been accused, those who have been charged, the option of public housing, food aid support, school loans, college admission, and many job opportunities.

And on top of that, convicted felons are disenfranchised in many states; they can never vote again. That's right; even after you've paid your debt, after you've served your sentence, you cannot vote. You cannot serve on a jury. You cannot obtain many professional licenses - even if the license you seek is in no way connected to any crime you may have committed. It is legal in every state to discriminate against former inmates in nearly every aspect of their lives. They emerge from prison with debt - for their stay, their uniforms, any back child support, their lawyer fees, and many other fees - but then they are unable to find work or live in affordable housing, even with family members. Because landlords have the right to evict tenants from their homes, even if the tenant hasn't committed a crime. But if a family member or caregiver or friend is accused of a crime or is a formerly incarcerated person, the resident of the home can be evicted. How can anyone be surprised that so many people end up back in prison? Many cannot find a job or a place to live. Those who find jobs often have their wages garnished to cover all the aforementioned fees and costs, and some have 100% of their wages garnished. Did you catch that? Every penny that they earn from their jobs is taken away to pay debts. No one can live that way. No one should have to live that way.

Anyway, Gemini Boyd, the main interviewee on the Charlotte Talks segment, asked a great question of his interviewer. He wondered why his story, his experiences in and with the incarceration system, and his subsequent work to establish BOLT, Building Outstanding Lives Together, a youth intervention foundation, didn't count as those of an expert? Why should he need to have a title after his name in order to offer advice, suggestions, and make an impact in the way our country treats and mistreats its criminals - or those accused of crime? Perhaps, in this case, an expert isn't someone who has been flown in from out of town, someone with several advanced degrees on criminal justice and jurisprudence, but rather is someone who has felt the boot of the criminal justice and jurisprudence system on his neck - and has emerged relatively whole and strong - right here in our hometown.

On the first night of this Educate to Engage series, we drew up a long list of "group agreements," giving voice to the ways in which we would interact with each other during the six gatherings. Here is a sampling of our group agreements - we would not cut each other off when someone was speaking or have side conversations. We would treat each other with respect, and also we would allow for the participants to be experts in their own lives and experiences, especially as it relates to our main topic of conversation - the mass incarceration system.

Last Thursday at the fourth of our six sessions, we were given the opportunity to live out that final agreement. Two of the group participants served as experts on this issue of mass incarceration - because both of them have experienced it firsthand. One of them shared his perspective on education in school and education in life - and how "education" has affected his life, for better and for worse. He talked about the challenges of finding work after having to "check the box," the one on nearly every job application and every housing application: "Have you ever been convicted of a crime? If yes, explain below." He talked about the difficulty of explaining his situation, telling his story, and taking the chance that he won't get hired, that he won't be able to live in a certain place. He expressed surprise at the number of people in the room who claimed to have never had similar experiences.

We live such separate and unequal lives.
Once convicted, many roads, many options are cut off.
Never convicted, most roads, most options are open and available.
In some cases, conviction isn't even necessary.
Simple suspicion is enough to warrant and permit discrimination.
Our nation's attorney general recently reinstated a policy that allows cities and towns to confiscate property from individuals suspected of criminal activity. You don't even have to be charged with a crime to have your property taken by the police, permanently.
What the what???
In the United States of America - the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Yes, indeed.

So this young man took a chance and told us the truth.
His truth. His story. His experience.
He has a college degree, but that doesn't offset or override his "ex-con" status.
He handed out business cards at the end of class -
since many companies won't hire him, he has created his own small business.
Handy man. Plumber. Electrician. No job too small.
He is an expert in survival. In working hard.

How do you define "expert"?
We may not have multiple degrees or titles behind our names.
We are all experts in and experts on our own lives.
We each have so much to tell and to teach one another.
We are each an expert - and we are surrounded by experts.
Imagine what this country and this world could look like if we treated each other that way.

No one with a title behind their name can possibly know that young man's experience before, in, and after incarceration. No one can possible understand his particular challenges, any more than anyone can know yours or mine.

As long as we keep ostracizing, isolating, rejecting, stigmatizing, and perpetually criminalizing each other, as long as we continue to dismiss the harrowing experiences and accounts of injustice told by the poor, the underserved, and the black and brown people in this country, the more separate and unequal our nation will become.

The more we ignore the stories told by people whose perspectives we don't share,
people whose suffering we cannot fathom,
people whose experiences reveal how privileged and protected many of us are,
the easier it is to cling to that definition of expert that I heard so long ago -
someone who is flown in from out of town.

Because if the people who live under the highway,
if the people who live in tents behind the hospital,
if the people who have survived prison and are eager to transition back into society and contribute to society,
if the people who are being evicted from their affordable homes in order to build more condos,
if these people actually are our neighbors here in Charlotte,
if these people actually are experts on how to survive with very little,
if these people actually have good ideas on how to solve these major social crises,
then something might actually have to change in this city we call home.
Justice might actually be done and equity might actually be achieved.

So I ask again, how do you define "expert"?
Whose expert advice do we all need to hear and heed?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Strike a Pose

If you were asked to strike a pose that represents the word "fear," what would you do with your body? Would you cower and crouch down on the ground? Would you hide behind your hands?

What if you were supposed to enact "courage?" Would you defiantly put your hands on your waist and stare out at the world with a powerful gaze?

And how would you explain, express, or enact a moment of transition between fear and courage? Might that pose include you peeking up from your hiding place? Perhaps standing up straight with a curious glance in one direction on the other?

Last night at the third of the six week series on The New Jim Crow, Amalia Deloney led us through a practice that emerged from the Theater of the Oppressed - you can read a little bit about it here and here. She explained "image theater" to us and then asked us to strike a pose, enacting words related to oppression, liberation, and the transition from the former to the latter.

The exercise we engaged in pushed us to ask and answer these questions - What happens in our minds when we hear certain words, when we are asked to respond to those words, when we allow our bodies to reveal what our minds have understood? And then, how do we explain how we decided to strike the pose we have struck?

And all those questions got me thinking about more questions.

How does my mind respond, how does my body respond when I read that a friend of mine was held up at gunpoint down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, yesterday?

How does my mind respond, how does my body respond when I hear that someone dear to someone I love has been diagnosed with stage 4 kanswer?

How does my mind respond, how does my body respond when my twenty year old son texts me at midnight and tells me that he is about to leave a friend's house and drive home?

How do the minds and bodies of young children respond when they are asked to read a book out loud - especially when those young children are struggling with reading on their grade level? Do they make excuses for why they can't figure out the words? Do they claim to be tired, too tired to have to keep doing their work? Do they look up from the book and begin to tell stories unrelated to the book in order to avoid reading? Do their minds conjure up self-sabotaging statements like, "I can't do this"? "This is boring."

What pose can I strike that helps them realize that they don't have to make excuses?
They don't have to make up stories.
They don't have to guess at the words.
I'm there to read with them, not embarrass them.
I'm there to help them sound out new words, not shame them for what they don't yet know.
How can I use my face, my hands, my body to express to them that they are safe with me?
That they can relax and trust that we will work through this tough word,
this convoluted story together?

And what happens when those same kids become teenagers and they are still uncomfortable reading and writing? What happens when they are teased by classmates and humiliated by teachers and others in authority over them? What poses do they strike then? Do they put their hands on their hips with exaggerated bravado and turn into frightened, defensive, aggressive bullies? Do they drop out of school and drop into a life of violence, crime, and drugs? Do they find themselves striking a pose in a police precinct having their photos taken, from the front, the sides, and the back?

What they do not and cannot fully comprehend at their young ages is that the first time they strike that prisoner pose, they are being ushered into a system that will never let them go. Jail. Prison. Parole. Probation. Loss of the right to vote, to sit on a jury, to obtain public assistance if they need it, public housing, school loans, many jobs. All of which are the themes of The New Jim Crow. It's reminds me of that famous line from the old Eagles song, Hotel California, that says, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." But the mass incarceration system of the United State of America does not let you check out anytime you like. Nor can you ever leave. The label "felon" holds you captive for life.

What if a few hours of tutoring,
helping elementary school students learn to read more confidently,
teaching middle school students the joy and fun and freedom of journaling,
encouraging high school and college age young people to put their words on paper,
to tell their stories,
reminding them that their stories matter,
that their black lives matter,
that their immigrant lives matter,
that their existence matters,
that their stories matter,
that their words matter -
what if just a few hours spent with a few kids makes a difference somehow?
What if a few hours of personal attention, of encouragement, of dependable presence matter?

Let's forget about the kids for a moment... well, let's never forget about the kids.
But let's take a look in the mirror for a moment.

What poses are we striking these days?
Especially when someone mentions race and racism?
Poverty and wealth?
Crime and drug addiction?
Politics and the government?
Police brutality and repeated acquittals for killing unarmed and innocent people?
Do our shoulders drop in shame or fear?
Do our spines stiffen with anger or indignation?
Do we turn and look away, hoping the subject will change?
Do we pretend to be asleep, so that we don't have to talk about these topics at all?

Speaking of being asleep, what pose would you strike if someone asked you to enact the word "asleep"? That's actually a pretty easy word to act out. Shut your eyes. Lay down. Sit on a comfortable chair. Put your feet up. Turn away from everyone and everything around you.

How would your mind respond, how would your body respond if you heard the word "awake"?
If you heard the phrase "Stay 'woke," what would you do with your body?
Now that you are hearing all these tragic stories of injustice and murder,
now that you are becoming aware of the racism and hate that are so prevalent in our country,
now that many of the tragedies that have been described are being videotaped,
what does it mean to "stay 'woke"? To stay alert?
To act on what you are now awakened to?
Because once you wake up, you can't go back to sleep on this stuff.
Once you see what you are seeing, you cannot "unsee" it.
I know I can't.

Over the past few months, when I think about writing a blog post, I often hold back because I am repeatedly drawn back to these difficult, uncomfortable, impolite, inconvenient, un-funny issues and topics. It's not that I'm not thankful on Thursdays anymore. It's just that sometimes writing a gratitude post feels so superficial when people are living on the street. When people are dying in the street. When people are being tossed out onto the street because of "urban renewal" and "gentrification." It's increasingly difficult to write lists of the things I'm privileged to eat, drink, and do with my free time when some of the children I've met and read with may not have anything to eat for dinner tonight.

So I find myself, like my classmates last night, figuring out what my transitional poses are.
I find it increasingly necessary to a pose that depicts my current state of being between being asleep and staying 'woke. Here are few of the poses I've been striking lately -

* sitting next to rising first graders, reading with them, asking them questions about the books we read, watching them draw pictures of scenes they remember from the books we've read
* standing in front of 30 rising fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, telling them that their lives do matter, and they they can pick a notebook and write down or draw out the stories of their lives that they want to tell
* looking up into the face of a homeless man, HIV positive, riddled with anxiety, so much so that he cannot even sleep at men's shelters because the presence of so many people incites unmitigated panic, listening to his story, crying with him as he talked about his wife's recent death due to kanswer, his subsequent house fire, and how he has had to use his Social Security money to pay for his wife's grave plot, not able to do anything but listen and cry and give him a hug before he took the bus to part of Charlotte where he has established his campsite.
* sitting and looking up, watching and listening to Patrice as she drops gems of wisdom into the center of the room every Thursday night, as she firmly challenges people deeply mired in patterns of self-centeredness and domination to wake up, and as she refuses to let any of us fall back asleep in our silos of safety.

Last night, as I walked around my classmates, pondering the poses they were striking,
as I listened to their stories of encounters with police,
stories of their children's encounters with police,
stories of white privilege and white fragility,
stories of fear and anger,
stories of hope and courage,
of determination and action,
as I watched Patrice and Amalia watch us wrestle with concepts we've never learned before,
I was thankful for our individual and collective humility to
strike a pose
as students, as apprentices,
as newly awakened co-travelers on this journey
towards wholeness,
towards knowledge,
towards power,
towards healing,
towards hope,
towards justice.

Please consider joining us.
Please consider joining the movement wherever you are.
Please wake up, stand up, and act up.

PS. I guess it was a Thankful Thursday after all.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What Retaining Wall?

We moved into our house nearly fifteen years ago. Time really does fly! 

At the time that we moved into our home, there was a large piece of property just outside of our neighborhood that was owned by a single family. At least twenty acres. We couldn't even see the house from the road because of all the trees. Then they sold to a developer who cut down 90% of the trees. They built two model homes, a couple of other houses - and then building stopped when the economy crashed. During the time of their sabbatical, we watched as the property fell into disrepair. No one lived in any of the houses, even though they held regular open houses in the model homes. One corner of the recently shorn landscape fell off into a deep ravine, a mud pit that collected rainwater and North Carolina's famous red clay. Yuck. Yikes. As the years passed, the hole seemed to get bigger. As we passed the property, we would shake our heads and declare that they would never be able to build a house there. 

But they did. They built houses all along what used to be that deep ravine. They backfilled it with dirt - presumably from other places in the development - and built one huge house after the other. In the spot that we deemed the worst possible place to build a house (we swore they wouldn't dare!), the builders erected a retaining wall below the base of the stilts that held up the back deck. 

Just over a week ago, as I enjoyed my morning walk, I looked at the back of that house and the retaining wall had collapsed. I figured that the previous weeks of drought that had been followed by days and nights of torrential rain had been the cause. That, and the fact that they never should have built a house there in the first place.  

If you take a close look at the photo above, you can see a tarp of some kind covering the collapsed wall and the clay and dirt that had slid out from behind the wall. The workers standing on top of the tarp had a look of dazed disbelief, walking around with their hands on their hips for several moments. (I know because I stood there and stared far too long in my own cloud of dazed disbelief.)

If you look at the photo below, you can see the width of the house and the width of the disaster.

I stopped and stared the first time I saw it. I tried to imagine what it had sounded like as it slid down. I wondered if the homeowners had even heard it or if perhaps they had wandered out onto the back deck one morning and looked down - only to find that what they thought had been a solid foundation had literally been washed out from under them. I wondered if they had noticed cracks in the walls inside the house or perhaps an imbalance out on the deck.

The photos below show the work that is being done now, work to shore up the ground under the house, under the deck, under their very lives. It looks like they are bringing in rocks and layering them in the backyard, presumably to help with drainage. It looks like they are preparing to build another retaining wall.

I'm not a huge worrier. I'm human, so I worry, but I don't worry all the time. I worry about money, about running out of money. I worry about the health and safety of people I love, and even people I don't particularly love. I worry about car accidents and having the kanswer come back. But not all the time, not even most of the time. However, if I lived in that house, and the retaining wall had fallen down behind our house, I think I would worry about that all the time. Because even though they are getting it fixed, how can they not jump out of bed and check that wall every morning? How can they trust that it won't give way again? Literally, the foundation of the place they call home couldn't sustain the weight of their lives.

All of that got me to thinking.

How many of us have watched the foundations of our lives collapse beneath us?
How many of us have watched the lives of our loved ones destroyed by people and situations that are out of their control?

A devastating diagnosis.
A job loss.
An encounter with a police officer that ended tragically.
A family that imploded or disintegrated.
An election that ushered a tyrant, a despot, a dangerous leader into power.
A house fire or a break in.
War and rumors of war.
Being arrested on false charges and being pressured to accept a plea bargain for a crime you didn't even commit.
Losing a job, losing a spouse, and losing a home - all in the same year. (I recently met someone who has experienced that trifecta of terribleness.)

What do we do then? Who do we turn to for help in rebuilding?
How do we handle the droughts and the floods in our lives?
The losses and devastation that life inevitably brings our way?
Who stands with us in the middle of the mess, hands on hips, spreading tarps over our brokenness, so that we can take the necessary time to determine possible solutions?
Who leans in close to us, with their arms around our shoulders, tissues, casseroles, and cookies at the ready, keeping us company as we cautiously reconstruct our battered and busted foundations in spite of our overwhelming, dazed disbelief?

Who are the retaining walls in your life?
Where are the retaining walls in my life?
What are the retaining walls in our lives?


I am enormously blessed and grateful when I look back on my life and realize that
even though there have certainly been foundational shifts in my life,
even though I have done more than my fair share of stupid and dangerous things,
some of which have endangered my life's foundations,
even though kanswer sucks, always has, and always will,
even though bipolar disorder sucks,
even though job loss fractures finances and families,
even though racism is real and life-threatening,
even though much, if not most, of what I hold dear will eventually collapse under the weight of life itself,
even though I could add trial after tribulation after trouble to this list,
I have never gone through these trials alone.
There have always been companions on this journey.
I am so grateful.

And then there is God.
For all the times I feel like God is silent,
for all the times I wish God would act decisively and directly,
for all the times I cry out for healing, for restoration, for wholeness
in my own life, in my family, in my city, and in the whole world,
for all that I have ever experienced and ever will experience,
God has been my retaining wall.
God has been my strong tower,
my rock and my fortress,
my redeemer and my deliverer.
The One who loves me most.
The One I love most of all.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Where am I - really?

I love to travel. Give me a destination, give me a backpack, put me on a plane, and I would go just about anywhere. To walk. To try new foods. To learn. To journal. To meet new people. To listen to their stories.

One of my regular pre-trip practices is rereading sections of a book called The Way of the Traveler: Making Every Trip a Journey of Self-Discovery. I purchased my first copy of the book back in 2001, before my first trip to Italy. It is filled with quotes, reflections, questions, journaling suggestions, and other activities that are meant to do what the subtitle suggests - make every trip a journey of self-discovery. Although it is not a workbook and no space is intentionally provided for writing in the book, I wrote so much in the margins, I underlined so many passages, I jotted down so many trip memories, and I included so many lists of people and places I visited that I needed to buy a second copy a few years later. Like I said, I love to travel. And I love the way this book has helped me travel as far into the depths of my mind and soul as I travel out into the world around me.

One of the suggested activities in the book is explained this way:

"Now as a conscious traveler, I want to be aware of all the phases of my journey, from the moment I leave my house until the moment I return to it. All the steps between those two points are present with me as I go to where I am going and as I come back. Here is what I call the "Really" activity. It has helped me to be present in the going and in the coming back. Try it once or twice a day while approaching your destination. You will find that your adventure is vastly enhanced. Take a moment and close your eyes. Ask yourself two questions: Where am I right now, really? Where am I going, really? You may be on a plane flying over the Mississippi River. If so, answer yourself with that information. You may be going to a wedding. That is your answer to the second question. That would be enough to anchor you to the process of the journey. But there is more to this deceptively elementary exercise. As you rest with these questions and answers, something deeper seems to set in. The word "really" begins to work... This exercise works for all kinds of travel to any destination. You can make your journey a hero's quest if you just ask yourself where you really are right now and where it is that you are really going. The "Really" activity has never failed to open my eyes to my true destination and to the magical steps that are taking me to it."  (pp. 86-87)

Where am I right now, really?
Where am I going, really?

These two questions rattled around in my mind several times last night, during the second session of the six-part discussion series being put on by Educate to Engage here in Charlotte. Last night we discussed the second chapter of The New Jim Crow, The Lockdown. Early in our time together, the attendees of the workshop were asked to participate in a sociometric mapping exercise. In layman's terms, we were asked to distribute ourselves around the room based on questions we were asked. If you were ever in prison, go to that corner. If someone in your family has ever been in prison, go to that corner. That sort of thing. If you think your neighborhood is over-policed, go to this corner. If you think your neighborhood is under-policed, go to that corner.

As I migrated from one corner of the room to the other, I asked myself repeatedly,
"Where am I right now, really? Where am I going, really?"

Where do I live and what does that mean in terms of race, policing, and mass incarceration?
Where I live in Charlotte means that there won't be police cars roaming up and down the streets watching every pedestrian or stopping cars for warrantless drug searches. Where I live in Charlotte means that when the police are called, whether it be for domestic violence or an episode of mental illness or a burglary or a break in, the police will arrive quickly, quietly, without sirens blaring, and will ring the front doorbell, and await an answer politely. No SWAT team will arrive. No guns will be drawn. No doors will be broken down by battering rams. No public or noisy arrests will be made.

Where I live also means that when I, a tall, slender, flat-chested African-American woman, go out for my morning walks, I have to make sure that I'm wearing earrings, that I'm wearing some bright color that identifies me as a woman. I make sure that I'm not wearing a hoodie. I make sure that I'm not wearing headphones that would keep me from hearing someone tell me to stop, someone asking me who I am, and why I'm in the neighborhood. I don't want to be mistaken for a black male - because Trayvon Martin was a prime example of what can happen to an African American walking in a racially diverse, but predominantly white neighborhood, his own neighborhood, minding his own business. Murdered while eating Skittles and drinking soda and walking home.

As I migrated from one corner of the room to the other, I also watched others migrate from one corner to another. I wondered who they were thinking about as they decided where to stand in response to the questions about incarceration. I wondered where they were when they were arrested. I wondered what kinds of interactions they had had with police in their neighborhoods. And I wondered about the stories, the incidents, the dream-lives of privilege they were waking up into, and the nightmarish times of arrest and incarceration they had endured.

Where are they right now, really?
Where are they going, really?

As we all migrated from one corner of the room to the other, I couldn't help but ponder the trip we are on. The trip that is turning into a journey of self-discovery. The trip that is causing each of us and all of us to do "the REALLY activity" on a weekly basis, on a daily basis.

Where did I grow up, really?
What did childhood and young adult experiences teach me about race, gender, class, really?
What have I learned about race and racism in my adult life, really?
Where do I live now, really?
How and why did I choose my neighborhood, really?
How do race and racism factor into my daily life and interactions, really?
What do I think when I see black people in my neighborhood, in my children's schools,
at my church, and at my place of employment, really?
Do they belong here, really?
Am I safe with them here, really?
What do I think when I see white people in my neighborhood, in my children's schools,
at my church, and at my place of employment, really?
Do they belong here, really?
Am I safe with them here, really?
What do I think when I see people whose racial or religious identity have been associated with being "an illegal immigrant" or being from one of countries that is on the list of six countries from which our nation is no longer welcoming visitors, really?
Do they belong here, really?
Am I safe with them here, really?
What do I think about people who were formerly incarcerated, really?
Do I think they deserve the right to vote, to get a student loan, to live in public housing, to be gainfully employed, really?
How often do I even think about race and racism, really?

As I migrate from one chapter of this book into the other,  I am reminded that my life journey has been a fortunate one. I have never been arrested. I have never been stopped by the police in my car or on the street.

Both of the interactions I have had with police officers here at my house were pleasant.

The first encounter was because of our house alarm. Something triggered the alarm, which triggered a call from ADT to my cell phone - a call that I wasn't able to answer - and that triggered a call to the police. I arrived back at home just seconds before two police cars pulled up in front of the house. I drove into my garage, got out of my car, walked out of the garage door onto the driveway, and approached the two officers as they walked toward our front door. They asked for permission to walk through the house in order to make sure that everything was okay. I gave them permission. They checked every room of the house, then came into the kitchen where I was waiting, and inquired as to when the homeowner would return. I informed them that I was the homeowner. They said that because I had come from the side of the house and not the front door, they thought I was a neighbor who had come over when I saw them arrive. They informed me that because I was the homeowner, I wasn't obligated to give them permission to walk through the house. I was not aware of that.  I apologized for the false alarm. I thanked them for making sure everything was okay. They left.

The second house call by men in blue happened last year, during a family health crisis. Someone called 911 and made a false report. Once again, two police cars arrived. Sirens not blaring. Two very calm and soft-spoken police officers rang our doorbell and asked if everything was okay. One officer came into the house and had a conversation with the person who had called the police. The other officer stood outside with me and my husband, and asked us a few questions. He began the conversation with unexpected words of encouragement and support for us. He said he understood the challenge of mental illness and applauded us for loving and caring for our family member in crisis here at home. The officer who had gone inside emerged a few minutes later, said that he was satisfied that it was a false report, complimented us on our home, and then they left. No one arrested. No one shot. No one tased. No one tear-gassed.

Where we live matters.
Our zip code matters.
Our level of education matters.
Our mastery of the English language matters.
Our socio-economic status matters.
Our socio-metric map matters.
Except when it doesn't.
Like when my skin color is enough to cause a white or Asian or Latinx woman to take their purse out of their shopping cart at Harris Teeter when they see me coming down the aisle. What else do they know about me other that what I look like?
Or when the African American cardiovascular surgeon who lives in our neighborhood and drives a Porsche gets stopped frequently for "driving while black." Except when his wife, the anesthesiologist, has to worry about whether her husband and their two sons will get home safe every day from school. Why isn't being a doctor enough to protect them from fear and harassment?
Why should anyone need a license to practice medicine to prove they are smart enough or live in the right zip code to prove they are rich enough or allow oneself to be stopped and frisked without resistance to prove they are unthreatening enough to be allowed to live?

Where are we, really?
Where are we going, really?

We are on the road to learning our checkered racialized american history. Really.
We are trying to figure out all the ways that we have internalized the racism and prejudice,
the fear and suspicion that we have been exposed to since the founding of this nation. Really.
We are asking each other and ourselves very difficult questions about where we live, where we work, where we worship, who we have as friends, and what all of that has to do with our nation's system of mass incarceration. Really.
We are looking at our nation's contemporary political landscape, the political landscape of our state and our city, and we are desperately trying to determine where we are, really, and where we are going, really.
And we are committed to getting involved in the transformative, healing work that is already being done, work that is waking us up to our various levels of privilege, work that makes us put ourselves on the socio-metric map alongside other residents of our city, work that makes us uncomfortable, work that makes us wish we could "unsee" all that we have been led to examine in the first two chapters of this uncomfortable, unsettling, unnerving book, The New Jim Crow. Really, we are.

This journey towards justice, wholeness, unity, and peace
is a journey of self-discovery -
self-discovery of each of us, one by one,
self-discovery of our city and its history,
self-discovery of our state,
self-discovery of our nation.
It's rough terrain, this journey we're on.
It's a rocky road.
Many of us have moments when we want to turn around and head back to where we started.
To what we were used to. To the way of life we've known for most of our lives.
Except that there is no turning back.
We cannot go back.

So let me ask you: where are you right now, really?
Where are you going, really?