Time for a big hit

The RevGalBlogPals group sends a weekly email with encouragement, highlights from blogs around the group, and a short article and a prayer for the week at hand.  I wrote this week’s article and prayer (below) on the theme of fall break — for which I am very ready!  I hope it reminds you to enjoy a break soon.


When my dad was growing up on a tobacco farm in Southside Virginia, the family ritual was to take a mid-morning break right there in the fields. My great-grandfather would say, “I think it’s time for a bit hit,” and that was the cue to sit down for a few minutes for a snack, which was always the same: a Pepsi and a pack of Nabs. Simple and satisfying, enough to go on until lunch.

In campus ministry, the first big hit of the year is fall break. We start fast and furious in mid-August and steamroll our way to the third week of Advent, when exams end and my congregation leaves me until the season after Epiphany. It’s startling how much can fit into the first six or so weeks before fall break – and how tired I can be so early in the year, so far from Advent 3.

I have been tempted to use the weekend without my usual preaching gig to get ahead, and then to keep at my desk Monday and Tuesday while the university is a ghost town, to get more things done. Instead, I give myself full permission to be off these precious four days when students are off. My husband and I often take a short trip and indulge in ways we usually don’t, like last year’s ridiculously long naps in a hotel right on the beach. I make no apologies.

The thing about a big hit is you know when you need one. In my ministry and my life, I’m trying to trust that and give myself what I know I need when I need it. I’m constantly surprised at how easy that sounds and how hard I find it to do. So I’m thankful that this weekend the university has called for a big hit and we are pointing the car towards the mountains, with napping, hiking, slow meals, and something bubbly to drink in our very near future. Simple and satisfying, enough to go on until Advent.

God of the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest, remind us of how we are made in your image. You are not too busy or important to rest and relax, and neither are we. Give us the rest we crave and the fearless hearts we need to accept this. Amen.

And now for something completely different

“Meet George Jetson, Jane his wife, his boy Elroy…”

It was a scattered summer and the time I had hoped to devote to pottery went to other things. My summer pottery class produced just four pots and so far I’ve only fired one. Here it is and, yes, I realize it looks like something from The Jetsons or maybe an homage to Ho Jo’s or a slightly-miscolored attempt at UVA colors. There are a lot of ways in which it isn’t really a “me” pot.

Maybe someone will see this and know just the right home for it (and if that’s you, let me know). But I’m proud of it because it represents a lot of New. I made it in the first class with a new teacher and I was attempting to make something in her style, thrown then altered by stretching and cutting the clay. I was also trying out underglazes for the first time, which are painted on (the outside of this bowl) or sprayed on (in the center), rather than dipping the pot into them, and whose colors stay true through firing. Even the colors I chose were departures from my usual earthy palette.

Before my very first pottery class four years ago, I was so hopeful I’d be “good.” I recognized my mind starting to count on that outcome and gave myself a talking to. I showed up early for the first class and said to my teacher Nan, “I hope I can do this and that I’m good. But no matter what, I want to have fun.”

Summer was full and fall is looking the same. Times like these tempt me to treat play like another job, one more area of work in which to push myself to excel/produce/accomplish/check off the list/insert-more-impressive-and-exhausting-things-here. It’s good at precisely these times to remember and reclaim that original intention, to have fun when I’m supposed to be playing, and not to turn it into more work.

So, no apologies for “only” making four pots in the last class and there will be no production schedule mandate for the fall class. And no apology for my Jetsons bowl, which isn’t me at all, but is definitely new and even a little playful.

Dreams and anxiety


Last night was one of those 3:30am nights. Awake, mind already racing at full speed, rehearsing, rehashing. I hate those nights.

I usually sleep well so when I don’t it feels especially abrupt and intrusive and disorienting. And it sometimes means maybe, just maybe, I need some decompression and download time I’m not giving myself, so my mind takes over in my sleep when my defenses are down. I was up for a while, trying to breathe and listen to my rain sounds app, then, when that didn’t work, trying to zone out to the background of familiar Friends episodes until a fitful, anxiety-dream-filled sleep set in from about 5:30-8am.

When I told my husband about the stew of dreams that rushed in during that time, he said I managed to include every major anxiety-inducing situation. Why, yes, I did. One dream included our home’s roof leaking in two places, the discovery that a small child used one of our vases as a toilet, and realizing after lounging unshowered in my pjs all day that I had one hour to be dressed and at a wedding. I made it to the wedding in question, where I was not the clergyperson presiding but where I was supposed to pray before a meal. I stumbled as I started the prayer, stopped myself, and said, “I’m just going to start over.” Then, as I gathered my thoughts in a moment of silence and was about to open my mouth to try again, the clergyperson I didn’t know who was officiating the wedding – Generic Priest Collar Dude – jumped in and just slapped out the prayer himself.

Luckily, my husband had the coffee ready when I woke up.

My autistic stepson Blair sometimes has trouble sleeping straight through the night so I’ve taken to gently telling him, when he comes for his good night hug right before bed, I hope you have a good, long sleep. I hope you have beautiful dreams and you rest and sleep all the way until morning when it’s time for everyone to wake up. And in the morning, we’ll say “Good morning!” and give you another hug.

Even when I know things have built up and I need decompression and meditation, I’m not as good at saying similar things to myself. Today, as the dreams recede, I’m hoping a swim in the sun and the space of an afternoon off can help where words seem lacking.


We like short-shorts


During a writing workshop at Collegeville a couple of years ago, our marvelous instructor Marge Barrett encouraged us to write “short-shorts,” snapshot pieces of 250 words or fewer. It’s an interesting exercise, to see what stories this form suits and to impose word count limits where the story wants to seep out past its arbitrary edges. It’s also good practice in self-editing, whittling away here and there, gently carving off what absolutely doesn’t have to remain.

This summer Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Communitas journal published two of my short-shorts in the “Love Hurts” issue (“Pull” was published under the title “Love Hurts”). As I continue to work my way through a much longer piece, going very short was a great stretching of the opposite muscles. If you’re the curious type, about to use the word count tool, I’ll save you the trouble: I came in with one word to spare in “Pull” and was over by eight in “Neighbor.” But here they are.



Not yet in school, my little brother waited for me after school each day, pestering my mother so he’d know when it was time to walk up to the corner and keep a lookout. I can’t remember all the days he must have done this or what we talked about on the way home. I only remember the day he stopped.

I was with two friends and spotted him from blocks away. David had climbed onto the fire hydrant at the corner of our street to get a better view of my approach. He was waving his arms and hollering, “Deborah! Deborah!”

The girls I was walking with were both big sisters, too, and one of them had seven siblings. Still, somehow my first grade self became suddenly invested in “cool” and decided this wasn’t it. When we reached the corner, I stepped close to him and whispered fiercely, “Don’t ever wait for me again.”

He never did.

He knows I tear up when I remember this. He knows if I could take it back I would. He tells me it doesn’t have the hold on him that it does on me.

David lives four states away now and I see him once a year. It’s not enough. But on the phone last month when I worried our lives might go too far off in different directions, he cut me off and said, as if it’s obvious, “A lot of things come and go but siblings are like gravity.”


Love Your Neighbor

The golf pro is getting work done at Starbucks. It’s been raining for three days in this southern resort town known for temperate winters. Today it’s 45 degrees. Eyes bracketed by crow’s feet, set wide in his winter-sunburned face, squint at his laptop between calls rescheduling three days’ worth of cancelled lessons.

The sloppy twentysomethings sharing the long table with center electrical outlets have doughy faces, new laptops, and Vitamin water. Occasionally one speaks gibberish about list views, headers, and tap events, and one of the others yanks out his earbuds. It’s mostly the curly-haired boy and he’s loud, like he’s trying to get all three to take out their earbuds, like he wants to impress anyone who can hear.

The golf pro has old-school Sony earphones, bigger than a Kindle, the kind you can’t stuff in your pocket.

I didn’t bring mine. I relish the relative silence, waiting for my friend.

We’re in town for a conference. Coffee and conversation before the long day, campus ministers without nametags.

So it’s not like we’re wearing signs or anything, but five minutes into our conversation, the pierced boy sipping Frappuccino at the next table suddenly starts talking, wants to explain his single earpiece to us.

“I’m deaf in the other ear. That’s what happens when you fall asleep next to an amp. There was a bunch of feedback when they cranked it up. The doctor said if it’d started full blast I’d have 100% loss in that ear. But it’s 85%. Some stupid number like that.”

So we listen.


photo credit: “Studying in Starbucks,” © 2013 by Nicola Sapiens De Mitri, CC BY-SA 2.0

First kiln at City Clay

not food safe mug_summer2015

So, this one will become a pen and pencil holder rather than a mug. It’s one of two mugs whose form I liked and whose glazes were swirly in almost all the right ways, but which are both casualties of my learning curve with new glazes in a new studio.

I wrote in February about the final kiln at Nan’s studio. I’m about to embark on my third class in the new space, each with a different teacher. I’m still trying to get into a rhythm there, learning the routines of the studio, learning from new teachers, rearranging my schedule from semester to summer and back again while also trying to hit the open studio times just right. Summer seemed to hold the promise of extra hours and longer studio time but that didn’t pan out as I’d hoped.

Neither did some of the new glazes. I didn’t fire any test tiles so everything was an experiment. I’m mostly pleased with the results, including the colors and effect on the non-drinkable mugs. Next time I’ll go easier on this glaze combination so it doesn’t pool and bubble (into breakable glass pockets) in the bottom.

Here’s where you can see the modest take from the kiln so far, with thanks to my husband for the great photos. On to the third class!

Traveling Companions: Hair, hair bands, and driving with the windows down

old car radio

[This summer’s Traveling Companions is a relaxed blog series telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me along the way. This is the fourth in the series; other posts are here, here and here.]

This was not part of the plan when I started this series. I mean, Jackson freakin’ Browne is still waiting his turn. Or I could go Van Morrison next, or Sara Bareilles. But last Friday a totally un-August-in-Virginia day befell us – upper 70s and not a lick of humidity. I cannot stress enough how unlikely this was.

I had an errand to run down the road in our county and my hair was still wet from the morning’s swim. The day was so gorgeous, just driving through it wasn’t enough, so I opened the windows and let the wind do its worst, tangles be damned.  I found the local classic rock station, the same one whose station promo, back when I was in college, was “lock it in and rip the knob off.”

It’s been a while since my hair was long enough to whip in the wind. As soon as I picked up speed on the curvy road I felt like the students moving into their dorms this week – young, free, invincible, like the road was opening up before me into possibility and promise.  Not just the road.  The Road.  It’s the way I’ve always felt when the air kisses my skin just so and the wind whips my hair and the radio’s up loud enough to hear over that noise.

I wondered as the feeling washed over me if this is the way I’d always feel, in a car with the windows open and good tunes on the radio.  When I’m 85 will those sensations still combine to fool me into a carefree younger-than-I-am moment?  When I used to look over at my white-haired, arthritic, sun-spotted grandmother, driving the truck to town with the windows down when we’d visit in the summers, is this how she felt?  When I saw a comfortable, soft, old woman was she feeling The Road and existing as a young girl in her own mind?

This is really the kind of thing my mind does.

Anyway, Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” came on in the car last Friday. I can still remember the black and white grainy MTV video and the intense longing the song, the band, and the sight of Jon Bon Jovi’s hair brought out of me at a certain point in life. For a while, I had a picture of Jon, cut from a magazine and taped to the visor in my car, so I’d see it any time the sun was in my eyes.  My friend Katie and I would flip it down even on rainy days, because sometimes you just need to see something beautiful.  Eventually I became embarrassed about my visor and my interest in Bon Jovi and started listening to other things, but last week in the car I let my Bon Jovi freak flag fly unapologetically, singing along at full volume.

Like my own personal “this is your life” tour of college days, the next tune up was “Hard to Handle” by The Black Crowes. Every time I hear it I’m transported to a certain stretch of Interstate 64, heading east from Richmond, the place where we were when my friend Molly called it the “Sahanahanaha” song, which, you have to admit, is exactly how it sounds when they sing it.  (Go on, listen and you’ll hear it.)

I almost waited until I could get it together to write about Jackson Browne.  I mean, I don’t even own any Black Crowes or Bon Jovi anymore.

But this summer I’ve been writing about Traveling Companions and the best of them are the ones who, despite the odds, are still accompanying you, even when you no longer have their albums…even when you see each other more on Facebook than in real life.  The best traveling companions are the ones who awake in you someone you thought you’d let go of but who, you realize, you miss sometimes.  Maybe they can even still see your younger self when your grey hair is flying about in the wind.


photo credit: © 2014, Feddacheenee, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Traveling Companions: Susan Werner and “Barbed Wire Boys”

[This summer’s Traveling Companions is a relaxed blog series telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me along the way.  This is the third in the series; other posts are here and here.]

I used to drive a stretch of I75 in Kentucky, from Berea to Lexington.  Listening to the radio on one of these drives, I heard a new voice singing, “Here I come, banging my broken drum…there will be no more standing in my own way.”  I knew something about getting in my own way, blocking my own steps forward.  The song and the singer’s strong, clear voice resonated.  By the end of the track I was singing along, like it was my own manifesto.  The radio station must have done a “twofer” because the next tune was the same gorgeous mystery voice, telling the humorous and heartfelt tale of waiting around on the next train to show up (“Time Between Trains”).  With descriptions of boredom captured in the image of counting the ceiling tiles of the train station, the song is a metaphor for time in between loves, waiting on the next person to show up and feeling ready long before s/he comes around the bend.

Susan Werner outdoor concert PA

If you have the opportunity to hear Werner play live, take it! She’s a superb performer and she plays great spots, like this (free!) outdoor summer concert in King of Prussia, PA. At the concert we attended this summer, she sang “La Vie en Rose” in flawless French.

I have been an evangelist for Susan Werner ever since.  I haven’t yet introduced her to anyone who couldn’t appreciate her talent or didn’t like her and I’ve nurtured several fans almost as ardent as I am.  (So beware, reader, of your iTunes behavior after reading this.)  That first song I heard, ”Standing in My Own Way,” was written by Dana Cooper, but other than a few covers and her cover-concept album (Classics, which showcases her perceptive arranging talents), she falls squarely in the singer-songwriter camp.  By that I mean she mostly writes her own music, though the style ranges from singer-songwriter/folk to Americana to pop to jazz standards to gospel to torch songs.  She plays and composes on both guitar and piano, thought at one time she’d be an opera singer, and earned a master’s in voice from Temple University.  The woman’s got range.

The same album – sometimes the same song – can go from hilariously irreverent to beautifully poignant.  Her most recent album, Hayseed, includes “City Kids,” the revenge fantasy for farm kids who grew up jealous of the kids who lived in town, alongside her affectionate and cheeky tribute to her home state in “Iowa,” and the lovely and reflective words of advice to other young Iowans dreaming of pulling up stakes for the big city in “Something to be Said,” the chorus of which ends with “There’s something to be said for blooming where you are planted,” with “planted” landing in her lowest register, like a seed being pushed deep into the earth.  An older album, New Non-Fiction, boasts another fine use of extended metaphor in the darkly funny and sweetly hopeful “Misery & Happiness,” in which lounge lizard womanizing Misery, “sings at the Hilton…sways his hips and smooths his hair back, winks at you and gets you thinking/ He’s handsome from a certain angle.”  Misery “woos you when his show is over, buys you drinks and keeps you laughing while he’s looking down your shirt.”  Over in the corner, good guy Happiness is keeping a watchful eye while he “doodles on a cocktail napkin and waits for you to figure out that you should really lose this loser,” saying, “call me when you want to come back home.”

Piano, guitar…it’s all excellent.

To pick a favorite Susan Werner song would be an enterprise in frustration and never-ending “but then there’s…” so I won’t name just one.  I will say “Barbed Wire Boys” (New Non-Fiction) is pretty near the perfect song.   If I were teaching either a writing or songwriting workshop, we would start by listening to and looking at this song. It’s a tribute to and portrait of the men in the rural Iowa she “knew when [she] was coming up,” and though I’ve never been to Iowa and only fleetingly lived in rural communities as an outsider on an extended stay, one listen and I know who she means.  “Barbed Wire Boys” is a complete short story in three minutes and twenty seconds.

Like any great writer, Werner’s language is precise and revealing, as she describes the men who “were sober as coffee in a Styrofoam cup” who “sat at the head of the table and prayed before meals/ Prayed an Our Father and that was enough/ Pray more than that and you couldn’t stay tough/ Tough as the busted thumbnails on the weathered hands/ They worked the gold plate off their wedding bands.”  It’s a full moment, presiding at the head of the table, nodding to the depth of faith and family – but just a nod, no tears, no extraneous words.  It’s a portrait of working class life, summed up in the detail of the “gold plate” worn off the wedding ring by hard, continuous, feed-his-family work.

Looking back on a childhood surrounded by barbed wire boys, the adult Werner wonders about the dreams these men may have had for life and considers their unexpressed deepest hopes “beat[ing] like bird’s wings in the cage of their chest.”  It’s a love song at heart, for a place and a people and a way of life she took for granted as a child and sees differently now.  It’s an ode of deep appreciation and hero worship for the overlooked men who “[held] up the sky” and made way for dreamers and artists like Werner:

And now one by one they’re departing this earth

And it’s clear to me now ‘xactly what they’re worth

Oh they were just like Atlas holding up the sky

You never heard him speak, you never saw him cry

But where do the tears go, that you never shed

Where do the words go, that you never said

Well there’s a blink of the eye, there’s a catch in the voice

That is the unsung song

Of the barbed wire boys

If you haven’t heard it yet, you can listen here to a live version that’s a bit more slowly and reflectively paced than the recorded version on the album.  At first I preferred the tighter, faster recorded version but each has its merits and the song itself is so utterly perfect it shines through each arrangement.

I hope you enjoy it and the unfolding journey of getting to know Susan Werner’s music.  She’s worth the trip.


[A note on the text, or, How I Wrote Something and Then Completely Disregarded It:  Yes, my previous post was about how I was going to forge ahead into the one space world and try to curb my many-decades worth of two-spaced typing after sentences.  I’m still trying to change that but, after a nice break from writing and work, traveling to see family and Susan Werner, I completely forgot about that goal until this very moment as I had it all uploaded and ready to publish.  So, I won’t go back and painstakingly take out the extra spaces.  I’m a work in progress.]

New Tricks. One Space.

It was hard for me to write that title. I had to back up and take out a space after the first period. I had to do it again after the first sentence in this paragraph. (And again, just there.) You see, I learned to type in high school in the 1980s, on a typewriter. I took this as an actual class in school and at the time it seemed both very old (like secretarial typing pools) and at the vanguard of technology (the typewriters were “self-erasing”!). In what has become a keyboard-oriented world, typing class has come in handy, though lately I’ve realized my typing may say more about me than I knew.

I read an internet-incendiary article a few months ago about how “old” you seem when you use two spaces rather than one. The author proclaimed she could tell if writers are over 40 by the amount of space left at the end of sentences. I wondered who’s going around counting spaces. And I knew she was right: it was drilled into us in that high school typing class that there are two spaces after the end of a sentence.

When I talk to design-oriented folks they definitely notice the spacing and, I suspect, they would have thought my typing class was behind the times even in the 80s. According to at least one article this whole thing was decided in the 1960s. There are explanations about font types and spacing explaining why it used to be two spaces and why it’s now unnecessary (and incorrect) to use two. I’m not really interested in internet wars about what “everyone” is doing, and I’m not pretending to be younger than I am.

But I am trying to learn a not-so-new trick. I am trying to release over 30 years of two-space practice. Strangely, at a time when I’m hoping for more space and less crowding in the rest of life, I am aiming for a slightly slimmer margin between thoughts on the page. I will have to employ the find-and-replace tool at the end of writing this because this feels like trying to sign my name left-handed – I keep looking back to see two-spaced sentences scattered like want-to-sprout seeds throughout these paragraphs. (Did it again just then). I will have to go back and pull them up like weeds, even though yesterday I planted them purposely.

What once served a purpose is no longer needed. And if we’re writing to try to get through to one another, we should care how we come across – out of touch, outdated, unstylish, stuck in our ways, or worse. I want to be part of a common conversation, so I work on changing my habit.

Things change. It usually feels weird at first, even when we long for the change. Blind resistance for the sake of tradition and comfort is an understandable knee-jerk reaction, but it’s a crappy way to live in the long term. We can all learn new tricks, no matter how hard or how late in the game – look at South Carolina today. Here’s to the one space world.


Photo credit: “Typewriter Letters,” © 2007 Laineys Repertoire, CC By 2.0

Traveling Companions: Amy, Emily, and Chapin

[About this summer’s Traveling Companions blog series:  To give myself the excuse to listen to more music this summer and to evangelize a little about some of my favorites, I decided to do a relaxed series telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me along the way.  Here’s the first post in the series.  I promise this whole series won’t be about the Indigo Girls, but they have been traveling with me for a long time now and I just saw them in concert last week, so here they are again.]

When I was 23, I sang along to all the songs on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Shooting Straight in the Dark album.  One of the songs, “Middle Ground,” has the lyric, “She’s 33 this time around” and whenever I got to that line I sang, “23” instead, feeling in synch from 10 years behind MCC.  Around this same time I made a mixed tape (translation for younger folks: playlist) of favorite songs, including that one, and called it my “Trying to Tell You Something about My Life” tape, titled after a line in the Indigo Girls’s anthem “Closer to Fine.”  I gave copies to close friends and I played it until it wore out.


Those were the years between college and seminary, the first time I lived in Appalachia.  There was no internet.  We thought nothing of driving 2-3 hours to visit friends for dinner and then driving back home again the same night.  There was ample time for listening to music and dreaming.  I stayed three years before heading to Atlanta for seminary.

On the way to Atlanta, I lived in Nashville for about 6 months.  I was ready to go but nervous about the change in work and the pace of life there.  The night I arrived, my friend took me to dinner at a sushi place near Music Row.  As we sat at our table chatting, I heard a voice I recognized at the table behind me.  It was the low, sultry, very-slightly-southern voice of Mary Chapin Carpenter and something about hearing and seeing her there on my first night in Nashville served as a blessing on the new chapter I was beginning.  I would be all right.  I wasn’t accustomed to asking for or looking for signs but somehow seeing and hearing her right then seemed to be a good one.

About four years earlier, still in college, I went to my second Indigo Girls concert.  It was a summer night at Wolf Trap, where we spread a blanket on the lawn and looked up at the stars while they sang.   They were touring for their first widely distributed album, Indigo Girls, the one with “Closer to Fine” and “Kid Fears” (which featured Michael Stipe in a haunting harmonizing vocal).  When they were getting ready to sing “Kid Fears” they paused to introduce a special guest about to come out and sing that third vocal with them.  The kind of people who yell out commentary from the audience were yelling, “Michael Stipe” – which I was pretty sure wouldn’t happen since he didn’t live near Washington D.C. and since he had his own tours to carry out.  I was aware that MCC lived in the D.C. area at that time and I had this small sliver of hope it might be her, though I’m not sure I had any proof before that night that they even knew each other.

I was right.  It was a special treat to hear that version of the popular song, and to know these three women I admired and listened to actually knew one another.  At the end of the concert during the encore, Amy and Emily brought Chapin back out and they capped the evening with an a cappella version of “The Water is Wide.”  It was chilling.  For me, it was church.  I have remembered it – the sounds, the feeling, the moment of it – for 26 years.  (And, no, I never once before this moment thought of looking on YouTube to see if there was a recording of them singing this together!)

Over the ensuing decades, I’ve heard them all play many times and brushed past them in real life.  When I lived in Atlanta I found myself pumping gas next to Emily Saliers one day.  Heading down the stairs from Eddie’s Attic one night, I heard an unmistakable voice talking to friends heading up the stairs and looked over to see I was passing Amy Ray.  A few years back I attended a wonderful preaching/writing workshop co-led by Emily and her father (and my seminary professor) Don Saliers.  The past few Advent seasons at the Wesley Foundation, we’ve become fond of singing Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come Darkness, Come Light.”  She now lives in Virginia, not too far from me, so I wasn’t surprised when we were in the same Starbucks getting coffee last year.

Last week my husband and I went to a benefit concert for the Charlottesville Free Clinic.  From the moment I heard the Indigo Girls and MCC would be the performers, I hoped they might sing together again like I have remembered all these years.  Amy and Emily sang the first set, then Chapin sang.  At the very end, she called Amy and Emily back out and the three of them sang “Closer to Fine.”  Then, just as I’d hoped, they sang “The Water is Wide,” first with accompaniment and then, on the last verse, only their three lovely, miles-traveled-together voices floating into the sticky hot night.  I looked up at the stars again but I also closed my eyes to drink it in.  It was worth waiting 26 years to hear again.

I own every album Chapin and the Indigo Girls have put out, I’ve gone to countless concerts, and we have crossed paths over many years, though I realize I’m the only one of the four of us who realizes this.  That’s fine.  Each of those crossings has been a blessing and a sign, a reminder of the places and times they’ve been my traveling companions.  I’m 47 this time around, which means Chapin’s 57.  I’m still singing along.


photo credit:  © 2006 Mike Evans, CC BY 2.0

How long?


A sermon preached on Mark 5:21-43 at Wesley Memorial UMC, at the end of an extraordinary week.

It’s interesting to me how time feels different, depending upon who you are and how you are.  Like the way “just a minute” sounds like a scam when you’re a kid, waiting on a parent’s attention.  Like the way “just a minute more” with a departed loved one sounds like a blessing beyond imagining.

In Mark’s gospel, we hear two stories of healing, both involving 12 years of time:  Jairus’s twelve-year-old sick daughter and the woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years.

When you’re a parent, twelve years is not nearly long enough for your child to live.  Twelve years old means she’s on that cusp of childhood and adolescence.  Though she may think she’s more grown up than she is, she’s still a child.  To be contemplating a funeral for a twelve-year-old is unthinkable.  It’s not enough time.

When you’re a woman with a medical condition, twelve years is a very long time.  Twelve years without relief from menstrual bleeding.  Twelve years of sickness with no cure and no more money left to spend on one if she found one.   Twelve years outside the norms of family, and religious and cultural rituals.  Twelve years with a lifetime more sickness and isolation in sight.

Both of these stories are about Jesus giving more than what was asked for.  Jairus comes asking for healing for his daughter, who’s very sick.  When Jesus is interrupted by the hemorrhaging woman, on his way to Jairus’s house, the daughter dies in the meantime.  The men who came with Jairus to find Jesus say We can leave this teacher alone now.  It’s too late.  She’s dead.  The time for healing is past; it’s time for mourning now.  Let’s go home.  But Jesus goes along anyway and ends up not only healing her but restoring her to life, resurrecting her.  Jesus gives more than Jairus even knew how to ask for.

At twelve-years old, Jairus’s daughter would have been entering into marriage soon, as it was customary to marry off young girls between 12-15 years of age.  She was just about to enter into her next important roles and relationships, as wife and mother.

At twelve years into her continual bleeding, the woman would be without any regular social connections, religious life, or male contact.

Life held limited opportunities for women at the time of Jesus – to put it mildly.

Girls were expected to marry young and bear children, especially male heirs.  Girls and women had very few rights and Roman law placed women under the custody or control of men, first your father, then your husband.  If a young woman wasn’t married by the age of 20 or if she didn’t bear children, she’d incur penalties, a state tax to be paid by her family for the drain of her life.  For enslaved women in that culture, it was even worse, of course.  They were considered property, and could not marry at all, though they were subject to any and all desires of their masters and of male slaves, with the master’s permission.  Any children born to them were the property of their masters.  Jewish women were subject to both Roman laws and Jewish purity laws.  Regular monthly menstruation was considered an “unclean” time and had to be followed by a seven-day purification each month.  During that whole time of a woman’s monthly period and the purification that followed, she couldn’t leave home, sleep in the same bed as her husband, sit on the same furniture, or go anywhere in public, including the synagogue.  (http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fifth-sunday-after-pentecost7)

That’s the way it was for women.  So consider what it was like for this woman.  It’s likely, if she’d ever had a husband, that he was long gone – they wouldn’t have been able to even touch each other for twelve years.  Bleeding continually for twelve years would have put her so far outside of normal, she probably couldn’t imagine ever getting back.  She never had much power in the culture of her day and now she had nothing at all.  Really think about the state of mind she must have been in by this point, funds exhausted with no cure in sight, body exhausted with no comfort to be found in society’s regular interactions, spirit exhausted enough to reach out in faith so desperate and hopelessly hopeful that it was the only thing left to do.

Time couldn’t have felt more different for Jairus and the bleeding woman, before they got to the point of seeking out Jesus.

Jairus was a religious leader in the Jewish community.  He was a man, wealthy, connected, important.  He had a daughter about to be of marrying age so he was almost ready to hand her to the next man in her life, a husband.  For twelve years, Jairus felt secure in the course he was on and what lay ahead for his family, his daughter.  Meanwhile, for twelve years, the woman who never had much power to begin with, helplessly watched her relationships and connections and possibilities for life seeping away with the flow of her blood.

Whatever the previous twelve years were for each of them, the moment they come to Jesus they are each in the same spot at the same time – desperate enough to try even this.

And faithful enough.  Did you notice what Jesus says?  The bleeding woman left the confines of her “unclean” house and reached out to touch Jesus’s cloak as he passed by.  Standing in the midst of “clean” folks in a place she’s not meant to occupy, she fesses up when Jesus realizes someone’s touched him.  She falls down at his feet and tells him everything.  And Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease” (Mark 5: 34).  Daughter.  He not only heals her illness, he redeems her standing in the community, claiming the woman whom moments before no one would touch, much less claim as their kin.  Her entire life is redeemed.  This is not just a stop to the blood, it’s a start to her future.

Jairus’s desperation and faith are evident in the fact that he himself goes to seek out Jesus.  He’s the kind of man who would have been accustomed to sending people to do his errands and carry his messages.  But this request couldn’t be entrusted to anyone else.  He wanted it that much.  He was willing to forego his powerful position and act as his own errand boy.

The power of this story is that these two were always in the same position, though neither they nor their communities nor the disciples knew it.  They were both, always and everywhere, desperate enough to need Jesus and the wellness/wholeness/saving only he can give.  At twelve years in they came to the same desperate fork in the road, gave up on convention, neighbors’ advice, self-reliance, and gave themselves over to faith and hope.

This is a week when we have known forks in the road.

This time last week I was about to leave Annual Conference in Roanoke.  I was packing my suitcase to go to Roanoke when I heard about the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.  All last weekend, I carried my phone around so I could keep up to date on news from Charleston.  When I saw the online petitions asking South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag, I supported the sentiment but wondered if we were distracting ourselves from the pain of the shooting.  I wondered if removing that hateful symbol would do much to remove hate itself.  I wondered if some of our more stubborn states would ever do it.  A week later and Wal-Mart has stopped selling them.

A century and a half is a long time to hold onto a symbol of hate and oppression.  One week is a short, powerful time in which to forgive and insist on another way.

Twenty-four hours is a short time between seismic Supreme Court rulings.  It’s a lifetime when you’ve been waiting to marry the one you love.

2000 years is a long time to spend explaining why women weren’t treated well in the time of Jesus.  It’s even longer to be holding onto beliefs like that – two minutes today is too long to endure or accept second-class treatment.

Time feels different, depending on who and how you are.  So does healing.

Healing began in some new and unexpected places in our country this week – praise God!  There’s more to do.  There are miles to go.  But it feels like more of us are heading in the same direction together.  It feels like the bleeding has stopped and we aren’t alone and outside of the crowd anymore.  We suddenly/at last noticed we are in the same place as every single one of our neighbors.  Equally desperate and in need of healing; equally blessed.

This time last week, marriage was legal for all our citizens in some states but not in others.  Today we can all marry the one we love.

This time last week our Virginia Annual Conference was voting to petition the General Conference to remove language from our Book of Discipline that refers to homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  When I got in the car to drive home, the vote hadn’t been tallied.  By the time I reached Charlottesville the news was out that Virginia voted to ask General Conference to take the language out.

How long, O Lord?

One day, one drive, one week, one lifetime…

The genius in Mark’s storytelling is that this is all one story:  Jairus (and his daughter) and the bleeding woman; rich, male, power and poor, female, powerlessness.  In Mark’s telling they are interwoven into one whole story.  They are brought to the same spot – desperate hope – and taken to the same place – healing and redemption.  This is the Good News of Jesus Christ:  we are all in the same story of healing and redemption, no matter how else we are tempted to see it.  No matter how we count the time.

It doesn’t matter whether you think twelve years was the blink of an eye or a long time coming.  What matters is recognizing Jesus when he calls out to bring you back into the fold of the family, back to life.  It feels like healing beginning in the place of deep woundedness and sickness.  It sounds like “Daughter,” “Son.”  It looks like we are all in this together.

Thanks be to God!

On President Obama, this extraordinary week, and the holy breast pumps of grace


I spent most of last week on retreat with my writing group, half of whom are nursing mothers with babies in tow.  When I made it home late yesterday, my husband and I went straight to the computer to watch President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney.  Perhaps if I hadn’t just been witness to a week of breastfeeding, I would have heard it differently, but I hung up on his repeated phrase “we express God’s grace.”

He couldn’t have done a better job speaking Methodist, with his sustained emphasis on the undeserved, unearned, unmerited grace of God we all receive.  (And I was proud to see the United Methodist Church sitting in solidarity with our AME sisters and brothers, represented by South Carolina Bishop L. Jonathan Holston on the front row on stage – yes, geeks like me can spot the cross and flame logo and the bishops’ insignia on a stole in the background of a video shot.)  As President Obama spoke, circling back around to God’s grace in our lives, I heard something I haven’t before.

I usually think of God’s grace flowing – gushing – continually into the world and into each of our lives.  Sometimes we notice, sometimes we don’t.  Either way, it’s always there and we can actively participate in it or resist it or halfway notice it, or not.  What I never thought about before hearing the President preach-speak is how we might be able to participate more directly and persuasively than I’ve considered in the past.  We might be able to squeeze out another ounce of grace when it seems to be running dry, like a mother pumping breast milk for her newborn.

When President Obama first used the phrase, he said, “by taking down [the Confederate] flag we express God’s grace.  But I don’t think God wants us to stop there.”  I heard “we express God’s grace” as We are exhibiting God’s grace, demonstrating its existence and power.  Which surely we are….But as he repeated it I heard it differently.  A little later he said, “The vast majority of Americans – the majority of gun owners – want to do something about [the epidemic of gun violence].  We see that now.  And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country, by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.”

As he repeated, “we express God’s grace,” I began to hear the verb “express” differently.  I started to think about breastfeeding and how the milk doesn’t just gush on its own, especially when a mother is trying to express (literally, press out) milk into a bottle for her child to drink some other time.  A breastfeeding mother who expresses milk needs to spend time and give attention to getting her milk from breast to bottle.  She has to push, pull, suck, and squeeze to help it flow from her to where it’s needed.  From what I understand, sometimes even with a breast pump, a mother has to wait through several minutes of sucking-pumping for the milk to start flowing.

What if, in some times, places, and circumstances, God’s grace is like this?  What if it’s not just gushing all the time like an open fire hydrant?  What if it’s ready to do that but needs some active participation from us?

I am not saying God is completely stymied without the likes of us.  That open fire hydrant of gushing grace is an image that still works for me.  But I have known places and people where, even though I witnessed God’s gushing grace drenching us all from head to toe, someone in the crowd didn’t seem wet or sensible to their drenched state.  Surely God’s grace was flooding that Wednesday night Bible study last week when a group of the faithful welcomed a stranger and invited him in.  Obviously the grace of God flowed through the families of those who were killed, as they offered forgiveness in the midst of their deep pain and loss.  But it’s not obvious to everyone.

There are times and places and people who seem to need more than the ocean we’re already swimming in.  Those times and places and people need us, to point to and live out and express every last drop of God’s grace – not just to witness to it and live gracefully and graciously, but to squeeze, prod, suck, and push until every single drop of grace lets down into the situation at hand.  Like mothers who want to be sure every ounce of precious milk gets to their hungry helpless babies, God enlists us to help express grace into the world and the lives around us so it gets to every hungry helpless child of God.  We are the holy breast pumps of grace.  It’s not a sexy job and not as beautiful as the babe at the breast, but it still gets the milk to the sucking puckered mouth.  It gets the job done.  And sometimes, when the baby’s sleeping or not hungry right then or the mother needs to be somewhere else at feeding time, expressing milk is the difference between feeding and not feeding, between flow and drying up.

I love to hear Barack Obama sing and his rendition of “Amazing Grace” was stirring and soulful, but to my ears, what he said about grace was even better.  We are witnesses but we are also tools to help get the job done, the breast pumps expressing (pressing out into the world) the grace of God.  We are expressing God’s grace when we answer hate with love and forgiveness, when we recognize how the past is killing the future, when a group of United Methodists in Virginia votes for a new way forward, when we choose to care for everyone’s health and safety as a basic human need and right, when we recognize love looks just the same on everyone and rejoice in everyone’s right to marry

For a breast-feeding mother, every day brings a hungry baby, so even though this week has been extraordinary, every week brings opportunities to express what God gives.  Keep it up.  Keep pressing out every bit of grace you know, into a world in desperate need of knowing it, too.  Keep pumping.


photo credit:  By Beukbeuk (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Straight and flat, the boring parts

On long backpacking hikes in my twenties, we passed the time going up and down mountains by cataloguing the ways we were struggling.  Going up, we were breathless and our muscles were shaky; going down, knees and ankles, different muscles.  One wasn’t really better or worse than the other, just hard in different ways.  We never said much about the hike itself on the few flat portions of trail.

I find myself doing this in the rest of life.  I spend a lot of time hoping for and anticipating the uphill sections – the family vacation planned for July, the next kiln opening, finishing the project, beating my mile swim time – and a lot of time dreading and trying to just make it through the downhill sections – sickness, cleaning the bathroom, meetings and reports, uncomfortable conversations with difficult people.  I’m realizing lately that I have underappreciated the occasional straight, flat parts of “the trail.”

Hiking in April after a sluggish and inactive winter, we were on a well-groomed trail with small, intermittent flat stretches built into the switchbacks.  Going up, I used those stretches to straighten up and catch my breath and gather my wits and steam for the next uphill bit.  Going down, I relaxed and felt relief from the joint-pounding, muscle-quivering descent.  These seemingly boring straight flat parts saved me – in both directions.

As with many spiritual break-throughs, my own weakness and vulnerability on that first hike of the season allowed me to see and appreciate something I’ve been missing.  And needing.  Those usually unheralded flat parts had a beauty of their own.  I didn’t have to concentrate so hard or push myself or hold myself back.  I could just let them take me to the next up or down.  They were absolutely necessary for both recovery and gearing up.

The parts (on the trail, in life) that are easily overlooked, the flat reprieves where nothing much happens and we aren’t engaged in heroic measures or managing failures, are as necessary as up and down to get where we are going.  It’s easier to see this on the trail than in the midst of life.  When my panting slows on a flat path after a steep rise or my knees stop barking after a sharp descent, if I’m paying enough attention I can see the need for something flat and straight and just boring enough to give me a moment.  In life off the trail, it seems harder.

This summer, I’m trying to slow myself down enough to appreciate the relative flatness but it’s taking great intention, like pulling on the reins of wild horses.  So I’m remembering April’s hike and the unexpected savoring I did on those flat parts of the trail.  I know the uphills and downhills of the academic year (and the rest of life) are coming but for right now the path is clear, flat, and straight.  I’m catching my breath, offering thanks for this blessedly boring stretch, and letting it take me where it will.