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.

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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.

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[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.

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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.

mcc_c_2006_mike.evans

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.

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photo credit:  © 2006 Mike Evans, CC BY 2.0


How long?

IMG_1221

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.

 


Drowned by God

I was swimming along just fine, regularly going for a mile or more, several times a week.  I felt strong and sleeker than usual.  Then, one day, I just didn’t feel like it and had to argue myself into going to the pool.  I felt bloated and stressed and harried, and in my convincing conversation with myself, I reminded me that this is exactly the kind of time when it’s important to go ahead and get moving instead of eating half a cake in front of the TV.  It’s probably a result of watching too much TV and too many movies, but on the first lap I kept waiting to start feeling better.  I’m moving now.  I complied.  Kick in the soaring inspirational montage music and I’ll feel sleekness return.  I’ll be out of the funk.

That’s not what happened.  I don’t remember how long I swam that day – maybe a half mile, if I made it that far – and every single stroke was a struggle.  There was no montage music.  There was no lightening of my load.  I never hit my swimming stride to feel sleek and smooth, gliding through the water.  I felt like I was thrashing around, slapping and splashing, struggling to breathe.

I was praying the whole time.  Praying as I convinced myself to go.  Praying as I got into the pool and started thrashing.  Praying for my stroke to even out.  Praying for God to be with me and lift some of the burden I felt, weighing me down.  I thought I was struggling with myself – with self-doubt and that strangely stultifying combination of physical laziness and overwork – but as I doggedly kept slapping the surface of the water, gasping for each breath, I started to think maybe it wasn’t me.

I started to wonder if I was in a wrestling match with God.  And, since I was in the pool, I also wondered if God was trying to drown me.  That feeling didn’t go away for the entire swim, and I wondered why God would want to wrestle me right then, on a shaky day to begin with, in a particularly vulnerable location.

I love the story of Jacob wrestling all night with the angel/God (Genesis 32: 22-32), refusing to let go or give in until he’d received the blessing he was after.  I love the idea of God as one who’s willing to get this intimate with us in our struggles, but until my own wrestling match I always thought of the wrestling itself as merely a metaphor.  I preferred my actual experiences of God to be in more in the comforting metaphor variety – Good Shepherd, mother hen (John 10: 11-18, Matthew 23:37).

That day in the pool, I was face-to-face, breath-to-struggling-breath, with a very present but not so comforting God.   I don’t know why and I am not sure I know yet what blessing I wrangled that day, but God was definitely present in the pool with me and it wasn’t the comfort I thought it would be when I started swimming and praying.

Months later, when I’d pushed that episode to the back of my mind, it came pouring back to the front during a conversation with my students.  We’d been singing the David Crowder Band song “How He Loves,” which includes this line:  “If grace is an ocean we’re all sinking.”  I told them this doesn’t seem like grace for me, that I like the metaphor of grace as an ocean but it needs language like  “floating” and  “buoyed up” to describe it.  Do we really want grace to sink us?  Isn’t that like being drowned by grace?

Then I remembered my wrestling match.  Maybe Crowder’s got it right after all.  Maybe we do want grace to sink us.  From our watery beginnings in baptism, death for Christians is as present as life.  When we join the tribe, we enter through a “watery grave,” believing it holds the promise of life.  And it does, but we go by the road Christ himself traveled, as Charles Wesley wrote (United Methodist Hymnal, p. 302):  “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!/ Following our exalted head, Alleluia!/ Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!/ Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!”

I don’t know why I thought God would stand back in my vulnerable moment instead of jumping in with me.  I don’t know why I thought metaphors were enough.  Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t want a rematch, at least not in the pool.  But maybe part of the blessing I received that day was the experience itself, of being taken hold of by God in a desperate and vulnerable moment, and being held onto no matter how I struggled and resisted, no matter how much I begged for a mother hen instead of an underwater sumo wrestler.

 


Oh, UMC. A Lament.

Last weekend I had the honor of serving as celebrant for the wedding of two recently graduated alumni.  I’ve known both the bride and groom for their entire undergraduate careers, and their wedding brought three reception tables’s worth of Wesley students and alumni to town.  After they were married at the church, we spent a gorgeous early summer evening, sun descending, shadows gathering, on a luscious winery estate lawn, sipping drinks and enjoying the company and the occasion.

Late into the evening, as shadows gave way to stars, and it couldn’t get any more delicious, Meredith* said, “Can I ask you a question?”

I was sitting next to my husband, flanked on one side by an alumna from last year and on the other side by Meredith, who just graduated in May and who will be coming back to grad school in a year.  It so happens both of these alumnae are gay.

Wesley students visiting the Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, GA.

Wesley students visiting the Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, GA.

Meredith said, “I know you can’t do a wedding for me and, obviously, it’s a ways off because I don’t have anyone in mind, but at this point, I don’t have another minister.  You know me best and you’re still my minister.  Even if you couldn’t be the one to marry me, would you do my pre-marital counseling?”

I have known Meredith her entire undergraduate career and, before that, her sister.  I am booked to be the officiant for her sister’s wedding next year (to yet another Wesley alumnus) and was about to meet with that couple for their first pre-marital meeting this week, which is partly why Meredith was asking.

She told me she’d spent two hours on the phone with her sister earlier in the week, talking about how excited she was to start planning for her wedding and marriage.  Meredith, who grew up in the church just like her sister, and who did the hard work of making space for a faith community during college (just like her sister), and who is determined to keep growing in her discipleship into her adult years and her future relationships, including marriage (just like her sister) – this beautiful young beloved child of God did not even ask me, her pastor, if I’d do her one-day wedding.  Even her question was trimmed down to size for compliance with our current UMC Discipline.  All she asked me is if, even though it may not be possible for me to be the celebrant at her wedding one day, could she please spend time with me preparing for it?  Meredith, whose discipleship and faith community has been as similar as possible to her own sister’s for their whole lives, and who learned well the Church’s own teaching about the importance of having a pastoral spiritual guide and a gathered community of faith for life’s passages, didn’t even ask me for what she really wants and needs.  And deserves.

It sickens me to say she learned those other lessons our Church is teaching, too – that not all of what we do and say is meant for her.  I feel sick to my stomach and teary just writing this.

Imagine how difficult it was for me on that beautiful night, in the midst of our beloved gathered community, to hear Meredith ask for such a small crumb from the children’s table (Matthew 15: 21-28; Mark 7: 24-30).

Now imagine how hard it was for her.

She made it easier on me than she should have.  Both she and the other alumna were kind and generous in the conversation we had, but that moment dampened the evening for me – not that she brought it up, but that she had to at all.

There is no amount of forethought and hypothesis that can predict what you’ll actually do, given the right situation.  Though this is still where I stand, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep standing here.

Oh, UMC, don’t make me do this!  Don’t make me choose you over God’s own children.  Don’t make me choose the Gospel over you.

__

*Meredith gave me permission to use her name and to write about this, and said, “I hope the UMC can get it together by the time I want to get married.”  Me, too.


Traveling Companions: New Music

Back before the Internet, when downloads and iTunes didn’t exist, I drove to another state for the new Indigo Girls album.  It was 1990 and I spent my day off driving from Jonesville, Virginia, to Kingsport, Tennessee, to the mall.  Remember mall record stores?

I had recently upgraded from my first car, a 1968 Dodge Dart named Arthur (yes, it was incredibly old even then), to a nondescript K-car.  I got air conditioning and FM radio in the upgrade but no tape player.  So, on road trips I’d bring along my radio/cassette player and one of those power cords that plugs into the cigarette lighter.  It didn’t play through the car’s speakers, I just blasted it as loudly as I could from that sad little “box,” sitting, speakers up, on the passenger seat.  It takes about an hour to make that drive, which means I got to hear the whole album at least once on the drive back.

I want to say new albums meant more when obtaining one was an event like this, but I don’t think it’s true, even though I remember small, specific details of that day, like how steamy the car was when I got back in at the mall parking lot, wrestling with the thin, tight-wrapped plastic to open the hard, textured-plastic case around the tape.  Like putting my sunglasses on and hearing “Hammer and a Nail” for the first time, making my way back to the highway.  Like I was recognizing something I’d heard before yet couldn’t wait to hear revealed.

I want to say this but then, today, on retreat in a remote locale with a one-bar signal, I managed to download the new Indigo Girls album, One Lost Day, onto my phone in decent time.  And when I heard “Elizabeth,” the sound of summer and longing all mixed up with their voices – like another summer whose stormy soundtrack was Rites of Passage (“Ghost,” “Romeo & Juliet”), like the epitome of late-summer ripeness and longing I can actually taste every time I hear “Mystery” (Swamp Ophelia) – memory of that drive flooded back.

It took a lot less time to procure this album, but I’m in the same place, transported.

Driving to my retreat yesterday, I listened to another musical traveling companion, Susan Werner.  These days I can plug my phone straight into the car’s sound system to listen, but the essence of companionship is the same.  Driving alone through the green gorgeous western Virginia mountains, Susan sang to me about “the greenest corner of God’s green earth,” and though she meant Iowa, it resonated.

Lately I spend most of my time in the car navigating appointments, with NPR on in the background.  Yesterday’s drive reminded me how much I need music and what great musical traveling companions I’ve spent time with over the years.  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 here called Traveling Companions, telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride.


Trust. Remember. Go.

Baccalaureate sermon on Acts 1: 1-11, preached for the Wesley Foundation during UVA’s graduation weekend.

There are certain times in the Christian year when we never get to be together as the Wesley community.  The 4th Sunday in Advent and the entire Christmas season, being a prime one.  Every year in our community worship, we jump from the 3rd Sunday in Advent right into mid-January, the season after Epiphany.  I realize many of you may not have noticed this since Christmas is a busy time of year and you are worshipping, back together with family and friends at home.  I realize this is mainly a pastor’s lament, because we’re geeky and into the liturgical cycle, and because it’s a little weird, from my point of view as a worship planner and preacher, to fast forward through one of the best parts of the Christian year.

The Ascension and Pentecost are times like this, too.  I think I was a good six years into campus ministry before the school year made it to Pentecost, and that was only because it fell the day after our baccalaureate worship so I claimed it as Pentecost Eve.

Today is Ascension Eve.  And because we rarely make it to this point in the Christian year together, I was pleasantly surprised to see how perfectly the story of Jesus’ Ascension fits with the leave-taking of baccalaureate and graduation weekend.

Right at the end of the passage we just heard, Jesus is lifted up into the sky and beyond the clouds.  The disciples just stand there staring.  And the two men in white robes show up and ask, “Galileans why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” (v. 11).

Does that question ring any bells for you?  Ascension is the end of the forty days of Easter.  Remember a similar early morning question back on Easter day?  In Luke’s gospel, when the women find the empty tomb, they are terrified and just stand there, staring and immobile, looking into the place where Jesus was.  Two men in white robes show up and ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24: 5).

These questions are bookends for us to the Easter season:  Why do you look for the living among the dead? … Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?  Each time, Jesus’ disciples want just a little longer to stare.  It’s like they think he’ll come back or they will see something new when the clouds shift.  If the white-robed men didn’t show up with their questions would they have all stayed frozen to those spots, staring and waiting indefinitely?

Maybe this is a temptation you’re feeling this weekend.  To stay and stare.  Wait for a clear sign.  Bask in this place and these years and this Wesley family of faith.

I get it.

You are looking at a mighty marvelous sight…  Wesley friends who have become family – people you had never met just four years ago, without whom you can no longer imagine life making sense.  You are looking at Christ-centered community that’s made your time at UVA soul-nourishing and character-forming.  You are staring at a place that has become one of your most important places.  You are standing still on ground made holy by your time in this community of faith.  It’s worth another long, lingering look.

Take it in.

Then take it with you.

The disciples didn’t want to leave that empty tomb or that locked upper room.  They wanted to stay rooted to the spot where they last saw Jesus, even after the clouds had shifted.

But the gifts he gave them didn’t end on either of those hard, unimaginable, blessed spots.  He promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, the spread of their witness to the ends of the earth, and his eventual return.  He gave them himself, each other, and a mission.

You have the same gifts.

Your time at Wesley has been God-infused and blessed in ways you probably didn’t imagine before you arrived, and which will make you hungry for more wherever you go from here.  Let that hunger be your guide.  Don’t stand rooted to one spot, starving and staring.  Leave here knowing you are as full as can be right now and that God will keep feeding you “out there.”

God is not done with you yet.  You are not just graduating from UVA, you are being sent from Wesley, too, on a mission to witness to the incredible, stare-inducing love of Christ.  Whether you think you know what you’re doing or not.  Your degree, honors of honor that it is, is not the most important thing you got here.  You got discipleship training in being and becoming the body of Christ.  You received the gift of God’s Holy Spirit dancing among us, pulling us together in just four short years, into one family, one body, against all odds.

The Good News is now you know how to do it and what to look for.  Now you know it can happen in some other unexpected lonely first-time place.  The leave-taking is both beautiful and painful.  So is your mission.

The Good News is there’s nowhere to escape God or outrun that Love. God always gets there first and calls you on.  Just like when you left home and showed up at UVA to a puny dorm room with no friends, and parents about to drive off, wondering how in the world you would make it.

And look what happened.

Go ahead, take another look.  Drink it in.  Feel the fullness and the hunger.  Trust it.  Remember it.  And Go in peace, dear ones.

Thanks be to God!


Friday Five: Spring Renewal

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.

 

 

Every Friday the RevGals post a play-along Friday Five.  (Have I mentioned we wrote a book?)  This week’s is wide open:  “share with us five experiences of renewal that you have recently enjoyed, or would like to launch this Easter season.”

Happy May Day, everyone, and here are my five…

 

  1. Hiking.  We hiked Crabtree Falls with company in town a couple weeks ago, as the forest was just waking up again and trillium were blooming.  My calves were so tight afterwards I had to use a rolling pin on them to get them to relax – which means we should be doing this one again and often.
  2. Crêpe fest.  A few years ago for my husband’s May birthday I declared it “Crêpe fest” and we made both savory (gruyere and mushroom) and sweet (Nutella, honey and cinnamon, lemon and sugar) crêpes.  It’s time for the festival to return.
  3. Visit my grandparents’ house.  My dad owns it now but I will always think of it as theirs.  I’ve been working on a longer piece about home and being southern.  It centers on this little spot on the map in the flat red-clay tobacco country of Virginia and how I’m connected to family and traditions and people there.
  4. Enjoy a real, decadent brunch.  Atlanta is the brunchingest town I’ve ever lived in and I have missed this in every other place I’ve lived.  To find a good restaurant that does both Saturday and Sunday brunch is a treasure (and a necessity for those of us with Sunday obligations).  I love lingering over a third cup of coffee and the sprawling feeling of morning merging into afternoon, in both time and cuisine.
  5. Writing retreat.  I had one planned for the exact week we got ten inches of snow in February.  The kind proprietors of the cabin I booked allowed me to reschedule and it’s coming up soon.  I’m looking forward to being offline, out of touch, and deeply absorbed.