Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

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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 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.

One Small Step Towards a Big Change

Lying on the coach watching an episode of West Wing I’d seen 12 times, I took inventory of my life: I’d spent most of my week attending webinars on the Payroll Protection Plan, saying “hi” the 20-something dad pushing a stroller was as close to flirting as I’d been in six months, and my fat pants were tight. I fantasized about a life of hiking and writing, but I live in the flat lands of Illinois and hadn’t written a single non-church related thing in months. This was not what I wanted from my life.

I promised myself I’d spend the next morning writing for an hour, running 3 miles, doing some strength training, and walking my dog. Instead, I took my coffee to my armchair in the sunny window where I read and scrolled through social media. I could fantasize about the life I wanted, but I couldn’t do anything to make that life a reality.

But then I weighed myself. The number on the scale was proof I couldn’t ignore that I’d been over-indulging in booze and ice cream while sliding into a sedentary existence. Something woke up in my brain and I made a small shift. I started paying a bit more attention to what I ate. I turned to fruit for snacks instead of ice cream and let go of the nightly beer in front of the TV. I learned a little bit more about nutrition and tracked my calories. I started planning my meals. It made a difference. I lost weight, I have more energy, my mood lifted.

There’s more happening than just fitting into the pair of pants I haven’t been able to wear in two years. I am writing again and starting to plan a trip to go hiking. I’m crafting a life that fits me.

It’s easy to feel at the mercy of global events, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic with an idiot at the nation’s helm. In my work as a pastor there’s always more to do than time to do it. I’m really good at finding excuses to not live my most authentic life. By claiming my personal agency over what I eat, I’m claiming my agency over the rest of my life. Life doesn’t just happen to me.

Don’t just build the nest egg. Fly!

I was braced for a scolding. I was going to see my certified financial planner after several years since our last appointment. Bless me CFP, it’s been four years since my last assessment. My savings was depleted from a couple of fabulous trips. I thought about my dining room table and couch. Why had I bought that stuff instead of sinking more money into my pension? But instead of shaking his finger at me, my CFP gave me three questions as homework. 

The first question was, How would you live your life if you had enough money to take care of your needs now and in the future? This wasn’t a new question. I think about it a lot, usually on a dreary Illinois day when I’m dealing with a boring part of my work or a bitchy person at church. It’s the escape hatch. If I didn’t have to make money I would… and I’m off imagining a very different life.

The last question was, If your doctor told you that you had a day left to live, how would you feel? What did you not get to do or be? I was surprised by a sense of gratitude and satisfaction. I’ve had a pretty good life. Sure, I wished I’d written the great American novel (or any novel) but I’ve done good work as a pastor. I’d have liked to have been in a deep, love relationship, but I’ve had good friends. I did wish I’d been to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of South America. There’s a trek there I’d like to do. I wished I’d known my nephews longer. There are things I regret and disappointments I carry, but I have room in myself to accept my life’s imperfections.

It is the middle question still sticks with me: Your doctor tells you have only 5 to 10 years left to live. You won’t ever feel sick, and you will have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do with the time you have left?

I knew immediately I’d figure out how to begin living the dream I’d imagined with the first question. I’d move someplace beautiful. I’d write more. I’d spend time with people I care about and sluff off those I don’t. There are conversations I need to have, apologies made, forgiveness extended. I’d go to Tierra del Fuego and visit my nephews.

could be living the last five to ten years of life. You don’t get to be 52 years old and have over 20 years in local church ministry without having seen lives cut short and dreams dashed. What makes me think I’m guaranteed another 30 years, exempt from the disasters that befall others in middle age? 

If I would hypothetically change my life if told I had only five to ten years left to live, why am I not changing my life now? As I left my follow-up appointment, my CFP told me to go ahead and plan that trip to the bottom of the world, even if it means putting less in my pension. I’ve been in more touch with my three nephews and am working toward writing every day.

 Life isn’t hypothetical. It’s real. It’s now. And you only get one. 

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

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

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

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

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

Shhh…the reindeer are sleeping

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

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

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

Gnawing on TV to Satisfy a Hungry Heart

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

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

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

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

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