Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thankful Thursday

Today I am thankful for:

* apple picking adventures with Heather, Shawn, and Graeme

* fresh homemade green juices (today's is deep orange because of carrots)

* watching my son make sandwiches to cook in the panini press

* my daughter's 22nd birthday tomorrow

* butternut and acorn squash roasted with coconut oil, and freshly ground sea salt and rainbow peppers and topped with a scoop of brown rice

* being invited to preach again at my church last week

* Fall Fest @ First - the fall festival at my church two Sundays ago: Food trucks, awesome jazz music by Tyrone Jefferson and A Sign of the Times, face painting, pumpkin decoration, and other fun activities

* we worked together to create a book of prayers and words of encouragement for Mother Emanuel AME Church down in Charleston, SC. 

* meeting an absolutely fascinating, funny, wise, well-read, well-traveled, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, uni-gorgeous group of seminarians last weekend in Clinton, Tennessee, at the Racial Ethnic New Immigrants Seminarian Conference, hosted by the Racial Ethnic and Women's Ministries arm of the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church USA, my church's denomination). 

* this beautiful statue of "Mother Africa" at Alex Haley Farm, which is where the conference/retreat took place

 * the ark of safety at Alex Haley Farm down there in Tennessee - it is actually the chapel. The farm is under the auspices of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), which is led by Marian Wright Edelman. The statement on the logo of the CDF is, "Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small." Hence, the large boat - a place, an ark of safety.

* some of my new friends - from Puerto Rico, Kenya, Korea, Dominican Republic, and the USA. We talked, prayed, read Scripture, and worshiped in our own languages. Magnificent.

* the chance to pray with and for the group during one of our times of worship

* you know me - if there's a library, I am going to find it and figure out a way to get there by myself

* this is the view from the main window of the library

* being back in contact with a dear, dear friend after more than a decade without intentional, ongoing contact. We may not be able to see each other face to face, but emails and phone calls and facebook messaging feel pretty great at the moment.

* I met up with a friend for dinner last Tuesday, a wise, funny, thoughtful woman who advised me on a dilemma I'm dealing with these days. As I walked back to my car, I pondered the "extravagance" of spending $21 on dinner. Why couldn't I have picked something less expensive on the menu? Why do I insist on wasting so much money on restaurant meals when we have so much good and healthy food at home? As I belittled and berated myself for what should never be considered a punishable offense, I crossed my arms and began to look down at the sidewalk - where I discovered a $20 bill!!! How funny and perfectly timed was that??? God has such a great sense of timing and humor.

* the miraculous diminishment of Hurricane Patricia before it did horrific damage to Mexico

* this article written by a new friend, Amanda, a beautiful young woman (inside and out) who I walk with here in Charlotte. This coming Sunday afternoon at 2 PM we will begin our final walk at the train in Freedom Park. I will miss these people, our spirit of unity, our love for one another, our welcoming community, and our courage to enter so many areas in Charlotte that we have never explored before. This group will have completed more than 100 miles walking together. May our rear ends and our hearts be forever reshaped and reformed because of the time we have spent and the distances we have covered together.

* last week, I asked you to consider giving money for the building of a maternity ward and women's health facility in Haiti. This is what happened: $475,141 given in 24 hours with the average gift being $22.

* having the best spiritual director I could ever hope for. To sit with her and share my heart, my questions, my stories, my doubts, my tears, and have her ask the best questions, direct me to listen to my own heart, to descend into the knowing place where God speaks quietly and gently, where Spirit breathes and moves, where grace abounds, and where love grows. 

* Life itself. I am enormously grateful to be alive. To breathe. To walk. To eat. To travel. To read. To write. To laugh. To take hot showers. To drink cold water. To wear clothes I love. To attend a church where I am welcomed and where I serve. Seminary classes and classmates. 

*At the end of his sweaty Tae Bo workouts, Billy Blanks often says, 
"Every day above ground is a blessed day." He is right about that. 
Life is not always easy. Life is not always simple. Life is not always comfortable.
But for me, even in the worst of times, I am grateful to confess that life is good. 
To be alive is a blessing and a gift. 
Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"Send money!"

A long time ago Alice Walker recorded a short story about an illiterate mother who received a letter from her daughter who was away in college. I looked for it online, but was unable to find it. So I will attempt to write it out here - but I must share two disclaimers first.

1- I heard her tell this story in a recording. I have never read it.

2- I heard it many years ago, so this is a rough and inaccurate retelling of the story.
Hopefully, you will get the point...

Well, here goes.


After she received the letter from her beloved child, the mother, who missed her daughter terribly, took the letter to a neighbor and asked her to read it. The neighbor read the angry, demanding letter - "Mom! School is good! The weather is cold here! I need to buy a coat! Send money!!!"

In a huff, the wounded mother snatched the letter from her neighbor's hand and stormed back to her house, thinking, "I will show that ungrateful child who to treat me better. I'm not going to send her any money. How dare she talk to me that way?"

A few days later, she decided she wanted to reread the letter and took it to the neighbor who lived on the other side of her. This neighbor read an altogether different letter, a gentle, kind, and solicitous letter. "Mom, school is good. The weather is cold here. I need to buy a coat. Send money."

The mother nodded her head, took the letter, tenderly folded it and slid it back into the envelope. She looked at her neighbor and responded dreamily, "If she had said it that way the first time, I would have sent her the money."


I love that story. I love the lesson of how tone of voice matters. I love that the mother wanted to hear the letter again, to read it again, to give her beloved daughter another opportunity to speak to her. And it gave that loving mother the chance to bless, protect, and provide for her daughter by sending her the money she needed for a winter coat.

Sometimes we receive requests for money and other forms of help that are shrill and self-serving. Sometimes they are demanding and insulting. Sometimes they are all about making you feel guilty. Sometimes the requests are meant to flatter you at first and then manipulate you into doing something you might not otherwise consider doing.

At other times, those appeals are thoughtful, joyful, hopeful, grateful, touching, tender, and easy to respond to in a generous way. Sometimes those requests strike a chord, ring a bell, touch a nerve - and eventually move me beyond my usual string of cliches and leave me almost speechless. Almost. Sometimes we are so profoundly affected by the way a story is told, by the way an appeal is made, that we are moved to love, to get involved, and to give generously.

Today is one of those days.
Today is a Love Flash Mob day over at Momastery's blog.
It is a beautiful story about beautiful people in need of our help.
We get to help. We get to give. We get to make a difference in many, many lives.

Here is the link to this love letter asking you to "Send Money."

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Thankful Thursday - Really, Lord?

THWAP!!! It was a strange sound. It was an strange sight.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something fall from above the kitchen door to the deck below. I didn't know what had fallen, but I was grateful that it was outside and not inside.

Wrong! It was inside. It was a small lizard. IN MY KITCHEN. Less than five feet from where I sat.
What? Seriously?
It became obvious to both of us, to me and that critter, that he had landed on the wrong side of that glass door.
(I say "he" because no female would show up at the home of another female without being invited.)
Shoot, shoot, shoot.
I am NO close friend or fan of four legged critters. I can barely stand my own dog. She's cute and all, but after ten years, she still isn't feeding herself or bathing herself or cleaning up after herself. And it doesn't look like she's trying to learn any self-care skills either.

Anyway, I watched that rascally lizard slither around the base of the kitchen door and then begin to climb it in a frantic effort to get back outside. I began to wring my hands and call upon the name of the Lord to help me figure out what to do. I also shouted out variations on the word, "Shoot."

I knew I couldn't just let it wander freely in my house because... just no.
I knew I couldn't kill it because then I would have to clean up the mess.
I knew I couldn't wait for somebody else to take care of this visitor because no one else in my house would be any more interested in chasing him down than I was.

Lord God Jesus, what do I do now?

I tried to open the door to let him out, but he crawled onto the doorknob.
Then he jumped over to the window sill nearby, dropping two little black souvenirs of his fear.
Really, dude? You come into my house and leave your leavings for me to clean up?

The open door idea didn't work, so I grabbed a paper bag, put it on the floor beneath the window, and then attempted to sweep that slippery little bugger off its feet. He hung on to the window sill with his tail for a few awkward seconds before cascading into the bag below. I grabbed the bag and ran out the door, dumping its terrified occupant into the bushes below the deck.

I am still shaking off the shivers. Let me repeat - I do not like four-legged critters, especially the uninvited ones.

All of that got me thinking -

How often have I fallen on the wrong side of the door?
Fallen into arguments? Into misunderstandings? Into prejudice?
Into fear? Into mistrust? Into betrayal? Into a habit of judgment?
How often have I intentionally elbowed my way into places I do not belong?
Into betrayal of someone I love? Into unfaithfulness to people and precepts I espouse?
Into lying? Into mistreating others? Into withholding love and grace?

How often has someone gently steered me back onto the right path?
Shown me grace and forgiveness?
Intentionally chosen not to wound me or step on me?
To each of them, to all of them, I am enormously grateful for their kindness.

How often have I had to do the same?
Extend tenderness and mercy, even when the recipient doesn't ask for or expect it?
How often have I not done that?
How often have I stepped on someone else without regard to their fear or doubts?
How often have I intentionally instilled fear in someone else?

Honestly, as I watched that little creature writhe and shake, jump and slide, I wasn't thinking about any of that. All I was thinking was, "This freaking thing cannot escape my sight or I won't find it again - until it runs across my forehead when I'm in bed."

As soon as I got it outside and tossed it over the deck railing, however, I began to wonder: what is the lesson here? What am I supposed to learn from that tiny teacher?

I learned that I can deal with even God's crawliest creatures without total panic and terror.
I learned that if I don't panic, I have a greater chance of coming up with a reasonably rational response to a challenging situation.
I learned that my dog isn't all that brave - she saw it, licked at it a couple of times, and then walked away. So much for her being a fierce little hunter.
I learned that the gap between the top of the kitchen door and the doorframe is wide enough for wildlife to have access to the inside of my house.
I learned that I ought to pay attention to the gaps - those spaces around the doors of the place where my soul dwells - where fear, hatred, prejudice, shame, anger, insults, suspicion, jealousy slither in. I need to mind those gaps. Fill them with courage, grace, welcome, contentment, prayer, Scripture, and words of truth and peace.
I learned that I can learn something from just about everything.

I am grateful that from start to finish, my run-in with that little runner lasted less than two minutes, probably less than one minute. I am grateful for the lessons that brief course taught me.

At the same time, really, Lord?
Couldn't I have learned these lessons some other way?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Yesterday at Seminary...

Confession: I am a geek.
So seminary classes on Saturday are my favorite time of the week.
Well, except for when I'm at church.
And when I'm reading.
And when I'm doing laundry and vacuuming.
One of the lowest moments of this past week was when my washing machine stopped working.
One of the highlights of the week was when the new one arrived.
See? Total geek.

Anyway, yesterday at seminary, I was responsible to read the Scripture passage for the midday worship service, Acts 12:1-19, the account of Peter's friends praying for him to be released from prison and then being incredulous that he was released. Powerful story that challenges us in our belief in prayer. That story reminds me of the quote I heard first many years ago: "If you are gonna pray for bread, you had better bring a basket."

I cannot begin to explain why prayer works, but I do know this: prayer changes me. It opens my eyes and my heart to the needs of others. It reminds me that I cannot do "it all" by myself or for myself, whatever "it" is. The joy about prayer for me comes through releasing my worries and concerns into God's hands and returns again when I hear and see the outcomes, the results of those prayers. Perhaps a friend finds a job. Perhaps a friend's child feels better. Perhaps my own family finds healing in some wounded place. Perhaps the families of people who have been grieved find some sense of peace and comfort. I am grateful when those positive answers come.

In Peter's case in Acts chapter 12, their prayers were answered with "yes." He was miraculously freed from jail. But sometimes, the prison sentence is not reduced. Sometimes execution happens anyway. Sometimes the answers to my prayers are not what I hope for: the storms still hit and towns are flooded anyway. Perhaps the friend's husband dies anyway. School shootings keep happening anyway. But even then, even in the grief, even in the devastation, eyes and minds and hearts are opened. Important conversations happen. Old expectations may be dashed, but new ones develop. Lives are changed forever. Towns and cities are changed forever. Communities come together to welcome refugees. Attention is paid to the desperation that sends people fleeing their homes, their families, their fears, their enemies. Suffering sucks. Grief sucks. Loss sucks. But God is faithful and present, even when we don't feel it. God provides hope, even in the darkest hour. God shows up in the form of donations, a meal, and card, a smile, a nod, a word of welcome. God shows up through how we respond to sorrow and pain and devastation. One of the great challenges of this life walk and this faith walk is to find reasons to be grateful even in the midst of suffering, grief, and loss.

When those difficult moments happen, when the answer to my prayer seems to be "No" or "Not this time," I am reminded of one of my favorite passages in Habakkuk 3:17-18.
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; 
though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.

Even though... even though...
I will keep on praying. I will keep on hoping.
I will keep on finding out what I can do to make a difference in someone else's life.
I will also keep on looking for reasons to give thanks.
I will keep on seeking reasons to be hopeful.

Anyway, after I read the Scripture in Acts, I had the opportunity to translate a sermon from Spanish to English for a Cuban pastor I met just a few minutes earlier. You know me: I'm a geek who loves the Bible, worship services, and the Spanish language. What happens when all three of those factors come together? Great joy happens, that's what. I was a very happy geek as I stood there, listening to the language of heaven itself and translating those angelic words for those in attendance who do not yet speak it.

The stories of the challenges Cuban churches have faced in the past fifty years have given me more to pray for. Churches that were reduced to two or three or four members during the early decades of the Castro regime. Churches that began to meet in homes because they couldn't maintain the large buildings they owned. Fortunately, the government did not confiscate the property, so the churches, if they are financially able, can reclaim those spaces nowadays. The government of Cuba recently loosened their grip of fear on those who live a life of faith. Just as felons have to check a box on job applications in this country, people of faith had to check a box on various applications - including job applications - in Cuba. Their forms went into a second pile or perhaps the circular file. That and other discriminatory actions have lessened. Thanks be to God.

The two Presbyterian Cuban pastors I met this week and the testimonies they shared about all that is happening in their home country have planted yet another seed of desire to travel into my wandering soul. I want to visit the Presbyterian churches and the Presbyterian seminary in Cuba to encourage them to stay strong in faith, to persevere in their work, and to remember that they are loved and supported and prayed for on a regular basis.

Often I am asked what I hope to do after seminary - if I can imagine a dream job for myself later in life. Yesterday someone asked if I see myself in a non-traditional work setting as a minister. I told her that it was only recently that I became aware of alternate possibilities for someone with a master's degree in divinity. I could serve a local presbytery or the national PCUSA denomination as a traveling encourager of sorts - going to churches and other ministries to listen to their stories, to take notice and account of their needs, to pray with them, to preach, and to offer the support of other followers of the Christ we all love. Put me on a plane and send me out to bring hope and joy and laughter and good news as well as several boxes of tissues so that we can lament, weep, and grieve together too. It's all part of this life journey we are all on. Combining my love of travel with my love of Spanish and my love of teaching the Word of God would most definitely create my dream job.

Yesterday at seminary, I sang and served. I read and wrote. I listened and learned. I took notes and read notes. I looked into the eyes of students, faculty, staff, and that courageous pastor, and I felt the Spirit of God at work uniting us, preparing us, and calling us deeper into each other's hearts and lives, as well as out into a hurting, broken, needy, Good-news-hungry world.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

This is my life right now...

* I am sitting at my kitchen counter, reading a book called Theological Anthropology for seminary class. No, please don't ask me what the title means. I'm 96 pages in and I'm not quite sure yet. I am creating a chart to keep track of the point of each of the essays and to answer questions posed by the professor on the study guide. No, please don't ask to see the chart. I'm filling it in as best I can, and still I'm not quite sure what it's all about.

* There's a growing pile of unopened mail a few feet away. None of the people in this house like opening the mail. What does anybody get in the mail except bills and sales pitches and checks? (Yes, I have plowed through unopened piles of mail in the past and found checks that we didn't cash. You would think we would figure it out by now - OPEN THE MAIL.)

* Our washing machine broke down on Monday. The repairman came today with new parts - only to discover that one of the parts we need he didn't have. And the total for replacing the broken parts would be more expensive than buying a new machine. Plus he said that all the new fangled front loading machines with flashing lights and display screens  are more likely to malfunction than the old fashioned top loaders with the tall agitator in the middle. Without doing one minute of research, we marched off to Lowe's and ordered the machine he recommended. That's how we roll.

* This past Saturday evening, I went to a beautiful gathering of beautiful women of color, many of whom are kanswer survivors - it was called "Chocolate for a Cure." I went as the "date" of a friend who is finishing up treatment for breast kanswer. She and two other young women received an award called "The Chocolate Warrior Award."

Get it? Chocolate for brown-skinned women. Not only that, there were several vendors there giving out chocolate cupcakes and lollipops and chocolate bark and chocolate bonbons.

The keynote speaker was Dr Jacqueline Walters, an OB-Gyn from Atlanta, who is more famous for her role on the reality TV show, Married to Medicine. She gave an encouraging and challenging address, pointing out the need for us as women of color (with our higher mortality rate from kanswer than our caucasian counterparts) to eat well, to exercise, to reduce our consumption of alcohol, to get to and maintain a healthy weight - all with the goal of reducing our chances of getting kanswer. She herself is a two time survivor, so her words were all the more poignant and powerful. Lovely event.

Here's my only problem with the program: sugar is one of the worst things we can eat. There is research and evidence that points to sugar's detrimental affect on the body, and more specifically about how sugar feeds kanswer. So why is chocolate and all the sugar that goes into it being offered to kanswer survivors? Don't get me wrong; I love sugar. I ate some of that chocolate on Saturday evening. I even brought a few pieces home. But I know I cannot eat it everyday. I know that I ought to be reducing my intake as much as possible.

I had the same frustration and confusion during chemotherapy. Why are there bowls of candy all over the oncologist's offices? Why are canned sodas offered to the people who are receiving treatment? They can offer fresh fruit and flavored water and almonds. Why candy and soda? Perhaps they want repeat customers...

* I sat for forty-five minutes with a Presbyterian pastor from Cuba today, talking about the church there, the seminary he works at, the country of Cuba, challenges related to the economy and the currency, the connections that churches in Cuba have with churches here in the United States, and a book he is writing about reconciliation and healing. All in Spanish. I really, really, really want to go to Cuba now. To see it. To see the people. To encourage them to stay strong, to hold onto their faith and each other, and to be living proof that their struggles matter to us, to me. I've got a growing list of places I want to go: back to Nicaragua and Haiti, to Cuba and India and Equatorial Guinea (did you know that there is a country in West Africa that has Spanish as its official language?) and a Caribbean island with clear water, wide beaches, and ant-free hotel rooms.

* Tomorrow morning, I will join a group of men and women to walk three and a half miles in our beloved city of Charlotte. Continuing conversations about justice and peace, community and conflict, mercy and friendship. We talk about healing and fear and prejudice and having our minds and thought-patterns change so that we can be people who can bring about change in this city and beyond. We Walk Together - it's a simple name. It's a simple idea. It's changing us, drawing us closer to each other, opening our eyes to the lives and experiences of others, and prompting us to reach beyond our comfort zones to touch other lives and other people.

* I find myself praying a lot more these days.
For my family, my children in particular.
For victims of violence - bombings, gun violence, domestic violence, verbal violence.
For those affected by the terrible storms here in the South.
For friends of mine in life transitions, for the children of other friends who are sick, recovering from concussions, and struggling in school.
For my seminary classmates, their studies, their long drives to school.
For those fighting against school inequities here in the city. I have such respect for the hard work that so many people are doing to provide a better education for our children.
For newly elected officials and the ones already in office - for corruption and injustice to cease.
For those who stand in the way of justice and peace, reconciliation and grace.
For those who think more people should have guns and not fewer.
For those who think that aid to people in need should be curtailed.
I pray for wisdom and clarity for those with the power to affect long term, wide reaching change.
I pray for those whose work is short term and narrow in reach too.
I pray for all people everywhere.
Little stuff like that.

This is my life right now.
Full. Busy. Demanding.
I am grateful.