Waking Up Earley

Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

Airplanes and Eagles

Our group of nine were gathered at the Rio Grande trailhead and Charis bent down and put her hand on our feet, one at a time, and said, 

Welcome, Pilgrim.
May the Way be
A path for you,
A guide to you,
A companion with you.

As we each received our blessing, we started on our Camino del Alma alone, walking the first 30 minutes in silence.

Two pastors from the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado had organized this three-day, 42-mile spiritual walk from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. Charis Caldwell, a Presbyterian pastor who has led many on the Camino de Santiago, was our leader and guide. 

“Find your own pace,” Charis had instructed before blessing our feet. It sounded like too small a thing to be the primary focus of a 15-mile day, but soon I noticed how remarkable a thing it was. On group hiking trips, even when there was no enforced pace, I’ve been acutely aware of my location in the pack. I took pride in being near the front and felt shame when I lagged at the back. I’ve scrambled to keep up, when hiking with friends, and been embarrassed to ask them slow down. Finding my own pace meant finding a stride and speed that suited me, and not comparing my progress to others.

The Rio Grande trail along the river by the same name, is a multi-use trail. Bikers zoomed past, sometimes interrupting our silence with a shouted “on your left,” and just as often not giving any warning until the whirr of their tires made us leap out of the way. A few miles away, cars and trucks roared on Highway 82. The cars would cover the same distance in less than an hour that it was taking us three days to complete. From their perspective, I imagined the inefficiency of our walk seemed foolish, even pointless. 

I noticed high above me a golden eagle swooping in large circles. It adjusted its wings to the shifting thermals. A silver dot far off in the distance became a jetliner, carrying passengers to some far away destination. The plane and the eagle shared the same frame in my view of the sky. The jetliner can cruise at over 600 mph and go 9500 miles. The eagle’s average speed is 32 mph and averages 100 miles a day. The pilot of the plane knows the physics of flight. But I envy the eagle who feels the wind in his feathers. 

The Remarkable Work of God

I am sitting in a leather love seat looking out my sliding glass door at Mt. Elbert, one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. In the foreground, off my deck, hummingbirds flit around a birch tree’s branches looking, it seems to me, for the nectar that must have been provided by the previous tenant. I make a mental note that I need to hang a feeder. 

I now live in Leadville, Colorado. At 10,150 feet it’s the highest incorporated town in the United States. I am here to be the pastor of St. George Episcopal Mission and grant-writer for their food ministry. It’s a part time job, that came with a substantial cut in pay, prestige, and church size. On a good Sunday we have 12 people in worship, but we feed 350 people a week through our community meals and provide food for about 4000 people a year through our onsite and mobile food pantry. 

It’s a long way from my former life as lead pastor of First UMC of Arlington Heights. It took a 1100-mile drive, weeks of sorting and packing, interviews with the church and Episcopal Bishop, creating a budget spreadsheet to see if I could make the money work, and endless conversations with friends and advisors asking, “how crazy is this?” to get here. 

For years, I’d been saying if I could do anything it would be move to the mountains and write. That desire showed up in conversations with friends, with my financial planner, with my spiritual director. But I couldn’t seem to make a move. It was like I was living in the dream where you want to run, but your legs are filled with concrete. I was stuck. Any move felt too risky. Would I make friends? How could I make it financially on my own. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I thought the only way to live my dream was to find a husband who would support me. 

When I turned 55, I remembered with a jolt that my father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 62. “I could have just 7 good years left.” Acquaintances in their mid-60’s had new health issues that derailed retirement plans. A couple odd results on routine screenings that turned out to be nothing serious My own body reminded me that there are no guarantees. 

I stopped just wishing my life were different and began exploring options. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be the lead pastor of a large suburban congregation with a better view. I wanted spaciousness for a more expansive and creative life. I wanted a new adventure. 

And Way opened. A friend’s Episcopal church in the mountains became open. Their Bishop said yes to a Methodist. The church could offer a slightly larger position for just enough more money. But Way didn’t just open in the world. It opened in me. I experienced a loosening of what I thought I needed. A growing willingness to take a risk. To embrace my life. To trust that I could be happy. That was the most remarkable work of God. 

Parade for Peace

This Sunday many Christians will celebrate Palm Sunday. (The Greek Orthodox church will celebrate Palm Sunday on April 9.) Though each gospel differs in its details, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is described as a parade. Most parades celebrate the status quo. Scout troops, kids on decorated bikes, politicians waving from cars, and library floats traffic in nostalgia and highlight what we think is best about our communities. These symbols march before gathered throngs reinforcing that all is at it should be. 

Jesus’ parade was different. The palms waved and the cloaks thrown down acknowledged him as a king, but he rode a donkey, a symbol of humility. Though the parade could have looked like a military victory, the gospel writer Luke inserted into the quotation from Psalm 118 a proclamation of peace. Instead of lifting up an idealized version of the world as it was, Jesus’ parade provided contrasting symbols to highlight the world’s brokenness. That doesn’t tend to be popular with those benefitting from the status quo.

Preparing for Palm Sunday during a week in which another mass shooting made the news, my mind went to last year’s 4th of July Parade in Highland Park, IL. A local man shot at parade goers killing seven and wounding 48. A group from our church had just finished our marching in our local parade to hand out seed packets announcing our upcoming EarthFest. I was driving a couple people back to their cars when one of them who had recently moved to Highland Park, scanned her texts and gasped in panic, “oh no, oh no, oh no.” She made quick phone calls and sighed in relief to learn her family had not attended the parade as they had planned.

Mass shootings have become common enough in our country that they don’t always make the headlines. There have been 38 mass shootings (defined by the Gun Violence Archives as incidents in which at least four people are shot and injured or killed, not including the shooter) in the US this month. At least 57 people have died and 133 have been injured. March has not been anomaly. There have been 133 mass shootings this year. 

It is time for us to acknowledge that there is something broken in the United States, that all is not as it should be. But this is not how it has to be. Those of us who follow Jesus know that the world can be a better place. Ultimately it is God who will save us. But we do not have to just sit on the sidelines. We can participate in God’s work to bring peace.

There are many organizations addressing gun violence. One that many people in my church are part of is Mom’s Demand Action. If you go to their website you will find a petition to hold the gun industry accountable that you can sign on their website. 

Whether or not you choose to sign the petition, I hope you will celebrate Palm Sunday this year by doing something to put God’s way of love into action. 

Creating your own path

“There’s always a smaller step,” said Mike, the RMI guide for the Torres del Paine Trek.  I was the least fit and shortest person in my trekking group. We were on the uphill portion of Gardner Pass. The difficulty had not been overstated in the trek description and I was struggling with every step. The hike was steep. Tree roots, large rocks, and erosion created an almost impossible steeplechase for my 5’ frame. At the front of our team were the long and lean marathoners Mark and Malina who cleared the hurdles with ease. Next were Jim, Missy, and Carlos, all in great shape. And then…there was…me. I wished I could turn back the calendar and add in more miles of running and hours in the gym. But there was no going back, and no slag van to pick me up. I had to get over the pass to get to our next camp. Saving face didn’t matter, getting to the next camp did.

I looked for those smaller steps, to the right and the left of the main path. I couldn’t just follow the footsteps of someone in front of me. I had to find my own course. The hike was not just a physical endeavor but a mental puzzle. Sometimes there wasn’t an easier step and I had to ungracefully hoist myself up. In the end, smaller steps didn’t make the hike easier. They made it possible.

Off the trail, I sometimes get stuck trying to follow the established path and do life exactly like everyone else. I forget to notice the very real differences in our backgrounds, abilities, interests, life experiences, current contexts, and temperaments. I replay past decisions, creating scenarios in which I am better prepared and navigate the current challenge with ease. But do-overs are never really possible. We always start right where we are. And, as I learned from our guide, there’s always a different step. There’s always a way forward that fits who we are. We may not be at the front of the pack, or even follow close on the heels of everyone else. But we’ll find our way. 

Sometimes, God answers prayer with furniture

I love my new desk. I believe it’s an answer to prayer. I don’t normally think God cares about my furniture, but this desk is absolutely perfectamundo.

When I started looking for a desk, I knew I didn’t want a brand new, assembly required desk from an office store. That would be too sleek, too new, and too inexperienced. I needed a desk that had seen some stuff; that understood that life is messily complicated, that people don’t fit into neat categories, and few things we do are all good or all bad. At a local consignment store, I ran my finger along the half-moon, leather topped desk with delicately curved legs. I imagined writing thank you notes on fine linen paper with a fountain pen. But I knew the desk would shudder when I slammed down a book and clutch its pearls any time I uttered an dirty word. I needed a desk that could handle real world honesty. 

On Facebook Marketplace I found a used secretary desk from the 1940’s that was pretty beat up, but only $25. Beggars can’t be choosers and I messaged my interest. The desk was already spoken for so I kept looking. Scrolling through images of contemporary office sets and antique roll tops, I found my desk – another1940’s oak secretary desk that was beautifully refinished and free!! And it was mine if I was the first one to pick it up. A flurry of texts revealed that my friend Mike was happy to help and already in the town where the desk was. A few hours later, Mike and his wife Laurie showed up and helped me move the desk into my office. 

It’s perfect. There’s plenty of room for the stacks of books and notes for writing projects I can’t seem to finish and sermons I have to finish. The drawers slide effortlessly and have handy dividers made for my way of organizing. There’s even an ingenious typewriter cabinet with a spring activated shelf, perfect to hide away my laptop. 

My prayer for a new desk was a jumble of prayers for my writing life. And God said yes. It’s almost fifteen square feet of surface area tells me I will figure out how to find the balance between my pastoral role and my creative self. Its sturdiness helps me take my writing life seriously, and its history nods encourages me to tell my stories my way. 

But having a good desk makes me a writer no more than a basement full of exercise equipment makes one an athlete. To be a writer, I have to write. In gracing me with this desk, I believe God is granting me permission, no, more than that, trusting me to search for and find my writing life.

Giving Thanks in Detail for My Dog Mandy

One of my favorite writers is Brian Doyle who wrote many marvelous prayers, giving thanks for things that are often overlooked, things like well-fitting shoes, hair scrunchies, and wicked hot showers. I started my own list, making my way down the page with as many details as possible. Perhaps you’ll make your own list.

I give thanks for my dog Mandy, particularly the soft white hairs on her chin that weren’t there when she was young. I give thanks that though she often turns her nose up at the food I present on a plate, she still licks every fork in the dishwasher clean. I give thanks for the people she’s helped me meet, like the neighbor who reliably stops mowing or raking leaves or pulling weeds to scratch her behind her ears or on her rump.

I give thanks that though she has set aside old hobbies, eviscerating a plush toy to get to its squeaky heart and bouncing around the neighbor’s yard with the puppy who lives there, she has discovered a new one, hiding and finding and hiding again a rawhide bone as big as her head. Her dedication is proved by the shiny spot she’s worn on her nose from scooping dirt over the bone where she’s placed it under the lemon balm or among the tiger lily leaves.  

I give thanks that, though the walks are shorter now without the let’s keep on going pull, she still pushes her nose into piles of leaves and under bushes, and when I say, “Come on, let’s get home” pauses her investigation to look at me and then goes back to her study of the bark at the base of the tree, quelling my hurry to get on with my day so that I simply stand there, waiting, while she contemplates the wonder of the universe. 

You won’t see the beauty in the forest if you think all trees are the same

“All religions are the same,” he said. This was our first in person date after meeting online. I immediately recognized the pattern of the conversation. I start by asking all the questions. When I go silent, and he realizes I’m not going to do all the work, he fumbles around looking for a question to ask. When he asks what I do for a living, I tell him I’m a pastor, I get a look of stunned surprise and he says, “I grew up insert religious tradition, sort of. We weren’t that religious. I mean my insert mother/father/grandparent was, but I drifted away once I finally insert teenage life stage ritual. But, you know, all religions are the same.”

(The only date that did not start this way was the guy who sat back in his chair, and after moment of silence, looked me in the eye and said, “That’s hot.” We dated for five months.)

I’m not sure what is the most irritating. The mansplaining about an area where I am the resident expert?  I’ve been a pastor for 25 years. I am paid to be religious. And he hasn’t thought about religion except for the occasional attendance at a service to make his mother happy. Or is it being lumped in with a conservative Christian Trump supporter and a Wiccan priestess? (And, I’m fairly certain, they wouldn’t like being lumped in with me either.)

When I walk back to my car, I come up with a response that I promise myself I’ll use next time someone tells me that, “really, uh, all religions are the same”: 

Would you tell a cellist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the lead singer in a rock band or a fifth-grade music teacher that all music is the same? Of course not. Because you like jazz and can’t stand country western. You hate that Adelle has a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” John Denver reminds you of your first girlfriend. You could listen to Yo-Yo Ma for hours, but you want to crack your upstairs neighbor’s child’s violin over your knee every time they practice. And when your cousin Barb, the recovering alcoholic, sang “Amazing Grace” at your uncle’s funeral you teared up, not because she sang so well, but because she meant it. And the other day, as you walked from the train station to your office in the loop, an old guy holding out a Styrofoam cup asking for coins and singing “It’s a Wonderful World,” stopped you in your tracks. You thought it was probably a scam, but still, you gave him all the cash you had because his song pierced your heart.

So no, all religion is not the same. Which isn’t to say that I think everyone who isn’t like me is doomed (though I am suspicious of non-coffee drinkers and people who don’t like dogs). I’m not a Christian who thinks Christianity is the “only way.” But Christianity is my way. My life has been shaped by delving deep into its stories and wrestling with its teachings. I admit to days when I want to turn my back on the whole enterprise, but then I return, lured again by the promise that following Jesus brings purpose, peace, and joy. 

In my experience, my commitment to my own faith has helped me be open to the truth found in other faiths. Our ethics often almost identical, loving neighbor, generosity, and forgiveness, but seeing how people of other faiths live them out holds me accountable to my own standards. When I’ve been able to participate in life stage rituals or holiday celebrations with people from other traditions, I’m pushed ask of my own faith the questions I have of theirs — What’s the significance of this? What do these symbols mean? 

But religion does more than teach us how to be good people and carry us through our life’s transitions. Religion asks the big questions – Who are we? What is our purpose in the world? What happens when we die? What is wrong with the world and how do we solve it?* Religions share a quest for spiritual truth, but many of the questions they ask and the answers they find are different. 

When I walk in Busse woods near my house, I can only see the beauty of the red maple, black ash, and swamp white oak if I’m willing to notice the differences. Or I can choose to not be bothered with really looking and just see a bunch of trees. 

*This last question is from Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One.

Burnt Trees and Butterflies

I woke up feeling unsettled and uncertain. My emotions were raw. My eyes burned. My throat was dry. I tried to settle into my spiritual practice of reading while I drank my morning coffee, but I couldn’t focus on the page. My skin couldn’t contain my feelings. I wanted, I needed, to combust. I left my cabin to hike in the woods. 

But not any woods. For 360 degrees around me there were charred trees and blackened soil. Lodge pole pines had been stripped of their evergreen needles. Some trees stood without shame in their nakedness. Others bowed to the ground or leaned on neighbors. I thought I could still smell smoke. But it was probably my imagination. Or maybe, it was just the lingering odor in my hair and clothes from using the wood burning stove in my cabin the morning before. 

The East Troublesome Fire was first reported on October 21, 2020, near Kremmling, Colorado. Within a week, winds were as high as 60 MPH. The fire jumped Highway 34. Even without much fuel above tree line, it jumped the Continental Divide. When it was finally done, 193,812 acres of forest had been burned.

Still, on my walk almost a year later, there were signs of life. Yellow and purple flowers bloomed in ashen dirt. Carpets of green grass looked all the more verdant against fallen tree trunks turned to glistening charcoal. Miniature Aspen trees shimmered in the morning light, promising to turn gold when the air grew colder. First, I heard, and then I saw a small creek bouncing over rocks singing a song of hope. A single small yellow butterfly fluttered by, dancing in the sun.

Death gives way to life. It’s the way the world works. Broken hearts mend. Shattered dreams give birth to new inspiration. Even if we are not mended to be like new, we are wiser and maybe even stronger at the broken places. In the church we call it a miracle, resurrection. 

I rolled my eyes at the cliché. It is a trope, and it is true. 

But what is also true is that the trees burned. There is new life, but first comes death. We don’t get new beginnings without endings. What needs to die in me for something new to be born? What empty hopes, false selves, or rotted out beliefs do I need to set on fire so that latent seeds can sprout? 

I ease off the boulder where I sat to think and walked back to my cabin. I open and close my fists to try to unclench my heart. There is so much I resist letting go. I study my hands and suspect I have only been holding smoke. 

See Something, Say Something

When Darnella Frazier saw a police officer pinning George Floyd under his knee she knew it wasn’t right. She pulled out her phone and started videoed the event. She later posted the video to Facebook which was seen millions of times by people around the world. That video forced many of us to see that from which we have too often turned away – the reality of racism in our country. The video became, as network legal analyst Sunny Hostin said, the “the star witness of the prosecution.”

Darnella Frazier bore witness. I heard part of her testimony in Derek Chauvin’s trial. She was distraught, traumatized by what she saw. She said, “It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.” And then, referring to Mr. Chauvin, Ms. Frazier said, “But it’s like, it’s not what I should have done, it’s what he should have done.”

We don’t always know what to do when we see racism at work right in front of us. We often turn away or sit paralyzed, like in a bad dream. On May 2 my church, First UMC of Arlington Heights, will host an online bystander training to learn how to identify hate incidents as they happen and take action safely and effectively. You can attend in person or online. Go to fumcah.com/events for more information and to sign up.

There’s a cost to bearing witness to injustice, to speaking the truth about evil when we see it. And there’s a cost to staying silent. If I’m going to lay awake at night because of what I witnessed, I’d like to know, like Ms. Frazier does, that I did something to make a difference.

Gotta go through it

Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Have to go through it. Those words from the refrain of the children’s song, “Going on a Bear Hunt,” keep running through my mind. I’ve been looking for a vacation spot, a weekend activity, an outing that would let me get around the coronavirus. What I keep running into is the reality that what I want to escape, unlike the heat and humidity of a midwestern summer or the bitter cold of February in Chicago, is everywhere. 

Like dustbowl sand, Covid19 seeps into every corner of our lives. The grocery store clerk can’t see our smile and chatting through the mask is nearly impossible. Things we counted on have been cancelled. Decisions about playdates, neighborhood cocktails parties, and running errands demand that we think like epidemiologists. (I don’t know about you, but my last hard science class was in 1986). The constant decisions and changes to our daily lives erode at our capacity to manage the big stuff, like schools going remote and jobs being restructured. 

The Coronavirus effects every part of our lives and it’s happening to all of us. Maybe remembering, “It’s happening to them too,” can bring us back to our better selves. Covid19 is happening to our boss, our neighbor, the grocery store clerk and the coffee shop barista. It’s happening to village board members, schoolteachers, and garbage truck drivers. It’s even happening to the people who pretend it’s not happening. None of us can escape Covid19. We are all in it together. 

Maybe this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe he was telling us that school superintendents, pastors, and village board members aren’t epidemiologists either. They’re tasked with making important decisions in an area totally beyond their expertise. Maybe Jesus is reminding us that the other moms on Facebook, teachers, and the guy in the grocery store who acts like the one-way sign in the aisle is for everyone but him, are all struggling with their own anxieties and disappointments. 

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Jesus. When we are finally past the pandemic and we can see each other’s faces, we will be in it (whatever the new “it” is) together.

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