Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Life is a whirlwind these days - but in a great way

Seminary has been demanding and delightful these past three Saturdays.
Serious and subtly life-altering already. Giving me answers to questions I didn't know I needed to be asking about the history of the church and the trinity and why those ancient buildings are called basilicas and cathedrals. Who know? Certainly I did not.

I am taking two classes. One is The History of Christianity 1 - from the days of the apostles through the Reformation. The other is The Christian Life - which parallels the timetable of the history class and considers the faith practices and rules of living that faith communities have practiced over the history of the Christian church. A lot of reading and writing.

But if you have been a reader of this blog for any length of time, you know I am a geek. I love to read and write and so seminary is going to be a gift I give to myself - before I get to give the gifts gained to others. A dear friend of mine recently told me to study hard, to read and write well, to do everything I need to do to prepare to serve all the people that God will bring my way, all the people I will meet and serve. I love her perspective - this is a time of training and preparation that I get to go through in order to be better equipped to love and support and learn in future places and times of ministry.

One of the gifts you all have given me, Linda K most recently, is the support and kindness and encouragement that reminds me that I am already doing work to serve others. I am already praying and teaching and listening to stories and telling stories and asking questions and learning more about what needs to be done to bring justice and peace to more people and places and communities here in Charlotte and elsewhere.

Last Thursday, our church welcomed Dr Cornel West to speak, to challenge us, to move us, to make us laugh, to make us think, to push us out onto the front lines of the battle for justice. The title of the talk was - Justice: What Love Looks Like in Public. We can say everything we want about racism and inequality and injustice, but we must act. The skewed economic situation in our country and in our world, the segregation of people by race and socio-economic status, the gross inequality in our schools, the high percentage of people is "a moral disgrace" and "spiritually obscene."

The question is, knowing all that we know now, how now will we live?

What will we do? What will I do? (I guess that's more than one question...)

I had the honor of participating with Dr West and my senior pastor, Pen Peery, during the time of question and answers following the talk. Here is a link to our church website and a video of the talk and conversation we had. Make yourself some tea and grab a few cookies to dunk into the tea. It's long. But oh so good.

Briefly, our photo will serve as the profile photo for the church's Facebook page.
It was a glorious night. Such an honor to meet Dr West.
Sitting with him at the end felt like a conversations with a friend
while others watched, listened, and contributed questions to ask my friend.

He talked about individuals and churches and all the rest of us being on fire for justice and integrity.
Not being driven or motivated by buying and selling and status and position, but rather by love and justice.

I came away asking - Where am I using my energy and my resources?
Where is my anger and indignation at suffering and evil?
What I say matters much less than what I do.
He gave us much to consider - and showed us how much we need to do.

Towards the end of our conversation, he said, "The fight for justice is not a fad or a fashion. It is a way of life."

What a powerful challenge to not go back to being "well adjusted to injustice." We are outraged when tragedies happen - Sandy Hook and Ferguson and Baltimore and Hurricane Katrina and Mother Emanuel Church. We get upset - and rightfully so. We ask for help to understand our nation's horrific history of homicide and racism and inequity. But then we go back to our regularly scheduled consumerism and self-promotion and forget that so many still suffer and will continue to suffer until we, until I am willing to stand up, to speak up, and to change my way of life. For good.

In the meantime -
My daughter comes home from college for her fall break this weekend.
I have to write a paper on Communion before Saturday morning.
Tomorrow is the day I welcome guests to our Loaves and Fishes pantry.
There is another We Walk Together Charlotte walk tomorrow morning.

I am excited about our upcoming Fall Fest @ First. It will take place on October 18th, 4-6 pm at First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. Please join us for food trucks, pumpkin decoration, face painting, music by Tyrone Jefferson and A Sign of the Times. Bring canned food to donate to a local food pantry. We will create a book of prayers and messages of support and hope for Mother Emanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston where those nine church members were killed by a visitor. I recently found out that he had visited the church and attended Bible studies there several times. That fateful night back in June was not his first visit. He was welcomed by his hated victims; he almost couldn't go through with it, he said, because they were so kind to him. We cannot forget those who still mourn - and we hope our small and imperfect efforts will show them that they have not been forgotten.

For now, however, I need to get some sleep.

Life is a whirlwind these days - but in a great way.
Thanks be to God.

Monday, September 21, 2015

"You're Gonna Hear Me ROAR"

Every now and then, I am invited to tell more of my life story in a public forum.
I share my sorrows and my joys.
I share my triumphs and my losses.
I share who I am and what I think,
what I have seen and what I have learned,
how I have been wounded and how I am being healed.

It was with nervousness, excitement, butterflies in my stomach, hope, and gratitude
that I shared some of my faith story in a series hosted by my dear friend,
Jena Schwartz. The series is called "The Roar Sessions" and my contribution
to the series is HERE.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Thankful Thursday - Is thankfulness the only thing I write about these days?

Is it just me or are the weeks of this year absolutely flying past? Is it Thursday again already? Is it time for another thankful Thursday post? I guess so.

How cool is this sand sculpture?

A week ago right now, I was enjoying the last day of a week-long vacation with my husband. At Hilton Head in South Carolina. We absolutely love that place. The Spanish moss hanging from the trees. The alligators floating lazily in the small ponds. Turtles that swim together in clusters. Sand. Shells. Surf. Sunshine. The best salmon we've ever eaten - and we cooked it ourselves. Wine. Blueberry mojitos. Blood orange mojitos.

Water. Popcorn. Sorbet. Towels. Chairs. An umbrella. Books. Journaling. Watching US Open tennis. Riding bikes. Shopping. Marveling at the beauty of the place.

Marveling at the torrential downpours and the depth of the standing water 
after only two hours of rain.

We ate remarkably well.

We walked and biked for miles.

Epic people watching.

Reading books that caused me to rethink 
my beliefs about race and racism.

There were silly moments -
and moments when I couldn't close my mouth long enough
to have my photo taken.

Dark clouds rolled through and unleashed enormous thunderstorms.

If you are married, if you have ever been married, then you know that marriage is hard. Very hard. Demanding. Disappointing. Frustrating. Spending several days alone with one's spouse can be hard, demanding, disappointing, frustrating. I know because I've been there.

This is the man, my man.

Last week at Hilton Head was the best week of our marriage. "Magical" is not too extravagant a word to describe the time we shared there. Reconnected. Recommitted. Reunited. Recharged. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to Steve for his willingness to try all kinds of new things. All manner of new things. (That's all I'm gonna say about that...)

We were happy.

I was happy.

But below all the laughter and beyond all the good food and before the long nights of deep sleep and after all the bike trips and with all the cans of La Croix peach-pear water, there was sorrow, suffering, and sadness. There was reflection and remembrance. There was wordless prayer.

As I sat and watched children run into and out of the water, I thought about the tiny bodies of tiny children washing up on seashores around the globe. Lifeless.
Lord, have mercy.

I thought about the children whose photos have never been and will never be shown on the news here, the ones in Rwanda and Congo and India and Pakistan and Brazil and Nicaragua and Liberia and Eritrea - the ones that are dying everyday of hunger and disease and neglect and war and abuse.
Christ, have mercy.

I thought about the children right here in the United States that are washing up on the shores of our land after being shot by lunatics with easy access to guns. We who claim to live in the greatest country in the world, the wealthiest country in all of human history, are more adamant about defending our right to have and carry guns than the right of our children to eat, have a roof over their heads, have access to health care, and attend school safely. 
Lord, please help us to have mercy on each other.

I thought about the parents and friends and relatives of young men and women who left for a new job or a movie or an engagement party or a department store or a Bible study and never returned home.
Lord, please provide comfort.

I thought about a friend whose husband was in the final days of stage 4 pancreatic kanswer.
Sweet Momma Jesus, please sit with her and hold her in your loving and comforting arms as she mourns his death.

I thought about the men and women who served us our meals when we ate out and the ones who would clean our rental house after we left.
Lord, please open my eyes and heart to all who provide me with service, care, and help in any capacity. May I see them all with eyes of love, greet them with words of gratitude, and remember their faces at future moments of prayer.
I thought about the dozens of people who sat behind a nearby hotel waiting for rides back home or to their next jobs or wherever they were headed. Sitting in groups. Sitting alone. After long hours cleaning up for guests who tried to ignore them, guests they were trained to not disturb. 
Sweet Savior, please protect them and provide for them. Please remind us that we are all guests, we are all hosts, we are all service workers in this world. No one is more valuable or worthy of love and respect than anyone else.
I thought about how much suffering surrounds me, even on vacation. Even on a magical vacation with the man I have loved for nearly 30 years now.
Thank you, Lord God Jesus, for never allowing me to forget that you love all people everywhere. Please help me to see, to acknowledge, to welcome, and to embrace all people.

Thank you for the friendliness of the family that occupied the chairs and sat beneath the umbrella next to ours.
Thank you for the assistance and attention from restaurant staff and supermarket cashiers and the fishmonger.
Thank you for the bounty and the beauty of creation everywhere we looked.
Thank you for safe travel for us and protection for the children we left behind.

Thank you that joy and sorrow, peace and sadness, laughter and prayer flowed together as effortlessly and poignantly as they did last week.

Thank you thank you thank you.
PS. Please have mercy. And help us to do the same. Help me to do the same.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Thankful Thursday - Things are about to change

I begin seminary in two days.
In two days, I will begin study towards becoming a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.
Me. The former Spanish teacher, track coach, and college admissions counselor.
Me. The former homeschooling mother.
Me?!? Me.

I am excited and nervous and thrilled and concerned and hopeful and joyful and unsure about writing and submitting papers and take home exams and wondering what God will give me to do when these studies are over.

Perhaps I will be the pastor of a congregation - or an associate pastor.
Perhaps I will serve in a non-church ministry.
Perhaps I will become a prison chaplain.
Perhaps I will spend the rest of my life studying and teaching and doing a whole lot of praying.

No matter what God calls me into, I will do it with all my heart,
with joy,
with tears,
with gratitude,
with prayer,
with trepidation,
with hope,
with as much energy as I can muster,
with the help and guidance of the One who created me for good works,
for service,
for involvement,
for sacrifice,
for walking alongside others on their own faith journeys.

I am grateful for the 49 years and nine months that I have lived to get to this point,
to this place, to this new adventure.
I am grateful for the sorrows and the sicknesses,
the doubts and the questions,
the broken bones and sliced fingers,
the betrayals and the losses,
the wrongs I have done and even the ones done to me,
the tears, the buckets of tears I have shed.

I never volunteered for the suffering. I never wished for it. I never sought it.
But I have learned more from the difficulties than from the easy times.
I have seen (and appreciated) more beauty in my scars than in my smooth places.
I have heard (and lived) more stories of victory because I admitted my defeats.
I have tasted (and enjoyed) more sweetness in life because I refuse to deny the truth of my moments of bitterness.

It is my prayer that the scars, the wounds,
the defeats, the bitterness,
the fear, the worries, the questions,
the hopes, the joys,
the laughter, the stories
the journeys, the journals -
that all the stories of my life,
all the people in my life,
all the experiences of my life
are useful in my seminary studies and beyond.

Things are about to change.
I am about to change.
My life is about to change.
In ways I am sure that I cannot yet imagine.

Let the reading begin.
Let the studying begin.
Let the learning begin.
Let the research begin.
Let the conversations begin.
Let the healing begin.

May it all bring glory and honor to God.
May it all bring healing and wholeness and hope to me, to my family and friends,
and also to the hurting, courageous, determined, curious, lonely, questioning, searching,
dreaming, suffering, brave, broken people around me.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Thankful Thursday - Being Fed by the Hungry

Today was Loaves and Fishes day for me. I thought I was going there to provide food for a few needy neighbors. Instead, they fed me. They made me laugh. They brought tears to my eyes. They shared their children with me. They shared their stories. They shared themselves. All I did was bag the groceries they chose.

One gentleman didn't speak much English, so I had the honor of leading him and two of his companions through the pantry while speaking the language of heaven - Spanish! When I mentioned that we had coffee if he wanted it, he informed me that coffee is bad. Especially because he had had kanswer. In fact, he is currently moving through a second bout with it. He showed me his port. I showed him my port scar. Then we high fived each other as we gave thanks to God for bringing us through.

An older gentleman walked with a walker, explaining that he had suffered a stroke. He carefully chose each item, asking me to read labels as we made our way through. Don't tell anybody - but I have him a jar of peanut butter that he didn't have enough "points" for. I know, I know - it's a tiny gesture, but it made him smile.

A young married couple, with two of their four children in tow, thanked us profusely for the provisions they were able to choose. She was a fortunate wife - her husband is the one who is the chef in their house, so he made most of the food decisions.

The hardest part about being there today was seeing the number of very young people who came in as families of 1 to get food for themselves. Why are there young men and women in their 20s who are already struggling to provide for themselves?

Even as I write that question, I know it's a silly one to ask. Why should anyone of any age in this nation be hungry? Not have enough to feed their families? Not be able to find productive and meaningful work?

Why are dead children washing up on the shores of our world's beaches? Why are presidential candidates seemingly okay with that? Okay with building walls to keep out the hungry and poor, the same people whose hurting and desperate parents and grandparents and spouses showed up on the shores of this nation seeking refuge, asylum, and a safe place to live? What about the message of the Statue of Liberty in New York's harbor? Does that message no longer ring true?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
 Author: Emma Lazarus

Why are any of us okay with any of the suffering that is happening overseas, across the street, and in our own homes? What am I going to do and say to make a difference in someone's life, anyone's life?

I recently read someone's poignant response to these questions - what can we do about all the suffering that is going on in our world? the violence? the racism? the hatred?

Answer: Anything.

Do something. Do anything.
Everything we do to fight injustice, hunger, suffering, pain, fear, it all matters.

I'm not sure what I can do to alleviate the suffering in Syria or India or even West Charlotte that causes people to want to flee their homelands and their homes.
I'm not sure what I can do to resolve labor issues in China or Nicaragua or Haiti.
I'm not sure what I can do to create jobs for the homeless and recently incarcerated.
I'm not sure what I can to to change the minds of people who still think it is okay to fly the confederate flag and deny others the right to vote or get married or simply to live.

But I can walk clients through the Loaves and Fishes pantry and
I can collect all the names of all the clients and pray for each one to find work, to find joy, and to find comfort and dignity and hope even in the most challenging of circumstances and
I can ask them what I can pray for on their behalf and
I can stand with one gentleman, put my hand on his shoulder, and pray with him in the hallway as he heads back to his rented room and
I can laugh with harried young parents and
I can shake hands with their young son who introduced himself to me as "Batman" and
I can show people my kanswer scars and
I can put my Spanish to good use and
I can encourage a friend whose engagement recently ended and
I can send a letter to a dear friend's son in prison and
I can sign petitions and
I can send money and
I can look the homeless man in the eyes when he approaches me and listen to his story and
I can smile at the Indian woman who works at the gas station and
I can visit the folks at the senior center and the nursing home and
I can vote and
I can pick up garbage when I walk and
I can invite my neighbors to go for walks with me and
I can teach Sunday morning formation classes (to myself and others) about how hard we work to build our sacred towers, make names for ourselves, and ignore the plight of those who suffer around us and
I can weep for the suffering in the world and
I can keep my heart and mind and eyes and hands open for new ways to both feed others and be fed and
I can pray and pray and pray some more and
I can trust that any one of those things or some of those things or all of those things will matter.

Here's the thing, if we each and if we all do a few small things with great love, as Mother Teresa said, we may not change the whole world, but we can change the part of the world we are in. On the rare occasion, we may end up changing the whole world for one person. Far more frequently, the previously hungry child who will go to bed with a full tummy, the worried set of parents that won't need to worry about food for a week, the person behind bars who will open a letter from someone who cares about them - that person's joy, that person's gratitude, that person's bolstered dignity feeds the soul of the one who was able to intercede and get involved. We, the ones who think we are doing "a good deed," we are the ones who are fed by the hungry, helped by the needy, and comforted by the lonely.

Sometimes I feel selfish and guilty for all the joy that I receive when I serve at the pantry.
(Not really.)

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

"Naked and Afraid"

Have you ever seen the show by that name? It's an hour long reality television series that pairs a man and woman. strangers, and together they must survive for 21 days in a jungle or desert or rainforest or on a mountain somewhere in the world. With no food, no water, and no clothes. They can each take one item with them - a firestarter or a knife or a pot. They must find food, water, build a shelter, and fend off predators for 21 days. If the experience is too difficult, they can "tap out" - at which point they are rescued and taken back to civilization and their partner is left alone to finish the 21 day challenge. Each of the competitors is given a video camera to keep a video diary, and there is a film crew that follows them around along with a medic, in case they are hurt. I've seen people cut themselves badly with knives. I've seen people who needed to have thorns removed from their feet. Infected boils lanced. Dehydration. Deep exhaustion. An inconceivable number of ant bites and mosquito bites. One woman was peed and pooped on by a monkey. It's gritty, nasty, fascinating, head-shaking, "I'm so glad that's not me" kinda stuff.

Yes, I confess - that crazy show is a guilty pleasure that my husband and I have indulged in for too long. We ooh and aah at how they deal with snakes and caimans and monkeys and each other. We laugh at their predicaments. We scold them for their foolish choices. We groan at their terrible interpersonal skills.

Let me be clear: We are not so cocky as to think that we could survive such an experience. We know full well that we couldn't last one night in our own backyard, fully clothed, in a tent, with a cooler full of food. We are not survivalists, by any stretch of the imagination. I can't remember the last time I went to bed without flossing my teeth, so sleeping naked, hungry, and completely exposed in the jungle for 21 days with a stranger is completely out of the question. Unless dental floss could be the one thing I chose to take with me...

According to what I see on the covers of the supermarket tabloids and the magazines I peruse at Barnes and Noble, as I approach the big 5-0, I should be afraid. When I look in the mirror, I see scars. I see droopy skin. I see wrinkles. I see ridges. I see dry skin. I see a receding hairline. I see signs of aging. When I think about those things as I flip through nearly any women's magazine or most television channels at certain times of the day, I am bombarded with messages that tell me to be afraid, be very afraid. Aging is a frightful passage. Fight it with all your might. Don't let the wrinkles win.

When it comes to aging and the changes in my body, I am not afraid. Every scar is a reminder of a battle I've won. Every stretch mark reminds me of the two people this body brought into the world. Every wrinkle around my eyes and mouth reminds me of a smile or a tear - both of which are signs of life, of a beautiful life, of a difficult life, of a blessed life, of a grief-filled life. Every sign of aging is a gift because so many people don't make it to 50 years of age. So many people don't even make it to ten years of age.

I am grateful for the husband who watches that silly show with me. I am grateful for the laughter we still share. I am grateful for the two children he and I have been blessed to raise. I am enormously grateful that he sees me with all my stuff, my scars, my droopiness, my silliness, my seriousness, my yearning for God, for the Bible, for peace, and for love - and he has not run away screaming into the night. I am grateful that my nakedness - be it physical or emotional or spiritual - doesn't make him afraid.

I am grateful for the friends and family members who walk with me and listen to me, who read my ramblings and ask my advice. I am grateful for the questions they ask and the freedom they give me to answer from my heart, from the most vulnerable places, the deep places, from the naked places in my soul. I am grateful that they too are gracious in accepting me in all my wrinkled, messy, deeply scarred nakedness.

I am grateful for my spiritual director, my pastors, my soul sisters and brothers, whose stories I have heard, those who hear my stories and walk with me on this journey that is my life. I am grateful for their courage and strength to sit with me and stand with me through all the moments in which I strip myself bare, let my tears flow, and don't flinch or turn away.

There have been times in my life when I have been afraid -
to be seen
to not be seen
to be rejected
to be welcomed
to tell the truth
to conceal the truth
to be wrong
to be right
to be weak
to be strong
to be silenced
to be heard
to be misunderstood
to misunderstand
that I will be forgotten
that I will be remembered

So much fear. Fear that paralyzed me. Fear that kept me running away from the truth of my faults and failures. Fear that pushed me to find my value in the approval and attention of people who were themselves afraid to be seen and unseen. Fear that caused me to turn away from those who sought connection with me. My life revolved around my fears for too long.

I am getting to a place in my life where those fears are losing their grip on me.
Perhaps it's because I am going to turn 50 in less than four months -
so who cares what anybody thinks of me anymore?
Perhaps it is the age thing. But more than that, I believe it's a faith thing.
If God is God, if God loves me,
if I have been forgiven, if I have been set free from fear,
if Christ did come and live and die for me, for all of us,
if Christ came to give us life, abundant life,
if the Holy Spirit dwells within me and guides me through my life,
if peace is possible no matter the circumstances,
if Love wins in the end, in the beginning, and in the middle,
if there is such a thing as joy that isn't tied to circumstances,
if I am never forgotten or forsaken,
if there really is healing and power in the name of Jesus,
then I have every reason to be naked with God and no reason to be afraid of God.

I can remove the masks and make up that I use to try to hide the bags under my eyes and the lines around my mouth. I can laugh when I'm happy and cry when I'm sad and scream when I'm angry and whisper when I don't have the strength to shout and be silent when there is nothing more to express. I can speak freely in prayer. I can sit silently in prayer. I can be fully, unashamedly, abashedly naked with The One who loves me most.

I can peel off the girdles and Spanx and other undergarments that constrict my breathing and make me look like I have a body that I don't actually have. Who do I think I'm kidding? Certainly not God. I can let it all hang out and hang down. I can stop holding my breath and sucking in. I can breathe deeply and rest in the knowledge that God isn't looking for a newer or slimmer or more chiseled version of me. Even as I am being transformed from glory to glory day by day, even as I am being made new, even as my weakness becomes strength, even though the rough places in me are being smoothed out little by little, God loves me just as I am.

I can take off my shoes and socks and walk barefoot, wrinkly toes, cracked heels, and all - because everywhere my feet land is holy ground. These are sacred and holy places that we walk on. Not only the churches and other worship spaces. But also each other's homes. The library. The Loaves and Fishes pantry. The mall. The barber shop. The auto parts store. The mayoral candidates forum. The doctor's office. The hospice. The voting booth. The bank. Even on our death beds. Wherever people walk and work, wherever the sun shines and the rain falls, wherever we live and breathe and move - it's holy ground. Why be afraid when we are all naked? Why be afraid when we are all so consumed with our own scars and stretch marks and droopy parts and flabby parts that we barely notice each other?

May we find joy at every turn on the journey.
May we find peace in each breath.
May we find grace to welcome and embrace each other, scars and all.
May we find mercy and forgiveness - and may we be willing to accept them.
May we laugh at our own nakedness, but never at each other's.
May we celebrate every day, every moment, every gift that the present is.
May we be courageous and strong, overcoming all False Evidence Appearing Real - FEAR.
May we know firsthand how God's perfect love casts out all fear.

And may my husband and I be set free from our addiction to this crazy show, Naked and Afraid.