The journey of teething. . . .

“He’s teething up a storm!” the pediatrician said, when we took both of our children—3 years old and 5 months old—for a doctor visit two days before Christmas. Both children had been sick with cold-like symptoms, and—as we know—even “simple” cold symptoms are nothing to mess with in a pandemic. It turns out our 3 year old had a sinus infection, and, with several doses of bubble-gum pink liquid antibiotic later, she’s bounding around the house and playing pretend with baby dolls, princesses, knights, and dragons as much as ever before. And our baby boy is…teething. It’s still a rough and painful-looking time for him, especially at night. But now we have a name for it. And ways to handle it, like infant pain medicine and cold wash cloths and (safe) chew-able toys.

Over Advent, as I’ve struggled with the state of the world, I’ve found my grounding and glimpses of God’s still-there goodness in my children. The darndest, delightful things my singing, dancing, galloping, hugging 3 year old says and does. The sweet coos, ferocious squeals, and heart-melting, sunbeam smiles of my 5 month old.  And on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I remember holding my infant and feeling some of the awe that Mary must have felt, cradling her newborn baby. This child, whom angels and prophets and shepherds and magical astronomers declared a world-changing king. And he must have been so tiny. And he probably spit up a lot on that lovely blue robe we often see Mary wearing. And he had lots and lots of diapers to be changed. And he drooled and fussed through the night while his parents worried and held him gently, wondering helplessly what was wrong…until a pearly tooth popped through his swollen gums. 

This. This baby—with movements, sounds, and facial expressions, growth and pains and joys just like my own baby—is the One that many of us believe to be the Savior of the world. Savior—such a tall order in a tiny form. Just a baby. But what a dynamic way to see, truly, that God-is-with-us…in our drool and spit-up, in our pain, in our anxiety, in our beauty, in the moments our hearts could burst with joy and wonder. I hold my baby at 5:whatever in the morning, and I feel and know that God was and is in our flesh. God is with us, God is with us….

The journey of Tuesday mornings with St. Anthony

“St. Anthony joins me on Tuesdays. I’ve got you covered.” A dear friend sent me those words in a text message this morning, and those words are giving me life today.  

“St. Anthony joins me on Tuesdays.” Now, you have to understand that I’m not Catholic. The saints haven’t been a part of the fabric of my faith as I’ve grown up from little Southern Baptist girl to Presbyterian pastor. To say one has been spending time with a saint is foreign language. In fact, it may sound pretty dangerous to some. In my younger years, I remember hearing some church folks say—with a mixture of scorn and horror—that Catholics “worship the saints” or “worship Mary” (i.e., blasphemy to a southern, Bible-belt Protestant). But I also remember a Catholic spiritual director who visited my seminary class a number of years ago. She helped me realize that when Catholic Christians pray to Mary or the saints, they see it as talking to a good friend. Just as if I would go to a trusted friend and say, “I’m struggling with something. Please pray for me. Please pray with me. . . .” I must confess (pun intended), I don’t know exactly who St. Anthony is. (Google assignment to self for later today.) But I already feel safe with him. Because he’s a friend of my friend.

“I’ve got you covered.” It’s a wild and crazy world we live in now, isn’t it? But what a comfort to know that there are friends who will say, “I’ve got you covered.” I know that my friend has, with deep sincerity, lit candles in the solitude of a worship space for me and my family this morning. I know that he has truly lifted me and any of my concerns to a reality bigger and beyond this powder keg of an earth. He has reminded me that love and kindness and goodness will triumph, will endure. He has brought me a glimpse of peace and hope.

From a simple text message, I feel surrounded by love and comfort. And so the thoughts that are guiding and compelling me now are: Who’s joining me on this Tuesday, and how can I “cover” someone else? 

The Journey through a Week of Fire

This morning, I lit the two tall candles on the communion table, as we prepared for our online, live-streamed worship service. The pungent smells of oil and burning wicks and smoke filled my nose and throat. The flames were tiny but radiant and powerful. Today was a day for fire. It was Pentecost, the day many Christians celebrate the birth of the Church. The day God sent the Holy Spirit among humanity with a mighty wind and in a blaze of flames shaped like tongues. And those who were present that day suddenly had the ability to speak in different languages and tell the story of God’s love in those languages. There was diversity, but unity. There was speaking, but also listening and understanding. And there was the blazing power of life and love that can never be quenched, even in the midst of darkness.

Today was a day for fire, but this has tragically been an entire week of fire. The fires of protests, fueled by despair and anger and a passion to end the evil of racism. The fires of partisan bickering and blaming. The fires of hatred, unchecked privilege, violence, and stubborn ignorance. The smoldering ashes of apathy and self-centeredness and “unaffected-ness.” The flames began on Monday with the appalling death of an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd at the hands—or knees—of police officers. But did those flames just begin on Monday? The agonizing reality is that the fire has been burning long before this. Only a couple of weeks ago, I, as a privileged white woman, “ran with Maud” to protest somehow against the murder of another innocent African-American man, Ahmaud Arbery, in my neighboring Brunswick, GA. But then there have also been Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Philando Castile, and so many many other names we’ve heard recently. Yet the list of names of innocent black and brown people who’ve been murdered goes much further back than even these. It rolls back for centuries and centuries. The horrific fire of racism is not new. . . . 

Fire can be a bad thing. It destroys. It burns and wounds. It rages if not handled with care. But fire can be a good thing. It warms. It cleanses. It removes and refines. It inspires. With today being Pentecost, the day of God’s fire, how will we respond to those flames? Will we tend the flames of those who have suffered without a voice throughout history and even now, responding to their cries? Will we actually do our part to put out the destructive fires of racism and hate? Will our hearts burn with compassion, so that God’s justice and peace will become a reality for all? Will we live as blazing sparks of God’s love, truly displaying the words and actions of Jesus—and not betraying them?

Today is a pivotal Pentecost. May we not simply wish the Church a “Happy Birthday,” sing some “Spirit” songs, then tuck away our bright red decorations for next year. God is calling to us now. The Holy Spirit is burning now. If there is any time really to act like Jesus and be the Church in the world, it is now

The journey of this incredible moment. . . .

This afternoon, I made cupcakes. Normally, I would just go out and buy them at a store. Or, if feeling particularly industrious and thrifty, I would sometimes use a boxed cake mix and one of those plastic tubs of pre-made frosting. But not today. Today, I made the cupcakes from scratch, using a recipe, pulling out that bag of flour and the metal canister of baking powder that usually sit at the back of the pantry shelf. 

And those cupcakes turned out really darn good, if I may say so. If you’re in search of a vanilla cupcake recipe, I highly recommend Life, Love and Sugar’s “Moist Vanilla Cupcakes” (no giggles, please) — They are truly delicious, but my results are not as glamorous-looking as the ones featured on that blogger’s website. And it has something to do with powdered sugar. 

My cupcakes HAD to have purple icing, a special request of our soon-to-be three-year-old daughter. It was part of a pact we had made about her taking a nap earlier in the day. So, as the cupcakes were baking in the oven and smelling amazingly vanilla-y, I searched my cookbooks for an easy frosting recipe that would require limited ingredients . . . because, well, we all know what this new-normal is like. 

I found a glaze-like icing recipe that required two cups of powdered sugar. (Other recipes required a lot of said sugar. Eight cups, for instance!) But I only had about one cup in the sugar bag. So . . . halve the recipe! I made it work! And I tinted it a lovely lavender shade with food coloring to the delight of our little girl. Quarantine-style baking success! 

Later on, I thought, “I’ll just place an online order for some more powdered sugar.” Previously, I had tried and failed to order other grocery items online. Like bread-making ingredients. Or instant mashed potatoes. Or tortilla chips. (Are we really eating that many nachos or that much chips-and-dip right now?) But, surely, not that many people are trying to bake cakes and frost them at home, are they? Well, they are, apparently! I found the same message displayed on-screen at all the grocery websites: Limited supply. Delays. Out of stock.

And I suddenly felt panicked. I couldn’t get my powdered sugar! What was I going to do?!?

And then I realized. . . . I don’t need it. 

I’m discovering, in this time of pandemic and quarantine, that there are so many things I don’t really need in this life. Going out to eat (when I have perfectly good and plentiful ingredients at home). Constant busy-ness. A stockpile of extra stuff. My previous routine. My preferences. My way. 

But I’m also discovering what I do need. And I’m guessing it may be what we all might be needing right now. . . .

Community. And this CAN be achieved at safe and healthy physical distances. I’ve reached out to (and been reached out to) by more family and friends in the past few days than I normally would. I have used phone conversations and text messages. My husband has even taken part in a “virtual happy hour” (love this concept!) and Facebook messaging. All of it has soothed our souls and inspired joy in unexpected ways. Connection matters.

Prayer, reflection, meditation, worship. If faith and spirituality are part of one’s life, these practices don’t have to stop during a time when we wisely avoid gathering in large groups. I’ve seen so many friends sharing worship services, hymn singing, yoga practices, etc. online. We’re finding powerful and boundless new ways to live the life of faith! 

Patience. Now, we’re experiencing delays. Out-of-stock notices. Inconvenience. Let us be patient with each other. Patient especially on behalf of those most impacted or at highest risk in this crisis. 

Kindness. Now is the time to be gentle. With ourselves and with others. 

Empathy and selflessness. My favorite phrase I’ve heard that’s developed during this incredible moment is “It’s not about you.” We can do without. We can wait. We can physically isolate. Because these actions protect our neighbors, and our neighbors include those we know and love and those we’ve never met. Our current actions to take care are exponentially worth it. Life is precious. 

Love. No explanation needed, right?

And now, sending love, peace, wellness, and joy (yes, even joy!) to all during this most unusual time. . . .

The Journey of Dust and Ashes

Would it be too terribly weird of me to admit that I’m excited it’s Ash Wednesday today? That I’ve been looking forward to this day for a few weeks now? 

This is the day that the Church returns, repents. It’s the beginning of the time of Lent—a time of somber reflection and the hope of a closer walk with God. A time of the lengthening of days as we walk into spring and toward new life. I didn’t grow up celebrating Lent. In my particular faith tradition from early childhood, my church celebrated two holidays: Christmas and Easter. Being a pianist and organist whose keyboard skills were often needed at other churches, I was gradually introduced from early teenagerhood onward to more reasons to celebrate our faith throughout the year. I discovered even more depth and detail to the story and the journey of faith. Times to celebrate and grow like Advent and Lent. Celebrations that involved colors and candles and different prayers and music and profound symbols . . . like cross-shaped ashes smudged on foreheads. 

I love that these ashes are the crumbly, charred, inky black remnants of last year’s palms from Palm Sunday. The palms, a symbol of power and triumph. The ashes, representative of defeat perhaps or maybe dust-like fleetingness. Or perhaps simply earthiness and humanity. From my earliest experiences with Ash Wednesday, I remember hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” Powerful. Haunting. Humbling. 

When I began the journey toward ordination as a Presbyterian pastor several years ago, I was invited to help at an Ash Wednesday service by putting ashes on worshippers foreheads. I was so excited for this opportunity! For the first time, I would get to be someone who reached out with smudgy thumb to speak holy words and place a sacred symbol on flesh. It felt both so simple and so daunting. Nevertheless, I was ready and eager to jump in to this holy task, but—“Remind me, what is the phrase I say when I put the cross on the people? Isn’t it ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’?” The senior pastor at the church where I was serving smiled warmly and wisely at me. “Here’s what I like to say,” he answered. “Remember you are a beloved and forgiven child of God.” He demonstrated with a downward move of his thumb on “beloved” and across on “forgiven.” This was it. Absolutely it. The most powerful, meaningful words and actions to be made on Ash Wednesday.

Over time, this senior pastor became my pastoral mentor and one of my dearest friends. I’ll be saying the words he taught me again this evening, when I serve alongside the senior pastor of my new church placement at the Ash Wednesday service. I’m not choosing these words simply because a friend and mentor taught them to me. I’m saying them because they are true. They are at the heart of Ash Wednesday and at the heart of what it means to be human and earthly and fleshy, sometimes weak, often messy. Yes, we are dust and will return to that dust. But we are beautiful dust. Beloved dust. Dust that glimmers with God’s image. Dust that, in life and in death, belongs to God. 

A little kick-back on the journey

“Calm down, Mommy. Calm down. . . .” Our two-year-old has started saying this to me lately. I’m not sure where she learned it—school maybe—but I love it. She’ll then take her tiny little hand and rest it on her tiny little diaphragm and demonstrate how to take deep, calming breaths. And she’ll say it again, with the utmost sincerity and the biggest eyes, as if she were a grown-up life coach or therapist or yoga instructor: “Mommy, calm downnnnnn. . . .”

I need to hear that. I need to hear it often. And to hear those words in the precious voice of our child makes that message even sweeter . . . Makes it take even deeper root down in my soul.

I’ve spent the weekend with a bunch of middle schoolers and high schoolers at a camp in the East Texas woods learning about calming down . . . rest . . . or, in religious terms, “sabbath.” Or . . . as our youth conference theme describes it: a “Kick Back with Jesus.” A youth conference and rest—an oxymoron? Amazingly, no. 

Calm, peace, and wholeness washed over me several times throughout the weekend. I can’t remember every detail and everything that was said, but I do remember hearing in our keynotes, in our worship times, and in our conversations that we are loved just as we are . . . that God makes beautiful things out of our mess and pain . . . that taking time to rest and unplug is good for us . . . and that all of us are welcome at God’s table. I remember water poured in plunging splashes . . . the flame and rising smoke of candles . . . clay squished and molded in my fingers . . . prayers doodled with colorful markers on newsprint and unexpected teardrops speckling the paper . . . and threads, lots of threads. Threads to make friendship bracelets to give away. Extra threads everywhere to unravel and organize after said friendship bracelet making. Threads used to make knots for all of the “nots” in our lives and to untangle those knots as part of a prayer. And, most of all, good friends who remind us that we’re not alone. That there are people who “get it”—who understand and do the real work of ministry, worship, mission, love. People who “get me.” Friends who share a history with me and share a few of the same battle scars. People who remind me that God is real and God loves me, too, and that what I bring to this world matters and is very much needed. I don’t have to be anyone else . . . but uniquely me. Just as they are uniquely them . . . and are needed . . . and are loved. 

So I bring that treasure I found over the weekend into this new week back at home, doing all of the normal things I do. I feel raw. I feel fresh. I have a surprising sense of calm in my soul. I’m still stuck in the “in-between.” No change there. But I am resolute that “in-between” is not all there is in this life.

And, meanwhile, as I wait, I’m still humming the tune of “Beautiful Things” (written by Michael and Lisa Gungor, 2009) that I learned at camp. I’ll be carrying these words into the week that stretches before me: “You make beautiful things, you make beautiful things out of the dust. You make beautiful things, you make beautiful things out of us. . . . You are making me new.”

Journeying in the In-Between

Living in the “in-between” is hard. To put it more elegantly. It. Just. Sucks. In fact, I spent an afternoon of tears, hugs, and hot tea with a sweet friend who’s right there—in the in-between. The circumstances of her in-between are different from mine. But I can empathize. I know that it’s painful. It’s confusing. It’s frustrating. It can be more horrific than that netherworld in that very popular Netflix series. . . . But wait. That’s the Upside Down. We’re in the In-Between here. 

My in-between has been full of crushing disappointment—for myself and even more for the ones I love. And it’s messed with my sense of hope. I haven’t wanted to write, which is one of my favorite things to do, because what is there to write about when your topic is Love and Light and all you feel is dismal? But just recently, I’ve realized that there is still a lot of Love and Light sneaking in through the broken places, and I don’t want to miss it—whatever my circumstances. Hence, my latest reflection on Fear, Hate, and Love. . . .

I’m a pastor, and that means that one of the various things I do is preach. I speak in front of people—usually large groups of people—on a regular basis. I am also an introvert. (More accurately, an introvert who has learned to act like an extrovert, as the occasion calls for it. Which is exhausting. Perhaps another blog entry for another day.) It feels like one of the greatest jokes of the universe that I, who used to tremble in ninth grade English anytime we had to give a report in front of the class, would not only become a public speaker by profession . . . But would actually come to enjoy it! Nowadays, I love to tell a story to people. To weave together details and images and help (hopefully) to lead an audience to a (hopefully) deeper understanding of something (hopefully) meaningful. 

I love to preach. But do you know what I hate? Giving church announcements. Oh, I dread that moment in our Presbyterian worship service when the preacher-of-the-day candidly and “casually” welcomes everybody and gives the spiel about where to find this and that and highlights upcoming events and tells visitors where to find their thank-you-for-being-with-us gift. Do I feel unwelcoming? No. Do I feel unhelpful, uninformative, unfriendly? No, no, no. None of those things. So I’ve had the most difficult time pinpointing what my problem is. But all I know is that I feel like I’m back in ninth grade English class on the verge of hyperventilating. 

And that’s when a dear friend and pastoral mentor of mine shared the manuscript of his upcoming sermon with me. His words were about Fear and Hate. More specifically, unlearning Fear and Hate, from that same amazing movement I blogged about earlier. He reminded me that hate is almost always derived from fear. We humans hate what—or who—scares us. And that thing or that person or those people become an Other. And it can feel easy to hate an Other—a not “me,” a not “us.” That’s why choosing to love is powerful. It is the complete opposite of fear and hate. It breaks the spell, shatters the hardened shell, bends the prison bars of fear, which is at the root of hate. But fear and hate require an unlearning. It’s a process.

The Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago when I had a tiny breakthrough in my terror of “friendly announcement time” was the Sunday I preached about Fred Rogers. In my sermon, I included the line from the upcoming A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood movie, where Fred (played by Tom Hanks) says, “I think the best thing we can do is to let people know that each one of them is precious.” What a brilliant truth. So as I stood up to do the announcements that morning, I tried to remember that inspiring quote. Instead of seeing the congregation as a massive, monstrous, faceless enemy, ready to mock me in my nervousness, I stopped to look at as many individual faces as possible. These were real people. Human beings with needs. Human beings who actually liked me. But even more than that, my job in that moment was to welcome them. To love them. To speak to them and treat them like each one of them is precious. Because they are. And although a tremble threatened to rise up within me, it soon dissipated with the warmth of love. Love overcame fear and hate in that moment. It can be done!

Unlearning fear and hate and intentionally choosing to love feels like a sweeping movement. Something that should only take place on a monumental, worldwide stage. But I’m finding more and more that learning to love most often takes place in the small things, the little details. The reassuring squeeze of a hand. A note sent in the mail. Speaking kindly with a child at their eye-level. A cup of tea shared in solidarity and understanding. A sincere smile given to someone who seems very different from you. These little bursts of Love and Light nourish and revive us no matter what season of life we’re in . . . even in the in-between.

The Journey of In- and Un-

It’s been a few weeks since I last made a blog post. And I’ve only just started this blogging adventure. What a sloppy, slacker of a blogger I am. 

And it occurred to me today why I think I’ve hesitated and procrastinated. It’s because I don’t have anything to write about. Or, more accurately, I don’t feel like I have anything good to write about. Good, uplifting, love- and light-filled as the title of my blog implies. I could probably do the “all the little details” part, though.

It’s because I’ve been feeling very “un-” and “in-” for the past few weeks. I should explain. . . .

So the youth mission trip I so hopefully and idealistically mentioned in my last post? It left me feeling insufficient. Also unappreciated. Perhaps unwelcome, too. There were some good times during the mission trip, to be fair. But there was the overarching sentiment from many of the youth (especially the older ones), that they missed the way their previous youth leader had done things. No surprises here, really. This situation was to be expected. But the growing sense of discontent, resentment, and negativity from these youth that mission trip week became exhausting for me after a while. They didn’t like the type of service projects we were doing. They didn’t have enough breaks. Enough “incentives.” Enough “surprises.” Enough games. They didn’t like the simple sandwiches we had made for lunch at one of our work sites, so some of them ordered a pizza and had it delivered to them. Devotional times in the evening were too long. And a number of them ended up trivializing, even mocking my beloved project about Unlearn Fear and Hate in various ways. I could go on, but those are enough details. Basically, these youth were telling me how they did youth group, rather than being open to new things that I as their youth minister might be bringing to them. And it makes me tired. A little angry. But more than being angry—sad. 

Lighten up! They’re just kids! It’s your job to set the tone! It’s good to get their feedback so you can learn from the church group you’re serving! Yep. Those things are true. And I believe that there are things that I could and should learn from my youth. And there were some beautiful moments during that mission trip. But I’m lying if I didn’t admit I was and am still disappointed. 

And this feels so silly to admit, but I’m feeling a bit unattractive lately. Not that being “pretty” should be a top priority for me or anyone. Especially in this age of body positivity and accepting and celebrating oneself for who one is. But every three or four weeks or so, these gray hairs—no, to be more accurate, these course, bristly white hairs—start to emerge from my scalp. Pushing away the dark brown hair that has made me “me” for a long time. And I keep getting my roots touched up to keep up appearances, and it’s getting to be that time again and I just haven’t yet. I’m not quite yet at the big 4-0 where one might accept the fact that one’s gray hairs could actually be a reality, but I am very far away from the 2-0 and quite far away from even the 3-0. And I want to, need to accept that. I feel very pivotal and at the point of breaking—but not like breaking down, more like breaking through . . . and growing.  Hey, I think I saw a little light and love peeking through.

And I’ve been feeling unqualified at times, lately. Unqualified in the sense that I’m not sure if my voice is strong enough. Or that I’m informed enough to speak with credibility to a wider audience. Or that I might be saying something that’s already been said. Thus making my words worn and tired and low-impact. Because, you see, I’ve been wanting to address the atrocity taking place at the southern border of the U.S. That, in fact, is much much more important than whiny teenagers in a church youth group or my ridiculous gray hairs. Because what is happening at our border—the separation of families and the appalling treatment of children—is wrong. Wrong. Immoral. Inhumane. Sinful, if we want to use religious language. And I want to do something about it. And I recognize my privilege, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable.  I see friends sharing pictures and stories on social media of their church groups doing simple yet bold things to help the ones suffering at the border. And I feel inspired and want to create similar mission initiatives, but then I find myself stopping the forward motion . . . realizing that some people I know may criticize me for being “too political” in my ministry. I feel like I’m currently in a particular culture where we avoid being “political,” and we’re advised to all “just get along.” Which really means we do nothing. Which means we avoid the important conversations that need to take place. Which means we eventually let fear and hate win. When, in reality, it’s not about politics at all. It’s really about basic human rights and dignity—for all humans, no matter where they’re from. Which should be at the forefront of all of our minds, regardless of our affiliations. This crisis should matter to anyone with a beating heart. 

So I’ve reached out to a friend and fellow pastor to find out how my church might collaborate with his church on doing something for those suffering at the border. Because I refuse to be unresponsive and uncaring, no matter what other things I’ve been feeling lately.

And, being willing to write about something “unpleasant,” I’ve just now started to feel a bit less uninspired. Perhaps the “love and light” this time is in the honesty. And I’m realizing that Love and Light are less about how I’m feeling or what I bring to the situation and more about something—Someone—bigger than myself. 

The Journey of Unlearning

I remember the first time I met our friend and neighbor Kremena. It was four summers ago, and we had just moved in to our home in a charming 1930s bungalow neighborhood in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Our next door neighbors invited us over for dinner in the backyard, and that’s when I saw our next-next door neighbor. Her clothes were a delightful riot of colors. I can’t remember the exact color combination from that evening, but it was probably a mix of lime green and fuchsia, electric blue and vivid orange. She would have been wearing a tank top and a fluffy skirt. And probably bright, chunky jewelry. Probably not her signature knee-high socks, though. She saved those for cooler weather. But definitely no make-up. She didn’t need it. She was and is naturally, truly beautiful.

And in just a few moments, I realized where that natural beauty was coming from. From the inside. She exuded kindness. And warmth. And peace. She took a sincere interest in me and my husband. She cared about our stories. She had grown up in Bulgaria as an atheist, but now she and her family are Roman Catholic. Amazingly, she didn’t seem the least put off or confused that I was a female pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She actually wanted to know more. And even in the first few moments of conversing with her, I somehow felt that she already championed me. 

That evening, I also noticed that she’s one of those brave souls who has tattoos on her body. Across her shoulders were the words “deep roots,” and like a bracelet cuff around her bicep were the words “to ourselves.” Around the words were tiny constellations of something that looked like stars. If ink could sparkle on skin, these tattoos did. 

Later, I would find out that these words were from a tattoo art project inspired by Kentucky Poet Laureate (2013-14) Frank X Walker’s “Love Letter to the World.” In fact, “to ourselves” are the last words of that poem. “Love Letter to the World” was also the springboard for another art endeavor by Kremena and her collaborator Kurt. ( The poem features these hauntingly powerful words: “We can’t pass the course on humanity if we keep failing the lessons on harmony and until we unlearn fear and hate.” And thus began Unlearn Fear + Hate. It’s what one might call an art movement, but what Kurt and Kremena more profoundly describe as “an intervention into our shared lives,” something that “aims to promote public dialog and civic engagement.” This intervention led to intricately designed metal “halos” with the words “unlearn fear and hate” (first in English, then in many other languages) to be displayed around downtown Lexington. People were invited to have their pictures made in front of these halos. And then there were the stencils. On sidewalks all around Lexington, one could find the simple but bold statement in brightly colored chalk paint: Unlearn Fear + Hate. And then there were the cross stitch projects. As we chatted with Kremena one evening, she was stitching an Unlearn Fear + Hate pattern on fabric, and I remarked how beautiful it was and how much I loved the variegated green thread she was using. The next day, she brought the finished artwork to me. It still stands, in its little wooden hoop frame, proudly on our mantel. Even a thousand miles away from Kentucky at our new home in Texas. Poetry and art speak truth to power, and we still see its impact, see the ripples moving onward and outward.

That’s why, as I embark to the mountains of eastern Kentucky with fourteen youth and two other adult sponsors on a mission-service trip next week, I want to talk with our group about Unlearn Fear + Hate. That’s why I spent the morning in a local arts-and-crafts supply store getting embroidery thread in all sorts of colors and nubby cross-stitch fabric and sidewalk chalk and body paint for temporary tattoos. I want them at least to touch the beauty and power and depth of this thing called Unlearn Fear + Hate. 

To unlearn fear and hate. . . . What a compelling turn of phrase. Of course, a poet should be the one to share it with us. It’s one thing to say, “Get out there and love!” But it’s another thing to say, “Unlearn the fear and hate that have accumulated in your soul over the years.” Because to unlearn something is perhaps more challenging than learning something the first time. As the mother of a two-year-old, I’m very concerned now with helping our child learn and learn well. To learn colors, shapes, and numbers. To learn how to do simple tasks. To learn to treat others with kindness, gentleness. To learn good things from the beginning. Because to unlearn something is painstaking and often painful. Like scraping away layers of crusty paint and varnish. Like reprogramming an entire system. Like removing a cancer from the body. 

And what might this unlearning look like? It could be looking into the eyes of your hijab-wearing barista in downtown Lexington, and see not “The Other,” but the face of a friend. (The coffee house theme continues!) It could be opting for the re-usable cup, even though it’s so easy to grab a plastic water bottle. (As Frank X Walker writes, “I love you world.”) It could be teenagers painting the house and cleaning the yard of an elderly person in a remote Appalachian town, when it’s so much more comfortable to stay at home. It could be respecting and using the descriptors and pronouns that people use to identify themselves, even if they’re not the words we learned to use earlier in our lives. It could be making art that urges us to wonder, to question, to dialog. It’s awareness and openness and a willingness to grow. It’s any thing we do—big or small—that works to un-do the fear and the hate that we’ve picked up along the way. It’s the shedding of an old and suffocating skin. It’s our move toward what Walker calls our “passing the course on humanity.”

Ah, that poet gets us again with his choice of words, his imagery. As I moved from grade school through college to graduate school, I remember that anxious feeling at the end of each semester or school year, waiting to find out my grade. Was it an A? I had worked so hard! But interestingly, Walker doesn’t call it “acing” the course on humanity. He simply speaks of “passing” the course. To simply pass the course isn’t a bad thing at all, here. Because learning and unlearning in this life can be a real struggle, and to pass can be reason enough for exultation. And the goal of all this is not to be the best human—but simply to be human . . . And to celebrate that shared humanity in every person we meet.

Pattern by Robyn Wade of ReBelle, Lexington, KY; Cross-stitch by Kremena Todorova

Love, Light, and Little Details

            I just wanted a cup of coffee. A dark chocolate latte—to be more precise—from my favorite cool, quirky, Baroque and Celtic music playing, Catholic icon decorated, contemporary art covered, fantastic smelling, local coffee shop. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner/barista and was about to hand over my debit card to pay, when I heard a deep, rumbly voice behind me. “Excuse me, sir. Her money is no good here.” I felt confused and shocked and readied myself for a confrontation. But, in the matter of seconds as I was turning to face my accuser, my brain also registered a lilting warmth in that voice. It was then that I saw a familiar, welcome face . . . An older gentleman who was a friend from the church where I serve as an Associate Pastor. A friend who is a kind listener and encouraging supporter. “Her money is no good here.” Oh, hi, social cues. He was joking. And he was wanting to buy not only my cup of coffee but the one I was getting for my husband, too. Sometimes, I take things so seriously. Sometimes, I’m quick to assume the worst. But I’m discovering that Love and Goodness always, always break through . . . Often in ways that surprise me.

            I laughed and bantered with my friend, and, as I left the coffee shop and took a sip of my drink, I found that latte to be the sweetest, warmest beverage I’ve had in a while. And that’s part of the reason I want to write, to share.

            It’s also because of a dear friend who knows my love of words and who recently looked me squarely in the face and straightforwardly proclaimed, “You should write a blog.” How could she have known that only a few days prior that same idea flitted across my brain, and I had quickly shoved it aside? I’m thankful for friends who have vision and courage and enthusiasm and don’t put up with my silly excuses and hesitations.

            It’s also because of my husband who adventures with me in this life and brings out the best in me as a human being. It’s because of my daughter, who views this world with wide eyes, open hands, and squeals of joy.

            It’s because of all of my family members and friends-who-feel-like-family. And my acquaintances. And the people I happen to meet. And the people who don’t like me. All the people who shape my life and help me to grow.

            And it’s especially because of one dear friend who passed away only a few weeks ago. A friend we affectionately call “Scotty.” He was a well-respected Physician’s Assistant in neurosurgery. But, outside the operating room, he had a passion for light—stage lighting in particular—and photography. He taught me to capture the moment in pictures. And when you take a photo of a child or a baby, for goodness’ sake, don’t just peer at them from above. . . . Get down on their level and discover the light and sparkle in their eyes. And when you place lamps around your home, create warm, soothing light with just the right bulbs. You don’t need those harsh, clinical-looking fluorescent lights glaring down on you all the time.

            In addition to light and photos, Scotty taught me about what is good. I loved to chat with him about food and recipes. Recipes that his sweet little Mama from Mississippi (or “Miss’ssippi,” if you’re saying it right) taught him years ago. Recipes for delicious meals made from simple ingredients but with lots of love and would make you feel like you were surrounded by a big ol’ hug. From Scotty, I learned which brand of canned green beans was good. Where to get the best frozen spanakopita bites so that it tasted like you’d gotten them fresh from a Greek bakery. How to make barbecue shrimp in the oven with these certain herbs and spices. It’s easy but tastes like it took forever to make. And don’t forget some good, crusty bread to sop up that extra barbecue sauce. All the words of wisdom about good food and how to make it.

            And when you’re at a restaurant, don’t immediately put in your order and be in such a hurry. Take a moment. Have a nice, glass of wine and an appetizer. Talk (and listen!) to the folks gathered around you. People-watch a little. Take it all in. Savor the moment and savor your meal. Enjoy what’s good.

            And, as you go about your day or make plans for something important, make a list. Jot down all the little details. Because the details matter. Details like bringing what Scotty would call a “sack of biscuits” to the technicians servicing your car. Not necessary at all, but it made a difference. It showed gratitude. Or making and bringing a chicken and rice casserole to a neighbor in need. Or just because you were neighbors. Or caring about all the elements of a stage production—from hair to make-up to costumes to the singing and dancing—and, of course, the lighting. Always the lighting. Always about illuminating what was good and what the world needed to see. Even the little things. The often-overlooked things.

            And that’s what I want to share and write about. Good things. Love, light, and little details. In honor of the people who live Love and make this world better by being in it (or by having been in it). People who engage this world with integrity, hope, good humor, and joy. These will be my reflections on the big things and the small things of life, through the lens of Love and Light. With eyes and heart open to all the little details.