Waking Up Earley

Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

Hidden Landscapes

In Big Bend National park they found neck bones of an Atamoseurus that weighed 1000 pounds each. The neck bones weighed that much, not the Atamoseurus. They also found bones of the Quetzalcoatlus – the largest flying creature to ever have lived. Its wingspan was 36 feet and it weighed just over 500 pounds. A model of its skeleton hovers over visitors at the dinosaur outpost in Big Bend National Park. Visitors would catch it out of the corner of their eyes and start, “Wow. What is that?” and gaze up at the giant predator with a new appreciation for what chipmunks feel when a hawk soars overheard. I turned to a total stranger for reassurance, “Jurassic Park was fiction right?” I didn’t want that thing coming after me if it had missed lunch.

Quetzalcoatlus , Big Bend National Park

Quetzalcoatlus , Big Bend National Park

I tried to imagine the desert landscape of Big Bend 130 million years ago when it was a marine environment, and 72 million years ago when it was an inland flood plain, and the 55 million years ago when it was volcanic highlands. I could empathize with the dinosaur deniers. It seemed impossible that this this baked landscape could ever have been lush and humid and sticky; that it ever smelled like moldy murkiness thick with mud and decaying leaves and rotting fruit, instead of hot sand; that giants lumbered among lush vegetation instead of insects and rodents scuttling among the yucca.

I think about the people I know whose personal landscapes weren’t always what they are now. Ralph can’t get out of a chair now but used to hike the Appalachia mountains. Debby’s acute mind shines through when we talk about politics but she forgets that her husband has died. Marge’s life used to revolve around the addictions of her son. A 12-step recovery community has helped her let go of the cycles of blaming and saving. Liz has created a new life  following the death by suicide of her husband.

What other landscapes are buried beneath the current contours of the lives of the people around me? If I dug just a bit deeper what evidence of a whole other era would I discover? Would I be surprised by who they were or would I finally understand who they are?

 

 

Desert Landscape

I can see forever from the top of the South Rim Trail at Big Bend National Park. I’m reminded of the first time I snorkeled in the ocean. When I put my face in the water and opened my eyes the expanse, unstopped by pool walls, startled me so much I had to swim back to where I could stand and get my bearings.

Here, forever stretches not just in terms of geography but also in terms of time. I’m accustomed to trying to imagine what the landscape looked like before the subdivisions and Starbucks and Midas Muffler shops chewed up the prairie where my hometown Parker, Colorado now is. I tell people that I remember when Highlands Ranch, a large suburb of Denver, was a real ranch, with actual deer and antelope playing among the cattle. Here, in the desert corner of southwest Texas, my imagination stretches back to prehistoric times when this area was a muggy swamp populated by dinosaurs.

Everywhere I hike national park posted signs remind me to stay on the trail, that the ecosystem here is fragile. And it is. But this place is also timeless, enduring. It has survived to be home to the bravoceratops and the mountain lion, the gryposaurus and the javelina. This place has adjusted to climate changes and accommodated new species. People are like that – both easily broken and infinitely resilient.

Life changes us. There are the cataclysmic events of death, divorce, and trauma. The seismic shifts of falling in love and new vocational calls.  And there’s the seemingly inconsequential events that shape us — the sarcastic joke that makes us wince, the bid for friendship that is never answered, the affirmation of a talent we haven’t yet explored. These moments are like the steady stream of the Rio Grande that carves a canyon in desert rock. There are things that change us forever. And we persist.

Leading from the Midst

I wanted to go to the Monday night Bible study the day after Easter. This was remarkable. Easter Monday, as I call it, is usually a treasured day off after the marathon of Holy Week worship services, the work of planning Easter Sunday, the energy expenditure of the larger than normal crowd and then the inevitable let down Easter night. But I didn’t want to miss it.

I suppose a pastor should always want to go to Bible study. We are, after all, the religious nerds of our community, unusually committed not just to our own spirituality but to religious institutions as well. But honestly, I’ve been just as glad as anyone for a break from a long-term study. I’ve felt the glee of a second grader getting a snow day when I’ve cancelled a study because of inclement weather. I look forward to holiday breaks and summer vacation.

One of the dangers of being clergy is the blurring of the lines between what we do for a paycheck and what we do because it is authentically who we are. I’ve gone through periods not sure that I would go to worship if I weren’t paid to be there. I have preached the “Good News” as much to convince myself as to convince the people in the pews. Sometimes I’m not sure if what I am saying is really what I know to be true or just something that sounds good.

To realize I wanted to go to Bible study was a gift. Something is happening for me in that group. I am growing and deepening spiritually. I am the leader of the group, but also a co-participant. We share deeply from our own lives and ask important questions of the text. We take the risk of not sticking with pat answers. We sometimes disagree. I learn from the stories that others share and the wisdom of the gathered community. People share their life experiences, and together we ponder deep questions.

This experience reflects and shapes my leadership. The image of leadership that I most often see lifted up is of someone standing at the front of the pack, a bit at a distance, pointing the way with a confident arm. A strong leader sets the vision and answers to the questions. The leader is never unsure, is always unwavering. These days, I am not leading from the front, I’m somewhere in the middle. I convene the group, make room for questions, share what I know, ask what others know, admit when I’m wrong, confess uncertainty, and trust that the Spirit will move among us and not just with me. I am leading from the midst of the gathered people. Is that really leadership? I’m not sure what the leadership gurus would say, but it feels right to me. And it’s good for my spirit.

 

It’s How You Play the Game

The collapse of our democracy won’t be by a nuclear blast, a dirty bomb or a cyber attack. It will be a slow leak of our sense of fair play, the art of compromise, and civility that will sink us.

The Democrats in the Senate have enough votes to filibuster, a procedural move that requires 60 votes to move on to the main vote on nominees and legislation, the confirmation to the Supreme Court of Neil Gorsuch. In response the Republicans have vowed to eliminate the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees, a vote that only requires a simply majority. It’s a procedural change and it matters. A filibuster prevents the bullying of the minority by the majority. The majority have to negotiate with the minority. The filibuster pushes Senators out of entrenched partisan positions into bipartisan negotiation.

Outcomes matter, but process is more important. As a pastor a big part of my role is to safeguard the way we make decisions. I’m ordained to “Word, Sacrament, Service and Order.” I started out thinking of Order as the boring stuff of administration and building management. After close to 20 years in ordained ministry I’ve learned that “Order” is about more than church budget spreadsheets, roofing material and shared building use contracts. Order is about how we decide what we decide. How do we hear from everyone and not just those with the loudest voice? How do we be sure we are doing what’s right and not just what’s comfortable.

In elections I want my candidates to win. I want the legislation I support to get passed. But I also want the rule of democracy to thrive. I want to live in a country where our common good is more important than winning at all costs. Our leaders in Washington (and in Springfield) have forgotten an important lesson from elementary school gym class: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

 

Stories not Statistics

The lines on the form are too short so I draw small arrows indicating that the reader should flip the paper over to read more. Most Saturday mornings that I volunteer at the Justice For Our Neighbors immigration legal clinic I could fill a notebook with the stories I hear.

I started volunteering at JFON a little over a year ago because I wanted to practice my Spanish. I usually do intake interviews which means filling out paperwork that the lawyer will review when she meets with the new client. The forms ask about income and savings and members in the household. They ask about arrests and imprisonments and jail sentences. They ask about entrances and exits from the United States. They ask if the person has ever been a victim of a crime and if they came to the United States against their will. Sometimes the questions feel intrusive. But each question could lead to an answer that provides a path that leads to a door with a lock to which the person on the other side of the desk from me in the bare church office may learn they have a key. Or not. It’s not my job to assess the case, only to hear the first telling of it.

Behind every word I write on the form is a story – a story of family left behind, of danger escaped, of hope followed, of fear of being caught. I asked Luisa, “Are you afraid for your life if you return to your country?” Her twenty minute answer of black eyes, broken teeth, a broken arm all at the hands of her common law husband, whose drinking buddy is the chief of police, whom she finally left when he threatened her with a knife didn’t fit in the lines. I asked Minerva, whose husband Rogelio had been deported, Has he been convicted of a crime? She told me about their home being broken into multiple times and Rogelio had gone after the perpetrator when they ran into each other on the street, but Rogelio’s lawyer hadn’t told them that the plea bargain would result in Rogelio’s deportation and they didn’t know that Rogelio’s deportation may have been stopped because he had helped the police investigate their home invasion.  I asked Mario, “Were you brought to this country against your will?” he laughed out loud. His answer, a commentary on the devastating effects of NAFTA on the Mexican farmer, was that he hadn’t wanted to leave his town, his wife, his children, but in 1996 it was no longer possible to survive on the income from his small family farm. I wrote, “No,” on form.

Behind every statistic is a story. Behind every applause line in a political speech are actual people in actual circumstances. To learn more about the complexities of immigration check out these websites:

Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

Why Not “Fearless Woman?”

I wonder what the reaction would be if the statue were of a woman and not a girl. Fearless Girl was installed near Wall Street early in the morning, Tuesday, March 7, 2017, the day before International Woman’s Day. It is of a girl, staring down Charging Bull. Her hands are on her hips and her bitch wings are out. Charging Bull’s head is down and he paws the ground. The two are locked in a battle of wills. And it looks to me like Fearless Girl is winning.

I like the statue. I like the plaque on the ground that says, “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” I even like that Fearless Girl is a commercial from State Street Global Advisors to highlight their work encouraging companies to put women in top leadership positions. SHE is their exchange traded fund which invests in companies that have high levels of women on their boards and in senior leadership. The statue is supposed to highlight women in leadership, so why is it a girl?

When I imagine the sculpture as a woman I immediately anticipate the comments: Her butt is too big. Her breasts are too small. Why isn’t she prettier? Her shoes wouldn’t just be shoes. They would be “Power pumps exerting the force of her femininity,” or “Mannish shoes for a man’s world.” Instead of defiant, her face would be called “resting bitch face.” Someone would suggest she smile more.

If Fearless Girl were Fearless Woman we might have some questions: Does she have a partner who is sharing the load of raising the kids? Does her company provide adequate childcare? What about family leave so she can care for her aging parents? Does her health plan include contraception and prenatal care? Does she make as much money as her male colleagues? Is she interrupted more often than they are? Are her ideas only taken seriously when a male coworker repeats them? Is she ever mistaken for the secretary?

I like Fearless Girl. I like the way she draws us into her story. She sparks our imagination and triggers our aspiration. I like the photos of girls standing beside Fearless Girl, imitating her defiant pose. They learn from her to be tough and confident. They learn the power of bitch wings. Watch out, world. Those fearless girls will grow up.

 

Vacationing While the World Falls Apart

I’m on vacation while the world is going to hell. I come back from breakfast and learn that Trump has banned immigrants and refugees from certain “Muslim” countries. I wake up from a nap and discover he’s fired the Attorney General for opposing his ban. My friends are protesting at O’Hare airport while I kayak on Lake Chapala and hike to the capilla. I see a boy on the street wearing a white t-shirt with black block letters that read: “Tuck Frump.” I laugh and then apologize.

I want to be informed and I want my vacation. I want to speak out about Trump’s follies and I want to just watch dog videos on Facebook. It’s strange to not be painting my own placard to carry at a demonstration or listening to updated reports from NPR, and it’s a relief. I don’t want to hide from what is happening. I don’t want to stick my head in the sand and pretend it will just get better. But I don’t want give Trump permission to set up residence in my soul.

The next few years will be long ones. There will be many demonstrations to attend, letters to write, calls to make, articles to read, information to vet, conversations to engage, money to send. Even if Trump resigns or is impeached, Pence is waiting. I suspect he will be harder to resist because he will appear more “presidential.”

Resistance will be a marathon not a sprint. We will need to find moments to breath deep, to laugh long and hard, to enjoy those we love, to seek out joy. Sabbath was God’s gift to the Hebrew people. God gave the Sabbath so that they would remember that they weren’t under Pharoah’s thumb anymore. Sabbath rest may be a profound act of resistance for us.

Freedom Isn’t Free

The military can protect our borders. It cannot protect our freedom. The greatest threat to our democracy is not an enemy amassing along our borders or terrorists lurking in our midst. The greatest threat to our democracy is our willingness to let it go.

Protecting our borders is important. Within our borders are our homes, our jobs, and our children. Within our borders are natural wonders and means of production. Within our borders we practice our faith, celebrate our traditions, and raise our families. But protecting our borders is not the same as guarding our freedom.

Freedom isn’t license to do or say whatever we want, no holds barred, uninhibited by the potential consequences to ourselves or others. Freedom depends on our capacity for civil discourse, respectful disagreement, and informed debate. It depends on our willingness to be engaged and not merely to react; to be involved and not manipulated. Freedom is our ability to govern ourselves without giving over that responsibility to a tyrant or a bully.

“Freedom isn’t free,” shout bumper stickers. It’s not free. To be free we must bear uncertainty, complexity and nuance.   To be free we must be willing to protect the rights of others to think differently than we do. To be free we must diligently keep watch over our elected leaders and hold them accountable.

We depend on a free press to relay the news, and not just report the sensational things that people say. We depend on our religious institutions to give people the vision of what is possible and a sense of the deep connectedness of all people – that what’s in my poor neighbor’s best interest is in my interest as well. We depend on our educational system to equip us to think deeply about difficult issues.

Our democracy is more than the white marble buildings that house our institutions and more than the people with American flag pins that staff our government. Our democracy is more than the piece of parchment with calligraphy. Our democracy is the people who vote, march, write letters to the editor and public officials, and who run for local office.

Our military can’t make qualified people run for office, or equip the electorate to tell the difference between a statesman and a clown. Our military can’t protect us from our acceptance of sexy sound bites as gospel truth. Our military cannot protect us from our unexamined bigotries and untested biases. Tyrannies are kept in place by militaries. The militaries of Hitler and Mussolini did not bring freedom. There is a military in North Korea, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I am grateful to the men and women of the armed services who protect our borders and our interests. May we create a nation worthy of their sacrifice.

Happy “TurkEastVent” Day

Thanksgiving is a great holiday. There are limited decorations. No mandatory cards. No trying to remember how much was spent last year on presents that weren’t really appreciated in the first place so that you can spend the right amount on presents this year. No wrapping, packing and shipping the presents. And no debate on Facebook about the right greeting to strangers around Thanksgiving. It’s just “Happy Thanksgiving.” “Happy Turkey Day” is also acceptable.

One of my favorite Northbrook Thanksgivings was the year Rabbi Sid invited me to join him and his family for Thanksgiving. My plan had been to celebrate with friends on Friday and spend Thursday working on a quilt. I had turned down invitations from church folks with this plan in mind. But the day before Thanksgiving Sid insisted my plan was a no-go and I should join them on Thursday night. I did. It was also the first night of Chanukah.

We had turkey and cranberry sauce. And latkes. The pumpkin pie and the ice cream for on top were both dairy free. We debated whether or not this was truly keeping to the spirit of kosher. I realized at that moment that the wine I had purchased was not kosher and internally winced and hoped they could use it as a host gift elsewhere. After dinner we lit the menorah and sang a song. Well, they sang and I listened. And then they opened gifts for the first day of Chanukah and there were even presents for me. Coffee and chocolates I remember.

It was the first Thanksgiving that my husband was gone. Really the second. The first Thanksgiving I didn’t know he was gone. Misplaced, maybe, but not permanently lost. It was so good to be part of Sid’s family for the night. To have jokes tried out on me for an upcoming performance. Hear about college. Get lost in foreign family stories.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving is almost always the first Sunday of Advent. We begin to prepare for the love of God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. On the Emmaus Road, after Jesus had been crucified, two followers of Jesus met a man. When they stopped for meal he revealed himself as the risen Christ in “the breaking of the bread.” That Thanksgiving with the Rabbi’s family was for me Turkey Day, Advent and Easter all rolled into one.

 

 

 

Why I Call Them the Cleveland Ball Club

I don’t call the ball club from Cleveland by their name. Seeing close-ups of their players makes me cringe.  It’s not superstition or anxiety about the game.  Every time I hear their team name and see their cartoon mascot I think of the Sand Creek Massacre.

I visited the site of the November 29, 1864 Sand Creek Massacre this summer when I was in Colorado. I took an interstate to a highway to a narrow road to a dirt road to get to this sacred site that is a long way from everywhere.  I couldn’t even see the Rocky Mountains from this sun-baked patch of south-eastern Colorado.  I squinted even wearing sunglasses. Sagebrush and cottonwood trees marked the landscape. The Sand Creek riverbed was dry.  The rangers warned of rattle snakes.

John Evans was the Colorado Territory Governor in 1864.  He exploited the growing tensions between White settlers and Native Americans for his own political and business gains.  His speeches added to the fear-filled air, even issuing a proclamation in August, 1864 for citizens to “kill and destroy…hostile Indians.”

John Chivington was the commander of the Third Regiment of the US army.  He had been a popular Methodist Episcopal preacher.  His regiment wasn’t seeing any action and Chivington was eager for advancement.

Evans and Chivington invited “friendly Indians of the plains” to go to designated places of safety.  One of the negotiated places of safety was Sand Creek.  By mid-October there were 700 people living at Sand Creek, mostly Cheyenne and some Arapahoe.

When the sun rose on November 29 the village at Sand Creek started to stir. Children and grandparents, young men, old women, mothers, fathers, tended to chores.  They heard the beating of hooves and called out, “The buffalo are coming.”  But the thunder wasn’t from buffalo.  It was from hundreds of U.S. soldiers.  Peace Chief Black Kettle raised the white flag and the U.S. flag.  And still the soldiers came.  Cheyenne and Arapahoe chiefs walked toward the soldiers to ask for a parley.  The U.S. soldiers fired and all the chiefs except Black Kettle were killed.

On top of horses, the U.S. soldiers chased the fleeing Cheyenne and Arapahoe.  Some, mostly women, children and the elderly, dug sand pits in the river bed. Chivington ordered the U.S. soldiers to fire the howitzers. The soldiers executed those who surrendered.  They gunned down those who fled.  The firing stopped when the U.S. troops ran out of bullets.  Between 165 and 200 Cheyenne were killed, two-thirds of them were women, children and the elderly.  Another 200 were wounded or maimed.

The following day U.S. soldiers ransacked and burned the village.  They took trophies from the fallen bodies – scalps, fingers, genitals.

Some time later, The Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War found that Chivington had “surprised and murdered in cold blood….unsuspecting men, women, and children…who had every reason to believe that they were under [US] protection….”  No one was every indicted or tried in military or civilian court.  Chivington remained an ordained clergy person of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

I’ll watch the World Series tonight. I’ll cheer on the Cubs.  I’ll admire good plays by their opponent.  And I’ll remember Sand Creek.

 

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