When Things Can Only Be Carried

April 1, 2019

Text: Gospel of Mark Chapter 14:3-9

I think often we read biblical stories with a somewhat numb mind. Many of us have heard them before. Often scriptures are often read out of context, we aren’t exactly sure what is going on in the broader scheme of the story. For those who have been going to church for a long time, maybe even since you were little, it can be hard to enter into the beauty and the holiness of the stories in the midst of our hectic lives.

Sometimes it is like if you eat a whole box of chocolates – or maybe around this time of year, a whole bag of king size Cadbury chocolate eggs. By the 15th chocolate egg you aren’t exactly savoring each and every bite.

This is not a criticism of us – this is part of life. If you don’t get to see your kids very often, you can appreciate all their sweet little idiosyncrasies – but by day nine of spring break when you’ve been spending every minute together, somehow you can’t quite treasure their little laugh or cute little pile of legos in the floor as much as you might otherwise have.

So as we join together on the last Sunday before Holy week, as we near the end of Lent, I want to invite us to slow down and really take in the amazing beauty and power of this week’s scripture.

It is two days before Passover. Jesus is in Bethany visiting followers and friends at the house of Simon the Leper. Bethany is about a mile outside of Jerusalem. At this time in Mark, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, palm leaves spread before him. We know that sisters Mary and Martha and Jesus’s friend Lazarus also all live in Bethany. We can imagine the times are tense. Jesus and his followers know that Jesus’s message has spread far and wide.

Those who hold power are worried. They are trying to think of a way to arrest Jesus, to quiet him, to silence his message and to discourage his followers who are questioning the long-held power structures and rules of the authorities and they are envisioning that there might be a different way to live.

The son of God hangs out at the house of a leper.

Women have roles of leadership that they have never been allowed in other faiths and movements of the time.

The last are first. The poor are blessed.

The savior of the world doesn’t enter triumphantly into Jerusalem with weapons or pomp and circumstance, but humbly and beautifully on the back of a common donkey.

Things are different and people can tell.

Everyone is tense.

The time is coming. They know what is to come.

Sometimes there are no words.

A woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.

Jesus is sitting at the table. We can imagine everyone talks in hushed voices, in the way we do when we sit and wait for death that we know is coming.

Have you ever held vigil for one you love? Have you ever known something will come and you know it must but you don’t want it to and you don’t know what to do?

They sat in Simon’s house around the table perhaps with little to say as they wondered what would happen and how. We have heard the story before, but they did not know how the story would play out exactly.

The woman broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

We can imagine it drizzling down slowly on his hair. She gently rubs his hair, moves her fingers over his temple slowly so the oil doesn’t get in his eyes. The fragrance fills the room.

Sometimes there are no words for the grief, and the fear, and the difficulties we face.

The people around get upset. What in the world are you doing? Wasting so much?! They chastise her. You can imagine everyone is stressed and perhaps a little on edge. People don’t know how to react to someone just walking up and putting oil on Jesus’s head. Maybe he isn’t going to like this. We could have sold that and given the money to the poor they snap.

When we are hurting or scared, we often lash out at those around us. When we are aren’t sure what will happen or what to do, we often aren’t our best selves.

Have you ever lashed out in your pain?

How often are we hurt by those who are in pain who don’t know what to do?

It was no different around this table many years ago in Bethany.

But Jesus speaks up. Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me, he says.

He knows what she has done. She has anointed him with oil, an act of hospitality, a gesture of affection, and ceremonially preparing him for the burial which is to come. It is a silent acknowledgment of what is to come, an acknowledgement that a serious situation sometimes requires more than we can afford to give, an act of love, a holy act.

She has done what she could, Jesus says. She has done what she could.

In a time when we are to slow down, and contemplate what is to come, this story of anointing reminds us of the ways that the church and the church’s people can break down barriers and build bridges, particularly in moments when people are scared, when people are hurting, when they are longing for comfort and care and answers and safety. When they either don’t know quite what is to come or perhaps they do know what comes and it feels unbearable.

There are so many ways that we love people and are there for people without words. When words aren’t really enough. Megan Divine who writes about grief in her book It’s OK that You’re Not OK says that there are some things that cannot be fixed, they can only be carried. They will be with us always, but we can learn to journey with them, and over time, we can learn to journey with them with some measure of peace, or even with a little joy eventually.

As we think about barriers and bridges and how we love and how we welcome as the hands and feet of Christ, this week we might especially attend to the non-traditional ways that we do this – not just with our words, but with our actions, with our holy rituals, for Christianity is a deeply embodied faith. In what ways do we and can we respond to others when they are hurting and unsure, that follows the lead of the woman with the alabaster jar who offered hospitality, gentleness, care, and preparation?

One way that we do this is through the open table. Each week, we feed each other. An intimate act. Everyone is welcome, everyone can serve, everyone can eat. We can say we are as welcoming as we want, but we also show this by a table that doesn’t just say, “Well, perhaps you can join us if you believe this,” or maybe in the future you might believe what we want you to believe or do… No. It is a no questions asked act of love and welcome and nourishment.

We also break down barriers sometime by simply bearing witness, gently and quietly.

The last time I preached here was June 24, 2018. I remember the date perfectly because it was also the day that the child I was pregnant with died. We knew the pregnancy was struggling and Megan offered to cover for me, but I told her I could do it. I preached, in somewhat of a daze, knowing what was to come in the days or weeks ahead, but not sure how or when and perhaps still hoping that there would be a miracle I knew was not really possible.

After church I went home and by that afternoon I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I spent my last hours with my baby to-be here on this altar.

I really thought I would die of a broken heart, our sweet little boy was wanted so very much.

I didn’t want to speak to anyone or go anywhere. I didn’t know what to make of it, really.

Perhaps many of us here have faced a loss that hurt so much that our words failed us. That we didn’t know what to do.

That we were speechless. That it felt as if there was a hole in our heart or a brick in our stomach.

Megan brought over tea and an orchid and left it on my porch, honoring my need to be alone.

I drank the tea, lying in bed, with my red nose and empty heart, wondering how I could go back into the world, but thankful to have the comfort of something warm from people who cared.

I haven’t been to church as much as I was before that day. I haven’t known exactly why, I’ve felt guilty, unsure of what to say to people about my absence. About our baby. In my life, there will always be the before and the after that day.

And yet, I have been so welcomed because no one has pressured me to be here before I was ready. I am warmly hugged and greeted when I can come. Whenever you’re ready, we’re here, Megan has told me as I’ve worried about reentering life after my loss.

Building bridges sometimes means waiting, it sometimes means silent acts of vigil and love, knowing that there are not words adequate to heal the pain that people face. Sometimes we bring them tea, or flowers, or a homemade blanket, a dish of food, or knitted scarf or an alabaster jar.

Sometimes breaking down barriers means we do things that seem out of the ordinary. She has done what she could, Jesus said of the woman with the alabaster jar.

I have spent the year reading about grief. Reading about the way we try to fix it when people are sad, doing our best to console them, but often putting our foot in our mouth, struggling with the right words because we live in a culture that often wants us to sanitize the struggles we face, to heal faster, to cheer up, whispering only to those closest to us, often not naming the miscarriage, the affair, the addiction, the depression, the loneliness that so many carry with them.

And, to be honest, churches don’t have the best track record of holding these pains well. There are too many stories of shaming, of leaving out, of rejecting, of glossing over, of gossiping, of judging, and of mistaking ourselves as God.

So this morning as we think about the barriers we might put up – around our church or around ourselves – and the bridges we might build – among each other and with those around us – we can remember the woman with the alabaster jar.

She knew that should could not fix things.

She did not offer cheerful platitudes that everything would be okay or reassure everyone that it would be all turn out well. Because she did not know and because, in many ways, it would not be okay. It was not okay when Jesus was taken away from his people and tortured and killed, when Jesus cried out “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” It was not even okay after the empty tomb and resurrection because… well, look around us. Even in the midst of the risen Christ, our world still struggles and God still weeps for all of our sweet souls who go on hurting each other and being so hard on ourselves.

The woman with the alabaster jar simply did what she could – she gave what she had – in fact gave lavishly in an act of hospitality, of affection, and consecration of Jesus’s body and his path, honoring his death which was to come.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Kate Bowler teaches at Duke Divinity School and her area of focus is in the study of the prosperity gospel, Joel Olsteen, the idea that fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune is a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in Kate’s life seemed to point toward blessing. She was thriving at her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and has a newborn son. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forced her to realize that she has been inadvertently subscribing to the prosperity gospel, the idea that if we do the right things, things will be okay. Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, there is also the darker side of that… that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you may just have done something wrong. What does it mean to die, at 35 she wondered, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? In her book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved she asks what happens when we let go of platitudes about death and loss and and don’t immediately put all bad things under the category of “God’s plan,” and live into the mystery of an existence where we don’t explain our struggles and hurt away and instead sit with each other as we acknowledge the ways that beauty and struggle are woven up together in a mystery that is sometimes beyond our comprehension, and bear witness to this among each other.

And he said, truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. And with Jesus reminding us that when we proclaim the good news, we also must tell the story of those who bear witness in times when words are not enough. When we proclaim the good news, we must also remember the importance of unexpected acts of care, of preparation, of quiet affection and hospitality that punctuate the ebb and flow of grief that our people face day in and day out.

Sometimes breaking down barriers and building bridges is slow, quiet work among aching or grieving people whose pain it is hard to know.

We remember today that we do not have to fix things or have the right answers. We can feed each other at the table, we can wait patiently on each other, sit quietly with sweet gifts of tea and orchids and handmade quilts and home-cooked meals, being present. Anointing in our own ways with our own oil.

In memory of her.


Finding Our Way to Sunday

April 4, 2015

Holy Week can be a lot of things. It can be a time when people who are not Christians or religious feel sick of seeing things in their Facebook feed about religion. It can be a time to color eggs and get dressed up. It can be our one visit to church this year. It can be a reminder that loss is excruciating and painful. It can be an invitation to remember the kind of lives we are called to, where even when you try to do the right thing, sometimes people betray you and bad things happen. And it can be a reminder that even after bad things happen, there are often ways forward that you we can’t yet imagine, that don’t even seem possible.

Holy Saturday is especially important to me because it reminds me of all the people in the wake of loss, in the midst of unbearable hopelessness. On that Saturday after Jesus was killed, no one knew what was to come. For the disciples, for the people who believed that Jesus could renew faith and perhaps renew the world, for Mary who loved her son so dearly, they sat on that Saturday in anguish. Shock. In the numb that often follows death. It wasn’t yet Holy Saturday. It was just a sad, horrible Saturday for people who thought things were maybe going to be better.

This Saturday, may we not run too quickly to the hope, the stone rolled away, the miracle, and remember all of those people who are sitting in shock, in trauma, in aloneness, and in fear. Who hope that there will be new life, somehow, in the midst of death, but don’t yet see a way. May we remember how important it is to be with folks who are in that long Saturday. Who long for love, who need our care, and who need us to be patient with them and welcoming to them as we all try to find our way to Sunday.

Holy week can be a lot of things. This is the beauty of the incredibly rich Christian tradition. It can be coloring eggs and visits to church once a year, it can be an invitation to live a different life, and it can be a reminder of the rough world we live in and the possibility that it might be different. It can be all these things and a thousand more. I am thankful for a God that wants us all where we are at. Let’s widen that circle. Build a bigger tent. Come in and let’s figure it out together.

Amen amen amen.

p.s. A good book on Holy Saturday is Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining.


On the Pain of Loving Others

December 9, 2012

Tomorrow I will give this letter to a 26 year old young man who I mentored for 17 years. I wish there was more I could do than write letters like this. It is so hard to love others and want good for them and yet also know that we cannot do it for them. It feels so inadequate yet is the best I can do. Sigh.

*

My dearest B,

I hope you’ll take time to read what I have to say here

The first thing is that I love you. I love you deeply and with all my heart, like a family member. I have always seen a spark in you, a wonder, and magic. I have always believed in you. I will always believe in you no matter what, and I will always love you no matter what.

Secondly, I know I cannot know what your life is like. You have faced many many hard things – since you were small and since you have been an adult. This is not fair. No one should have to face the things you have. But, yet, the world is broken and unjust and good people face things they do not deserve. I know I cannot know what this is like.

Third, I’m sorry if you think I lecture you too much or I am too silly or cheerful with you. I somehow thought that you liked this and that this worked well for our relationship. I am happy to stop this, to tone it down. I thought somehow that you appreciated it, as a bit of cheer that you may not have other places in your life and also that you knew that my challenging you came from a place of believing in you and loving you and knowing your great potential. Please feel free to be honest with me and tell me what you need from me. I much prefer an honest real relationship, to a fake relationship like I am some sort of social worker or something.

And, in the spirit of being honest, here is what I have to say. I hope that our relationship over the years lets you know I say it with deep love and respect for you.

You have two dear children and another child that is like a son to you. Their lives have already been too hard. I believe that you, with sweet E, have the ability to give them a better life – the kind of life that you did not have. But, and I know you know this, this is going to involve making hard decisions. No one taught you well how to make hard decisions and I know it is very hard to teach yourself that. In many ways, you’ve succeeded on your own to do better than many from your neighborhood which is amazing and speaks to your spirit and strength.

But, what your boys deserve – and what you deserve – is a stable life. The house on H Street will not provide that sort of stable life – it will not fix everything. But, it is a start. You have the possibility to OWN the house. To get support from me, and from M, and from others that we connect with. I had that sort of support from my family – it was pure luck. Sometimes we get it from our biological families and sometimes we get it from others who love us deeply even if they are not blood family. I have no desire to force you to do anything, but I do want to say that I want you to jump on this opportunity. Sometimes doing the right thing is just very hard and takes several tries. I’m sorry about the challenges with the house the first time, but I want you to give it a second chance. I really believe we can make it beautiful, that you can own it, that you can live in a decent neighborhood and with time get decent jobs where you make more and where life is not as hard. This is what your Mom wanted for you – an easier life, a better life.

I also really want you to go to the job center and get food stamps. I know you don’t like it, but it is there for a reason and would make a difference while you and your family try to get on your feet. I have loaned you a good bit of money which I am happy to do, but I also want you to do whatever you can to get support from other sources too. I would also like you to try to get medical coverage. If you don’t do it for you, I wish you would consider doing it for your boys who need you to be healthy.

I want you to know from the bottom of my heart this is not a lecture. I believe in you more than I think you do and perhaps more than anyone in your life. I KNOW you can be more than someone who plays fucking video games all day. That is such an insult to who you can be and what you can do in this world that longs for good, decent loving people like you. It is a waste of who you can be and who you are. I am never sure how religious you are – and maybe I am not sure how religious I am – but I do believe that you were created and brought into this world for a purpose. That you were made by a God that has plans of goodness for you and your children. I want to find a way to get to that – to live into that Hope and Love that is part of who you are.

I will love you always, no matter what you do. I will believe in you always. At the same time, I think this is turning point in your life. It is a time when you can decide to be another Black kid from the projects who half-asses things. I would love you even if that is what you decide. But I believe you can be more than that. You are one of the most special people I’ve ever known. And I want to see you live into the fullness of who you can be. I was pleased the other day when you told me that I do not over-estimate you. I hope this is the time when you live into the fullness of who you can be. I don’t expect miracles, but over time, deep effort, lots of trying, lots of hard choices will yield a life that is worthy of all of your gifts.

I love you dearly, B. You are an absolute miracle with unlimited potential.

I hope you don’t get too irritated at me for writing this. I hope you read it all.

With deepest care and affection,

Elizabeth


Goodbye Fast Fading Magical Ones

November 18, 2012

For Lee and Marg

I remember them in our kitchen with their beers
Laughing thunderous laughs
With mouths wide open and heads thrown back
Like it was still the nineteen seventies
When my parents and they were young and beautiful
And funny and enamored with themselves as most
Young beautiful profound people were in the nineteen seventies.

Except now, as they laughed in our kitchen, I was five
And my sister was three
And we were not quite sure what to make of these
Mystical people who would show up
And we would stay up past our bedtime
Listening to their stories
Pondering at their unfamiliar mannerisms
In our yellow kitchen
Too late into the night

He had hundreds of albums
And I can’t remember if I saw him and my father
Playing them on the turn table and drinking beer
With smoke around them
Or if I just pictured it in my mind that way
Because I had heard the small simple
Legends of the camaraderie and joy
Of the time sitting
And listening and talking and drinking
And basking in the wonder of
Friendship that became a synergy
Of magic and a kind of madness

The descent for these dear people
Whom my parents loved
Was so rapid that it is almost
Not possible to think about it
Or make sense of the liver cancer
And brain cancer
And the loss
And illness
It all happened so quickly
Yet in a sort of bizarre painful slow motion

And these mythical people
Faded fast
Like the ghost from 1976
That they seemed to me to be

Like so many beloved and central people in our lives
They were not without great faults
Yet we don’t often love people
Because they are without faults
But because they would die for us
And we would die for them
And we have laughed with them
And cried
And we retell our stories
Like the smoldering ashes of the dawn

And so it goes again
The passing of this time
Like a hammer smashing the finger
And it comes again and again
And you get used to it
Realizing that that pain
Is just part of what it means
To live

And we say goodbye again
To people we love
Who were broken and flawed
And magical and glorious.


On Hunting

November 14, 2012

I know some vegetarians think hunting is absolutely abhorrent and are quite judgmental about people who hunt, often moreso than just plain old meat eaters. However, I am not one of those vegetarians. I get while people hunt. I get why people eat meat. People around me hunted when I was growing up and they were good, decent, lovely people. My friends post pictures of the deer they kill on facebook or announce proudly that their children shot their first turkey. We live in a world where we all take part in violence. Sometimes it is with what we eat. Or hunting. Or doing things that are destructive to our world, like driving or flying. Or eating vegetables that are harvested by underpaid workers exposed to pesticides shipped thousands of miles across continents. We smoosh spiders in our house. We put cow’s milk in our coffee that was from a cow kept in a confined, industrial space her whole life until she stops producing enough and then gets sent off to slaughter. We throw things in the landfill that take up precious space, seeping chemicals into our water. And so on. For me, I see eating and killing animals as part of a collection of the ways that we do harm in the world and I claim a place in that complex of ways that we harm.

This said, I think there is a difference between acknowledging systems of harm and violence in which we all take and celebrating it. I have to admit as I see people I admire and care about post pictures of small children with freshly shot animals, or excited posts about children killing their first turkey or deer, my heart aches. Because, I think when we kill animals and say “This is neat and for children,” we normalize harming others needlessly. We do not need meat to be healthy, or if you don’t buy that (even though I do), at the very least, we need much less of it. So even if you think we need it, it is one thing to say, “We think that this is essential to health and yet we still regret that we must kill beings who suffer in order to live as we think we need to,” and it is another thing to say, “This is a way to connect to nature! There is a rush. This is something to be proud of. This is normal. This is fine. This is nothing to weep at.”

Because when we learn that we should not weep at the suffering of animals by our own hands, it cannot stop there. We learn not to weep at the suffering of others in our own hands. Child abuse and bullying appears to be epidemic in the United States. We run around, baffled, developing programs to stop bullying and calling, most often in vain, for people to stop abusing children. We say that we need more social workers. Stricter laws. More oversight. But, what I say, is that when violence in normalized – when harming other beings who suffer and feel is considered not only to be essential for survival but also a sport, also fun, also a rite of passage, also fun, also something to be proud of, then is it any wonder that it becomes more possible to harm each other without feeling as though it is all that bad? Or, even if we know something is bad, this often does not free us from doing these things, as we are part of systems of violence and deeply influenced by formative moral experiences. Hurting others gets normalized. When we shoot animals. When we eat meat. When we eat our vegetables grown by underpaid workers who die early from cancer because of such hard work and pesticides and no health care. The question for me is how we can, with the very love and care that we long for in the world, denormalize the suffering that is part of the fabric of how most U.S. Americans live.

I am so very far from perfect. I know that so many of the ways that I live causes harm to other beings who suffer. Thus, I think vegetarians who take some sort of dramatic moral high ground do not serve their causes well. At the same time, I do think it would be good to examine more closely how our normalized practices of violence might impact the world in which we live and the world that we create. Annie Dillard says that the way we spend our days, is the way that we spend our lives. I’m not sure that we are able to separate what we do for sport and fun and what we eat for dinner from the larger swath of how we are in the world. I suppose this leads me to want to think of my life not in some sort of moral absolutist terms, but in terms of formation and harm reduction. Perhaps the more we reduce harm and become aware of and face the harm we do, the more we might build on that. Maybe this means walking more. Planting a garden. Buying from a local farmer. Eating less meat. Not giving our children guns. Not yelling at our children. Not spanking them. Pretty much, trying to live in a way that treats others who can suffer the way we would like to be treated if we were them. I know it sounds a little cliched, but it does seem to make sense that in both direct (shooting a deer) and indirect (buying produce from a source that causes workers harm) we should try to treat others how we would want to be treated. For me, humans are an important part of this, but I would say that suffering is a central factor which also includes non-human animals. Surely we should treat our pets with care and reduce suffering and we can relate to why we might wish to do that. It seems like we might wish to extend that to other animals who can suffer too.

And as both a call and a prayer I say to myself – less harm, I’m sorry, less harm, and I’m sorry, calling myself to do less harm while also knowing that I cannot stop it.

It may be that churches and people faith might take a similar position, acknowledging the ways we are products of a broken world, but also acknowledging and celebrating the ways that we can take small steps toward something different.

May it be so.


A Life Lived Well

October 22, 2012

When I was in Kindergarten, I had a bit of a breakdown. I felt like I was not moving through my letter books fast enough. The other children were slow to learn the ABCs and I already knew them and we needed to move it along. I dropped out of Girl Scouts in third grade because I got so preoccupied with getting as.many.badges.as.possible as fast as possible that I could not enjoy it. Or get anything out of it.

It goes on. In seventh grade, it was getting to be the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. As fast as possible. And making them better. Fast. By high school, it was starting to take college classes. Filling out the resume for college. After a full scholarship to my undergraduate school, it was getting more majors. And more awards. So I could go to the best graduate school. After getting into a graduate program at Harvard, it was getting into the doctoral program at Harvard. Then passing exams. With distinction. Then writing a dissertation. I wouldn’t just be spiritual or religious or involved in my church, I would be ordained. Soon it was getting a job. After getting a tenure track job, the big concern has been the getting a book contract. And being the.best.professor possible. I want my students to love learning, love the class, love me, become good citizens, become good thinkers. Somewhere in there: Get married. Buy a house. Have a baby.

I am tired. If I stop to think about what a good life looks like, I hardly know. When I am with my son, who I want more time with, I am worried about when I can clean the house. Or get back to grading. As the trees change and the air is perfect, I look out the window from Starbucks with my overly sweet drink and write more comments on the papers that my students will probably never read. As I apply for grants and funding, my screen blurs together and I wonder what I am doing. I pour over our budget and wonder how we can make what we do and still come up short at the end of every month. What are we doing all of this for if not to be able to pay our bills and have a good, peaceful life, right? A PEACEFUL LIFE, goddammit.

Sometimes it can feel like we are caught in a hologram… but there is no red pill, no way to step out of it, to snap out of it. I think about what I should do to get out – meditate, go to yoga, take time to be present, make better plans, manage time better, get therapy, read more books or better books, and I just add these things onto my to do list and run from meeting to class to meeting, somehow feeling good about myself as I ease the pain with the balm of doing.

I tell my students there are few important easy choices in our lives – as individuals, as citizens. And there may not even be a choice. We are formed over time and our brains develop little pathways and we do not undo this in a day or a night or by getting saved or by making definitive decisions that we really mean this time. We undo or redo this slowly, the way that we have been done up by our universe. Moment by moment. Dragging ourselves back from the chaos into the memory of what we all long for, aware of the cliche and the unoriginality of our desires.

These things are not changed by quotes we tape to our computer screen or put on our pinterest wall, we know, as we hurriedly find better pithy and inspirational quotes and clearer places to post them.

Perhaps this is my draw to God and grace. The idea that we are loved and ok always. From before time and until after time. No matter what we do. We want to believe it, but like the alcoholic who just has one more drink, and feels that emptiness and pain melting away, we put one more good line on our resume. One more grant or book or job or success. And we are good, right? Doing the right things. Right?


Death and Love

September 16, 2012

I am sitting in the parking lot at McDonald’s while my little three year old magical wild child sleeps his rare sleep in the car seat. Our cousin Nancy Jo has died and I am driving to see family. She lived a hard life with too much pain and many ill-fated attempts to numb that pain. She also lived a life of giving – she was a craft master, always dreaming up something thoughtful and sweet to give even second cousins like me. She had three amazing adult children, now left with their own complexities of various sorts not the least of which is the sudden death of their mother.

I am always struck by the swiftness of death and the fine line between the beauty and wonder of this insane world and the pain and horror of it all.

People we know are dying all the time, these days, it seems. Uncle Carl and Uncle Ollie. Nancy Jo and Uncle Bruce’s brother Bill. All those people on the news and in the newspaper. In Libya and Syria and Louisville and down the street and on facebook.

I hate how damn mundane it is. Like, it happens and the world just keeps on going. People still go to McDonalds to get their french fries and I still have more deadlines than I can manage and all the while all these souls are slipping away and lives are upended and we just march on.

It makes me want to cry at the beauty of things like my silver coffee cup sitting next to me and the curve of the steering wheel where I prop my computer, the pure magic of this world that we are thrown into. I want to go to the people streaming in and out of this McDonald’s and stop them and hold their shoulders and look into their eyes and say, “Don’t forget. Don’t forget dear, beautiful person that this is fleeting. Nancy Jo has died and Bill has died and we will not be far behind. Kiss your babies and your dog and your wife and sip your bitter coffee more carefully and lick all that salt off your fingers because this is all we fucking have.”

But I don’t. I sit here smiling at my own cliches, look back in the mirror at my sleeping baby, remind myself how precious this all is and say a little prayer for all of the hurting and loving and dying and living people of our world.


Who Is Church For?

March 18, 2012

In a recent online Unitarian Universalist discussion about church growth, someone asked a question about why some parts of Unitarian Universalism are harder explain than “to profess a love for your imaginary friend.” By this, I can only assume that the originator of the post referred to the profession of love for God (or Jesus). This came on the heels of a sermon I recently heard that included an (older) poem by a Unitarian minister that openly made fun of other faiths and made the point how much better Unitarians are than other irrational faiths. And, to top it off, I attended a Unitarian Universalist Christmas concert in December that made fun of important parts of the Christmas story.

I almost cannot breathe when I hear these sorts of things. It is so profoundly dismissive to one’s love of God to say “love of your imaginary friend.” I certainly do not take these thoughtless and dismissive comments personally. I am more concerned with what this says to the world about the Unitarian Universalist faith. You know, what it says to people who are hurting, searching, and longing and turning to the church for support and guidance. I am embarrassed for Unitarian Universalists. How will anyone ever take us seriously about our messages of love and inclusion if we actively and routinely make fun of other faith traditions?

I can hear the defenses ringing in my head. Everyone is not perfect, right? We all make mistakes! Oh, can’t we just have a sense of humor? Oh, don’t be so defensive!

But for me, what this raises is the question of who the church is for. Unitarian Universalists are not alone in struggling with this, of course, so don’t think I mean this only for this context. But we certainly have an issue here. Is the church for us – the people already in the inside, who know and love each other, who believe pretty similar things and know better than those who don’t? Who know better than those people out there? Those folks that have “imaginary” best friends they call God?

Or, is the church for the world? Are we about love freely given? Unconditionally? Are we about healing those who hurt? Are we about radical hospitality? Are we about facing our own demons and pushing through that even when it is hard and soul wrenching because the world needs us? Are we about getting over ourselves?

We are not a club, people. We are a faith. If you want a liberal rational club for smart people who don’t believe silly things, a place where you giggle knowingly about those other people, please don’t hold your meetings in The Church because the The Church is for Everyone.


On How We Treat Our Children

October 7, 2011

We don’t discipline our son. We don’t spank him. No time outs. No punishments of any kind. We’ve never raised our voice to him. We have never mocked him. We speak to him lovingly, sometimes firmly, sometimes laughing. We try to treat him how we would like to be treated. We try to respect the fact that he is a full person with his own desires and thoughts that are not somehow less because he is a young person. We are very attentive to the process of how we are, together, as a family and not just the “outcome.”

For the two years and six months that he has been with us, I don’t really tell this to many people. I’ve casually and gently said that we recognize that there are many ways to raise children and we’re not judging other people; that this is just what works best for our family. And in many ways, this is true. On the one hand, this world asks so much of us. It is so hard. It is hard to be a parent in a world that does not support families or parents or value children. It is hard to be in a world where there is violence all around us and there are 101 guides and experts telling us what to do, all different things each week and month. Where we are struggling financially, spiritually. Where we are tired. I have had, in so many ways, a lucky and privileged life and who in the hell am I to tell someone else that they are not raising their children the “right” way?

Yet. Yet. Yet yet.

I’ve been discussing with my mom our parenting choices. She is supportive of our approach and does her best to be with our son as we would be with him: gentle, loving, supportive, teaching, guiding, listening. But at the same time, she defends with rigor parents who spank their children or, for instance, who take their young children to hunt, arguing that those parents love their children and they are “turning out well” and so to each his or her own. We do it our way. They do it their way.

Shortly after an intense conversation about this, I listened to a gut-wrenching report on NPR about a study about parents yelling at their children and spanking them. Small children. Who would not do what their parents said or wanted. Like, I heard parents hitting their kids and screaming at them on the radio. This wasn’t abuse in any traditional sense (“other bad people”). It was just regular families like the one down the street, randomly sampled, and it showed how routine and typical it is for parents to hit small children and scream at them over both large and small issues.

And something changed within me. I will no longer hide how we parent. I will not pretend that I think our approach is one among many approaches – hit them or not, yell or not, be kind or not, kill animals for fun or not, watch violent television or not… all personal decisions about what is best for your family.

Because how we raise our children is not just about our families. It is about the world we live in. And hearing on NPR children being hit and screamed at… I mean, I am shocked that people are surprised we have a “bullying” problem in this country. It is not a “bullying” problem, it is a kindness problem. If we treat our children unkindly, do not show them the respect we wish them to show others, and use violence with them, how are we to ever expect that they will grow up and reject violence? And unkindness?

I have been so profoundly lucky to have access to and read about people’s ideas on parenting. I think the most influential to me have been Mothering Magazine and a blog by Kelly Hogaboom. I have also been so lucky to have a partner who is not only with me on this, but teaches me about this – that trusted and continues to trust that when we explain things gently and repeatedly to our son, he will understand this in his own time and it will be real understanding rather than something he does because he is threatened.

This does not mean we are perfect (oh. my god. are we not. perfect.) or that we don’t mess up all the time or that we are not missing big important things that he will need therapy for someday. Or that it is not harder to do it this way. That it is not sooooo hard. This does not mean that I will go around glaring at parents who act differently than I think they should. Or will I be some sort of consensual family living evangelist. But it does mean that I am no longer going to pretend “I do it my way and you do it your way and, hey, it is all just fine.” It isn’t just fine. I have been lucky that people have been willing to gently and with deep compassion challenge me to be a different kind of person and different kind of parent. They risked that I would feel judged, that I would be nasty, that I would reject them. And I am thankful that they risked that. I think I will be willing to risk that in my life now.


dear lovely man on the motorcycle

August 31, 2011

i heard the crash and turned to see you land. i ran out of my car as fast as i could and got to you within seconds, already on the phone to 911. i told you first thing that i was with you and that you would be okay and that we would take care of you. i did not want you to hurt alone or to be scared. i prayed and prayed silently, just with my heart, as it all swirled around – the cpr and the blood and your precious pulse stopping and starting, your tan skin there, under my skin as we tried to care for you. i prayed with my gut and with all that i had that it would be an okay that meant your life would continue and that this would be the worst pain you were ever in and it would only get better and you would never again be so wounded.

i just walked past that place where i prayed with you and over you and held your hand and touched your chest just four short days ago. it was the flower that announced what happened after you rolled away in the ambulance with the sirens and the prayers and the tubes. a little sign on a flower – rest in peace. i told you that you would be okay, and although i know it does not seem like it to the people who loved you, it is a different okay because i know you are somewhere where there is no blood and there is no pain and there are no damn motorcycles or accidents or wounds. it is not the okay that i wished for you, but what is, is. this world is so damn unfair and unjust. i sit here crying over you – over your hurt, over the fact that we could not save you as we gathered around your delicate and precious self laying there. crying is so inadequate, i know. what else is there to do?

please know that being there with you was a great privilege. to see your precious life, and to hold your hand, and touch your skin. in such moments we are all so vulnerable. i want you to know, and i hope there is a way for your family and loved ones to know that it was only five seconds after your accident that you were alone. i got to your side and immediately reassured you, comforted you, prayed for you. shortly others joined who were equally as gentle and kind and helpful. you were surrounded by love. i believe that it is the case, wherever you are now, that you continue to be surrounded by love.

i did not pray in words the day that i was there with you. but here is my prayer now. i hope it finds its way to you somehow.

dear god, who is the god of love and peace, i do no not understand how this sort of pain happens. there are no good reasons for this. yet i know this happens. the world happens and pain happens and loss and hurt and unfairness and we are stuck here right in the middle of it, just trying to do something, trying to make our way. i am left only to breathe and pray and love and hope. to hope that there is a way to make sense of it, to hope that we can make less pain like this, to hope that the family of this man who laid there with me finds a way to make sense of this and live with this loss. it is all so fast. it is all so precious. in one second we are on our motorcycle, fast with the wind against us, and in the next we are laying there, everything changed. everything fleeting. in one second we are sitting in our car and in the next we are holding the hand of a stranger who is saying goodbye to this world. god, be with his family. be with those who loved him. be with him as he sits or floats or lingers in heaven, wherever that is or whatever that is, and looks down on the life that he had in all its beauty and brokenness. give us all the strength to be with each other as we hurt – as we long for those who we have lost, or as we lay in the ground one friday afternoon. give us the strength to love more, to remember well, to be at peace with the madness that is this world where things do not make sense and are not fair. may we keep loving. hard. may we keep praying. hard. praying with our hands and our feet and our hearts as we try to lessen the brokenness. in our own lives. and in others’ lives.

i’m so sorry, precious beautiful man on the motorcycle. may god have you in god’s embrace.

amen amen amen.