Waking Up Earley

Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

The Gift of Not Knowing

“It’s a gift to not know what to say,” was my writing teacher’s response to my whining about the weekly grind of producing a Sunday sermon. I was looking for an escape from being caught between the wall of what I am supposed to say and the ocean of silence of what I can say with conviction. When Diana Goetsch, our writing instructor, met with us the first night she said that, “writing is not self expression. It is other expression.” She explained that the goal of the workshop was to slip the noose of the ego because “the lease creative force is the human ego.”

I like being told that my writing is good. I enjoy likes on Facebook and praise comments on my blog posts. During class Diana would give us writing prompts and we would write for five or ten or fifteen minutes. If we wanted we could what we wrote. But we didn’t give feedback. In the silence after sharing what we read I could feel the little ego inside of me jumping up and down and asking, “what did you think? Was it any good? Am I any good? Do you like me?” But writing, or any art for that matter, that is motivated by the ego’s need to be admired will never tap into the holy.

And that’s not the only way the ego gets in the way of art or revelation. The ego likes to be in control and thinks it has the right answers. We can’t truly explore if we already know where we’re going.

During one class we spent a significant portion talking about “negative capability,” a phrase coined by John Keats in a letter to his brother. He writes, “…several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”

Negative capability is demanded by true spirituality and so often squashed by the church. We like our doctrines and our disciplines and our clear understandings of right and wrong. We like to pin God down, and stick him behind glass where we can point at him with admiration and pride and say, “see what I found.” Negative capability invites us to understand the Holy as a hummingbird that flits into and out of view in the same moment.


One True Thing

As we sat on my back patio listening to the crack of fireworks, sipping Fat Tire and eating peach pie, a friend told me the story of the February night he nearly drowned in Lake Michigan. He had jumped in to save his dog. Good Samaritans were able to pull the dog to safety but they had to leave my friend in the water while they went for help. He tried to pull himself onto the ice, but it broke beneath him. He couldn’t climb the ten-foot retaining wall. With his fingertips he clung to a narrow gap in the concrete, only his head above water. He doesn’t know how much time went by, but he lost his grip on the crevice when his hands froze with the palms flat. His head dipped again and again under the water. With each dunk, he could feel the heat whoosh off his head. He thought three things. One, if this were how he died his ex would be totally vindicated. Two, his mother deserved better. Three, life, what the hell was that supposed to be? And then he thought, if these were the last moments of his life he should say something out loud that was absolutely true.

That’s where he paused in his story and looked me in the eye and asked, “What would you have said?”   My thoughts froze in the icy water. The only words that came to mind were “Help!” and “Fuck.” I could not think of a single, absolutely true thing to say.

As we sat on my back patio, hearing the crack of fireworks, sipping Fat Tire, and eating peach pie I was so relieved that he there was to tell me this story. And so angry that he was such an idiot that we almost weren’t.

He looked at me, waiting for an answer. I felt my hands sliding down the slick, icy concrete. Nothing. I shook my head. “What did you say?” I asked. “There is only love,” he responded. “Love in relationships is life giving. Love in neighborhoods is community. Love in systems is justice.” Until I have an answer of my own, I’ll borrow his: “There is only love.”


The Verdict

I walked into the Skokie location of the Cook County Court juror room behind a man who was about 63 years old, very fit, carrying a book called Elizabeth is Missing. I walked in lugging my red book bag loaded with four books, nine Christian Century magazines, 20 photocopied pages of scholarly commentary on the text for my sermon, a set of notecards, the church directory, a list of people who volunteered at the rummage sale, and my computer. I also had a wallet full of change for the vending machines, a cup of coffee, and a sweater. He looked like he was there to do jury duty. I looked like I was moving in, or at lease prepared to be marooned in eight feet of snow. He was an early retiree, I decided. He had the leisure to just read a book. I had real work to do.

A lanky white man in a pair of Dockers and a golf shirt carried his weathered brief case into one of the glassed-in “quiet rooms” equipped with a conference table and chalkboard. I raised an eyebrow when he obeyed the announcement to come out of his exile for the instructions from the jury attendant. He looked like the type who would consider himself exempt.

Though talking was allowed in the main room, my typing click-clacked like stiletto heels on the stone floor of an empty church. From behind my pile of work projects I couldn’t believe that no one was taking the time to get to know each other. Surely that would be better than playing games on their smart phones.

We were dismissed at 12:30 PM without a single jury panel being called. One case was pled, another requested a bench trial and the third the parties reached a settlement. Bummer. I would have enjoyed sitting in judgment of my peers. I’d be good at it.

It’s Time to Create a Brave Space

These are the words I wrote for the Interfaith Vigil in Support of the LGBTQ community that was held last night in our community.

I am so glad you are here tonight. What you are doing here matters.

There are a lot of voices out there telling us to be afraid. Be afraid of the transgender person. Be afraid of the gay person. Be afraid of the poor woman and the Black man. Be afraid of the Mexican immigrant, the Guatemalan immigrant, the Syrian refugee. Be afraid of the Muslim. Be afraid.

I won’t presume to speak for other faith traditions, but I know that the Christian community has given the LGBTQ community cause to be afraid. We have painted our bigotry with the patina of piety. We have taken the words given to us so that we might know and share the heart of God and we have turned them into weapons that we have used against our LGBTQ neighbors. We have done harm. And I am truly sorry.

I want to find ways to counter the voices that tell us to be afraid. How do we silence the voices of fear? We replace them. We replace the voices of fear with a voice that whispers hope, a voice that sings courage, a voice that lets out battle cry of love.

I can’t guarantee that tonight will be a safe space. No one can make that promise. Not any more. But together we can create a brave space. A space where we show up. We show up with strong backs and confident grips, and knocking knees and sweaty palms. We show up with clarity of purpose and wobbly beliefs. We show up as people who know they are loved and as those who are desperately lonely. And we bravely claim and proclaim that all people are beloved children of God. Something happens when we create a brave space like that – we experience love – we experience giving it and receiving it. Friends, perfect love drives out all fear.


Thank you for being brave with me tonight.

The Non-Apology Apology

A recent email exchange (true to meaning, not to content):
To me: Thanks for the favor you were under no obligation to do. Sorry for not doing the one thing you wanted me to do. I should have done it.
My response: You still can.

I haven’t heard a word. So not really sorry, I guess. It’s got me thinking about the “non-apology apology,” the linguistic gymnastics we go through when we want to feel better about ourselves without the actual work of contrition, confession, and making amends.

“I’m sorry for whatever I did that offended you,” is not an apology. It’s a “I’m sorry I got caught being an asshole, but if you weren’t so sensitive I wouldn’t be uncomfortable right now.” “I’m sorry you’re angry, or hurt, or irritated,” is not an apology. It makes the other person’s feelings the problem. And they are the problem – for you. Those feelings hold up a mirror that shows an unattractive reflection and who of us wouldn’t like that to just go away?

An apology doesn’t begin with “if” or end with “but.” “I’m sorry if your feelings are hurt, but I had a bad day,” says, “Your feelings are like a mosquito buzzing in my ear. I’m all that really matters.” The “before you get mad, let me explain…” followed by prattling on with reasons, explanations, and justifications is not an apology. It’s an attempt to avoid consequences like messy emotions and uncomfortable outbursts. It’s the conversational equivalent of a muzzle that we use because actually putting your hand over someone’s mouth is rude.

A real apology doesn’t cover over or push away the experience of the one you wronged. A real apology doesn’t pretend it never happened. A real apology takes responsibility for your actions and their consequences: “I’m sorry I said what I said. It was rude and thoughtless.” “I’m sorry I didn’t do what I said I was going to do. You were counting on me and I let you down.” “I am sorry I hurt you. I deeply regret it.”

What if we don’t deeply regret it? What if we aren’t sorry? Last week I received an email from a member of Northbrook’s community expressing disappointment that our church was going to host to a Roman Catholic woman priest’s ordination. Writing a response like, “I’m sorry you feel that way…” or “I’m sorry what we did disappointed you…” would have been easy, but a lie. I wasn’t sorry – not one bit.

Sometimes someone’s hurt at our action or anger at our words causes us to see things in a new light. We have a pang of guilt that tells us we’ve done something wrong. We apologize and make amends. But my neighbor’s response did not cause me to reconsider. My email back to him was respectful, stated the esteem in which hold the clergy of the local Roman Catholic churches and my value for their congregations’ ministry. My email did not include the phrase, “I’m sorry.”

Risking Failure

It seemed like a good idea five months ago when I signed up for the August hike up Mt. Shuksan and the Sulphide Glacier. It doesn’t seem like such a good idea now. I would like a do-over for the mornings I slept in and the days off I spent on the couch instead of the gym.

As I sweat through early morning workouts I think, “If three minutes of burpees are hard how will I ever get through a 10 hour hike up a mountain with a 40 pound pack?” As I plod up the sledding hill carrying the a backpack weighted with bags of rice and beans, I think, “Who exactly do I think I am?”

I have visions of everyone else in the group loping ahead and leaving me behind with a guide who gives me a strangled smile and says things like, “You’re doing great.” “Keep at it.” “You can do it.” Until the guides huddle together and in whispers decide that I can’t do it, that I’ll never make the final summit. I will nod in agreement that safety is the most important thing. The other hikers will give me sad looks while they tell me I should be proud for making it as far as I did.

I keep remembering a party my sister took me to the summer before she went to college and I started high school. We played softball, but I can’t play softball and to be nice they made me stay at home plate swinging at every pitch until I finally hit that stupid ball. When I finally hit the ball, it flew up and sideways, right along the path to home plate. No one called it a foul because they were all glad the game could finally go on, and the ball came down and hit me in the shoulder. I got myself out. At least no one said, “Good job.”

When I get up for the 5:30 AM “Boot Camp” class at the YMCA or carry a heavy pack on a long dog walk in the rain, I wish I could know for certain that it’ll be worth it. I wish I had a guarantee that the 10 hour hike will be a challenge but not insurmountable, that I’ll be able to do the 600 feet of technical climbing without weeping in frustration. I wish I could know for certain that I’ll make it to the top of Mt. Shuksan. And back down. Without hurting myself. But there is no guarantee. Risking not getting to the top is the only way to make it to the summit.



Inspired by the Church Rummage Sale

I wish I had a giant shovel.

I would shovel out my house. I would scoop up the clothes I keep hoping will fit again one day but still pucker at the hips and are tight across the belly. I’d heap up the files of warranties and manuals for appliances I no longer have and the collection of old hymnals I don’t peruse. I’d toss on the pile the creamer and pitcher my former mother-in-law bought when visiting my former husband when he lived in Belfast. I felt that I had received a family heirloom.

I’d empty out the linen closet of tablecloths and napkin rings, candlesticks and candy dishes meant for holiday parties. I’d empty kitchen cupboards of dishes that go unused by guests who never arrive.

I’d clear out the craft closet of unfinished projects, and hopeful supplies.  I’d get rid of the shelf waiting to be refinished and the broken bird path I haven’t fixed.

I’d like to drive one of those large earth movers with the  huge iron shovel with teeth.  I’d rip off the roof and shovel out my collection  of petty disappointments and grudges and hurt feelings.  I’d like to hear them smash like glass on a cement sidewalk.

I’d like to kneel in dirt, use a sharp trowel, and carefully root out the voice that says, “You can’t,” “Don’t dare,” “Don’t try,” “Can’t risk,” “Play it safe.”  I’d diligently extricate the rhizomes that seek approval and insist that I’m never quite good enough.

I’d uproot myself and plant me somewhere new to see what grows.

John Wesley’s Nightcap

I got to see John Wesley’s nightcap. Also his glasses and his writing desk. For most people seeing the personal effects of the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement that was the precursor to many Christian denominations would be what you do in London if it’s pouring outside, and you’ve been to Madame Tussauds twice and all the pubs are closed. For me it was a highlight.

John Wesley was an Anglican priest who, with his brother Charles, started a renewal movement in the Church of England. He insisted that the personal piety of prayers and Bible study be linked to acts of mercy and social justice. Under John Wesley’s leadership early Methodists took on prison reform, created schools for the children of factory workers, built hospitals, and worked for the abolition of slavery. During his lifetime Wesley road 250,000 miles on horseback, delivered 40,000 sermons and, though not a wealthy man, gave away £30,000 (about £1,680,900.00 according to www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency). When Wesley died in 1791 the Methodist movement had over 135,000 members and 541 itinerant preachers.

John Wesley was a force of nature. I count it a major accomplishment if I write a sermon and do my laundry on the same day. But when I saw Wesley’s nightcap and eyeglasses I didn’t remember his success, but his failures.

John’s stint as a missionary to Savannah, Georgia ended with him fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid civil charges, brought on when he denied communion to a former girlfriend. He returned to England in a spiritual crisis, uncertain if he could continue to preach. His personal life wasn’t an unmitigated success. John didn’t marry until he 48 years old and it wasn’t a happy union. After they finally separated Wesley wrote in his journal, “I did not quit her. I did not dismiss her. I will not call her back.”

I love reading Wesley’s sermons on grace (God’s free gift of love that we cannot earn). If Wesley, who worked so hard to earn God’s favor and failed so miserably, could experience God’s grace, then maybe there’s hope for me.

These days I find myself encouraged by Peter Boehler’s advice to Wesley upon Wesley’s return from the American colonies: “Preach faith until you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” Wesley went on to have a “heart warming experience” in which he became absolutely assured of God’s love for him. I wonder if he would have had that experience without first feeling God’s crushing absence.



Thoughts After Brussels

Some days it’s all too evident that the world is one hot mess. Yesterday was one of those days. Tuesday there was an ISIS attack in Belgium. Two coordinated explosions killed at least 30 people and injured 230 others. The attacks will be used by some to paint Islam as a religion of hate, which is handy if you want to whip people into a fear fueled frenzy for your own purposes.

On Facebook I read that on March 14 six gunmen opened fire on a beach in the Ivory Coast, killing 22 people, including a boy begging for his life. I hadn’t heard anything about it on network news.  But while working out Wednesday morning, I saw that every TV was tuned to news programs that had plenty of time to cover the the mud-slinging about wives between Cruz and Trump but hadn’t mentioned the terrorist attack n March 20 in Yemen that killed 137 people.

Selective outrage is nothing new. Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino make the headlines. Attacks in Libya, Yemen and Tunisia do not.

The horrific events and our ability to ignore them reveal the ongoing brokenness, sin and evil in the world. It’s the same song, second verse, a little bit louder and a little bit worse. A second biblical flood to wipe out all of humanity looks like the best possible option.

God seems intent on remembering the promise marked by the rainbow – to never again destroy the earth. A cynic would say that we don’t need God’s help – we seem intent on destroying the earth all by ourselves.

My perspective from the midst of Holy Week preparations tames my inner cynic and helps me even to hope. The story of Holy Week is that in some way (which I’ll probably never fully understand) God entered human life in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ death on the cross shows us that God doesn’t just show up in the sunset and the lake front and the new baby. God also shows up in the bombings, in the hate filled rallies, in the drive by shootings.

God is there and not just in the acts of heroism or mercy. God is there in the suffering. And God’s presence makes a difference. The story of God raising Jesus from the dead, whether myth or history, reveals God’s activity in continually leading us toward new life, toward peace, toward reconciliation– even and especially where it seems impossible.

An Honest to God Person

“Melissa, I’ll be right with you,” said the service agent as he finished with the customer in front of me. Oil, gas and tires mingled into toxic incense that smelled like work. The clang of tools and hoists and forced air filled my ears. And then it struck me. He knew my name.

I had spent the morning trying to submit bills to my insurance company for reimbursement. Their diligence to protect my identity left me feeling like I was nothing more than a username and account number. After multiple attempts to log in I called the help number and was connected with someone I had trouble understanding. Irked by the digital world and embarrassed by my parochial hearing, I was more abrupt than necessary with the person on the other end of the line. I hung up wearing the scratchy garment of righteous indignation to cover my guilt at misdirected irritation.

I had spent the work week wading through the mud of bureaucracy. Writing reports that no one would read, filling out forms that asked the wrong questions, and sitting through meetings with little purpose had all drained my soul. Attempts to connect meaningfully with friends had been thwarted by their busy schedules. And now I was spending a chunk of my one day off a week getting my car fixed.

And then Reggie called me by name. He had been my service agent for my last oil change and I recognized him by where and how he sat. Instead of standing like his coworkers at his counter high desk, he sat on a low office chair. The bottom of the computer screen was level with his eyes. He hunted and pecked for keys, his arms as high as his ears. He listened without interrupting while explained my questions and concerns. Not only had I been recognized, I had been heard.

When Reggie called a few times during the day to give me updates, he called me, Mel, a nickname I hadn’t heard since Julie and Vickie called me Mel when we met in Spain. He was as happy to tell me the good news – I wouldn’t need a new clutch – as I was to hear it. When I came to pick up my car, he walked me to the cashier and asked, “What’s it like to be a pastor.” He had remembered my work from a previous exchange. I had been seen, heard and now I was just a little bit known.

I started felt like a person. An honest to God person. Not a number or a username or an account. I wasn’t a means to an end, a bother to be managed, or an item to be checked off someone’s list. In being seen, heard and known, I was able to shed my irritable self. I asked about his weekend and thanked him for all his help. Reggie became more than the guy at the service desk, but someone who spent his weekend cleaning his condo, connecting with friends and maybe grilling a steak if the weather stayed nice.

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