Evelyn at Ninety Nine

Aunty Evelyn has always been my refuge.  Growing up my family home was adjacent to that of my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Freddy.  Their yard was an extension of ours providing a shared space where we cousins played.

For several summers during my boyhood,  I’d go on vacation with Evelyn and Freddy’s family to Newfound Lake, N.H.  There we created memories which have lasted a life time.  A favorite is of  hiking on a bluebird day, with my cousins Tom and Sandy,  to the top of Mount Cardigan.  We picked wild blueberries as we scrambled up and down that mountain.  We returned famished to Evelyn’s chicken dumplings.

Over the years I’d  remind Aunt Evelyn of this memory and ask if she’d make me a batch of her famous chicken dumplings.  Her response was always the same: “Kent, my dumplings can’t match the memory of you at age fourteen, having just climbed a mountain and digging in to those dumplings for the first time.”   She’s right.

Over the years Evelyn has provided me with a gift even greater than her chicken dumplings, the gift of unconditional love.  Evelyn (and Freddy) were always there for me.

They made a place for me in their home and in their hearts and for that I will always be grateful.   In recent years I’ve moved back, from Oregon to Massachusetts, less than a few hours from where I grew up.

On a regular basis I stop by to visit Aunt Evelyn.  The welcome is always the same: “Kent I’m so glad to see you.  Tell me about your daughters.  Tell me about Tricia.  I love you so much.”

We never lose the need to know we are loved.  Loved without conditions.

Aunty Evelyn has always offered me this gift.  This love was my refuge as a boy and remains mine to this day.

Garrison Keillor in his book, Lake Woebegone Days, writes: ‘The kindness we offer to a child is never forgotten.’  This is true.

Now at age ninety-nine Evelyn looks back on her long life.  She thinks of those no longer living:  her husband, her siblings, friends.  She’s grateful for her mother Anna, who taught her how to live with courage and a selfless spirit.   Evelyn chooses to look back with gratitude and a sense of wonder at how her life has unfolded.

And, she chooses to live in the present with a sense of gratitude too.  Grateful for the gift of her friends and especially her family.

Evelyn on her 99th birthday with her Great-granddaughter, Riley.

Recently the family gathered for her birthday.  A few days later a group of friends baked her a cake and presented her with flowers.

In keeping with who she is, Evelyn voiced surprise for all the kindness shown to her.  I replied: ‘Aunty Evelyn, your family and friends are simply responding to all the kindness you share with others.  You are  a gift to us.’

When I grow up, I want to be like my Aunt Evelyn.  I want to live my life loving those around me unconditionally.  I want to learn to focus not on what I’ve lost but on what I have.

I too want to offer kindness and accept with gratitude the kindness of others. I want to live with as much grace as Evelyn Wisz Harrop.

Thank you Aunty Evelyn.  You’re the best.

 

 

 

 

 

Shame

I’ve been a pastor for thirty-five years.   I’ve had the privilege of being invited into  lives during the most difficult of times.  What I’ve learned from accompanying others and from my own 61 years, is that no one has their life completely together.  To one degree or another we are all train wrecks.

By this I mean that we humans are incredibly complex and complicated beings.  We have the capacity for bringing healing and hope and the capacity to tear down and diminish. Psychologists call this our ‘light and shadow’ side.

All of us have things we’ve done which we’re not proud of.  Our words and actions (and sometimes inaction) have consequences.

I’ve been thinking about this as men of power have been outed for their harassment and abuse of women.  As I wrote in my recent blog entitled ‘Tipping Point?’ my hope is that this will be a time when enough people say  ‘we will not be silent in the face of harassment and systemic gender inequality’.

Men who have been involved in predatory behavior must be held accountable.  Those of us who have been silent or complacent must speak out and stand with those who have been victimized.

I’m wondering too about those who have been outed.  Those who have lost their jobs and reputation.  What about them?

Let me pose a theological question: ‘Is anyone beyond redemption?’  The word redemption means to be redeemed or restored.

I can imagine a variety of responses to what I just raised:  “To hell with them. There must be consequences.   They are monsters. The victims must have justice.”

I agree that the perpetrators must be held accountable.  The systems that have protected them must be torn down.  Those victimized must be heard and cared for.

But again I ask: ‘Is anyone beyond redemption?’

Over the years I’ve sat with people who made very bad choices.  Bad behavior that hurt others. Behavior that became front page news and resulted in great loss personally and professionally.  Some even went to prison.

Often we talked about the ‘shame’ they felt.

Granted, religion has often used the guilt and shame card to keep people in line.  To require conformity for the sake of narrow religious parameters as to what is pure and right.

But sometimes ‘shame’ serves an important purpose.  There are words, behaviors and actions that we should be ashamed of.  Being sincerely ‘ashamed’ can be the first step in the process of becoming whole.

Being ashamed means taking responsibility for the harm ones action or inaction has caused others.  Being ashamed means knowing that there are consequences for inappropriate behavior.  Shame means knowing you are wrong.

Shame however need not be an ending.  It can mark a beginning.  When claimed with sincerity it can be the first step on the path toward self-awareness.  A first step to becoming a healthier person and when appropriate, making restoration to those one has wronged.

Those in the Twelve Step program know this to be true.  Our actions when under the influence of alcohol or drugs often does great damage to family and friends.   People caught up in addictive behavior often speak of shame.

But shame paradoxically can  be a gift.   A gift that leads one to do the hard and relentless work of becoming sober and clean and staying on the path.  Shame can lead to a change in behavior and a change of attitude.  One day at a time.

What I’ve learned in thirty-five years of being a pastor is that no one is beyond help. No one is beyond redemption.

My Christian tradition call this ‘grace’.  Grace is rooted in the belief that God’s essence is love and that no one is beyond the reach of this love.

Philip Yancey the theologian puts it this way:

There’s nothing we can do to make God love us more.  There’s nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Yes, people need to be held accountable for their behavior.  Yes, unjust systems that have and continue to allow for abusive behavior must be named and dismantled.

Yet let us not forget that no one is beyond redemption.  We are all in need of grace.

 

 

 

What Facebook Can’t Do

Facebook has been growing at an explosive clip since it launched in 2004, and the number of users on the site is over 1 billion. Plenty of people have figured out how to use the vast social network in productive, positive ways — but for others it still feels like a challenging, new frontier.   http://legacy.wbur.org/2013/02/20/facebook-perfection             

Craig Malkin, of Harvard Medical School:  “We’re really just in the infancy when it comes to research on Facebook but there are some themes that are emerging.  And one of the clearest themes is when people go on to Facebook they’re often crafting a persona — they’re portraying themselves at their happiest. They’re often choosing events that feel best to them and they’re leaving out other things.”

“This is something that keeps showing up in the research,” Malkin explained. “Some people out there wind up negatively comparing themselves to what’s portrayed on Facebook by their friends.”

We get this.  Who among us hasn’t compared their life to that of a friend who is posting yet another happy photo from their European vacation?  And, who among us has not been tempted to carefully craft our persona?

I recently had a beer with a buddy from the Pacific Northwest where I used to live. He said:  “I’ve enjoyed your Facebook photos from New England.  You seem to be very happy there”.   My response: ‘Well, it’s Facebook’.

He took my point.

In truth sometimes I’m happy and sometimes I’m not.  Sometimes life is going well.  Sometimes not.  How about you?

While some of us do post our pain and struggles on Facebook, most of us don’t.  For the most part I choose not to.  For me Facebook is a way to let friends and family know in general what I’m up to, to comment and sometimes vent about sports, politics, faith and culture.

Facebook does have its place.  Having lived in several parts of the country it allows me to catch glimpses of people I care about but rarely see.  I enjoy seeing photos of their families and seeing their kids grow up.  I like to hear what people are passionate about.  Some postings make me laugh and think.  When an area of  concern or need is posted I can offer a word of support.

But I know ‘it’s just Facebook’.  It’s only a glimpse into another’s life.

I’ve lived for 60 years.  I’ve been a pastor for 35 years.  As a pastor I’m invited into the most vulnerable, complicated and joyful moments in life.  I hold such moments to be sacred.

What I’ve learned is this:  ‘No one has their act completely together’.  To varying degrees ‘we are all train wreaks’.  That’s certainly true for me.

This is what it means to be human.  We are a mix of strengths and weakness, light and shadow, wisdom and folly.  Some of us more than others experience love.  Some of us more than others suffer.

Such is the price of being human.  Neither Facebook nor any other social media platform can speak to the complexity of the human experience.   I find this reassuring.

When I use Facebook I know I’m only catching a glimpse of the lives of family and friends.  I know that there is more going on under the surface.  Much that isn’t being said.

Facebook and other social media platforms have their place.  And limits.

How then do we get to know and be known at a deeper, more substantive level?

The answers vary for each of us.  It takes courage to share the stuff we struggle with. Hopefully we each find those we trust to share with.  Those who will hold what we say in confidence and listen with care.

It is freeing and affirming when we choose to share a struggle or an area of shame or a deep wound with someone we trust. Some may entrust this to a therapist to help us find understanding and even healing.

It is a gift to be heard, understood and accepted.

In my Christian tradition this is called grace.  The deep-seated belief that God, whose very essence is love (I John 4: 7 – 12) listens, accepts, forgives and wants the best for us.

Philip Yancey a theologian offers  this about grace: “There’s nothing we can do to make God love us more and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less”.

Perhaps you’re a Christian, perhaps not. But we can each choose to be present to another.  We can choose to be gracious….to listen and hold with care the humanity that another may entrust to us.

Facebook can’t do this.

 

 

 

 

Flat On My Back

This morning was beautiful in Massachusetts. I rolled out of bed, put on my pants, an old sweater and slipped on my fuzzy slippers.  Outside the  sun glistened upon a trace of snow.  I opened the door to retrieve my daily Boston Globe.  One step was all it took….

Ever notice how an accident is never graceful?  With one step off the porch my foot hit a  film of black ice.  In a moment I was on my back, lying on the sidewalk.  It’s impressive how quickly you can go down four steps and land on concrete.

photo-falling-down-stairs

With the wind knocked out of me, I lay on the sidewalk…checking my body parts before I tried to move.  Coco a black Labrador happened by at that very moment and began to lick my face.  Mike (Coco’s  owner) asked: “Are you hurt?”

Gradually, we (Coco, Mike and I) decided that I was ok.  Everything worked.  I took a few ibuprofen and got on with my day.

My accident reminds me of how lucky I was not to break something and how the rest of my day could have proceeded very differently.  A reminder of how unpredictable life is.  We roll out of bed and think we know what is going to happen….and, ‘BAM’, we find ourselves flat on our back.

Accidents by definition are never graceful.  No one falls down the stairs or off a ladder ‘gracefully’.

But such moments can be ‘full of grace’.  By grace I speak of  an awareness that we’re not alone.  Whether we are on top of the world or flat on our back, that mystery we call God/Spirit is with us, especially when we are most vulnerable.

Like it or not, stumbles are part of the rhythm of every life.  No one avoids falling down the stairs.

Ruminating on this…and feeling a little bruised,  I happened upon a poem by the Australian poet, Joel McKerrow.  Here’s a portion of that poem entitled ‘We Dance Wild’.  This poem speaks to me and perhaps will speak to you too.

We Dance Wild

We dance. We dance wild.
Not a two-step, structured repetition. We dance large.
We dance flailing arms.
We dance the erratic and the wriggle,
the blunder, stumble and fall with no need to get back up again.
For our fumbles are our dance
and our dance is our rebellion and our declaration and our surrender.
Our falling to the floor is a knowing that it is only in the places
of dust and grime and footprint, only in the failed step and the rusty body, only in the falling
that we can ever truly meet the holy and the sacred.
We meet God on the floor.

 

Oldest Dance Step

In the Bible there is a dance step known as the ‘not me shuffle’.  The dance goes like this: God calls us to step out in faith.  Our response? ‘Are you kidding me?’

Moses was called by God to speak a word of challenge to the Pharaoh: ‘Let my people go!’  Moses responds: ‘You can’t mean me!  I stutter.  I can’t string two sentences together.  How about sending my brother Aaron?’

Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet to his own nation.  He knew that prophets get their butt kicked.  Jeremiah responds: ‘I’m just a boy. Surely you want someone with more experience.’

Sarah said she was to old. Mary said she was to young.

How about you?  Ever felt that God was calling/nudging/prodding you to move in a new direction or speak a word of truth?

Often I revert to the ‘not me shuffle’:  “I’m not smart enough, faithful enough, brave enough, good enough, ______.”

Richard Bach captures our reluctance well: ‘Argue for your limitations long enough and sure enough, they are yours.’

In contrast, God argues for our potential.  God sees strength where we see weakness.  It seems that God enjoys bringing out the extraordinary in that which seems ordinary, even wounded and broken.  We are invited to dance not away from but with our Creator.

photo of dancing feet

When I was fifteen years old, I sensed that God was calling me to be a pastor.  Me?  I knew I didn’t measure up to what I thought a pastor should be … notably serious guys in suits who spoke in oddly stilted language of ‘thee and thou’.  That wasn’t me.

Yet, I couldn’t shake the idea that God was calling me.  Imagine.

In college I pushed the boundaries, asked lots of questions and explored other faiths.  The call however remained…as if God were saying, ‘I choose you’.

Between my junior and senior year of college I had a conversion experience, a reaffirmation that the call I sensed at fifteen was still at work.  Forty plus years later I still sense God’s holy nudge.

With all my limitations that great mystery we call God continues to speak into my life and guide my path.  Sometimes  it is only in looking back that I can see I’ve been accompanied with every step.

The invitation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we are invited to see ourselves and others through God’s eyes.  Full of wisdom, beauty and strength.  We are called to stop arguing for our limitations.

What might God be calling/nudging you to do, to become?

Mother Emanuel’s Open Door

The door was open for a Wednesday night Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. It had been a busy day at this historic African-American church with several lay members being ordained to preach the Gospel. Once the festivities were over approx. twelve leaders of that church remained to listen for God’s leading from the ancient scripture.

A young white male, age 21 walked in. This was his first time and he received a warm welcome and listened as the small group shared, sang and prayed. At the conclusion when the benediction was given, he took out a handgun and murdered nine people. Each time he reloaded he uttered racist oaths.

The shooter fled and left behind a devastated church who had lost nine well-loved members including their pastor. The city of Charleston and the state of South Carolina which has a long and painful history with slavery, segregation and racism struggled to make sense of such blatant racist hatred.

This tragedy adds to the conversation on racial tension that we as a nation are being forced to have in the wake of recent police shootings of unarmed blacks and abuses of ‘stand your ground laws’ in Florida and elsewhere. It also highlights the desperate need we have to restrict access to guns.

In the midst of the heightened emotions and debate the people of Emmanuel AME Church continue to show us the way to live. Drawing upon their faith in the teachings of Jesus they offer us a way beyond hatred, beyond violence, beyond revenge.

The day after the killings, the families of the murdered stood before the now captured accused and offered forgiveness. Said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance: ‘You took something very precious away from me. But I forgive you. And may God have mercy on your soul.’ One after another, each family member bore that same witness.

In Charleston, the church is known with affection as ‘Mother Emmanuel’. Since its founding as a church for slaves in 1820, this community has witnessed to the Good News that each person is created in the image of God and has inherent worth and beauty. It was a belief that made this church a beacon of hope during the painful days of slavery and Jim Crow. It was this belief that empowered Mother Emmanuel to be a leader for Civil Rights. And, it was this belief that enabled those victimized by an act of racist hatred, to see even their assailant as a fellow child of God, worthy of mercy and forgiveness.

On Sunday morning, just days following the mass murder, the doors to Mother Emmanuel were open. Open doorAn elderly African-American usher welcomed a little black girl to worship. He wanted her and all of us to know, that love always win. His faith was rooted in the belief that we are loved and cherished by our Creator, that there is no ‘them’ but only ‘us’.

Mary Oliver and the Gift of Red Bird

Yesterday, the great American poet, Mary Oliver died, at age 83.  Her poetry grew out of a love for nature, that served as a refuge during a turbulent childhood.  In the woods and ponds around her rural Ohio home, she found beauty, healing and hope. Throughout her adult life she would find wisdom and renewal in the her daily walks along the beaches and forests of Provincetown, Cape Cod.

Her poem Red Bird, invites the reader to look for the gift of color that breaks into the often grey and cold days of a New England winter.

Red Bird reminds us that beauty however fleeting, comes into even the darkest of times. May Red Bird speak to you.

 

Red Bird

Red bird came all winter
Firing up the landscape
As nothing else could.

Of course I love the sparrows,
Those dun-colored darlings,
So hungry and so many.

I am a God-fearing feeder of birds,
I know he has many children,
Not all of them bold in spirit.

Still, for whatever reason-
Perhaps because the winter is so long
And the sky so black-blue,

Or perhaps because the heart narrows
As often as it opens-
I am grateful

That red bird comes all winter
Firing up the landscape

As nothing else can do.