Unnecessary beauty

High Bridge Trail, depot in the distance.

One blistering, humid, high 90s day in the middle of the summer, I hiked a couple of miles on the High Bridge Trail with my family. The trail is a converted railroad bed and the bridge is a very high passage trains once made over the trickle of the Appomattox River far below. Until you get out into the middle of the bridge where you can peer down and see that trickle, you walk level with treetops. At intervals across the bridge, there are train-depot-style platforms that jut out slightly from the rest of the bridge, with off-center-peaked roofs sloped over benches facing out over the drop. As we hid from the baking sun, eating our picnic lunch on one of the benches, I noticed how much detail went into making the depots.

Fed, watered, and cooled down a bit, I examined our depot from all angles. It could have easily, predictably been nothing more than a bench with an unadorned roof. But these were made of bolted metal and grooved tin roofing, with gentle arched supports underneath that lit up all the train depot recognition areas of my brain – areas I wasn’t aware of until those delightful sparks of recognition.

Gorgeous.

The depots could have been merely utilitarian and expedient, enough to provide rest and shade. Instead, someone decided to delight. Someone opted for unnecessary beauty in a place where relatively few will see it and where you have to work to get to it – a place where rest and shade are the only necessities or expectations.

When the latest bad news spreads, I hear people say, “Fight back with beauty.” I know what they mean. I appreciate the battle cry but I am weary.

I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When my grandfather was old and blind and my grandmother was still cooking in her own kitchen, I was trying to help set the table for lunch. With my grandmother, even a simple un-cooked lunch of sandwiches involved ten full minutes of table preparation. I was trying to speed things up and wash fewer dishes later, so I grabbed the empty glass from beside my grandfather’s chair in the living room where he sat listening to the television. When she saw me putting that glass at my grandfather’s place, tears welled in my grandmother’s eyes as she replaced it. “I always give him a fresh glass with his meal.”

Maybe a clean fresh glass doesn’t normally count as beauty but it did then. It was as unnecessary as the delightful depots on the trail – his previous glass wasn’t dirty and he would never see the difference between the two glasses. But she knew – she could see – and the fresh glass was one in a long line of her simple, daily, loving acts of unnecessary beauty.

I keep saying “unnecessary.” When you swim two miles and get out of the pool growling for food, it doesn’t matter whether the table is set properly or the food is a balanced meal. You need calories, plain and simple. Calories are necessary; gourmet is not. I can think of other similar but less obvious routines in my life when I opt for the utilitarian and expedient.

But is beauty an option? Is delight really “unnecessary”?

After the presidential election last fall I re-watched the entire West Wing series. I also decided it was time to purchase my own clergy collar shirt. Beauty, fantasy. Beauty, calling.

There is so much to do and sometimes I choose the crappiest way to do it. Once, when friends asked to use our ministry’s fellowship hall for a birthday celebration, I hastily dumped a bag of ice into a cooler and threw the cooler up on a table next to the drinks. The elderly mother of the birthday guest looked at my attempt and asked if there was a nice bowl we could put the ice in instead. In the kitchen, I grumbled to a friend about how unnecessary that was and wasn’t the mother being a little too much – my friend looked at me as if I were an idiot and told me I was being an idiot. Of course the ice should go in a bowl.

Beauty is relative. It’s still beauty.

I haven’t written much since the election. I want to hide constantly. I mostly don’t.

Here’s what I know: The day we hiked High Bridge Trail was brutal, even for a Virginia summer day. The food and water would have been enough to make the hike and make it back to the car. But the delight of the depot – detailed, intentional, unnecessary beauty – is what has stuck with me. Maybe it had more to do with making it than I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos © Woody Sherman, used with permission.

Swimming at the JCC

As I’ve mentioned, I’m determined to keep up my physical-mental-spiritual-emotional practice of swimming my butt off this winter. As I’ve also mentioned, I’ve had to make special arrangements to swim while out of town for work, something I often do with the help of this handy guide for finding a pool wherever you might find yourself.

In both January and February I spent most of a week in Richmond, and I’ve swum at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center each time. I didn’t grow up in towns with JCCs and had never been to one before my first January swim there. I asked my friend Jake if there were any cultural things I should know about being a good guest in the space and he patiently explained it would be pretty much like using the YMCA – not everyone at a JCC is necessarily Jewish and I wouldn’t stand out immediately as the obvious Christian in the mix.

From the membership coordinator I spoke with on the phone to set up my guest pass, to the front desk guy ready with a “Good morning” and a dry wit, to the concierge-style lifeguard, this is a place that does hospitality well. And I’m not kidding about Pete the lifeguard. He greets each swimmer by name when they enter the pool deck (he knew mine by the second day and remembered me when I showed up again in February) and gets off his chair to assist swimmers adding into lanes when they are all full. Seriously, he motioned and directed me to my lane, as he walked over to the swimmer already in the lane, saying, “I’ll let him know you’re joining him,” and then he tapped the other swimmer as he approached the wall to let him know he’d have company. It was like being shown to my table at a fine restaurant. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, since swimmers mostly work these things out on their own. But it was oddly nice – especially standing there, vulnerable, in only a swimsuit and my weak-prescription goggles – to be treated like a valued member of the pool community and offered a particular place within it.

“Love your neighbor” has resonated more than any other goal or descriptor of our life and ministry at Wesley this year. Not because we are doing it well all the time, but because we don’t know a better way to respond to hate and xenophobia than with this simple, all-encompassing, daily reminder from Jesus (Matthew 22: 36-40). I’m here to tell you that being welcomed as a guest, greeted by name, and offered a place in the pool is a fantastic embodiment of loving one’s neighbor.  

In the first weeks of the New Year, before I swam at the WJCC the first time, a rash of bomb threats began at JCCs around the country. They are still happening. The first day I navigated my way to the unfamiliar pool in January, in the dark early morning on nearly empty streets, a pick up truck followed closely behind me for several blocks before I arrived. It went its own way before I got there but in this time of threat and hate, I noticed and briefly worried. By my February visit, I’d seen news reports of JCCs being evacuated during bomb threats, and I considered what to have ready in my poolside bag in case we had to evacuate in the middle of my swim. I didn’t consider not going.

This past week, the lobby was full of preparations for Purim celebrations, the Hamantaschen-laden holiday when Esther’s story is remembered and humorously re-enacted. It’s a short book and worth the read, if you don’t know it or if it’s been a while. Esther ends up in a position to make her voice heard and influence a king. She needs a little convincing that sticking her neck out is worth the risk. She’s told her silence won’t guarantee her safety and, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4: 12-14).

My neighbor-loving neighbors at the WJCC know how to stick their necks out. Given the national climate and current threats, I wouldn’t have been surprised or angry if they had closed ranks and temporarily stopped offering guest passes to unknown non-JCC members just passing through town. But they know Whose and who they are, and what they have to offer at just such a time as this.

Frankly, even if the Swimmers Guide showed me a closer pool somewhere else, I’d choose to keep going back to the WJCC when I visit Richmond for work. Not just for laps or for the kind and gracious lifeguard, but because these are my neighbors.

 

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photo credit: “Lifeguard jumping into action in Ocean City, Maryland,” © 2007 by flickr user dbking, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Still no apologies

Almost five years ago I wrote, “Maybe the most revolutionary and playful thing we can do is to play unapologetically, to give ourselves permission and to stop seeking it from anyone else.   Play is revolutionary.”  I wish I could say I’ve carried through with the revolution by now, but I’m still working on it.

Thanks to Topology Magazine for re-running this early piece.  It’s a good reminder to me in what has been feeling like a very un-playful time lately.  I hope you will find in it some support, encouragement, and permission to let loose and play with your whole being this week.

Jesus Promises They Will Hate Us

 

Walking into Oceti Sakowin Camp with the sun rising, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

A sermon preached on Luke 21: 5-19 and Isaiah 65: 17-25, on November 13, 2016, at the Wesley Foundation at UVA.

As I think you all know by now, last week I traveled to North Dakota, to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I had been watching the news for more than a month, learning about the multiple Native tribes who had come together to camp out on the prairie to protect the water of the Missouri River, where a company from Texas has been making its way across four states with an oil pipeline (called the Dakota Access Pipeline), including plans to tunnel under the Missouri River, just north of the Standing Rock reservation. I had read about the original route for the pipeline, which was supposed to cross under the river north of Bismarck (about an hour’s drive north of the reservation). But the people in Bismarck thought that sounded dangerous and risky to them and their water, so the plans changed to avoid that town – but not to avoid the risks to water contamination all together. I had read about the peaceful prayerful protests and about indigenous people from all over the globe traveling to North Dakota to support and stand with the Standing Rock Sioux. Since last April, thousands of people have been camping and protesting and trying to protect the water. In the last month, a highly militarized police and security force began shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protestors and at even at their horses. A private militia hired by the oil company set dogs on protestors, some of whom were mauled. Authorities in riot gear have used pepper spray and sound cannons on peaceful, prayerful protestors exercising their first amendment rights – protestors and water protectors who are bathed every day in prayer and who pray daily for those officers. Authorities have locked up journalists who have tried to cover the events and have thrown over 400 people in jail on contrived charges in attempts to intimidate them into stopping and disbanding. In jail they have needlessly strip-searched people in order to humiliate and further intimidate them. They have shipped some of those in custody to jails several hours away, to make it harder to get back home again or find rides when they are eventually released, sometimes on bail as high as $1500 per person. When their court dates come around, they will be required to travel hours back to those other towns to appear. Police are using helicopters and drones constantly circling overhead and they have road blocked the main highway between the reservation and Bismarck. They constantly stand guard at the roadblock with additional forces keeping watch from the nearby ridges.[i]

As things came to a head and became violent in this past month, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and other Native groups I’ve been following began asking explicitly for more people to join them. We need numbers, they said. We need them to see we won’t go away and we aren’t alone. Please help us. I kept reading and following and praying. I didn’t really think about going. It’s the middle of the semester. It’s a really long way away. Wouldn’t it be better to send them money for winter supplies? It didn’t seem reasonable or feasible. Then Rev. John Floberg, a feisty crusty old Episcopal priest who’s been serving in the communities on and near the Reservation for 25 years, sent out a call to clergy. It’s time to come, he said. I know it’s inconvenient and this is short notice but this is it. They need us. We can provide a protective witness for their struggle. He was hoping to get 100 clergy and over 500 of us answered the call. But I told colleagues and friends who were going “no” at least twice before I changed my mind. I told God “no” more than that. But it wouldn’t leave me alone. All the same “reasonable” things popped up – money, time, effort, inconvenience, family commitments… As I pondered and said “no” and delayed, the airline tickets kept going up. Wouldn’t it be better to send them $1000 for food and warm clothes and winter camping supplies? What am I going to do? But the Holy Spirit would not leave me alone and the people of Standing Rock kept saying, We need help. We need you to come. At some point in that epic week of wrestling with God about this decision, I realized that, unlike so many many things in the world, this is something I am qualified to do. I am a person who prays; I am a visible sign of the church; I have a body and I’m able and well enough to travel. I don’t know what to replace pipelines with or how to implement renewable energy plans. I don’t know how to map an alternate route for this pipeline. I couldn’t convene a meeting with President Obama or film a documentary about this struggle. But I was absolutely qualified to put on my clergy garb and say “yes” to my far away neighbors who needed help I could provide, and spend some money and travel in the middle of the night and stand in the middle of the prairie with them and pray.

I am not telling you this so you will praise me or come tell me after worship how amazing it is that I went. I do appreciate the support and prayers from Wesley folks and others in Charlottesville as I answered that call, but that’s not why I’m telling you this now. I’m trying to let you in on, as best I can, how inelegant and clumsy and wrestling-match-like my discernment was – and how blessed I was by choosing to go where and when I was asked, to offer what was asked of me, and not to rationalize or monetize my way out of it.

Most importantly, I am telling you this in the hopes that when you hear someone’s request or see someone in need of help and solidarity, you won’t take as long as I did to wrestle it out.

The pipeline may or may not be stopped or re-routed and you may or may not think pipelines are a bad idea – but there are not “two sides” to this situation. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being beaten and jailed and harassed and intimated without any just cause.

This sermon is not about the election, exactly. It’s about how Christians are called to act no matter who is in power, no matter how prosperous and peaceable the times, no matter how war-torn and uncertain.

Luke records Jesus saying, as the disciples admired the stonework and the architecture of the temple, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” When Luke writes down those prophetic words of Jesus the temple’s destruction is already 15 years ago for Luke’s own audience.

Jesus says, This is impressive and beautiful but it will be dust. It will not stand the test of time. It will be destroyed. He stands in the shadow of the empire and the religious institutions of his day telling his band of followers that everything will crumble and war will break out and they will be arrested and persecuted – but that, even in the midst of all that, God is still counting the hairs on each of their heads. By enduring, holding tight to God alone, they will “gain their lives” (v. 18).

Jesus does not promise wealth or peace between the nations of the world. He does not promise that the institutions and the things they love about the current regime will be spared. He promises natural and human-made destruction, famine, health epidemics, kingdoms collapsing, prison, religious persecution, and betrayal by loved ones. Jesus promises that people will hate us because of him.

 

Since Election Day incidents of hate speech, graffiti, and intimidation, targeted at Muslims, Blacks, immigrants, and women, have increased. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and as of 5pm on Friday night, there were over 200 such incidents since Election Day. People have been approached in the street, found graffiti on their apartment doors, been directly put down and threatened in school cafeterias, and more, told to “get out of our country” and “If you aren’t born here, pack your bags.” A Black woman was standing at a traffic light in Louisiana when a truckload of white men pulled up and shouted at her, “F*** your black life!” They laughed and chanted “Trump!” as they drove off. According to Inside Higher Ed, at New York University’s engineering college someone defaced the door to a designated Muslim prayer room, by scrawling “Trump!” across it. Even before Tuesday’s results, we here at UVA have experienced a spate of hateful speech and harassment directed towards Jews, the LGBTQ community, Black students, Muslims, and women. We have seen enough of this here that a collection of student organizations has come together under the name Eliminate the Hate and they are sponsoring a week of activities and events on Grounds this week, to speak out and up against this rising tide.

In the middle of another tumultuous and destructive time, Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 65: 17-19):

For I am about to create new heavens

and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

or come to mind.

 

But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,

and its people as a delight.

 

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,

and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,

or the cry of distress.

 

Isaiah wrote these words to the war-torn remnant of Israel who were finally returning home after 60 years as captives in Babylon. They are words of hope but they must have been a teary and anguished hope to the people’s ears as their eyes took in their destroyed homes and vineyards and towns. Nothing was intact or as they had left it. They had to start over again. “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”…”be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating”…It must have seemed impossible to those returning exiles that they would forget what had happened, that standing in the rubble of their former lives they could ever forget the world-shifting loss or that moment or any of those long 60 years. It must have seemed insane to stand in that situation in that moment and be told to “rejoice” in what God was creating. Where, God? Exactly where in this mess is your beautiful handiwork?

But God promises that the houses and vineyards they build will not be in vain. They will make it through to live in them and to harvest the fruit. Their hard and faithful work of rebuilding will not be in vain. God promises to answer before the people even ask, before they call out again.

Spoken into a broken time of uncertainty and great fear, Isaiah proclaims that even though you may not be able to see it yet, God is still working. What looks ugly and destroyed is the fertile soil for what grows next. Hang on and hope, because here’s what you will see soon.

Sunrise over Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

One of the things I noticed at Standing Rock was how the Native people referred to others as “relatives.” There is a loudspeaker in the camp and as the morning was getting started around the sacred fire, someone came on and said, “Good morning, relatives!” When indigenous people from around the world arrive at Standing Rock, they say, “Our relatives from New Zealand and Hawaii are here.” This deep recognition of their connection as indigenous people, across country and landscape, is the basis for this huge gathering of tribes (nothing like this has been seen in more than a hundred years).

Since I returned home, I’ve been following Lyla June Johnston, a Navajo woman who spoke to the clergy group and joined us in our prayer and protective action. She impressed and humbled me when she described the Walk of Forgiveness she was organizing for the Sunday after we were there. She talked about how important it was for all of us to join them in their stand and encouraged those of us who are white, descendants of colonizing settlers, to be proud of our own family lineage but also to admit to what our people have done. She said, “Your job is to acknowledge what happened and Native peoples’ job is to forgive.”

This week after the election she posted this prayer to Facebook:  “Creator may you bless my dear uncle Donald Trump. May you help him to heal. May you help him to feel Your Love. May you help to ease his fears and help him to sense Your True Blessing. Help him to forgive himself and others so he may be free. And most of all, just give whatever blessing you would have for Your son, and my uncle. May we continue to retain our nature in the spirit of Your unconditional and restorative love and forgiveness. May we continue to work for health and justice with love for the unhealthy and the unjust. #NotMyPresident #JustMyUncle #Ké” [K’é means kinship]

This is the result of seeing one another as relatives. This is what a Christian prayer ought to sound like. This prayer has meat on it and it’s more daring and courageous and faithful than the mere lip service we sometimes give to the theological understanding that we are “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ. This is the kind of prayer that seeks to create connection and solidarity with some people – and might also make others hate you. Just as Jesus promised.

I don’t think it is a surprise to many of us that we live in a divided country. But it seems this week that we were surprised by just how divided. Almost no one thought Trump would win the election. No one thought the vote would be half and half.

However you voted, half of our brothers and sisters, our relations, voted differently than you did. What I’ve heard most Americans saying this week is “They” didn’t know how many of us there were, or, “They” didn’t know how dangerous their vote was. I have not heard most Americans this week confessing that we have been just fine up until now not knowing or caring about those other relations in that other half. Those aren’t my neighbors.

Rev. John Floberg, who called us out to Standing Rock, reminded us on the night before our protective witness with the Native people, that the police officers we would see across the divide, that barricaded highway bridge, were not our enemies. He reminded us that on the cross Jesus did not rebuke, he forgave – with his dying breath. So, John Floberg said, “We greet the officers with prayer and love and compassion, too.”

This is hard.

Those stones are beautiful but they will be rubble one day. This will not stand.

My life is not in the Democratic Party or even my personal shero Hillary Clinton. My neighbor’s life is not in Trump or the Republican Party or Bernie or any candidates or parties. Our lives, patriotic and democracy-inspired as they may be, are not in these United States. Or in the dream of moving to Canada or making this country “great again.”

Our lives are in Jesus Christ.  They will hate us because of Jesus. Keep going. All this destruction and despair? Raw materials for the beautiful new creation of God.

This is not the time to keep your head down and wait for the uneasiness to pass. This is not the time to think I’m not a racist/ I love Muslims/ I don’t sexually assault women/ I welcome immigrants / I care for the disabled and then be done with it as if you have completed your task. This is not the time to think I’m happy with my vote and I’m nice to people and that’s enough.

The election may or may not have gone in the direction you hoped for – but there are not “two sides” to this situation of increased, targeted hate crimes and speech. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being harassed and intimated simply because they are Black or Muslim or immigrants or people with disabilities or women or….

This is not the time to put your head down in prayer and hope it will pass. This is the time to lift your head up, take in the destruction you see, and stare straight in the face of hate while you proclaim and enact and witness to Love.

Love in these times means refusing to eliminate half of our country when you consider who your neighbors are. That means you don’t have “elite” and “uneducated” neighbors; you simply have neighbors with different life experiences than yours and if you don’t understand those, it’s time to learn and to meet some new people, and work on loving them. Love in these times means resisting and standing up to hate in its many insidious forms. Speak out, stand with, and offer to walk alongside those in this community who are targets of bigotry. Literally, offer to walk with students in unsafe situations around Grounds. Use the Just Report It system. Call for help. Keep watch when something seems off. Do not remain silent when people are degrading and demeaning and intimidating and targeting others in speech or action. State unequivocally that hate speech and “us” and “them” commentary is not OK with you. Attend the Eliminate the Hate teach-in to learn about your own blind spots and to walk across some of our community’s divides to meet your relations.

No matter how uncertain and fearful the times, no matter how unfamiliar the landscape, no matter how unknown and un-relatable our neighbors, our relatives – God is creating a new heaven and earth, right now. In the middle of this huge mess. Believe it.

The only temple that will not fall – not even in the face of death itself – is Love. Let’s work with God to build it.

Thanks be to God!

 

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Photos are my own.

 

Endnote:

[i] This is a compiled account from months of reading and following the news. A few good places to learn more and follow the ongoing stand are: https://www.facebook.com/Indigenousrisingmedia/

http://www.democracynow.org/topics/dakota_access

http://standwithstandingrock.net

http://ictmn.lughstudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/DAPL-Magazine-2016_PREVIEW_r1.pdf

http://westernjurisdictionumc.org/wjumc-bishops-send-letter-to-president-obama-in-support-of-standing-rock-sioux-nation/

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-showdown-at-standing-rock-20161108-story.html

 

 

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

hillary_clinton_dnc_july_2016

The first time I heard of Hillary Rodham Clinton was a mention in the pages of Ms. magazine, which I got delivered to my P.O. box in a small Appalachian town with one flashing yellow traffic light. In the pre-internet days, subscribing to Ms. was one of the ways I kept up with news beyond the county where I lived. During the primaries for the presidential election of 1992 there was a two-page spread on all of the candidates, a chart listing accomplishments, offices held, positions on certain issues, and, way over in the final column of the chart, room for additional comments. In that last column on Bill Clinton’s row it said that one of the best aspects of a Clinton presidency would be his amazing wife, Hillary, and listed some of her accomplishments. I took notice and, obviously, never forgot that last nugget of info in that last column.

This summer during the Democratic National Convention, I was vacationing with my family, celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We had an unspoken and amicable agreement not to watch the partisan news networks while we were all together, so I retreated to our bedroom early on the night of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech so I could watch it live. She shone in her white suffragette-inspired (pant)suit and she knocked it out of the park. The next morning I got up and drove to the pool to swim laps, thinking the whole time I was swimming that it was a different world from the day before. Now, it’s real. A woman is the candidate for a major political party.

I have hated this election as much as the next person, though I don’t agree that the candidates (plural) have been the most antagonistic and mean-spirited ever. One of them has been, while the other has persevered and persisted and taken the high road and continued being one of the most qualified presidential candidates we have ever had. I know we are a deeply divided nation with old festering wounds we need to irrigate and re-dress and heal. It feels like there is a lot at stake because there is a lot at stake. Many of us are waking up to the realities we have been a part of our whole lives and reconsidering our history of racial injustice. Agencies and systems and the status quo, which we thought were fair and just, are being exposed, shown to be infected with the same disease in need of the same healing. It’s painful and confusing. The way forward will be awkward and painful, as healing is. It is hard to ask for forgiveness and to grant it.

I know everything does not change overnight when a new name is next to “President.” Ask Barack Obama. But then ask him again, because part of how we have gotten this far – into the painful and messy spot of owning up to the past and trying to build a better future together for all of us – is because of him. It’s because of what and who he represents and it’s because of how he has conducted himself in office – thoughtful, centered, undeterred, kind, generous, hopeful.

One of the things I remember my dad saying over and over to me as I was growing up was, “You can be the first female president of the United States, if you want to.” I never wanted to, but that continual, unflinching, unreserved vote of confidence from my dad was like a beautiful and important vein through my childhood (and beyond), supplying me with the encouragement I didn’t always know I needed to feel confident and grounded and safe and appreciated and valued. Seen. (Contrast this to Barbara Kingsolver’s adolescent conversations on the topic with her father.)

By the statistics and demographics, this would seem an unlikely way for me to grow up, being raised as I was in the seventies by a Southern, white father who grew up a poor farmer and was the first in his family to attend and graduate from college.

Careful how you lump folks together, especially when you think you have “them” all figured out. Not all Republicans (if there are any real ones left) and not all Trump supporters are raging misogynistic racists. This doesn’t excuse those who are, nor does it excuse their candidate, who is both. But it is to say that people are complex and beautiful – especially when you don’t understand what makes them tick. It is to say that we are a country full of neighbors and we need to act like it again, no matter how we voted. Most of us want things to get better in our country – and most of us need help seeing how, from another’s perspective, “better” might look different than we at first imagine. There will be ample time and opportunity to work on this kind of love for our neighbors in the aftermath of this election.

But today.

Today, the little girl in me who never wanted to be president but always knew she could be voted for the woman who has endured and persevered in order to serve her neighbors in our country’s highest office. Today I voted for the first female president of the United States of America, eight (and four) years after I voted for the first Black president. I did not choose “the lesser of two evils.” I chose the woman I have been following since 1992, the woman who’s been working for a better country for even longer, the United Methodist who clearly lives out her faith in her life of service. I enthusiastically, joyfully, unapologetically, historically chose Hillary Clinton, the absolute best candidate for the job. I voted and then I went to the pool to swim laps, like I do every day and not at all like any other day.

 

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Photo credit: By Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This summer I went swimming

swimming in lake george_2016

Almost anything can be a spiritual practice, if you let it. It’s about the practice – the routine and prioritization of it, the days upon weeks turning into months of it – in the presence of an open spirit, willing to learn and be led. Molded, over time. Swimming is like this for me. I’ve written before about how swimming helps keep me focused on the present moment, and how flip turns are teaching me about energy, rest, and resilience.

Well, this summer I went swimming. A lot. A very few stormy days I swam inside at the gym, but most of the time I swam outside. I was a regular in the lone roped-off lap lane at our neighborhood pool, I practiced with a group in a lake in Richmond, and I competed in my first open water swim in another lake near Charlottesville. (And came in third in my age group. And got a medal. But who’s keeping track?) When we visited family at another lake in New York, I recruited my husband to kayak alongside me as I swam so boats wouldn’t run me over. In South Carolina, I swam in the bathwater warm ocean, but the best swims were in the outdoor lap-swimming-only pool that was cooled. (Yes, they “air conditioned” the pool and it was so scrumptious I don’t really care how non-environmental that may sound.)

To throw yourself into something you love is, simply, delicious. Giving yourself over to its rhythms and routines, watching yourself with curiosity to see where the love will unfold and take you. Allowing yourself to be unreasonable and devoted, depleted and good-tired. This is what I did this summer, when there were very few rules and obligations, the expansiveness of summertime and sabbatical overlapping. I absolutely organized my days around my swims.

And it was worth it.

Part of what sustained spiritual practice teaches you is how much you need it. I am not the same swimmer I was in May. I am not entirely the same person.

pre race cgl_july 9 2016

It may surprise you, but the open water swim was not the most daunting thing I did this summer. It was the open water practice swim I joined a couple weeks before that in Richmond. I had to drive over an hour away to a place I didn’t know, to meet up with people I didn’t know, to try out swimming in a body of water I’d never seen, while wearing my bathing suit in front of complete strangers. Buttons were pushed. I almost bailed. I woke up that day feeling nervous about it, uncertain about whether I could keep up, whether I’d be able to site the buoys, how thin and athletic all the other swimmers would likely be. I wasn’t sure I’d even like open water swimming, so wasn’t this kind of a waste of time and money?

I talked myself down. I recognized all those demons and agreed they could even be right. And I agreed to go to this one practice session anyway and just see. If I hated it, fine, no obligation to continue or do other open water swims after that. But I was not going to bail based on fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, and what ifs. (During the academic year, it would have been much easier to bail. The time and money concern trolls would have had a lot more sway if that evening’s jaunt to Richmond had been sandwiched in between meetings and a buzzing phone.)

I was glad I went. Not everyone there was athletic and skinny. I was not the slowest. I loved it when we swam straight out into the middle of the lake to make a loop around an instructor standing on a paddle board. I loved it even more when the complete stranger I got paired up with said to me after one lap, “You go first and don’t worry about me. I could barely keep up with you.”

Spiritual practice involves repetition and new territory, ritual and change.

I was never particularly worried that I might have drowned, but when I heard Lucy Kaplansky’s “Swimming Song” for the first time late this summer, I recognized my own bravery and playful pride, swimming my way up and down the waters of the east coast. Kaplansky sings, “This summer I went swimming. This summer I might have drowned, but I held my breath, and I kicked my feet, and I moved my arms around.” Sounds simple and it kind of is, but simple can also be hard.

Spiritual practice takes trust and bravery, allowing yourself to be held up by something you are participating with but that’s not you. This is also one of the “tricks” to open water swimming, especially when you get scared or unnerved by the vastness and the murky depths. The key is to remember, “The water wants to hold you up.”

1-mile medal_cgl_july 9 2016

Today the cicadas are singing summer towards the door. We are experiencing an unusually temperate and humidity-free start to the week and we got to open up the windows again yesterday. It won’t last long. By Friday it will be sweltering, but that won’t last long either. Fall is on the way.

I’ll get in a few more swims in the neighborhood pool before it closes for the season. And I have designs on a quarry, where a new friend swims as late into the fall as she can. I’ve started wondering about open water swims for next year. In the meantime, after a summer of peripatetic swimming, I will log a lot of miles in the gym, same place each day, but never the same “river”—or swimmer – twice.

 

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Photo credit: Photos ©2016 by Woody Sherman. Used with permission.

Adding the flip turn

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Flip turns have a mystique about them. Walk up to any pool and watch folks swimming laps. Your eyes will immediately go to the swimmers who do flip turns at the walls. It doesn’t matter if they are faster than the other swimmers, they will look fiercer because of the flip turn. Conversely, if, instead of doing flip turns, you saw Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps sticking their heads up at the walls, gulping air, turning awkwardly half out of the water, then plunging back in for the next lap, they would seem significantly less fierce.

On swim teams in junior high and high school I did a lot of flip turns. Even with the flip turns, I never looked particularly fierce but they were a regular part of my swimming. When I started swimming again a few years ago, I gave myself permission not to include flip turns. It seemed like a good deal: expend my limited energy on the strokes and the laps themselves and give myself a little extra breath and time at the walls. I made this decision intentionally and unapologetically. The goal was more swimming, not “perfect” swimming. During these past few years, I have reserved the occasional flip turn for special circumstances, like the time I felt strong and energized hitting lap number 100 and joyously flipped at the wall to celebrate it.

Lately, I’ve been adding the flip turn back into my freestyle laps. I’m not entirely sure why. I’m considering an open water swim this summer but flip turns are completely unnecessary in lakes, so that’s not it. This most excellent and inspiring ode to the flip turn encouraged me but didn’t push me over the edge. I think it’s just time. Like it was time to get back in the pool a few years ago. Back then, I gave myself permission to swim without flip turns. Now, I’ve given myself permission to flip again (and sometimes, not to flip – as with the earlier deal with myself, I’m not after perfection and I’m not requiring all or nothing).

One of the things I hope this summer’s sabbatical will show me is how to distinguish between the need for rest and the need for persistence. How do I know when I’m hitting a groove I should explore and stick with, versus knowing when to back off, versus knowing when to go harder even though I’m already losing steam? Maybe I’m seeing part of the answer in swimming.

When you hit the wall you have several choices: 1) call it a day, stop swimming, and hang on for dear life, 2) grab as much air as you can every single second your head is out of the water while you turn around inelegantly but practically, then push off and carry on as best you can, or 3) make the turn as smooth and seamless a part of your stroke as possible, flipping around and using the wall itself to propel you in the next direction. They are all valid choices. I’m thankful for my unapologetic miles logged choosing #2. And really curious to see where #3 sends me.

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Photo credit: Screen grab of video shot by P. Chambers, June 2016. Used with permission.

Fallow

Collegeville_literarylife

I’ve always liked the word “fallow.” I like the sound of it, the short “a” sound followed by the long “o” sound. I like that it’s almost “follow,” but not quite. Mostly, I appreciate its indication that when it looks as if nothing is happening, looks are probably deceiving. Rest is some of the deepest work to be done.

Here’s how Ken Chitwood recently described it in Sojourners (“A Crucial Ingredient in Justice Work: Rest”): “Leaving a field to lie fallow means leaving a paddock to be unseeded, uneaten, and unspoiled for a season or more. It is one of the best ways farmers can allow the land to replenish its nutrients and regain its fertility. It also helps prevent erosion — the roots of the plants left free to grow help to hold the soil in place against the ravages of wind and rain.”

To lie fallow is to engage in a season of rest. One of the things I love about liturgical life is its emphasis on seasons. We move around the cycle of a year, changing the colors of vestments and paraments, focusing on certain parts of our story and then on others. I’m tempted to say winter is my favorite season of the year because I love the cold and snow and we rarely get enough in Virginia to satisfy me, but the truth is I love every season while we are in it. I love the annual cycle and the delights that belong only to the season at hand, the inchworm-green of new spring shoots, the languorous late-light evenings of summer, the crisp bite and mature colors of fall.

Only sometimes, I have trouble being in the season at hand. I know something about the ravages of wind and rain, exposed roots. Jesus had to be hunted down while he was praying in a deserted place by himself (Mark 1: 35-36) and he regularly took time out and away. This is supposed to be a model for me, for all of us. I also know it’s easier to fill up the empty months of a sabbatical than it is to empty out one day a week for Sabbath. As Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (The Writing Life).

I don’t want to spend my life as a fallow field. But then again, I’m not really in danger of that happening. I am in danger of trying to earn my way to the grace of rest and replenishment.

I’m on study leave this summer, three days in. When I’ve mentioned this, most people have immediately asked what I’m going to do. I suppose I could be studying something “out there,” people do this all the time, take a break from the routine to write a book on church leadership or home canning. I’m on a writing retreat with my writing group this week, but I don’t have a project in mind to complete this summer. I’m going to rest and not-do. I’m trying to “study” myself. I’m lying fallow.

My goal is to resemble a field of clumpy sod, unplanted, no harvest in sight. I hope and trust God will tend me, but I’m going hands-off, list-rogue. I’m asking to be replenished and getting out of my own way so it can happen.

stainedglassview_abbeyworship_collegeville

Looking up and out from worship in the St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota

The Seashore

Wintery beach in Yorktown, Virginia.

Wintery beach in Yorktown, Virginia.

My brother and I called the canal at the end of our street “The Seashore.” When Topology Magazine announced its issue focused on water, The Seashore came flooding back into my memory after a long absence. I wrote this reflection on that place and the cusp between childhood and adolescence, land and water. I hope you’ll click over and take a look.

The exuberance of forsythia

forsythia.c2012_b.eckstein

I have friends who hate forsythia. Detest it. Feel the need to proclaim their disdain on social media. For all I know, they probably spit on the bushes when they walk by them. I’ve never tried to plant or tend it so maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe it’s invasive or threatening to other nearby plants. I’m trying to be generous here: maybe they have good reasons for spending their energy hating a plant.

As for me, I delight in it. When we have enough warmish spring days in a row, it peeks its head out with bright – practically neon – yellow blooms, stark against its long, woody, still leafless stems. Everything else in sight – even the early showstoppers like Bradford Pears and cherry trees – is still tucked in for winter and biding its time, when forsythia shows up early to the party, wearing an outlandish hat and too much lipstick, carrying a game of Twister, hollering, “Let’s party!”

In addition to its sheer proclamation of color, I love the way forsythia branches jut out in crazy, spiky, improbable, irrepressible angles, the plant world’s version of the way Elaine used to dance on Seinfeld. It says, This is how I grow, damn it. Woo hoo! It’s spring! I love the way it naturally grows, untamed, wild, exuberant. It pains me to drive past a lawn where someone has taken matters into his own hands, trimming this marvelous beauty into symmetrical bland balls. Forsythia trimmed like this is merely a round bush with a haze of yellow, a herald with his mouth duct-taped so his announcement is garbled. When I see forsythia reined in this way, it reminds me of women who go too far in plucking their eyebrows. Like eyebrows, which on occasion can be too unruly and need a wee bit of help, I understand forsythia requires just a bit – but not too much – pruning help from a restrained gardener, to help it grow into its natural shape without becoming overgrown. Last year’s efforts paying off in early spring blooms; restraint flowering into exuberance.

I’m writing this in the fullness of Holy Week, which follows a fantastic and full weekend of hosting Nadia Bolz-Weber’s visit to Charlottesville, which follows a fantastic and full week of traveling to the Navajo Nation with students on an interfaith service trip. It’s been non-stop lately and I know I’m not the only one.

In the midst of this, the sheer timely gift of forsythia. Something we don’t have to create or remind or schedule, something beautiful that just shows up on time. Something lively, bright, festive, and over-the-top enthusiastic. Something that knows what time it is even when we want to stick our heads back under the covers for another month. Something that simply is – unmanaged, unchosen, uncomplicated beauty. In a leafless, weary world: a gorgeous, energetic, reliable gift of bursting bright beauty.

 

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photo credit: “Forsythia,” © 2012 by Barbara Eckstein, CC BY 2.0

Leftovers and Champagne

champagne for all_meathead movers_sa2.0_c2012

Yes, that’s right. It says “meathead” right there on the picture.

We have a dry erase board on our refrigerator, where I write our menu for the week. Last week, with plans to cook several other nights and plans to stay in on New Year’s Eve, I wrote “leftovers and champagne” in the dinner spot for that night. It represented the perfect combination of industry and relaxation – cook enough on other evenings so that dinner won’t be a production and we can just sip and enjoy.

All week when I passed that reminder I felt clever and satisfied. “Leftovers and champagne” seems almost a lifestyle statement, beyond New Year’s Eve. Be simple and frugal in some places and splurge in others. Be down to earth and no frills, but with an occasional side of frills. Be willing to combine things that aren’t normally thrown together…I could go on, mining the poetry and deeper meaning of my dry erase title-lifestyle.

But I won’t. At least, I won’t be quite as satisfied and smug about it as I tell you how the meaning morphed.

This morning in the pool, I started to wonder if God was drowning me again. I was annoyed at the many schedule changes and inconveniences during winter break, forcing me to go to the campus pool I don’t like, and to find a half-lane to squeeze into in the whopping four lanes leftover after the swim team takes all the others. I was annoyed that things like that still annoy me, even when I can see how small, fleeting, and ridiculous they are. I was feeling stressed out by the unintelligible emails I was receiving from our ministry’s web host and the glaring error message I found when I tried to visit the website earlier this morning. I was mad at myself for running a yellow-then-red light on the way to the bad gym’s ridiculous hours and getting a ticket for it. And I was feeling anxious, that chest-tightening short-breathed worry that’s never any fun and makes swimming notably more difficult.

As I swam, I noted the annoyances and my annoyed posture in response to them. I mentally calculated the days of the month in case I could determine whether any of the anxiety was hormonal, in addition to the situational variety. I kept swimming. I acknowledged how most often, if I’m honest, I want to feel good and have an easy time of it. I felt myself resisting the anxiety and frustration of the morning. Go away! Everything about me was saying No! to all of it.

Suddenly I remembered a time of deep grief after a hard break up, the first time I’d countered loss with compassion and patience rather than anger. In my twenties, my go-to method for break up recovery was to get pissed off, catalogue all the grievances, and eventually convince myself he’d been a jerk anyway. But after this break up in my mid-thirties, I was sad, not angry. And I didn’t want or need to get angry. For the first time, I knew it wouldn’t help me or change the situation. So whenever the sadness welled up and threatened to overwhelm me, I just said to it, sometimes aloud, I see you. I didn’t indulge it, but I didn’t fight it either. I let myself sit with it and, eventually, I could ride out the feelings, which approached and receded like waves.

No, I didn’t become beatifically calm and beautiful as I glided through the pool and glowed from within.

But I kept swimming. I thought about Job and how I don’t really believe God puts obstacles and tests in our way to make us stronger/more faithful/thankful/obedient/whatever, but how I do think God is ready and willing to show us something better and healing in every single moment, no matter where and how we find ourselves. I didn’t get to the I see you stage in the pool, but I tried to stop feeding the beast. I swam and thought about the school crossing guard who was a half block away when the police officer stopped me this morning. The cop was white (and so am I). The crossing guard was black. She looked over several times while I was stopped there, waiting for my ticket. I swam and wondered if she’d been keeping an eye out and how the whole thing might have felt less annoying and a lot more threatening if I was black, too. I thought about my momentarily poor driving behavior, which resulted in a whiny rant and some inconvenience, but not my arrest or worse.

I stopped to squint at the large digital clock. Not enough time for the final 20 laps I was hoping to do. So I did 10 more and didn’t castigate myself for missing the mark.

Afterwards I checked my phone, and the emergency help email I’d sent our tech support alumnus had been answered and the website was back up. I texted my husband about the ticket. I drove home more carefully. I’d been feeling alone and anxious all morning but when I emailed and texted, help came. When I reached out, someone was there to reach back.

I would rather have written about being down to earth with occasional frills thrown in – so clever! I would rather not divulge what a seething mess of vulnerability and bad attitude I am sometimes. But if God can work with this, then who am I to complain or cover? The truth is, it’s New Year’s Eve every day, the same old familiar leftovers sitting right there on the microwave-hot plate, next to the champagne flutes. Futile, bratty splashing and self-centeredness, paired with a robust grace.

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photo credit: “Champagne for All,” © 2012 by Meathead Movers, CC BY-SA 2.0

My neighbors want me to keep Christ in Christmas

I should start by saying we don’t know many of our neighbors. There’s the one I refer to as The Encroacher for his wild disregard for property lines, and there are the seemingly nice ones across the street who I’ve spoken two twice since they moved in, once when I delivered a welcome cake and the second time when we were all out shoveling snow last winter. There are a few I know by sight from the pool and there’s my accountant-neighbor who I actually look forward to seeing each tax season. Overall, not a great track record for someone who’s supposed to be familiar with loving neighbors.

Keep Christ in Christmas lighted message

It’s bigger and brighter than it seems from this picture I took with my phone.

I do not know the neighbors with the new Christmas lights, the ones who made a large Christmas tree out of lights and stationed it so it shines through their back woods and directly at the main road into the neighborhood. You can’t miss it. When it showed up last week I enjoyed the novelty of the giant lit tree in the midst of the real bare winter trunks, and it was a nice surprise, to be greeted through the woods like that.

After a couple nights away, I drove back into the neighborhood in the dark last night and it was suddenly apparent which neighbors had been busy putting up their lights and decorations while we were gone. I love exterior Christmas lights, so I drove slowly and took in the new splendor of the neighborhood – and I saw that the Christmas tree neighbors had added to their message. They’ve staked out more ground in the woods and you can see from the picture that they want me to keep Christ in Christmas. (I suppose it’s possible they want me to keep a cross in a tree, but I’m going with the simplest explanation being the most likely.)

The woods were brighter. There were more lights to catch my eye on the drive through the neighborhood. I don’t exactly disagree with their message. So why did I struggle to like their full message as much as I’d liked the tree on its own?

I think my trouble with it has to do with audience. If I went to worship and the sermon was about “keeping Christ in Christmas” I’d listen attentively and hopefully for what that might mean in the context of our gathered Christian community. If I met a friend for coffee and he mentioned some specific ways he was attempting to “keep Christ in Christmas,” I’d want to know where he was coming from and what I might glean for myself from his experiences of the season and his personal devotion. In my neighborhood, where most of us don’t know one another well and where we can safely assume we aren’t all Christian, is a prominent drive-by “keep Christ in Christmas” message the best, most faithful way for a Christian to greet her neighbors?

Christmas display of lights

I’m thankful for this neighbor’s candy canes and reindeer.

What if Christ was never in Christmas for some of our neighbors, who might be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu – but who might still decorate their homes in lights at this dark time of year and who might even participate in some of our cultural Christmas traditions? What about the cultural Christians or former/lapsed Christians who also know this as a special time of year, who put up lights and experience holy longing, though they may be estranged from God or religious community right now?   As Christians, is our best seasonal greeting an indiscriminate reminder to observe a religious tradition that not everyone is part of? Obviously, I don’t think so. I would have preferred just the lit tree. I would have even been fine with a message like “Christ’s light shines in the darkness” – biblical and a statement of faith for the person making it rather than a correction for everyone else.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but Christians don’t have a lock on celebrating all he ushers into this broken world. If my Muslim neighbor can demonstrate this with a hug or my non-religious neighbor with festive seasonal lights that don’t have much to do with John’s warnings or Mary’s song, I’m OK with that. In church, we can remind ourselves all we want to why we do all this each December. In the world, I wish we’d preach less and open ourselves more to seeing the lights in our neighbors’ yards. We have never been able to contain Christ, thank God, and we might be surprised by how Christ does indeed shine, even without his name in lights.