Pondering through Advent

23DCD324-DEFB-436C-8942-C4ADA60DA52AYesterday, I mused on the tenderness of this season of Advent. The waiting. The darkness. The need to linger in the season with a sense of mindfulness.

To be honest, I want to shop with reckless abandon and find fun toys for my grandchildren. I want to bake all manner of Christmas cookie. I want to decorate every corner of my house, and if I had my way, ours would be one of those houses that people drive by at night to see all the twinkling lights.

But on that outdoor winter wonderland, I definitely do not have my way. My husband’s days of hanging lights on the gutters, placing a Santa on the roof, and wrapping the trees in tiny, twinkling lights are over. He has happily passed out of that season of his life.

For me, yesterday was baking day, and I made a new discovery about mindfulness and cookie baking. The two activities pair well. Dropping cookie dough by the spoonful onto a baking sheet is slow work. It gives one time to ponder. And pondering a is a good thing to do in Advent days. Good lesson learned, with the added bonus of having 200 cookies in the house!

While dropping cookies, one by one onto an old, scratched up baking pan, I pondered. Some thoughts hinted at my inner sadness. Other thoughts were of friends who are very ill and are walking this Advent journey in darkness. Other friends have lost people in their lives, and on this day, they find themselves in mourning.

As I do in most Decembers, I find myself, along with others in my family, feeling the sadness of having lost my youngest brother, Pete, to cancer. It happened many years ago, yet the hurt remains.

No doubt, this Advent journey can be a tender time. Yet we journey into the days ahead, not with a spirit of despair, but with a glimmer of hope. Even in the darkness, we begin to awaken, knowing that something new will be born in us just as it has every Advent. This is the season when we wash our faces and rub our sleepy eyes until we wake up, eyes wide open to the Light that sleeps in a manger.

Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

— Luke 2:19 New International Version (NIV)

Like her, I am spending my Advent days pondering — moving in mindfulness while holding tender feelings, heart longings, mourning in the soul.

And, of course, I’m waiting in the darkness. But I know, without a doubt, that light will shine. It always does.

 

On Disturbing the Universe

960D000A-3175-4D6F-9A36-3881E1569289You have no doubt heard about the mid life crisis. Perhaps you have even had one. I did at mid life. However, what’s more critical to me at this stage of my life is more appropriately called a late life crisis. And, lo and behold, I’m having one of those right now!

Am I in the right place? Do I need to retire nearer to my son and grandchildren? How do I live a fulfilled life while facing so many health challenges? Why did I move away from my best friend? How do I give back as I have always done now that my ministry career is over? Is it over? Is there more I could be doing? Should I write more, cook more, paint more, garden more? What in the world do I do with myself?

I recently read a book by Sue Monk Kidd,  When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions. I was stopped in my tracks by her words:

For some months I had been lost in a baffling crisis of spirit. Back in the autumn I had awakened to a growing darkness and cacophony, as if something in my depths were crying out. A whole chorus of voices. Orphaned voices. They seemed to speak for all the unlived parts of me . . . I know now that they were the clamor of a new self struggling to be born. I was standing on the shifting ground of midlife, having come upon that time in life when one is summoned to an inner transformation, to a crossing over from one identity to another. When change-winds swirl through our lives . . . they often call us to undertake a new passage of the spiritual journey.

I am there. Not in midlife, but in late life, and it is for me an existential crisis of spirit, definitely the time of “a new self struggling to be born.” To be sure, there are unlived parts of me, and I want to understand what exactly they are and how I can coax them to life. The ground beneath me is shifting, calling out to me to cross over from one identity to another. An inner transformation is most definitely in order for me, but how do I begin? Where do I begin? These are the questions of late life. And the symptoms? Dragging out old photos, very old photos. Looking up old friends. Examining your grandmother’s vintage jewelry. Scanning school yearbooks. All in a useless attempt at making the present as meaningful as you remember the past to be.

I sometimes agonize over my current life, wishing to dream just one more dream and to make it a reality. I worry about the future and wonder what the years ahead will bring. I want to still be relevant. I want to keep trying to change the world just as I used to. I want to stir things up and make waves in the quest for justice, just as I did in the past. I feel as if I have only two choices: to languish in the present or to find a way to be the me I used to be. And yet, something tells me that there is a third choice that involves some sort of transformation and the renewal of life, not as it used to be, but as it can be now, in the present season.

It is a quiet agony that I am experiencing. It happened to me when I came upon an unsuspecting darkness buried in late life and met the same overwhelming question that Sue Monk Kidd met: “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

My family could be scandalized if I found new life. They might wonder if I had taken too much of a medication. They might worry that I will do something inappropriate. They might know that I simply do not have the kind of energy required for dreaming big, new, important dreams. And they would be mostly right.

And yet I refuse to measure out my life with coffee spoons. It’s way too safe for me. It’s not who I am, and I am completely convinced that there are unlived parts of me looking for a way to come to life. I have no idea what that would look like. I have no idea how I will manage to pull it off. But I need to disturb the universe. And the universe needs some disturbing!

May God guide me on the way, pour blessings on my dreams, and show me just how I might disturb the universe.

Resurrection People

C1D1BB39-1AD2-4D57-8ED7-8464718B35D8On Resurrection Sunday, I cry joy-tears — every time, without fail. For me, holding on to my emotions on Resurrection Sunday is impossible. After going through Lent, after hearing again of the betrayal Jesus experienced, after witnessing the suffering and execution of Christ, after acknowledging anew that Christ’s sacrifice was for the whole world and for me, I celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And when I do, I just cry.

But on Resurrection Sunday 2018, I wept with a heavy heart and a flood of memories. I thought of Easters past and the people of God with whom I celebrated. All of those precious friends now live miles away, others live in heaven. I was their pastor, and that is as holy a relationship as I can describe.

I walked with them through joy and tragedy, through days of health and days of illness, through crushing family problems, through death and divorce. But through every devastation, we celebrated Resurrection Sundays in our beautiful monastery chapel, in our little country church in small town Arkansas, at an altar on a lakeside, in the baptismal waters. We celebrated our covenant, our deep friendship, and gave thanks for the grace that gifted us with those relationships.

We were a fun and creative group. With some of them, I cut and stitched and glued and appliqued huge banners proclaiming, “Christ Is Risen!” With others, I burned palm branches for Ash Wednesday. With others, I lifted up the wooden cross onto thevaltar of the church sanctuary. And with others, I wandered through the woods searching for dogwood blossoms to adorn the wooden cross. I most fondly remember a circuitous and hilarious trek through the forest with Ethel.

Ethel was a true jewel, one of a kind. Never would you find a more loyal and loving parishioner than Ethel, who will always be known as the persevering founder of our church. She refused to let it fail. She was persistent and feisty and determined. And because of her, the church still stands firm, even now that she is gone.

But getting back to our trek in the forest, I have to say that Ethel was one of those unstoppable “elderly” people. She could barely walk at times because she suffered with a muscle disease that weakened her legs. But she pushed her way through the forest that day, leading me, pushing aside the limbs, vines and thorns, and dauntlessly creating our path over rocks and depressions in the ground. We were looking for a thorn tree . . . you guessed it . . . to use in making a crown of thorns.

Eventually we found a perfect thorn vine with angry-looking three-inch thorns on it. We carefully hauled it through the woods, trying to avoid getting stabbed by one of those sharp thorns. Then we put it in a bathtub full of water to soften it. When we began to bend it into a crown shape, we both sustained painful thorn wounds. Never to be deterred, Ethel managed to shape and finally fasten the two ends together, and the prickly vine became the crown of thorns that we used for many years.

When we placed it for the first time on the Good Friday cross during the church service, I wept. Many of us wept. We were like that because we remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah.

He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth . . .

— Isaiah 53:3-7, KJV

We knew that after the suffering, the resurrection would most surely come. Through the passion and emotion of Good Friday, we wept. But we wept even more when the stark cross flowered on Easter morning, when we lit the Christ candle, when the black shroud was removed, and when we draped the cross in glistening white cloth.

So on Resurrection Sunday 2018, while singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,”I wept with tears of gratitude, gratitude for the people of God through the years who made my Easters such sacred experiences of worship.

Ethel, Barbara, Johnnie, April, Bo, Michael, Stan, Dianna, Eric and Emily, Ann, Sister Bernadette, Gail, Noah, Wendell, Pat, Joyce, Suzette, Deborah, Cindy, Barbara Fay, Regina, Tonya, Vallory, Leroy, Mary, LaVante, Shirley, Ken, Steve, Jenna . . .

So many names! So many others. My memories of them brought me to tears on Easter Sunday. I saw them in my mind and remembered our shared times of worship. They are Resurrection people all, people who know how to proclaim Christ’s resurrection with passion, devotion and celebration. For all of them, today I give thanks.

14,000 Shoes

965E6AF4-46EA-445B-91E0-003F05D3284214,000 shoes placed to tell a very, very sad story.

14,000 shoes laid out so that we will never forget our history.

Seven thousand pairs of children’s shoes were lined up on the southeast lawn of the U.S. Capitol building today in memory of every child who has died due to gun violence.

The 7,000 shoes in the “Monument for our Kids” installment represent every child that was killed by gunfire since the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

“We are bringing Congress face to face with the heartbreak of gun violence,” said one of the activists, Oscar Soria. “All of these shoes cover more than 10,000 square feet.”

Though most of the shoes were collected in a two week period, some of those were donated by families that lost their children to gun violence.

May God grant that we never forget this national grief. May our collective mourning bring lasting change.552D1FD3-63EF-4301-8FD9-FEE605FA755D

A Prayer for Protection

Hear us, O God, protector of children.
Hear our prayer of penitence, our confession that we have failed to keep our children safe.
Hear our cries, as we shed tears of mourning for each child we have lost to gun violence.
Hear our cries of grief as we recall every danger that our children face.
Hear our voices shouting, “Enough!”
Hear our voices of commitment that make a sacred promise that we will do what must be done.
And most of all, God, ennoble us to holy action, and make us protectors of children.
We pray in the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

Me Too: Wounds of the Spirit, Scars of the Soul

95CD73CB-3B8E-44AB-B1F4-4057D76D838FFor weeks now, women have been making heart-rending declarations — “Me too,” they cry, as they reveal their experiences of past sexual abuse. As for me, I say, “me too.” Add my name to the mournful list of women who have endured the pain of sexual trauma.

I was sexually abused literally dozens of times, by many men. The abuse began when I was about four years old and continued throughout my years as a young child. Sexual abuse did not stop through my teenage years. And even as an adult I faced sexual violation. Never, not one time, was it consensual.

Questions always bombard sexual abuse victims:

Who was the man who sexually abused you?

It doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t believe me. You would refuse to believe that I was sexually abused by more than one teacher, by a coach, by a Baptist deacon, by a Baptist missionary, by an employer, by my father and several of his poker playing friends. You wouldn’t believe it because you know them to be “moral, upstanding men” who are a part of your community.

Why didn’t you tell anyone?

I did tell. I told many people about every act of sexual abuse I endured, naming every man who hurt me. But I knew all the while that people simply would not take my accusations seriously.

Didn’t you believe that telling might have brought these men to justice and have prevented them from abusing other children?

No, I did not believe those men who caused me suchbdeep hurt would ever face the consequences of their crimes, because most of the people I did tell simply did not believe me. The men were known and respected and no one wanted to challenge that.

Why did you wait so many years to tell?

There are several aspects to this question. First of all, as I said, I did tell certain people who didn’t believe me. Not being believed serves to silence a victim who just doesn’t want to be labeled a liar, an attention seeker, a trouble maker, or worse, an emotionally unstable person.

Secondly, and most importantly, the passing years never take away the pain for someone who has been sexually violated. Sexual abuse is something you never forget. After 55 years, I still remember the time of day, being called into the teacher’s office next door to the classroom, the way he smelled, everything he said and did, and exactly what I was wearing. He was a person I had looked up to and admired. But on that day, he inflicted a permanent wound of my spirit which would become a scar on my soul. Once again, I mourned the loss of my childhood, of the innocence of a young child.

In these days, newsfeeds are constantly reporting the allegations of victims coming forward to say “me too.”  The women have named their abusers — Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, George H. W. Bush. Ben Affleck, Roger Ailes, Lockhart Steele, Michael Oreskes, Mark Halperin, John Besh. Roy Price, Chris Savino, and the list goes on to name perpetrators in present time and perpetrators from the past. I do not say this lightly, but I have wondered just how many men might be holding their breath, hoping beyond hope that their victim(s) won’t expose them.

Wounds of my my spirit, scars of my soul

The unspeakable wounds heal in time, but the soul’s scars remain. And every reminder through these many years — a smell, a memory, a color, a song, and the cries of the women who are saying “me too” and telling the stories of their abuse. All of these are triggers that bring back the sharp, stabbing pain of the old wounds from long past. That’s what I have lived with throughout my entire life— multiple assaults, multiple times, multiple men.

We can come forth and tell our stories. We can give voice to our spirit’s wounds, no matter how far in the past they may be. We can speak of our soul’s scars. But the reality is that we will be judged as women who have fabricated a false story of sexual abuse for some sort of personal gain.

How dare we ask why a woman would wait forty years to bring light to this kind of story! For since the day it happened, she lives with vivid memories, feelings of shame, fear of relationships, the disappointment of betrayal by someone she may have admired. There is a catch in her throat when she speaks of it, and there are tears, lots of tears along the way.

Wounds of the spirit, Scars of the soul

The writing of Saint Francis de Sales describes the depth of this kind of pain with this thought:

The soul is aware of the delicate wound . . . as though it were a sharp point in the substance of the spirit, in the heart of the pierced soul . . . This intimate point of the wound . . . seems to make its mark in the middle of the heart of the spirit, there where the soul experiences . . . feels.

– Living Flame of Love 2.1

So is it any wonder that this kind of wound would leave a permanent scar on the soul?

I am deeply saddened, but also gratified, that so many women are speaking out. I hope beyond hope that their courageous stories will give light to a dark, dark sin that has destroyed so many people for so many years. I pray that we will have the moral, ethical, spiritual and political will to crush the societal culture of abuse and violence and in its place create safe spaces free of fear for every person, every child, every young girl, every woman.

At times, I really want to expose every single man that abused me. But I want peace more. I want a serene spirit and a quiet soul. I want to rest in a prayerful place where my heart can call out to a God that desires for us a world of peace, communities of care, homes that are havens of safety. I want to see God ennoble people of faith to wrap their arms around the hurts, pray for God’s light to dispel the darkness, and live out their sacred calling to be agents of a better, more excellent way. May God make it so.

 

Goodbye, Cotham’s!

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“it wasn’t just the food that made me love Cotham’s.”

The person posting on Facebook lamented the loss of a historical landmark in Scott, Arkansas. A roaring fire leveled the country store/restaurant last night, and in the fire were memories of days gone by. Cotham’s Mercantile was erected in 1917 and since 1984 served as the go-to eating place for local farmers and visitors to Arkansas. It was a place frequented by politicians, notable visitors, and families who wanted to get a taste of Cotham’s enormous Hubcap hamburgers, onion rings and a hefty serving of Mississippi Mud Cake.

There is a Cotham’s in the City, of course, but it is an understatement to say that it is definitely not Cotham’s in Scott. It’s simply a citified facsimile that barely bears any resemblance to the original. For sure it does not carry the years of memories that come from a place of such cultural richness.

Cotham’s was a frame building with leaning walls and unlevel floors. It was nestled on the side of a little-traveled country road under towering moss-covered trees. The back of Cotham’s was on the water, a bayou of murky, marshy water teeming with fish, other wildlife, and a stately stand of cypress trees, their gnarly knees growing above the surface.

So why write about a burned down restaurant in the Arkansas countryside? Because it’s the end of an era. Because it is a landmark that holds treasures of day’s past. Because it is a place whose walls heard many family tales. Because you could buy a hamburger or a bag of nails there.

Most of all, I should write about it because we will miss its quaint ambience, and because future diners will miss the experience of being there, right off the road, backed up to a boggy bayou. All kinds of history moves on and we move on with the years. We cling to the past and become melancholy over the changes we experience.

Goodbye, Cotham’s. And thanks for the memories. Thanks for the sad reminder that life moves forward at its own pace and that we must savor every moment, every experience . . . every hubcap hamburger.

Remember Me

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Aging brings up many questions about life, the past, the future. I think all of us wonder if we will be remembered. Will our accomplishments live on? Will anyone remember us? Did we change the world in any significant way? Will we leave any kind of legacy?

As always, Bishop Steven Charleston shares wise and wonderful insight.

Not many of us will be remembered for what we have done, though we may have accomplished a lot. Institutions change, communities move on, new faces appear, priorities shift, different challenges present themselves. As important as we once were, we fade into the mist. What remains is not what we have built, but who we have inspired. The lives we touched will go on. The minds we opened, the hearts we cherished, the spirits we set free: it is in relationship that our names are remembered. It is in how well we shared our love that we transcend thoughtless time and live on in ways unchanging.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

When I take stock of my life’s accomplishments, I am pleased with myself and proud of what I have built. But it is so very true, as Bishop Charleston says, that all of us fade into the mist and what we have built falls into decay as new things emerge.

So will we “live on in ways unchanging?” I think we will. I also believe that if we are remembered at all, it will be by the people we have inspired, the lives we have touched, the hearts we have cherished that cherished us in return. And that’s the very best way to be remembered.

She Gave Me Wings!

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She made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible. She walked with the universe on her shoulders and made it look like a pair of wings.

This quote makes me remember Ethel, one of my most cherished friends. Ethel was my hero. She inspired me to dream and always held hope high so that I could see it. She walked beside me during difficult days and challenged me to stay the course. “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on,” she would often say. And when I would fall into the dust, despondent and exhausted, Ethel gave me wings.

Most people knew Ethel as someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, because she always loved them more than she loved herself. She always used her energy to raise them up, to push them forward, to champion their hopes.

To me, Ethel was my dearest and most loyal friend, almost like a mother. I could not be despondent for very long around Ethel. She wouldn’t allow it. I could not be broken and stay that way. Ethel would gently pick up the pieces and help me find beauty in my brokenness.

Ethel was the matriarch of Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock, a new church start, and the first Baptist church in Arkansas to call a woman as pastor. I was that pastor. I moved into that ministry position after a grueling ordination process that lasted for almost a year and ended in my home church refusing to ordain a woman. Their refusal to work with me toward ordination was a devastating blow.

But Ethel was certain that ordination would come in time, at the right time. She quoted this verse from Habakkuk, one of her favorites, every time my resolve faltered and I was ready to give up.

For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay.

– Habakkuk 2:3

Although Habakkuk was surely not writing about the denied ordination of a Baptist woman, his words rang true to Ethel and were encouraging to me. Together, Ethel and I “hastened toward the goal” that did not fail. We waited for it and it did come, seemingly out of nowhere.

On a Sunday evening, I received a phone call from the pastor of a church in El Paso Texas, who was the former Executive Secretary of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. After a brief getting-to-know-you conversation in which he told me that he had become acquainted with my ministry through a colleague who happened to be my hospital chaplaincy mentor, he stunned me with these words.

“Our church voted this morning to ordain you.”

“But you don’t even know me,” I said, shocked, taken aback and just a little confused.

Oh, but we know you very well. We have talked about you for weeks in our church. We know you are a chaplain. We know where you went to seminary. We know you can preach and even sing. We know you were a Southern Baptist Foreign missionary to Uganda. And if you were appointed a missionary by our Foreign Mission Board, you are qualified to be ordained so that you can continue your ministry.

I could barely respond. I knew only that I needed to think.

“Let me think about this for a few days and send you some information about me.”

And so I sent them a copy of my life story so they could be sure, even if I was not. Ethel said, “‘Though it tarries, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay.’ Now let’s pack up and go to El Paso.”

Thirteen friends, members of Providence, traveled to El Paso. My family drove 953.4 miles, and I was ordained in El Paso, Texas on April 29, 1992 by a church I did not know that became my community over a weekend.

Ethel left this world many years ago, much too soon. But she is still my hero and I miss her terribly. Does she watch over me? Is she, as some people like to think, an angel of God with a pair of wings? I’m not at all sure of that, but I know one thing. Every time things get hard, I hear her words, “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on.”

She gave me wings!

Broken Crayons

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I remember the sheer excitement of getting a brand new box of crayons. It was nice to get a box of eight crayons. At least they were new and I didn’t have to search through an old, ragged box of broken crayon pieces. When I got a new box of twenty-four, I knew it was a special day. But getting the jumbo box — sixty-four crayons and a crayon sharpener — left me ecstatic.

Getting that jumbo box never got old. I never lost my sense of excitement when I opened the box. Those crayons started my love of color and the sheer joy of putting colors on paper.

Those new-box days were rare. More often than not I searched through bits and pieces of crayons that had long since lost their points. They would still color, but coloring was not such a joy when all the crayons were broken.

Still, coloring with broken crayons was a reality of life. I made the best of it and even managed to create a few masterpieces. Once in a while, I would come up with a new way to use them, like melting the pieces between wax paper sheets and making “stained glass.”

Now that I’m grown, I realize that life is filled with broken crayons. I use them anyway and do the best I can with the pieces. The important thing is not to give up on your broken pieces. Use them. Create with them. Try to enjoy them. Marvel at your own colorful masterpieces. Don’t despair over broken crayons. Broken crayons still color!

Forever Young

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I have been experiencing neck pain for the last few days, a reminder that the years have taken their toll. Sometimes, I have almost forgotten how it felt to live without pain. I can barely remember waking up from a night of sleep with no body aches. I don’t remember what it was like to feel young.

These days, though, pain has its way with me. It is a difficult thing to age. They say it’s not for sissies, and I completely agree with that. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in Ulysses, we are “made weak by time and fate.”

But I love the thoughts of this short passage:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

– Alfred Lord Tennyson
From Ulysses
(As quoted by M in Skyfall)

It is so true that I am not now “that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth.” But I am strong in spirit. My heart feels the strength of deep love. In years, I have aged. But in my soul, I am forever young. Thanks be to God.

I love the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s song, “Forever Young.”

May God bless and keep you always, May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others, And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars, And climb on every rung.
May you stay forever young.

Forever young, forever young. May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous, May you grow up to be true.
May you always know the truth, And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous, Stand upright a
nd strong.
May you stay, stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy. May your feet always be swift.
May you have a strong foundation, When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful. May your song always be sung.
And may you stay forever young.