Waking Up Earley

Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

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Just because we split doesn’t mean we’re done

Some people have compared the anticipated split in the United Methodist Church to a divorce. It has me thinking about my own divorce a number of years ago. My marriage was officially over, but nothing was finished. My ex-husband got to start-over and I had to deal with the detritus of our marriage.  I had the conversation with the banker about splitting up our joint checking account. I created a new Amazon account and learned that all of my Kindle books were his, because the account was in his name. For six months his mail was delivered to my house. I forwarded credit card statements and Christmas cards, until I finally filled out his change of address form. For a year I received fundraising solicitations addressed to the two of us. I made phone calls, wrote letters and the solicitations kept coming. I had to figure out what to do with the stuff – the dining room table that he brought into the marriage, the vacation photos of us that hung on our walls, the art we had purchased on the trip where we got engaged. When he had already re-married and moved out of state, I was still trying to get rid of the enormous treadmill he had left behind. 

The most important work I’ve done post-divorce has been emotional and spiritual. I had to recover from betrayal and work through grief. I had to begin to envision a different future. I’ve worked hard to get past blame so that I could be honest about what I did and did not do that contributed to the ending of our marriage. 

The protocol agreed to by some leaders in the UMC still has to be voted on at General Conference in May. Whatever happens in the next few months or years, a split, if it comes, won’t solve everything. Those of us who remain in the UMC will have the hard work of restructuring an unwieldly denomination that is out of touch with the world around us. People who share my demographic (white, straight, cis, middle to high income) need to look at what we did or didn’t do that led us to a place where such harm has come to LGBTQ persons. Many of us were silent for too long, leaving the fight for full inclusion to the fringes. Many of us have ignored the racism imbedded in our denomination and have abetted racism in our culture through our silence.  We have focused too long inward, letting anxiety about shrinking budgets and diminishing worship attendance keep us from focusing on the work that matters – following Jesus in healing the sick, giving hope to the despairing, feeding the hungry, and serving the poor.

Let us pray that a denominational split will split us open and allow the Holy Spirit to do a new thing among us, the people called Methodists. 

Shhh…the reindeer are sleeping

I was so excited when I saw the white reindeer wood cut out Christmas lawn decorations at our church’s recycled Christmas sale. I’ve admired deer like these for years and thought they were the right combination of playful and classy. I loved the simplicity — no ladders required. Just after Thanksgiving I put them out, creating a Christmas tableau in my front yard. I had a whole story in my head about this family of four. I felt that smug satisfaction of those who get their act together early enough to put up out Christmas decorations without their fingers turning blue with cold. Maybe this year I’d get my cards out before Valentine’s Day, be able to shop thoughtfully instead of frantically, and have moments sipping tea in front of my fire enjoying my Christmas competence. I was glad that the neighbors could stop wondering if the United Methodist pastor celebrates Christmas.

The next morning, I stood at my window holding a cup of coffee ready to admire my handiwork, and the adolescent son had fallen over. I went out in my bathrobe and righted him. When I came home that evening the older buck with bedecked antlers had crashed, breaking two Christmas bulbs, and the doe was on her side. It seemed that someone could sneeze down the street and my deer would tip over. Over the next few days church members reported to me the standing deer versus fallen deer census of my front yard. I learned later that various solutions were bandied about at a funeral lunch. A windstorm decimated the herd overnight. Rudolf had landed on his head.  The doe had blown across the street. I found her ears in a neighbor’s lawn and her tail in the gutter. 

I roamed around Home Depot looking for a solution. I settled on an eye screw on the back of a reindeer leg and a stake through the eye screw into the ground. The deer stood up – for two whole days. A friend suggested I give up the fight with a sign, “Shhh…. the deer are sleeping.” I considered an Elmer Fudd cutout lurking behind a tree. It is hunting season. I think I’ll do a sign that says, “Christmas didn’t go according to plan.”  

Gnawing on TV to Satisfy a Hungry Heart

In a spurt of decisiveness earlier this summer, I put my television in my basement. I had decided to face my screen addiction head on. Summer seemed like a good time to go cold turkey. I had envisioned sitting on my patio working through the mountain of books on my “to be read” shelf, or taking my dog on long lingering walks, or weeding my garden, or calling a friend. I had imagined hours freed up for creative pursuits.

Turns out it’s easy to cheat. I can’t quite bring myself to cancel my Netflix account which means I can watch TV on my phone. I took the app off my phone. Then put it back on. It’s off again. I’ve learned that I’m not watching TV just because it’s there. I watch TV because I’m looking for something. It’s a kind of hunger, but TV doesn’t satisfy. It just makes me hungrier. It’s like eating the homemade treats brought to the church office when I’ve skipped breakfast. 

My television addiction is a spiritual issue. It’s not that I’m lazy, procrastinating, or irresponsible (or any of the other soundtracks that run through my head). The root of my addiction is spiritual hunger. I’m looking for connection, for aliveness. I am most susceptible to television watching (and Facebook scrolling) when I have a longing that I cannot satisfy on my own. 

Maybe the question to ask myself when I’m wanting to watch TV isn’t so much, “What I can be doing instead” but “What is it that I really and truly want?” Wanting can be uncomfortable, even scary. What if I realize I want something that I can’t have? I feel like I learned someplace (from the Bible? from some theologian?) that our deepest longings have their source in God. It sounds like something I would say in a sermon. Maybe it’s time I believed myself. Augustine of Hippo said, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Maybe he was right.

Taking the TV to the Basement

I’ve put my tv in the basement. I’m giving it up for the summer. Like Lent, but with better weather. Summer seems a good time to me to make a fresh start. When everything’s green and the days are long and the thick warm air reaches out with its long humid fingers and grabs hold of the tail of your shirt and begs you to just slow down a little.

When my friend came over to help me move my tv to the dank, dark basement where I wouldn’t be tempted to plug it in and just watch one show, I told her that I wasn’t deciding to give it up for all time, just for the summe, for a summer sabbath. It’s not that tv’s bad. It’s just bad for me. I come home from an evening of meetings and watch a show to unwind before bed. And then I watch another. And another. I fall asleep in front of the tv only to wake up at 1:30 in the morning and have to let my dog out and then I go up to bed and am unable to sleep. I watch tv when I’m blue or bored or angry. It’s my drug of choice. 

Instead of starting a load of laundry or emptying the dishwasher or writing thank you notes, I’ll sit down in front of the tv. But when I’ve thought of tv as something that gets in the way of my productivity I haven’t been motivated to change. We all need ways to unwind. 

Sabbath is God’s gift to affirm that life is about more than we get done. Sabbath is about renewal not numbing. It’s about unplugging not disengaging. Letting down, not numbing out. 

It’s been a week without tv – so far so good. It hasn’t been terrible. The other night I came home after a long day of meetings. I looked toward the empty corner where my tv used to be. Instead of turning it on and losing myself in the flashing scenes, I sat with my arm around my dog and breathed.

A Walk in the Woods Made All the Difference

I had two funerals to plan, a Confirmation Sunday sermon to write, an information meeting about a major building renovation to think through, church budget woes to address and a denomination to fix. So I went on a walk in the woods. The walk was for work. Really. One of the activities that is part of our church’s Re-Creation: Hour-Long Outdoor Retreats outreach activities this summer is a night walk and a campfire. I’d called about reserving a forest preserve campsite but the boy scouts had gotten there first. The camp site director suggested Camp Alphonse. It’s rustic, he warned, you better check it out. So I did. I put my dog Mandy in the car, drove to west Palatine, and went on a 40-minute walk in the woods. It was beautiful. It was quiet. The knots of tangled thoughts and feelings began to loosen.

And then a text binged: Could we meet on Friday? I felt a wave of irritation. I looked at my calendar and the requested time was free. It was my day off but if that time was best for them…my thoughts started. As resentment started to build, the Holy Spirit nudged. There in the woods I dropped my eagerness to please and my need to be important, silenced my phone and slipped it into my pocket. My response could wait. 

When I got back to the church I was as rested as if I’d slept 2 hours. I was better able to lead in a meeting that night, and more focused in my preparation for upcoming worship services. When I returned the text, suggesting a few times to meet other than Friday, I realized that it’s up to me to set boundaries on my time. I’m not a child anymore whose parent is going to put her down for a nap when she gets tired and whiny. I have to admit my limitations, and accept God’s gift of Sabbath rest.

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.

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