Waking Up Earley

Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

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Soul Singing

I don’t like for people to hear me sing. I don’t do karaoke. It’s a sign that I really trust you if I sing with the radio with you in the car.  But I love congregational singing. 

I grew up going to church – church, not just Sunday school. Some of my love of church music may be nostalgia. I learned the hymns standing next to my mother and sister, while watching my dad in the choir. I can still hear Rev. Smythe’s gusto and certain hymns take me back to the congregation of Parker United Methodist Church. But there’s more than nostalgia in the music for me. It forms my faith. There is a sense of belonging in the music. It weaves among us and makes us into a community. 

Several years ago I went on a mission trip to Guatemala where we made cooking stoves in homes. Teams of 2 or 3 from my church were paired with a mason with whom we worked the entire week. I was the only one on my team that spoke very much Spanish and our mason didn’t speak English. We found a common language on our second day in hymns. We sang some of our favorites to him, and he sang to us. With delight we discovered many hymns we all knew in both of our languages. 

When I’ve gone through difficult times in my spiritual life it’s music, particularly congregational singing, that’s brought me back. I can’t sing alone. I need the support of the congregation to have any hope of finding the notes. The truth of music, deeper than mere words, carries me. Music holds together lament and trust, joy and doubt. When I’m in the congregation, even if my head is uncertain and my heart hurts, my soul sings. 

Searching for the Golden Egg

I had Easter dinner with a group of clergy friends and their spouses. We made it an informal potluck, well post-nap time. While we waited for the pork tenderloin to get fully cooked, 6-year-old Ruby invited us to an Easter egg hunt. She pulled back the sheets she had hung to block the living room in a moment worthy of any on-stage “ta-da.” 

I don’t think I sighed outwardly when the egg hunt was announced. But all I wanted to do was sit in a comfy chair, sip a glass of bubbly, and recover from the week’s events; it’s hard work raising Jesus from the dead. But when I found my first egg, bright blue and covered in sparkles, my delight was real and not fake. “I found one!”  Ruby announced that there was a golden egg with a special prize. We all searched for it. 

Ruby had hidden the eggs well. Far better than I would have hidden them for her. One nestled in a bowl in the china cabinet, another was in a purse, there was one under the couch cushions. The golden egg was in an orange Yankee Candle that had a lid on it. When James found it, he lunged across the couch to the side table, “I found it! I found it!” 

The game was more fun because it was challenging. We didn’t have to pretend to search. We were really looking. That’s the sweet-spot isn’t it? Where the challenge is what makes the activity fun. Where there’s a pay-off at the end, but not the only joy we experience in the endeavor. Hiking is like that for me, and the creative process. Reaching the mountain top is exhilarating. Having a piece of writing land on just the right audience is satisfying. And I love the discovery and exertion along the way. 

Everyday life is not only mountain peaks and egg hunts. Sometimes you have to fill the car with gas, go grocery shopping, and fold laundry. But when we get bored, when life feels dull and only full of drudgery, maybe it’s not just fun we’re missing, but a good challenge. Maybe we’re being called to hunt for a golden egg.

A Holy Communion

“What’s your name?” she asked again. 

“Melissa,” I answered again. “I’m the pastor at First United Methodist Church of Arlington Heights.” 

“Oh, that’s wonderful. Where do you live?”

“Arlington Heights.”

“That’s such a nice town. What church did you say you were from?”

“First United Methodist of Arlington Heights.”

“That’s my church.”

“Yes, I know. We have friends in common. I know the Robertsons.”

“How do you know the Robertsons?”

“We go to the same church.”

“What’s your name?”

“Melissa.”

I was visiting an elderly member of my church. Though her memory faltered, her hospitality never did. She was genuinely interested in me and glad to be making a new friend, again. 

I asked if she would like to join me in taking communion. “Oh, I would,” she said, so I set the chalice and paten on her bedside table, poured a bit of grape juice into the chalice, and put a piece of pita bread on the plate. Before I could say the customary words, and lead the familiar ritual, she reached out for the pottery chalice with both hands. 

“That’s heavy,” she said, and drew the cup to her lips, her face disappearing as she took drink after drink. “Mmmm, that’s good,” she said.

“Can I have a sip of juice?” I asked. She handed me the chalice and I drank. 

“Would you like a piece of bread?” I asked and tore off a piece of pita bread and handed it to her. 

“That’s good,” she said. “Would you like some?” 

“Thank you.” I took piece for myself and ate. “It is good.”

We chatted a bit longer. I ended our time in prayer for her, giving thanks for my new friend. Our sharing of the cup and bread didn’t follow the Book of Worship, but it was Holy Communion all the same. I think maybe that’s what Jesus intended when he said, “Do this as often as you gather in remembrance of me.” Nothing fancy. No long prayers or drawn out rituals. Just good food, new and old friends, and a chance to get to know each other a bit better. For me, the best communion prayer I’ll hear for a long time was said by a woman who couldn’t remember my name, “Mmmm. That’s good.”

Fickle Footsteps

“The stones would shout out.” I’ve always loved the image that as Jesus made his way into Jersualem all creation needed to praise God. That the need was so strong that like flooding waters that burst a damn, heavy snow that starts an avalanche, a wild fire whipped into fury by dry winds, it couldn’t be stopped.

36 As he [Jesus] rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,

“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Luke 19:36-40

In the moment of Jesus’ triumphal entry, just days before his tragic death, everyone got it. The disciples who walked beside him, the bystanders who lined the streets, the people who waved branches and spread their cloaks on the road, all who Jesus was and their need of him. They had clarity about their deep need for a Savior, for someone who would meet them where they were and show them the way to God. Someone who would free them from being trapped in the identities of oppressor and oppressed, have and have not, insider and outsider and set them free to live as beloved children of God.

I know what’s coming next in the story. I know that in less than a week Jesus will be arrested, abandoned and betrayed by his friends, flogged, mocked, and crucified. 

We are a fickle species. I am all too aware of the inconstancy of my devotion, the unreliability of my loyalty. I know how easy it is to go from hope to cynicism, action to indifference, certain of God’s love to despair about God’s distance. But for now, for today, I’ll join the crowd in praising God and trusting Jesus. I’ll give thanks knowing that the way Jesus lived is the way of true life. I’ll make my way forward, following his footsteps. 

A Great Thanksgiving in the Midst of General Conference 2019

Leader: The Lord be with you.
All:         And also with you.
Leader: Lift up your hearts.
All:         We lift them up to the Lord.
Leader: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
All:         It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Leader: It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Almighty God.
You created us in your image.
You created us male, female and non binary.
You created us cis-gender and trans-gender.
You created us gay and straight and bisexual.
Each one of us is your beloved child.

We have told and believed lies denying our sacred worth.
You continue to call us back to you and to our true selves.

And so, with your people on earth
and all the company of heaven
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:                    

 All:         Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Leader: Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ, 
in whom you have revealed yourself, our light and our salvation.
In Jesus you drew close to us,
showing us how to live in relationship with you and others.

Throughout his life Jesus ate with all sorts of people. 
He dined with sinner and saint, 
insider and outsider, 
upright and downtrodden, 
making of that motley crew a beloved community.

On the night before Jesus died, he took the bread and the cup.
He gave thanks to you and gave it to his disciples and said: “Take eat and
drink. I give myself for you.
Do this in remembrance of me. 

On the day you raised Jesus from the dead 
he was recognized by his disciples in the breaking of the bread. 
In the power of your Holy Spirit, the Church continues to eat with Jesus 
as we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.

All:         Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Leader: Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts that in the breaking of this bread and the drinking from this cup we may know the presence of the living Christ, and be renewed as the body of Christ in the world.

If we are wounded, restore us.
If we are lost, redeem us.
If we are dead, resurrect us. 

Through the power of your Holy Spirit
make us one with Christ, 
one with each other and one in ministry to all the world 
so that through us the world might know your limitless love, 
your boundless mercy and your unending welcome.  
Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, almighty God, now and forever.

 All: Amen.

It is hard. And I’m Not Sorry

“It is hard. And I’m not sorry.” I learned this phrase from a parent who used it in a difficult conversation with school officials. The conversation was about a curriculum choice that in the parent’s view perpetuated racial stereotypes. When the parent acknowledged that conversations about race can be difficult the school official interrupted saying, “No, no. You don’t need to be sorry.” The parent responded, “It ishard. And I’m notsorry.”

“It is hard. And I’m not sorry,” is my new go to phrase for those conversations where the stakes are high, the outcome uncertain, and I have to take a risk. It could be talking with a friend about my hurt feelings, a discussion to hold a co-worker accountable, or conversation with a neighbor about a racial slur.

“It is hard,” acknowledges that I’d rather be anywhere else, like at a dentist appointment, bathing suit shopping, or spending hours waiting on a car repair surrounded by the smell of tires, than in this conversation at this particular time.  The topic could be emotionally charged or politically potent. Maybe it’s embarrassing or awkward. “It’s hard,” spoken or thought, helps me have compassion for myself and my conversation partner as we stumble through saying what we mean in a way that can be understood.

“And I’m not sorry,” helps me summon the courage for the conversation. I don’t have to apologize for bringing up issues that make others uncomfortable. I owe it to myself to enter the fray. I regret more things I didn’t say than things I did. My mouth can be a steel trap, keeping big feelings, hard questions and unpopular truths locked inside.  I wonder how my life would be different if I had been able to say what I really meant.

 

 

 

 

 

No Candles Required

It was all so beautiful on Christmas Eve. The candles and Christmas tree lights revealed a sanctuary full of red-and-green plaid bow ties, Santa socks, sequined sweaters, and taffeta and tights. We really meant it when we raised our candles and sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!” Our hearts expanded to prepare him room.

But then we blew out the candles, turned on the lights and everyone bundled out to their cars. Some of us stuck around to be sure that there weren’t stray candles to be extinguished, the doors were locked and the bathroom lights were turned off. In the glare of the sanctuary lights we could see candle wax on the pews, dropped bulletins, and smudges on the windows. A dropped glove lay on the front sidewalk.

The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
John 1:9 (CEB)

Is the true light like the make-up mirror that magnifies and spotlights every blemish? Is it a giant neon arrow pointing out every flaw? Is it a blinking caution light warning the world that we are damaged?

Someone once came on-to a friend of mine by saying, “You look beautiful in candlelight.” My friend replied, “We all look good in candlelight.” We all do. It’s easy to believe that God would choose to dwell among us when all of our imperfections are hidden by the flame’s flicker. But then we go home to the reality of dinner-table tension and family spats. It’s hard to imagine that God would choose to be in that muddle when we’re looking for a way out of there.

What if the true light isn’t either candlelight that hides our imperfections or a spotlight that highlights them? What if the true light that comes into the world in Christ is a light that reveals who we truly are, like the art restorer’s light that discovers a hidden fresco?

What if the true light is a light that shows us the way? A trekker’s headlamp that helps us pick out our next step in uncertain terrain; a porch light in the distance that tells us that we’re almost home. What if the true light is the light that floods out the front door to welcome us back from wherever we’ve been?

The true light of Christ exposes the truth of who we are with such love that we don’t have to run away. Christ’s light invites us into the heart of God where we can be forgiven for what we’ve done wrong, healed of deep hurts, and freed to share the true light of God’s love with the world.

 

What Christmas Cards Don’t Say

I received a Christmas card from a friend. The front of the Christmas card was loaded with photos of happy, smiling people living their Best Lives Now! The family update on the reverse was peppered with exclamation points, jolly news, and travel destinations in bold.

Then we had coffee.

Though we hadn’t talked for several months, we are close enough friends for honesty over steaming mugs. No surprise, the card only told the tip of the iceberg of her family’s life. There were travels and a family wedding. But there’ve also been family fights, job anxiety and loneliness.

I wondered about all of our image conscious cards. Why can’t we just put it all out there in our Christmas letters? Why not write, “This will be the last time you get a card from this address, we’re going into foreclosure,” or “As I blew out the candles on my birthday cake, I was pretty sure I’ve wasted my life,” or even, “I don’t really like my kids this year. I’m a pretty nice person. How did I raise this bunch of jerks?”

Why not? Because not everything is everyone’s business. Secrets are how we protect those tender places that aren’t read for public scrutiny. We all know that if we put our dirty laundry on the line, someone will point at it and say, “Ick. That’s really dirty.”

There is power in bearing witness to the complicated truth of our lives. When we tell someone else about our struggles, insecurities, and personal triumphs, we each get a little less lonely. When we can unfold the layers of lives before another person without covering a part with our thumb we create a holy text. I have found healing when I’ve shared my hurt places with someone else.

But it’s okay for Christmas cards to have only the updates that are okay for other people to talk about in the grocery store check-out line.

This year, when I open  cheery Christmas cards and read the enclosed brag letters, I’ll celebrate the joyous news. And I’ll pray for the very real people and all the complicated, difficult, messy stories they’re not yet telling.

 

 

 

Barking at the Wrong Things

It turns out that the dystopian novelists are right – the world really is coming to an end. At least according to the UN’s experts on climate change. If we continue at our current rate, by 2040 (I’ll be 72 years old. How old will you be?) there will be global food shortages and millions of people living on the coast will be displaced by rising ocean levels. The report released by the U.S. on the high news day of Black Friday said much the same thing.

Meanwhile, President Trump sent troops to the front with Mexico to engage the advancing army of Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans armed with diaper bags. They are such a mighty force that they walked all the way from their home towns; so fierce that they don’t need guns or missile launchers. But it’s a fair fight since we sold all of our weapons to Saudi Arabia who kills journalists.

My dog sits in my favorite armchair and barks. She’s alerts me to the car turning at our corner, the jogger, and the man trudging down the sidewalk carrying his belongings in two grocery store plastic bags. I assume he’s spent the night in our church basement as a guest of our Monday night PADS shelter.

That same dog grabbed a box of raisins from the pantry on Thanksgiving morning. While I puttered in the kitchen making the best pecan pie ever, she ingested what could have been a lethal number of dried grapes. A number of years ago she ate two pounds of Frango mints and a bag of Hershey kisses. That time she had to spend a night at the emergency vet clinic (costing me a winter vacation).

We face real threats. But our president barks at the wrong things.

 

Paddling My Way Back to Sanity

Last week as my news feed swirled with reactions to the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, the speeding up of climate change, and the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, I felt like I was reading the first chapter of a dystopian novel. Is this what it’s like to hover at the beginning of the end of the world? My chest tightened and my head felt heavy, as if someone had opened my skull and poured in concrete.

And then, scrolling through Facebook, I saw an ad for a used kayak. A red one. I imagined myself gliding through the water, surrounded by the sounds of rustling trees, birdsong and humming insects.  I realized I hadn’t gone kayaking all summer. So I went. I rented a kayak (a red one) at Busse Lake. I paddled by resting ducks and cormorants drying their wings in the setting sun. I admired the regal posture of an egret and noticed the yellows and oranges of changing leaves. I breathed in the stillness of the glassy lake and let it quiet my soul.

When I got back in my car the world was still a mess. Nothing had changed. Except me. I felt renewed, recharged, at peace. There is work to be done. We need to address the pressing concerns of our time. But not at the expense of joy. Sabbath is much more than a day of the week. Sabbath is God’s gift of time when we set aside our worry and our work to enjoy all that God has made. In Sabbath time we practice trusting that God’s love for us does not rely on our accomplishments and that our future is in God’s hands.

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