Waking Up Earley

Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

A Misfit’s Heart Strangely Warmed

I was surprised that I wanted to go to church. I was in the middle of a six-week renewal leave from local church ministry and had purposefully avoided anything to do with church the first few weeks. I ended up in a small church in a small town on a high mountain of Colorado.   I had been invited by a friend who couldn’t go with me. When I walked into the sanctuary almost half way through the worship service the entire congregation turned to look at me – all seventeen of them. There was the guy with unwashed, shoulder length hair who had his own oxygen tank. The woman in mismatched shoes. The family with the two children who ran around the edges of the sanctuary. The boy, about 10, pulled his arms into his sleeves and fluttered his hands like wings while he made wet motor sounds with his lips. I wanted someone to sit on him. There was one woman who looked like someone who could be my friend. “What an island of misfit toys,” I thought.

And then something happened. The prayer of confession’s words were familiar, “Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we left undone…” The difference was that in this church we knelt to pray. We knelt on the floor. We knelt on the worn carpet and muttered our prayers together, “We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Tears pricked my eyes. They weren’t tears of guilt or shame. The prayer of confession became a moment of unexpected grace. Something snuck in.

And then the pastor sat on a pew facing the congregation and led us in a conversation about the scripture passage, Jesus’ story about a man whose harvest was so plentiful he decided to tear down his barn and build a bigger one but dies that night. The conversation touched on the congregation’s successful badgering of a local supermarket chain to provide food for the free community meals that they host several times a week. Among these folks, many of whom looked like at one time or another they had trouble paying their rent, or an electricity bill or buying groceries, I thought about how my own anxiety about money traps me. And how it traps my church.  I thought of how we want to be the “cool kids.” And in that moment I wanted to be one of the misfit toys.

As I worshipped with this strange little congregation I let down my defenses. This congregation couldn’t worry about slick church growth strategies or programs attractive to young couples with attractive children and baby boomers with money to give. One day they may not be able to fix the roof or pay their pastor. But for now they’ll follow Jesus in their little church in their little mountain town.  And my heart was strangely warmed.

Thoughts on the 15th Anniversary of September 11, 2001

When we say, “Never forget,” what are we trying to remember?

If it is the heroism of those who rushed into burning buildings and smoke stuffed stairwells — yes, let us remember.

If it is the bravery of airplane passengers who stormed a cockpit to prevent more murder – yes, let us remember.

If it is communities from across the nation sending their doctors and social workers and counselors and fire fighters and nurses and money to help repair the damaged bodies and souls and places — yes, let us remember.

If it is the awareness that the executive who works in a corner office with a great view of the skyline and the commander in charge of a mighty military are vulnerable to random violence like the little black girl with braids in pink plastic bow shaped barrettes watching cartoons in the front room of her house in Chicago (or LA or DC or Detroit) and that knowledge spurs the executive and the commander to make decisions that benefit the girl in the pink plastic barrettes watching cartoons — yes, let us remember.

If it is the fear of our country being under attack and that fear helps to grow in compassion for those who do not know what it is to live in peace – yes, let us remember.

If it is the memory of September 10 when someone with dark skin or a headscarf who spoke a language we didn’t understand wasn’t automatically our enemy — yes, let us remember.


But if remembering lets us turn strangers into enemies;

if remembering gives us permission to send smart bombs and guided missiles to fight the “War on Terror” without also counting the cost to the innocent in lives and livelihood and landscape;

if remembering cons us into believing that we only need the military to protect our freedom and not also our full participation in our democracy;

if remembering tricks us into trading our rights of free speech and assembly and religion for the illusion of safety;

if remembering the 2,996 who died in the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 , makes us blind to the 13,286 people who were killed by gun violence[1] and 1,615 women who were killed by men they knew[2]  and the 760,000 children around the world  who died  because they did not have clean water[3]

then it would be better if we forgot.

We should forget if remembering September 11 makes us bullies. But if it makes us brave, noble, and generous may we always remember.




[1] in the United States in 2015. Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34996604

[2] in the United States in 2015.  Source: Violence Poverty Center

[3] in 2011.  Source:  http://www.unicef.org/media/media_68359.html

You’re Climbing a Mountain, It’s Supposed to Be Hard

“Shush, Nellie. Stop that whining. You’re climbing a mountain. It’s supposed to be hard.” If I wasn’t vigilant, Nellie’s constant whining and naysaying was all I heard on my way up Shuksan Mountain. “You’re not in as good of shape as everyone else,” she said. “They’ve all climbed Mt. Rainier, and you never have. Who do you think you are?” “You are already so tired, do you really think you’ll make the top?” “If you quit now you could spend the next several days hanging out in the hotel.” “You’re too old to be doing this.” Nellie smiled smugly when I swayed a bit after putting on my full 45lb pack at the trailhead. She crowed when I vomited up water and Kind bar on the first day of the hike (likely caused by insufficient salt intake).

Nellie wasn’t a registered member of our group of seven hikers and four guides. She is the voice in my head who points out my weaknesses, keeps track of my mistakes, keeps a running commentary of why I won’t make my goal, and tries to convince me that people are only pretending to like me. I learned from a friend to give Nellie a name (some of you may remember Nellie Olson from Little House on the Prairie) and to keep her occupied. As it turns out, Nellie is pretty good at counting steps, a helpful activity when on the slow slog up a glacier, and she likes to sing. She and I gave new words to the song “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” Over and over again, she sang in my head “We are climbing Shuksan Mountain…” and then “Every step goes higher, higher.” Sometimes we would both get distracted by a stumble or steeper part of the ascent and Nellie would start complaining again. That’s when I reminded her that it was supposed to be hard, that we were in it together, and that I was going to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes I had to get tough, “Nellie, you are not the boss of me.”

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.

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