Wednesday, March 30, 2011


            A nearly blank canvas rests on my easel, as it has for the last three weeks.  On it, a thin, crimson outline of a butterfly’s wings.  And numerous tentative sketch lines, all in pencil of course, all easily erasable should I change my mind.  Do I fill it in more fully?  Does it look quite right?  (I am absolutely no good at painting and paint only for my own joy, but I still occasionally slip into perfectionist territory).  Should I add details that take a butterfly out of the symbolic and into insect-ular reality?  Is this a butterfly that wants antennae and a body?  Or is it all smooth colors and merely a memory flashpoint to every other butterfly?  I pick up cerulean, slate grey, brilliant red, and nothing seems quite right … I can’t seem to settle on a specific path forward with this painting, so it remains for a bit, resting on the easel.  Sometimes this part of the process lasts just for days and sometimes weeks or longer. 
            Until one day it just happens.  It’s less of a conscious decision and more of a necessary capturing of an idea and a moment.  The canvas will catch my eye from across the room and, suddenly, nothing else will do but to finish the painting.  For better or for worse, I dive in and, a short, frenzied, paint-filled time later, it’s done.  It isn’t always beautiful, but that doesn’t really matter at that point.  It’s something of me on the canvas, and that’s both unnerving and exhilarating.
            There’s a lot of research being done on we millennials – our inability to commit to partners, jobs, raising families, long-term residences.  There are of course exceptions to this, and we all know people who are following the same patterns as our parents.  Your twenties were for finishing school, getting married, buying a home, starting a family, and starting your career.  Twenties, now, are increasingly for second degrees, travelling, moving back home with the parents, and trying on a thousand different plans and personalities.  Is it just the economy?  Are we a generation of commitment-phobes?  Or are at least some of us trying to sort out the mixed blessing of knowing all the possibility out there, having been raised to think we have the potential to do something extraordinary, and are now a bit immobilized by the choices?  And, particularly in the faith community, are we at once ecstatic about the possibility of having a calling in addition to a profession, and humbled into inaction by the gravitas of such a life? 
            The story and reasons are different for each of us.   As for me, I’m ready to paint.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Day of Nothing

 Inspired by a co-pastor of the church I serve, I chose yesterday as a good day to give up.  Kathy, a long-time inspiration and one of the main reasons I wanted to become a pastor in the first place, preached about letting go of all the things we “should” be doing as spiritual practices, and instead focus on genuinely being. 

My name is Laurie and I am a to-do-list-aholic.  It gets so bad that I occasionally write down things I wouldn’t dream of not doing, just to have more things to cross off the list.   “Brush teeth”. “Cook dinner”,  “Put gas in the car”.  Check, check, check  Yeah!!  …… Yikes.

 I relish the sense of achievement of a day running errands and getting things done.  At times, I feel like all the things I do and achieve and accomplish define me.  I’m not alone.  We’re an accomplishment-oriented culture.  But it certainly begs the question … who am I when I am not “doing” anything?

Yesterday, I “did” almost nothing.  I caught up with some friends.  I watched a movie.  I finally got around to reading Slaughterhouse Five, and definitely include that on the list of “books I cannot believe I got an English degree without anyone making me read”.  I made a laughable attempt at concocting my own pasta sauce out of whatever passed as food in my fridge.  I thought.  I prayed.  I refused to feel bad about all this nothingness.  It was awesome.

I did not run to the bank, grocery shop, write letters, catch up with phone calls and emails, write my next two sermons, prepare for going before Presbytery next week, or anything remotely strenuous or productive.  It was technically my half-day off, but normally I’d fill it just like that.  None of those things are particularly urgent.  They could all wait at least one more day.

Sabbath has morphed into a hurried, ridiculous, mad-dash to finish everything that doesn’t get done the rest of the week.  I sometimes feel like even my most treasured relationships get turned into to-do-list victims.  I’m now making a conscious effort to stop that.  To worry less about what I’ve done and focus more on who I am and who I will be.  Even if that means sometimes I do nothing at all.

(Thanks, Kathy!!)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Adventures! An Update

            I want to take a second to sincerely thank the people who have donated to my forthcoming leave of absence.  The generosity of friends and strangers alike always astounds me.  Things are off to a really good start at the fund-raising thanks to your kindness, and the whole project is starting to take on a beautiful life of its own.  Some very kind and generous friends in the congregation I serve are coordinating a dinner-dance fundraiser on April 16th, which is not only one of those rare excuses for me to bust out an old prom dress, but is also sending me into a nearly constant state of blushing at the support and sweetness of others.  You’re making this idea a functional reality, and your support leaves me, yet again, completely flustered by how amazing my life continues to be.  Thank you.
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of emails, plan making, 96% ridiculous excitement, and about 4% sheer panic.  I’ve been getting insider tips on life in Cape Town (from people who’ve lived there), and continue to collect contacts on the ground.  I’m awaiting further details about my exact work there, but I’ll be sure to keep you up to date.
I’ve had a few of my friends push me to explain the “why” of this trip, which is a fair question.  I can see the validity of saying I should just write a check with those fundraising dollars and give it to the people doing this kind of work, instead of going and doing it myself.
The “why” is pretty simple.  I hear God calling.  Something about the nature of human trafficking pulls at my soul, and something tells me this is work for which I’ve been preparing for a long time.  It’s like walking down a path – not only not knowing where it’s going to end, but not even being fully aware that you’re moving.  But I’ve been moving for a long time.  Landing a chaplaincy internship in Pediatrics, getting trained as a rape crisis advocate, having the opportunity to learn from great mentors in pastoral care and response to crisis and trauma, having multiple opportunities to travel out of the U.S. and out of my comfort zone, and about a decade and a half of experience working with kids.  It all might have seemed a little haphazard on my way, but it all works in almost bizarre harmony in light of my desire to serve and care for kids who have been rescued from the sex trade.  I feel like I’ve been unwittingly preparing for this for a long time, and the only word I know for that is call. 
So this is a piece of my ministry I need to explore, and the congregation I serve is graciously encouraging me to do just that.  Who knows where it will lead me, but I know it’s a good idea to listen when God calls.  That whole Jonah thing, you know… ignoring God just doesn’t end well.
I’m glad to have you with me as I take these next few steps.  I am only able to do this – spiritually as well as financially – because of the love of others.  So thank you, again, always.  Let’s see what happens next!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Graceful Living

            My Dad taught (and still teaches) me that I should live my life such that it never becomes necessary to tell someone that I’m a Christian – they should know it by how I live.  The basic commandments on which everything else in the Bible is based – to love God and to love other people – those should be close to my heart, and made evident by how I treat people.  I don’t need to wear a cross, or proselytize to every person I meet.  I should just behave with grace.
            Most importantly, love should be evident in my actions.  Love is not just a way of thinking or talking about God, other people, life.  It is the manifestation of faith in giving people the benefit of the doubt and behaving with genuine grace toward people who I like, and people who drive me crazy.  Most especially people who drive me crazy, even people who cause pain to those I love.
            I think it’s likely my Dad picked this up from my Grandma, who is one of the most faith-filled ladies I know.  She doesn’t preach it, she lives it.  She’s good to people – all people.  It’s not that I’ve never seen her get mad or hurt, but I have never seen her behave gracelessly.  Many years back, her neighbor’s Akita got loose and attacked my grandma and her beloved 7 lb Pomeranian.  The Akita knocked my Grandma to her feet, causing her to break her wrist, and rendering her unable to help as the Akita mauled and killed her constant companion.  It was hideous.  I was relatively young at the time, but remember that as one of few times I’ve seen my Grandma cry.  The whole thing added acrimony to injury when her neighbors resisted helping to pay for my Grandma’s medical bills, causing the whole situation to go through court proceedings, and emotional fences were built thick and high. 
            Yet slowly, over years of tentative hello’s and a willingness to buy girl scout cookies from their kid and a grateful acceptance of help shoveling her driveway, my Grandma  and her neighbors rebuilt trust.  She treated her neighbors with grace.  It was a nasty, nasty situation and a lot of us would probably have taken that pain and anger to the grave.  My Grandma resolves that a life lived in grace is a life lived lighter, even when it’s difficult to get there.  Her willingness to move through pain and rebuild trust astounds me.
            I don’t get it right much of the time, but I think it’s a good aim to have.  How can I put my faith – in God, in people, in Love… which, really, are all the same thing – into action?  How can I live with grace for others and myself?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Collective Empathy

It’s taken me a few days to compose anything like a coherent thought about what’s going on in Japan.   Devastation like this hits us in ways that are hard to articulate.  It reminds us of how deeply connected we all are just by being human together.  We watch one another hurt and think of how it would hurt to be in that space, and voila – the blessing and curse of empathy.   The blessing is that we care about one another, and the curse is the same thing.  We are rendered helpless in the face of such massive pain, loss, fear, and anguish.  Every time we gasp in collective horror at something like this – at the earthquake in Haiti, at Katrina, and so forth – I remember that I am small and minimally capable of affecting real change in the world.  But then I remember that there are millions of people who feel the exact same way I do.  And we are more than the sum of our inadequate well-wishing.   We can help.

Give, pray, serve, learn, and hope.

Monday, March 14, 2011


 “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
Abraham Lincoln

            The relationship between justice and mercy is a complicated one.  In some ways, they seem to work against each other, largely because we live in a world that defines justice in a very cowboy-esque, round up the bad guys kind of way.  Justice involves action – seeking, enacting, doling out.  Mercy is a bit more passive – it’s something we have, something we show.  And if we’re nothing else, we are people of action.
How do you encourage people to be merciful without encouraging people to be doormats?  Is it possible to find further strength in mercy, in the courage it takes to admit that you might be wrong?  I just spent the last few weeks trying to exegete (non-seminary / church friends, that basically just means reading the heck out of it and trying to understand what it means) Matthew 5:21-24.  Christ’s thoughts on anger.  And really, ouch.  The passage posits that a major priority of life is reconciliation with our brothers and sisters.  And, for most of the people I know, it’s pretty easy to think about forgiveness in terms of being the forgiver … less so when it comes to the need to be forgiven.   But this passage indicates that our human-to-human relationships matter a great deal, and that true reconciliation, grounded in a humble desire to forgive and to be forgiven, is the greatest gift we can give… to God and to ourselves.
I think that this form of justice first and foremost requires that we risk thinking we might be mistaken.  It means daring to sacrifice our very comfortable view of the world in the name of seeing things from another perspective, and willingly accepting that, just as others might need our forgiveness, surely we too need to be forgiven.  And therein, we all depend on the grace of mercy.

Friday, March 11, 2011


          My current, slightly anachronistic fixation is the show M*A*S*H, which is a sometimes funny and often poignant fictional snapshot of a medical unit near the frontlines during the Korean War.  The TV show was before my lifetime, as was the war it depicts, but there is a timeless quality to the way these men and women use comedy and romance to cope with the ugliest things humanity has to throw our way.  This show offers, for me, a unique insight into one interpretation of war, the painful futility of patching up men and women to go back to the front-lines, the struggle to value life in the face of the constant devastation and desecration of that life.

            I can’t say it better than Hawkeye shares in an episode from season 1.  He’s been cajoled into making a movie about life in a M*A*S*H unit by people enthusiastic to convey the high drama and heroics of life in a medical field unit.  While he treats most of it with his particular brand of ridiculous comedy, he concludes with the following assessment of a patient:

“Three hours ago, this man was in a battle. Two hours ago, we operated on him. He's got a 50-50 chance. We win some, we lose some. That's what it's all about. No promises. No guaranteed survival. No saints in surgical garb. Our willingness, our experience, our technique are not enough. Guns, and bombs, and anti-personnel mines have more power to take life than we have to preserve it. Not a very happy ending for a movie. But then, no war is a movie.”

            More than a little self-referential and dramatic for a TV show, but man, does that hit an important point.  We crave drama.  I’ve definitely cried at the videos of soldiers surprising their loved ones upon coming home.  And I’ve cried for the loss of lives, and the families who mourn the fallen. 

We have to resist turning the current wars, any wars, into something pretty and Hollywood-esque.  I am not debating the merits or motivations of war, or even the ethics of fighting them.  I am instead calling out our impulse to reduce what’s going on to pithy bumper stickers.  Though most of us only access what’s going in the world through the comfort of our computer screens and TV’s, what is going on out there – wars, revolutions, bombings, massacres -- is not for our entertainment.   It is a tragedy and an enormous loss of life, forever changing the lives of those left behind.  It warrants a conscientious reality check and genuine compassionate response instead of knee-jerk reactions to sound bites by politicians nowhere near the actual fighting.  These are human beings we’re talking about -- somebody's brother, sister, daughter, son, father, mother -- and they are all our brothers and sisters.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sharing the Good News

            Last night’s Ash Wednesday’s service was what Ash Wednesday services often are – difficult.  It's painful to remind ourselves with a physical gesture that (to borrow a charge) life is short, and we have very little time.  But time for what?
            The charge used at the congregation I serve and at the seminary I attended ends “time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so let us be swift to love, and make haste to be kind”.  I definitely dig that as a use of the short window of time I’ve got on this earth.
            My role in the service was primarily as liturgist, something more often filled by volunteers from the congregation.  I was really happy to get to fill it since the liturgist gets to do my favorite part of the service – the part that weaves its way subtly into everything we do in worship – an explicit declaration of forgiveness.  With our liturgy, we are called to worship, sing a hymn, confess as a community, and then one lucky person gets to stand in the pulpit and share the Good News.  And it’s pretty freaking awesome news.  Forgiveness!  Love!  Eternal!  For YOU!  Holy cow.
            I try to share it with the joy I feel, though I’m sure it sometimes come across like a kid telling about their favorite birthday present.  But so what?  It’s jubilation-worthy news, no doubt.
            As always, the question becomes one of practical application.  So we have this good news in our pockets, so what?  Well, as the charge suggests, we go out and live like we believe it.  Whoever you are, you’ve got some good news.  Whether Christian or not, you’re here, aren’t you?  You’ve got the ability to read and Internet access, which counts you amongst the lucky.  You’ve got a brain to fill with knowledge and understanding.  You’ve got people who love you.  You’ve got the opportunity to share compassion and community with others, to love people, and to be loved.  You could call it the opportunity of a lifetime.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Only / Fully Human

            Ash Wednesday arriveth and with it, my annual struggle with Lent.  I’ve long resisted the idea that we are meant to give something up for those 40 days, as if me avoiding cookies is somehow a gesture sufficiently dramatic to call up the crucifixion regularly.  Right.  It just doesn’t make much sense to me as a symbol, particularly when people make a huge deal out of what they’re giving up.  If that helps you as a Lenten practice, then good for you, it just hasn’t worked for me.
            What has worked (to a greater or lesser degree) is the addition of practices that I think are good for me and bring me closer to the life God would have me lead.
 The problem is, I usually want to do everything.  I want to be fully alive and am always adding new things to my repertoire, which means that Lent, a ready-made window for new habits, is sort of a self-improvement-junkie’s worst enemy.  I have to quiet down the voices that say – I will add all the skills!  I’ll re-learn French and spend more time learning guitar!  I’ll get back to running every day and write and read new novels and hand-write notes to friends and family!  And I’ll cook from scratch and drink only water and, while I’m at it, I’ll save the world!  Oh… right… that last part’s not my job.
So this Lent, I will probably try to do a great many things better than I usually do, in the hopes that at least some new good habits will stick.  But bigger than that, I will try to be quieter in my soul.   I will remember that I am only human, and that, if Christ is the fullest of humanity a person can be, being “only human” is pretty fantastic.
Wishing you a peaceful, thoughtful start of Lent.