I’m wearing an orange dress today. My friend, who’s an elementary school teacher, reminded me yesterday that today is #Unity day, when we take a stand against bullying. As a former introverted, pale, freckle-y, and rather nerdy teenager who, as an adult, is still quite introverted, pale, freckle-y, and nerdy…this issue is close to my heart. And I’m a mom now. And my heart hurts when I think of how cruel this world can be sometimes.
So there I was wearing my orange dress at our local gas station putting fuel in the tank, when I noticed something unusual on the gas pump. It was a sticker with an incredibly unflattering (to say the least) picture of President Biden, mouth gaping open and finger pointing, with the words “I did that” underneath. Whoever put the sticker there had placed the finger-point strategically close to where the gas price is displayed digitally in red. Ah. I got the message.
It’s been a hard day for me emotionally already and seeing that sticker just tipped me right over the edge. The next thing I knew, I had scraped the sticker off and dumped the shreds of it in the nearby trash can. It took me three tries, but it’s gone. (Until the sticker fairy returns.)
But now, let’s calm ourselves. This reflection of mine honestly has nothing to do with my feelings about this President. Or any U.S. President past or future. What it does have to do with is kindness and love. And stopping bullying. And an awareness that hate is like a cancer eating away at us as a society. Can we learn to disagree without mockery and ridicule? Can we dislike a stance or policy or idea without seeking to destroy the person who shares it? Can we teach our children to respect differences, protect the vulnerable, and—very simply put—be kind?
So I wear my orange today. With hope. With determination. With love. I invite you to join me. And I might just wear something else orange tomorrow.
Yesterday, I was driving down one of the main roads in my town, and I noticed that the car in front of me looked . . . different. As I moved closer and squinted my eyes, I saw that there was a hand-written message scrawled with white marker across the back windshield. It was a pretty angry message. And I didn’t need to stop the driver and talk in person to realize that they were greatly displeased with certain issues in our country and in the world. Just by reading that windshield, I felt as if the driver were shouting–at me, at others–and shaking a fist at the sky. So much anger. Kindness, grace, peace, and love were certainly not there.
And then, just a few days ago, I experienced some church-folk who seemed to forget Christ’s call to love and serve others. Kindness, grace, peace, and love were severely lacking in their words and behaviors. So much anger there, too.
I could easily follow these two recent experiences to a place of despair at the “state of our world today,” but–surprisingly–another kind of experience came to my mind this morning. And it’s keeping me going. It’s a story that happened this one time in Ireland. . . .
A few years ago, my husband and I were traveling in Ireland with another couple of friends who were celebrating their wedding anniversary, like we were. We had started our adventure in Dublin, in the east, traveled across the country to Galway in the west, and were making our way back around to Limerick near the center of Ireland. We stopped for lunch at a pub as we visited Limerick that day. And as we listened to the fiddles playing and the dancers tapping, we found a high-top table outdoors near the river. We and our friends were sitting there, chatting and laughing, recalling fun events from earlier in our vacation, when a most interesting individual appeared near our table. He had long, rather dirty-looking hair. A scruffy beard. An old Led Zeppelin t-shirt with stains on it. An unusual twitch in his eyes. A mysterious sniffle. But he was just as friendly as he could be! He started conversing with us, warmly and casually as if we were old buddies of his. He asked us how we were enjoying Ireland, about the sights we’d already seen. Made recommendations. Bantered. We smiled and engaged his conversation. But I have to admit those smiles were tense. And as he wandered away after a little while, you could feel the tension release from our group of friends. We laughed nervously and admitted that we all had had an eye on our friends’ expensive digital camera they had placed on the table top. Because our mysterious visitor just looked like the kind of person who might steal expensive items from unsuspecting tourists.
We returned to our lunches and our previous conversation, when—all of a sudden—our friend appeared again! He chatted some more, and then said the most outlandish thing. “I’d like to give you a blessing. A blessing for your travels. A blessing in my language.” And he fumbled about in his pants pocket looking for something to write on and something to write with. He pulled out an old, dirty envelope with frayed edges. “Pension envelope,” he said sheepishly. And he found a pencil. Then he wandered away to an empty table to write. Meanwhile, I was skeptical. “A blessing in your language!” I thought. “Even with your Irish accent, you’re speaking English just like we are.” I might have gripped my purse straps a little tighter as I watched him.
When he returned to our table, he proudly put the frayed piece of paper down in front of us. He had sketched a shamrock and these words in Irish Gaelic: “Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.” “May the road rise to meet you,” he declared warmly. And all of a sudden I felt so stupid and so ashamed. “May the road rise to meet you.” The traditional Irish blessing that I know from so many choral anthems I’d performed in the past. And, of course, Irish Gaelic was his language. How foolish, how arrogant of me to forget that more than English was spoken here.
Once he shared his blessing with us, he wandered away again. And we sat in shock. “That was awesome,” one of our friends whispered. And my husband was inspired and said, “Let’s ask him if we could get him some food or something to drink . . . something.” And the guys called him over yet again and made our offer of a refreshment. But our unusual new friend simply smiled at us and shook his head graciously. “No. . . . No thanks. It costs nothing to be nice.” And he wandered away from us for the very last time. . . .
“It costs nothing to be nice.” That phrase has stuck with me for years now. We all know there’s so much anger and ugliness and sheer hatred in our world. We feel it around us. We feel it within us. It’s awful, overwhelming, exhausting. But there is kindness. Kindness is something we can choose. And the “cost” of kindness is totally worth it.
My challenge to myself today is to choose kindness and do kindness. Will you join with me, wherever you are?
(This is my latest article for Columns from Georgetown Presbyterian Church…. I love how simple actions we do on a regular basis can have meanings more profound than we realize!)
With the arrival of fall, I often think of how different the light looks this time of year. There’s a certain golden glow to the sunshine and a slant to the way the light falls on the earth. It makes me feel excited about the changing of the season, but also comfortable and cozy. It’s amazing to experience the power of light, to feel its effects.
Over the past several months, we’ve been enriched with the return of our acolyte ministry at GPC. On Sunday mornings, these children and youth don a white liturgical robe and, during the first hymn, bring the “light” up the aisle to the two candles on the communion table. At the end of worship, during the last hymn, they carry the light back down the aisle and out of the sanctuary. Their work of bringing the light in and carrying it back out is more than an elegant-looking movement to grace our times of worship. It’s beautifully symbolic of the Light of the World, Jesus, coming into our worship gathering—and into our world—to be with us and, then, calling us to go back out into the world and be the light for others. A powerful image!
Another powerful image is the fact that we have two candles that are lit on our communion table. In the earlier years of the Church, these candles would have been present to help the priest or pastor see to read the liturgy! Over time, though, people also began to associate the two candles with the dual nature of Jesus—mysteriously and at the same time, human and divine.
Our acolytes, then, help us to experience the Gospel message in action. They testify every Sunday that Jesus, fully human and fully divine, is the Light of the World and calls us to follow him into our world—a place of beauty and mess, light and shadow, pain and joy. Let’s remember to watch our acolytes as they minister next Sunday morning. May our eyes follow the movement of the flame. May we be comforted by the light’s presence. And may we go with the Light as we return to the world.
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.
“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.” https://youtu.be/oyPBtExE4W0
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. (kurtandkremena.com) 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.