Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

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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.

Taking the TV to the Basement

I’ve put my tv in the basement. I’m giving it up for the summer. Like Lent, but with better weather. Summer seems a good time to me to make a fresh start. When everything’s green and the days are long and the thick warm air reaches out with its long humid fingers and grabs hold of the tail of your shirt and begs you to just slow down a little.

When my friend came over to help me move my tv to the dank, dark basement where I wouldn’t be tempted to plug it in and just watch one show, I told her that I wasn’t deciding to give it up for all time, just for the summe, for a summer sabbath. It’s not that tv’s bad. It’s just bad for me. I come home from an evening of meetings and watch a show to unwind before bed. And then I watch another. And another. I fall asleep in front of the tv only to wake up at 1:30 in the morning and have to let my dog out and then I go up to bed and am unable to sleep. I watch tv when I’m blue or bored or angry. It’s my drug of choice. 

Instead of starting a load of laundry or emptying the dishwasher or writing thank you notes, I’ll sit down in front of the tv. But when I’ve thought of tv as something that gets in the way of my productivity I haven’t been motivated to change. We all need ways to unwind. 

Sabbath is God’s gift to affirm that life is about more than we get done. Sabbath is about renewal not numbing. It’s about unplugging not disengaging. Letting down, not numbing out. 

It’s been a week without tv – so far so good. It hasn’t been terrible. The other night I came home after a long day of meetings. I looked toward the empty corner where my tv used to be. Instead of turning it on and losing myself in the flashing scenes, I sat with my arm around my dog and breathed.

A Walk in the Woods Made All the Difference

I had two funerals to plan, a Confirmation Sunday sermon to write, an information meeting about a major building renovation to think through, church budget woes to address and a denomination to fix. So I went on a walk in the woods. The walk was for work. Really. One of the activities that is part of our church’s Re-Creation: Hour-Long Outdoor Retreats outreach activities this summer is a night walk and a campfire. I’d called about reserving a forest preserve campsite but the boy scouts had gotten there first. The camp site director suggested Camp Alphonse. It’s rustic, he warned, you better check it out. So I did. I put my dog Mandy in the car, drove to west Palatine, and went on a 40-minute walk in the woods. It was beautiful. It was quiet. The knots of tangled thoughts and feelings began to loosen.

And then a text binged: Could we meet on Friday? I felt a wave of irritation. I looked at my calendar and the requested time was free. It was my day off but if that time was best for them…my thoughts started. As resentment started to build, the Holy Spirit nudged. There in the woods I dropped my eagerness to please and my need to be important, silenced my phone and slipped it into my pocket. My response could wait. 

When I got back to the church I was as rested as if I’d slept 2 hours. I was better able to lead in a meeting that night, and more focused in my preparation for upcoming worship services. When I returned the text, suggesting a few times to meet other than Friday, I realized that it’s up to me to set boundaries on my time. I’m not a child anymore whose parent is going to put her down for a nap when she gets tired and whiny. I have to admit my limitations, and accept God’s gift of Sabbath rest.

Soul Singing

I don’t like for people to hear me sing. I don’t do karaoke. It’s a sign that I really trust you if I sing with the radio with you in the car.  But I love congregational singing. 

I grew up going to church – church, not just Sunday school. Some of my love of church music may be nostalgia. I learned the hymns standing next to my mother and sister, while watching my dad in the choir. I can still hear Rev. Smythe’s gusto and certain hymns take me back to the congregation of Parker United Methodist Church. But there’s more than nostalgia in the music for me. It forms my faith. There is a sense of belonging in the music. It weaves among us and makes us into a community. 

Several years ago I went on a mission trip to Guatemala where we made cooking stoves in homes. Teams of 2 or 3 from my church were paired with a mason with whom we worked the entire week. I was the only one on my team that spoke very much Spanish and our mason didn’t speak English. We found a common language on our second day in hymns. We sang some of our favorites to him, and he sang to us. With delight we discovered many hymns we all knew in both of our languages. 

When I’ve gone through difficult times in my spiritual life it’s music, particularly congregational singing, that’s brought me back. I can’t sing alone. I need the support of the congregation to have any hope of finding the notes. The truth of music, deeper than mere words, carries me. Music holds together lament and trust, joy and doubt. When I’m in the congregation, even if my head is uncertain and my heart hurts, my soul sings. 

Searching for the Golden Egg

I had Easter dinner with a group of clergy friends and their spouses. We made it an informal potluck, well post-nap time. While we waited for the pork tenderloin to get fully cooked, 6-year-old Ruby invited us to an Easter egg hunt. She pulled back the sheets she had hung to block the living room in a moment worthy of any on-stage “ta-da.” 

I don’t think I sighed outwardly when the egg hunt was announced. But all I wanted to do was sit in a comfy chair, sip a glass of bubbly, and recover from the week’s events; it’s hard work raising Jesus from the dead. But when I found my first egg, bright blue and covered in sparkles, my delight was real and not fake. “I found one!”  Ruby announced that there was a golden egg with a special prize. We all searched for it. 

Ruby had hidden the eggs well. Far better than I would have hidden them for her. One nestled in a bowl in the china cabinet, another was in a purse, there was one under the couch cushions. The golden egg was in an orange Yankee Candle that had a lid on it. When James found it, he lunged across the couch to the side table, “I found it! I found it!” 

The game was more fun because it was challenging. We didn’t have to pretend to search. We were really looking. That’s the sweet-spot isn’t it? Where the challenge is what makes the activity fun. Where there’s a pay-off at the end, but not the only joy we experience in the endeavor. Hiking is like that for me, and the creative process. Reaching the mountain top is exhilarating. Having a piece of writing land on just the right audience is satisfying. And I love the discovery and exertion along the way. 

Everyday life is not only mountain peaks and egg hunts. Sometimes you have to fill the car with gas, go grocery shopping, and fold laundry. But when we get bored, when life feels dull and only full of drudgery, maybe it’s not just fun we’re missing, but a good challenge. Maybe we’re being called to hunt for a golden egg.

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