Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

Category: change

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. 

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.

I wish Jesus hadn’t told us to love our enemies

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to “love our enemies.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.” (Matthew 5:44) I suspect he really said it because it’s not something later followers would make up so that they could be popular. Loving enemies does not win friends or influence people.

Let me be the first to admit, I don’t want to love my enemies. I want to hate them. I want hate to fuel my momentum in working for change. But hate is not a fire in the belly but a weight around the ankles. Hate doesn’t help us get things done. It cramps our thinking, it stifles our creativity. Hate calcifies our spirits, making it harder for God to breathe through us.  When I first divorced I thought hate could protect me from hurt. It didn’t. It just kept me from healing.

Love does not exclude holding people accountable, calling on them to be better than they’ve been, calling them out for what they’ve done wrong. Love does not mean we do not vote political leaders out of office, break up with a lover, or unfollow a friend on social media. Love does not mean we do not tell the truth and tell it boldly. It does not mean we do not continue to work for a just society and insist on being treated decently by the people in our lives. Love does not make us weak. Love makes us strong because it is God’s force in the world.

I’m still figuring out what loving our enemies includes. I know from what Jesus said it includes praying for them. Right now my prayer is that God would erode their hard hearts until cracks are formed where droplets of grace might enter and exand until their  hearts are broken open by God’s love.

Turning Lament into Action

What does it say about me and about our society that I barely noticed when the news ticked off another shooting? This one was in a school in Northern California. But whether in a school, church or shopping mall, in California, Texas, or Virginia – the shootings are all starting to blend together. I met a colleague for coffee yesterday morning. Instead of discussing sermon series, outreach ideas, and best practices in supervision, we talked about responses to active shooters in the sanctuary. We sat in a Starbucks and discussed the limits of hiding and wondered if hurled hymnals take down a shooter over coffee and muffins. The news of deaths and injuries hadn’t made us loose our appetites.

I don’t want to be fearful. I don’t want to be on guard. But I also don’t want to be complacent or apathetic. I don’t want to forget or ignore that the four people who died have left gaps in the lives of those who loved them. Families, and churches, and communities will have to learn now to live without them. Those who are injured may face weeks and months of rehabilitation. Their bodies may heal but their spirits may remain wounded.

I don’t want to grow accustomed to a world where mass shootings happen and congregations and schools and libraries have active shooter drills. I don’t want to tell my nephews’ children someday about the world before everyone was afraid of going into public places, like I tell my nephews about the world before cell phones. I will continue to lament the deaths, the injuries, the fear.

I will turn my lament into action. I will work now so that future generations wonder aloud what it must have been like to live during these days. These days when assault weapons are easy to get and treatment for mental illness is hard to pay for. These days we spend more on incarceration than education. These days when politicians try to pull us apart to win elections instead of bring us together to do good. I will let news of another shooting embolden my commitment to bringing about God’s realm of peace and wholeness for all.

Hidden Landscapes

In Big Bend National park they found neck bones of an Atamoseurus that weighed 1000 pounds each. The neck bones weighed that much, not the Atamoseurus. They also found bones of the Quetzalcoatlus – the largest flying creature to ever have lived. Its wingspan was 36 feet and it weighed just over 500 pounds. A model of its skeleton hovers over visitors at the dinosaur outpost in Big Bend National Park. Visitors would catch it out of the corner of their eyes and start, “Wow. What is that?” and gaze up at the giant predator with a new appreciation for what chipmunks feel when a hawk soars overheard. I turned to a total stranger for reassurance, “Jurassic Park was fiction right?” I didn’t want that thing coming after me if it had missed lunch.

Quetzalcoatlus , Big Bend National Park

Quetzalcoatlus , Big Bend National Park

I tried to imagine the desert landscape of Big Bend 130 million years ago when it was a marine environment, and 72 million years ago when it was an inland flood plain, and the 55 million years ago when it was volcanic highlands. I could empathize with the dinosaur deniers. It seemed impossible that this this baked landscape could ever have been lush and humid and sticky; that it ever smelled like moldy murkiness thick with mud and decaying leaves and rotting fruit, instead of hot sand; that giants lumbered among lush vegetation instead of insects and rodents scuttling among the yucca.

I think about the people I know whose personal landscapes weren’t always what they are now. Ralph can’t get out of a chair now but used to hike the Appalachia mountains. Debby’s acute mind shines through when we talk about politics but she forgets that her husband has died. Marge’s life used to revolve around the addictions of her son. A 12-step recovery community has helped her let go of the cycles of blaming and saving. Liz has created a new life  following the death by suicide of her husband.

What other landscapes are buried beneath the current contours of the lives of the people around me? If I dug just a bit deeper what evidence of a whole other era would I discover? Would I be surprised by who they were or would I finally understand who they are?



Desert Landscape

I can see forever from the top of the South Rim Trail at Big Bend National Park. I’m reminded of the first time I snorkeled in the ocean. When I put my face in the water and opened my eyes the expanse, unstopped by pool walls, startled me so much I had to swim back to where I could stand and get my bearings.

Here, forever stretches not just in terms of geography but also in terms of time. I’m accustomed to trying to imagine what the landscape looked like before the subdivisions and Starbucks and Midas Muffler shops chewed up the prairie where my hometown Parker, Colorado now is. I tell people that I remember when Highlands Ranch, a large suburb of Denver, was a real ranch, with actual deer and antelope playing among the cattle. Here, in the desert corner of southwest Texas, my imagination stretches back to prehistoric times when this area was a muggy swamp populated by dinosaurs.

Everywhere I hike national park posted signs remind me to stay on the trail, that the ecosystem here is fragile. And it is. But this place is also timeless, enduring. It has survived to be home to the bravoceratops and the mountain lion, the gryposaurus and the javelina. This place has adjusted to climate changes and accommodated new species. People are like that – both easily broken and infinitely resilient.

Life changes us. There are the cataclysmic events of death, divorce, and trauma. The seismic shifts of falling in love and new vocational calls.  And there’s the seemingly inconsequential events that shape us — the sarcastic joke that makes us wince, the bid for friendship that is never answered, the affirmation of a talent we haven’t yet explored. These moments are like the steady stream of the Rio Grande that carves a canyon in desert rock. There are things that change us forever. And we persist.

Inspired by the Church Rummage Sale

I wish I had a giant shovel.

I would shovel out my house. I would scoop up the clothes I keep hoping will fit again one day but still pucker at the hips and are tight across the belly. I’d heap up the files of warranties and manuals for appliances I no longer have and the collection of old hymnals I don’t peruse. I’d toss on the pile the creamer and pitcher my former mother-in-law bought when visiting my former husband when he lived in Belfast. I felt that I had received a family heirloom.

I’d empty out the linen closet of tablecloths and napkin rings, candlesticks and candy dishes meant for holiday parties. I’d empty kitchen cupboards of dishes that go unused by guests who never arrive.

I’d clear out the craft closet of unfinished projects, and hopeful supplies.  I’d get rid of the shelf waiting to be refinished and the broken bird path I haven’t fixed.

I’d like to drive one of those large earth movers with the  huge iron shovel with teeth.  I’d rip off the roof and shovel out my collection  of petty disappointments and grudges and hurt feelings.  I’d like to hear them smash like glass on a cement sidewalk.

I’d like to kneel in dirt, use a sharp trowel, and carefully root out the voice that says, “You can’t,” “Don’t dare,” “Don’t try,” “Can’t risk,” “Play it safe.”  I’d diligently extricate the rhizomes that seek approval and insist that I’m never quite good enough.

I’d uproot myself and plant me somewhere new to see what grows.

What Got Left Behind

When my ex-husband moved out he didn’t want to take anything that was ours. He also left large things that were his. His dining room table. His treadmill. Like a refugee, he left with the things he could carry. For months I was finding things that he forgot – books on shelves and clothes in the laundry.

I hate the treadmill. It mocks me whenever I walk by it. It’s an exercise deterrent. It’s big, ugly and loud. It’s the machine equivalent of the guy at the gym who grunts and sprawls across the mat intended to be shared. I never used it. I wanted him to take it. He insisted he didn’t have room. No, he didn’t want to store it. He thought maybe I would want to use it. (Was that a crack about my weight? He had always appreciated my curves).

I was jealous that he could make a clean break. A fresh start. A do-over. I was left to clean up the pieces. Dissolve the bank accounts, forward his mail, change the answering machine. He got to pretend our marriage was a bad dream. I had to stumble over the artifacts of our life together.

I put the photo albums and hanging pictures in a closet. I threw out the random socks that had been mixed in with mine. I gave his dining room table to our church rummage sale.

When you’ve been wounded and the pain makes it hard to even breath, it’s tempting to purge everything so that there’s nothing that sits on your heart when you look at it.   But the ink drawings over the fireplace are from our trip to Seattle when we got engaged. The Greek tablecloth is from our honeymoon. His mother purchased the delicate creamer and sugar bowl when she visited him in Ireland, where he lived for a year in his 20’s. A few years back, he and I drove circumference of the Irish isle. Those are good, if complicated, memories.

I was planning to sell the treadmill but then I used it last week. It was handy when I didn’t have time to get to the gym for a full work out. I huffed a prayer of thanks and forgiveness to him in my head for leaving it.

Skiing Right Off the Edge

It’s been close to ten years since I went downhill skiing, but a recent dream brought to mind how much I enjoyed it when growing up in Colorado.

I had a ski instructor who encouraged us to not hover at the start of the run, but to just ski right from the lift, over the edge, and down the mountain. I remember the thrill. I couldn’t see what was coming next – a patch of ice, deeper powder, a large mogul. It was about committing to the run. Our instructor said it would make us look cool (I’m fairly certain I felt cooler than I looked). I think he really wanted to push us to the edge of our skill level and boost our confidence. I remember how it felt to not hesitate and trust that I could handle whatever was just over the edge.

With that dream lurking in the cobwebs of my mind I signed up for the National Novel Writing Month. I have committed to writing 50,000 words in 30 days. 1667 words a day! I’m flying by the seat of my pants. I have a couple of story ideas but no plot outline, developed characters, or clear location. It feels a bit like running the marathon without training.

I may crash and burn. It could be a total yard sale[1]. I’ve given myself permission to flail around, not look cool, and do it “wrong.” It’s okay if I don’t actually write a novel. Entries may not be connected to each other, I may start down my first idea and get stuck and so start down another path.

I want to plunge in more in my life — to just go for it, to not hold back or worry about the consequences.  I’m ready to take risks and dare failure.


[1] A “yard sale” is a crash where the skier’s or snowboarder’s equipment, hat, goggles, etc. are strewn all over the mountain.

Wisdom to Know the Difference

pen and paper

The complaints of what was wrong with my life had begun as lament, a holy practice of prayer and honest soul-baring speech before God. I worried my grievances like prayer beads. But now the protest had turned into whining. Even I was sick of listening to myself.

I needed a makeover of the Self. I needed to repent – turn and go a new direction. I was desperate for conversion. That day’s journal entry reads: I am ready to recreate my life.

Hubris, really, to think I would recreate my life. That’s the work of God, I had always been taught. But God seemed to have fallen asleep at the switch so I was taking control. I did what I learned from my mother. I made a list.

Three lists actually:

What I am happy with
What I have to accept
What I want to change

I was full of the self-loathing that comes from failure and rejection. It was divine gift that made me start where I did. My list of what I was happy with wasn’t a complete accounting of those things for which I am grateful, simply a list of the parts of my life and personality that helped me be someone I liked being around:

flexibility and creativity of my job
living close to where I work
my friendships
that I like my family
that I read novels
my sense of humor
Mandy [my dog]
How I am when I travel – curious

I had overheard myself enough to know that some of my complaints were about things I could not change:

I am 46
I am divorced
My job won’t make me wealthy

No amount of railing would change the fact that my body is no longer 25 years old. I have shaped my life by decisions that cannot be undecided. I do not get a do-over. I will never again be who I was. It was not resignation I felt. It was grace. If I couldn’t do anything about the items on this list, maybe I could stop clutching it so tightly, checking it so often. There wasn’t something important written there I would forget to do. I could put it down.

My present is shaped by my past but not bound by it. There are things I can change.

the amount of stuff I own
my disorganization and messiness
amount of time I spend in front of screens
be in better shape
be less concerned with what others thing of me
more open to others and new friendships – less “boundaried”

Like most lists of resolutions, many of these have gone largely unaddressed but that doesn’t bother me too much. The final three are reshaping the contours of my life. I am particularly tickled by the last one. I had forgotten it was on the list. It is becoming the most important.






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