Thursday, February 25, 2016

Thankful Thursday

I thank you for your thoughts, your prayers, your emails, your text messages, your support.
My precious lamb is still sick, doing better, much better, but still in need of ongoing prayer.

In these most difficult times, I am reminded of the many blessings of life.
In the midst. While still in the valley. Facing the giants of fear and worry.
Watching in horror as fear-mongers whip up hysteria in our country and in the world.
Wondering what will become of this nation and the rest of the planet if Donald Trump is elected president.
Even now, I can find reasons to be thankful. To be joyful. To be hopeful.

* conversation, laughter, and hot tea with a friend from seminary earlier this week
* lunch with a friend whose gentle spirit and wisdom elevated my day today
* getting to return the favor today: praying with and for a weepy sister friend who prayed with and for a weepy me late last week
* my daughter's recent foray into organizing some of the messy places in our home - the two "junk drawers" are now in order. Our pantry: it finally makes sense. Gotta think of a few more spots she can tackle at some point soon... No, she's not for hire as an organizer. She needs to perfect her skills on the home front before she can lend her services elsewhere.
* a pot of soup made for my family by my neighbor, kept warm on her stove until I could pick it up at 8 pm tonight
* chicken potpies, bread, roasted broccoli from a church friend on Sunday
* lasagna, bread, salad, and a bottle of red wine from another one on Monday
* Are you seeing a theme? We are blessed with loving, caring, generous, hospitable friends
* a cohort of classmates from seminary that support, encourage, pray for, and laugh with one another (for the most part...)
* the opportunity to speak with all four of the full-time ministers at my church today - and being received and spoken to with love, respect, prayerfulness, and humor too
* tea and a scone shared with my husband this afternoon
* the fact that no trees fell on our house or our heads during these past two days of very high winds and severe weather
* I get to spend time with my spiritual director tomorrow morning, telling stories of what is going on in my life these days, and marveling at her ability to help me discover how and where God is at work, present at all times, and bringing me towards wholeness and healing, no matter how little I can see or understand at the moment. I don't know anyone who asks me more probing and heart-opening questions about life and faith and prayer and God
* the boost of my spirit that comes when I remember that, although we may be walking through a valley with many shadows currently, we do not walk alone. We never have. We never will.
* sleep, the gift of deep sleep, restorative sleep
* learning that I don't have an ear infection, nor have I suffered any hearing loss - but wishing for some reasonable explanation for three weeks of persistent ringing in my ears (Any ideas or suggestions for how to silence the audible whining?)
* hot oatmeal on cold mornings: Steel cut with coconut milk, almonds, cinnamon, sliced banana, flas seeds, chia seeds, and a drizzle of maple syrup (Having given myself reason to drool at this late hour, I think I will head to bed so that I can make us some hot oatmeal on what will undoubtedly be a cold morning tomorrow. Can't wait to shove a heaping spoon of steel cut goodness into my pie hole in nine hours. Yes, I'm counting!)
* sleep. Did I mention the joy and blessing of sleep? It's not just for newborns.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Standing in the need of prayer

One of the most heart-wrenching and life-giving stories in the Bible is found in John 11 - the story of Lazarus. He was the brother of Mary and Martha, and a friend of Jesus.

 One day, Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus: "The one you love is sick."

The thing is - the author of that Gospel, John, often referred to himself as "the one Jesus loved," as "the disciple Jesus loved." So it's interesting that he would include this story - this account of Lazarus being described as the one Jesus loved. It's telling. He knew, he understood that Jesus loves so many. In fact, one of the most often quoted Bible verses appears in this Gospel. That verse begins this way: For God so loved the world... God didn't just love John or Lazarus or Eve or Sarai. God loved and loves the world.

The story is heart-wrenching because anytime someone suffers, someone else's heart is breaking. But it is life-giving because the Scriptures tell us that Lazarus died - but Jesus showed up four days later and raised him from the tomb. Crazy story, I know, but if it's true, then everything changes. If Jesus really had enough power to raise Lazarus from his grave, his tomb, then there is always hope for healing, wholeness, and resolution to whatever ails us.

Tonight, I am Mary. Tonight, I am Martha.
I am praying fervently tonight - because the one Jesus loves, one of the ones I love, is sick.
Not sick unto death, like Lazarus. But sick, nonetheless.

Even if I don't give any details, will you pray for this precious child,
this one that Jesus loves?
Will you add your prayers to mine?


All shall be well.
I believe that. I know that.
But in the meantime, we wait.
In the meantime, we mourn.
In the meantime, we plead for mercy.

Kyrie Eleison.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Thankful Thursday: My racing and anxious heart

Yesterday morning, my heart started racing.
So much so that several times I had to stop and stand still, take a few deep breaths,
close my eyes, and place my hand over my heart.
I prayed that God would calm my anxious heart,
and more than that, I prayed that God would show me why I was so unsettled.
What came to mind almost immediately was a flurry of questions.

Gail, what is so fear-producing in your life right now that God can't handle?
What is so big and complicated that God can't take care of it, but you can?
How will worry and fear and a racing heart fix anything?
Is the goal of your life to fix anything or everything?

On Tuesday, I heard someone say: "Worry is a misuse of the imagination."
I like that. But I prefer another quote about worry: "Worry is praying for what you don't want."

What am I praying for when I worry?
To whom am I praying when I worry?
Why do I revert to worry so often?

The Bible says, "In everything give thanks." Having remembered that passage, another question emerges: How can I be thankful even in the midst of having a racing and anxious heart?

First of all, those anxious moments reminded me of how much of the time of my life I spend not bound up in or by worry. I know people for whom anxiety is a normal state of being. Stress is far more the norm than calm for many people. I am grateful, so grateful for the increasing peace that God has given me in these past few years.

Don't get me wrong: things fall apart within me and around me.
Family members and friends are going through some stuff.
Stuff that is horrible: the husband of someone I have know since I was a young child died this week.
Another is dealing with her mother's increasing physical needs.
Job stress for some. Financial worries for others.
Kanswer. Diabetes. Congestive heart failure.
School issues. Homelessness. Poverty. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
And don't get me started on the topsy turvy world of politics these days.
Not that any of that compares to the tragedy of human trafficking and slavery,
the humanitarian crises, people on the move, on the run, on their way to who knows where -
there is so much to worry about.

But what does worry accomplish or solve? Nothing.
How does a racing heart resolve anything? It doesn't.
Do I need to find my niche, find the sweet spot of my passion, and do something to make a difference? Absolutely. But worrying doesn't help that in any way at all.

Second, those worry-filled moments remind me of how much more time I can, need, and want to spend in prayer and meditation on the goodness of my life, the beauty of the world, and the power of hope.

Hope for healing.
Hope for wholeness.
Hope for freedom.
Hope for justice.
Hope for change.
And I need to do more than hope: I need to act.

Which brings me to the third reason why I am grateful for yesterday morning's racing and anxious heart: I need to translate that nervous and anxious energy into useable energy for justice, for healing, and for peace.

I need to listen for opportunities to give, to speak, to act, to support, to pray, to challenge myself and others to not just worry, but to act.

I need to be willing to tell stories about my fears, my doubts, my worries, my insecurities and failures, so that no one looks at me or reads these ramblings and mistakenly believes that I've got this worry/fear thing figured out completely. I do not. Not even close.

I need to listen to the stories that other people tell about their racing hearts,
their broken hearts, their wounded hearts.
Your broken heart. Your wounded heart.
I need to not try to fix anything, but simply listen.

When I was a sophomore in college, for several weeks, I suffered with a debilitating stomach problem. When the pain would hit, I would be doubled over at the waist, completely unable to stand up straight. That pain often lasted for hours. I could make it to and through my classes most days, but only barely. If the pain hit in the middle of the night, I would be unable to sleep. I tried several medicinal remedies - with no success. A college psychologist suggested that it was "in my head." A nurse I frequently visited at the student health center agreed with his suggestion.

Not long after that, I began to notice that if I could rewind my worried mind back to the moment when the pain began, if I was willing to analyze and release the thought, the issue, the circumstance that triggered the pain, then the pain would go away. Literally, in the moment that I recognized, "Oh, it's that guy I still like; I'm obsessing about him again," the pain would go away.  Or if I realized, "Oh, it's that issue with _____________. That's what I was thinking about when this started," the pain would go away. Instantly. I am happy to report that I haven't experienced that same pain in my gut in years. Thanks be to God.

I am grateful that yesterday morning's heart palpitations followed a similar pattern. Once those questions about my power versus the power of God surfaced, once I realized that yesterday's worry was directly tied to my desire to control some situations and people and circumstances that are completely out of my control, once I removed my right hand from my chest, pressed it together with my left hand, and bowed my head to God in prayer, my heart slowed to its normal pace. And it hasn't accelerated again since that moment - except for when I was walking up a hill in my neighborhood on my way back from the library. That kind of racing heart is exactly what the doctor ordered, literally and figuratively.

Speaking of which, I'm gonna get up from this computer now and go for a walk.
Thanks be to God for a beautiful day here in my hometown.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Love Day

Valentine's Day is one of my favorite holidays.
Not because of cards or candy or gifts or flowers.
But because it is a day set aside to celebrate love.
I often say "Happy Love Day" on February 14th.
For me, that's what it is.
A day to celebrate the gift of love.
The love of family and friends.
The love of partners, past and present.

Love is truly a many-splendored thing.
Love sparkles on celebration days - with hugs and kisses and stories of Love Days past.
We spent time today recalling some of the joyful, romantic, laughter-filled moments we have shared.
We talked about places we have lived together and why we were so happy in each one.
But we also acknowledged that we haven't always been happy.
We haven't always sparkled together.

In the aftermath of those days when "sparkling" doesn't happen, I have seen and experienced how
Love has smoothed over some of the rough edges in me - and in our relationship.
You know, the edges that sting and slice.
The edges of sarcasm and anger.
The edges of fear and loathing.
They are all there - at least they are in me.
But when I remember what drew us together, what keeps us together,
what draws us back together after we have allowed apathy and laziness to drive
us away from each other - when I look over at this man I've been with for 29 years now -
(On this night, Valentine's Day, 1987, Steve and I graduated from "just hanging out together" to "being a couple.")
Love coaxes me to file down the sharp claws that I have honed to a point in my mind.

Love tenderizes my tough heart too.
When I put on the full armor, not of God, but of self-preservation,
when I pull the blanket of relationship resignation over my weary head,
when I fantasize about the life I will create for myself when I abandon my current situation -
full-fledged journaling sessions planning how I will empty our bank accounts,
pack my backpack, head for the airport, buy a first class one ticket on a credit card,
and then ditch the card so I cannot be tracked down
(I have watched a lot of Law and Order, NCIS, and Criminal Minds
so I know how that sort of thing works!)
deciding where I will live in Madrid and how I will earn a self-sustaining income -
when I come to the end of those free writing exercises, I laugh at my vivid imagination.
By the time I pour it all out on paper, I remember: I love these people I live with.
I love my life. I love LOVE.
It's not always easy to love them or to love myself.
It's not usually easy.
Truthfully, it's never easy.

When I am reminded of my helplessness in drumming up love on my own,
when I am reminded of my willful and willing participation in angst production,
when I am reminded of how difficult I am to love and to live with,
that's when I fall on my knees, literally get down on my knees,
and plead with LOVE to give me love.
I ask for grace. I ask for strength. I ask for mercy.
Then I ask for a second helping of grace, strength, mercy, and love
to pour out on those with whom I travel on this, my life's journey.

I pray the morning prayer from Robert Benson's Daily Office Prayer book.
"We offer prayers for all those with whom we share the Journey:
those who have been given to us and to whom we have been given,
those to whom we promised our faithfulness and prayers.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
We entrust all who are dear to us to Your never-failing love and care,
for this life and for the life to come, knowing that You will do for them 
far more than we can desire or pray for."
(I couldn't find a link to the book I have,
but here is another book of prayers that he has edited and written.)

Today, on Love Day, I pray that prayer for you too.
Because you who have found your way to this page,
you who subject yourself to my ramblings,
you are someone with whom I share the Journey.

You may not feel loved today.
You may feel actively unloved today.

I want you to know that I offer that prayer for you,
entrusting you into the hands of The One who truly loves you most,
The One for whom every day is, in essence, Love Day.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

You never know who you might meet

A friend of mine is dying of kanswer. (Kanswer sucks!) She is in a hospice house here in Charlotte. I've visited with her several times over the past few weeks - talking with her, telling stories, laughing, sitting silent. I've read to her and sung to her and described to her some church services and events she has missed lately. I'm not sure how much she understands these days, but that hardly matters. I'm honored to be able to sit with her, sometimes alone and sometimes with her children in the room, as she makes her way along this final stretch of her life's journey.

Today when I went to see her, I had to wait outside her room for a while as she was being cared for by one of the saints who works there. As I stood there in the hallway, I was approached by a woman who introduced herself to me as a hospice volunteer. Cane in one hand, list of hospice guests in the other, she told me that she has volunteered there for eleven years, making her way down the corridors, into and out of rooms, chatting with, listening to, holding hands with, praying with and for those who find themselves facing the end of life. She talked about some people not wanting her to pray with them or for them. She told me about the supreme value of simply being present with and for those who find themselves facing the end, but not facing it alone.

Somehow our conversation rolled around to the disappointment of our beloved Carolina Panthers losing the Super Bowl on Sunday. A woman in her 70s, at least, she talked about how sad she was for the team and the city - after such a great football season for our hometown team. Then she said something I wasn't prepared for - she said something like this: "All the money that is spent on that one game - it's immoral, immoral, immoral. There are so many people living in the streets, it's immoral. That's right; I said it. I said it."

Yup, she said it alright. She said it.

I agreed and added, "And so often, we talk about there not being money to fix our broken school system, to feed the hungry, to get homeless people off the streets, and to fix the water problem in Flint, Michigan. But then we spend so much money on sports. I heard that the amount of money spent on security alone was outrageous. I agree with you - it's immoral."

When I added, "But I am encouraged by -" she interrupted me and said, "Please, tell me what you're encouraged by because I'm not feeling very encouraged about the state of things these days."

So I went on, "I am encouraged by the people who are working for justice, to change our school system, to get permanent housing for the homeless, to feed the hungry. That gives me hope."

Our conversation lasted a few more minutes, until she said she needed to move on down the hall to visit with patients and their visitors. But before we parted company, she seemed to hesitate. To linger. I wondered what she was waiting for, and then she said something else I wasn't prepared for: "Can I hug you? Because you have been a blessing to me today."

So she, a white southern woman in her 70s, and I, a black woman, previously-northern, now-southern, a mere 57 days after turning 50 (yes, I'm still counting the days), embraced there in the hallway of a hospice house here in Charlotte, NC.

After the caretaker had done her divine duty and exited, I entered the room of my friend, the one who is surely in her final days of life on this side of the great river of life, smiling, shaking my head, grateful for the delay in being able to see her, grateful for the exchange I had had with an unlikely ally, an unexpected sister in the family of faith. Because you never know who you might meet in the hallway of a hospice house before sitting with a dear one.

PS. Kanswer SUCKS!!!

Friday, February 05, 2016

What's wrong with this picture?

Yesterday, the woman with the job I most envy (she's a flight attendant for American Airlines and flies regularly to Madrid!) sent me this photo from my favorite city in the world. This is the front of what used to be the central post office in Madrid - it is now a cultural and artistic center, with spaces for people to sit and read and enjoy the view over the Plaza de Cibeles.

Did you figure out what's wrong with this picture?
It's the banner.
The banner is in English - in a city where English is spoken almost exclusively by foreigners.
In a city where the language of heaven, Castillian Spanish, is heard at every turn.
So why is this sign in English?
I'm guessing - because whoever made it knew that the refugees are unlikely to speak Spanish
but far more likely to speak and understand English.
So there flies that banner, high above one of the most beautiful and central plazas and roundabouts in the city I love most in the world. Welcoming refugees. Welcoming the stranger.

What else is wrong with that picture? Absolutely nothing.

One thing I do think is wrong is that I haven't seen photos with banners like that on any central, artistic or cultural centers here in the USA. Now I confess that I don't watch the news often and I never read the newspaper, but I haven't seen or heard of any such sights here.

What I have heard is all to the contrary - keep the refugees out of our state, out of our city, out of our nation. Don't let them in. Don't trust them. They are all ______________ - fill in the blank with something horrific and racist and fear-based. Even though everyone I have ever heard say or write such things live in this country because they or an ancestor of theirs arrived here as an immigrant or a refugee from across an ocean. The people who were already here when those immigrants, those refugees arrived nearly 400 years ago, were subsequently diseased, displaced, exterminated, and those who dared to survive all that were placed on reservations.

I can only imagine what this nation would look like and be like if they had the power to enforce declarations like, "Keep them out. They are all ____________________. Don't trust them. Don't let them in."

Nowadays, we struggle with other types of refugees. Homeless people. Mentally ill people who do not receive adequate mental health care. The poor. The sick. The enslaved. The trafficked. The outcast. We refuse to allow low and mixed income housing in our neighborhoods. We refuse to allow children of all levels of income and privilege to attend school together. We refuse to worship with people who look and live differently than we do. We turn away with disdain and mutter, "Not in my backyard."

Don't even get me started on slavery, Jim Crow, and the ongoing racism against Americans of African descent. It's black history month - the shortest month of the year, of course - and I am being reminded every day this month of all that we have already overcome - and all that is yet to be done. A reasonable argument could be and has been made that African Americans continue to be treated like unwelcome refugees right here at home.

Our banner, if we were courageous enough to hang it in public, would say, "Tired, poor, huddled masses, wretched refuge, homeless, and tempest-tossed, you are not welcome here."

Here's the painful thing - I have to confess that I don't do well with houseguests. I mean, friends come and stay with us for a few days. Perhaps even a week or two. But I get antsy. I need my solitude and silence. I need to not have to drive people everywhere and make sure that food issues are resolved and floors are clean and towels are available. So I don't think I could handle having a refugee family live in my house for months at a time.

But I can and I should hang out a sign of welcome on my face, in my interactions, even in confrontational exchanges - I must be a gracious host everywhere I go. At Loaves and Fishes. When I disagree with someone's political position. When my children speak their mind. When I am approached by someone living with homelessness. When I am engaged in uncomfortable exchanges at seminary. At church when I see someone I don't know. At the supermarket, even when women remove their purses from their buggy when they see me approach. In my neighborhood, when I wave at passersby and they don't wave back (for those of you who don't live in the south: we wave at people who drive in our neighborhoods. The polite and expected thing is to wave back.)

"Refugees welcome."

Cuz aren't we all refugees?
Escaping some form of emotional, physical, spiritual oppression?
Aren't we all running away from our secrets and shame?
Aren't we all being pursued by faces and ghosts of blunders past?
Aren't we all in search of safety, refuge, comfort, and welcome?

Isn't fear the main reason that we seek to keep "them" out, whoever that "them" may be?
Aren't we afraid because we think others just might do to us what we have done to them?
We belittle and humiliate others.
We criticize them.
We reject them.
We insist on them serving us.
We harbor our suspicions and prejudices.
We mindlessly spout stories and accounts we have heard, even though most of us have never suffered at the hands of anyone we think we are justified in rejecting.
We refuse to lay our weapons of mind and soul destruction down.
What if "they" treated us the way we treat "them"?

So when "they" cross our borders,
whoever "they" are,
wherever we build our borders,
our fear of all things and all people and all practices that are not our own
dictates our response.

We say thoughtless things like, "Better safe than sorry."
Is it really better to be safe than sorry?
I read a book today at 24/7 that posed the question -
imagine if God had acted that way?
imagine if God decided that it was better to be safe than sorry,
and Jesus decided not to come to earth after all?
Being born to an unwed teenage mother in ancient Israel is not safe.
Choosing fishermen and tax collectors and former prostitutes and lepers
and hungry people and poor people and outcasts as your friends is not safe.
Rebuking the religious authorities,
knocking over tables in the temple,
touching the untouchable,
walking on the water in the midst of a storm,
remaining silent when the governor questioned him,
being nailed to a cross and buried in a tomb -
none of that was safe.

Standing with those who cannot stand for themselves,
speaking with those whose voices are usually unheard,
sitting with those who sit alone,
speaking against those whose voices dominate.
standing against perpetual mistreatment,
sitting at tables of powerful people and challenging them to be kind and compassionate -
none of that is safe.

But that is what we are called to do.
That is what I am called to do.
That is the right thing to do.
That is the just thing to do.

I wish I could spend most of the rest of my life living in Madrid, walking past that roundabout every week. Sipping hot sweet coffee a few mornings a week. Improving my Spanish. Learning how to make paella.
Unfortunately, that's not going to happen.
Perhaps where I can actually spend the rest of my life is
in the roundabout of living out the message on the banner that hangs above la plaza de Cibeles.
"Refugees welcome."

Welcome in my backyard.
Welcome in my front yard.
Welcome in my church.
Welcome in my friendships.
Welcome in my heart.
Maybe, someday, as God sets me free from my attachment to the quietness and coziness of my house, maybe someday I will even be able to welcome refugees into my home. That's a mighty big maybe...