Sermon, March 29

A friend of mine texted me yesterday and posed the question, “what’s it like to minister to people in all this?”

While I’ve certainly spent time thinking about the fact that I’m ministering in “all this” I hadn’t really thought about the answer to the question.  But the words jumped to my fingertips as quickly as they flashed into my brain:

“It’s like playing pin the tail on the donkey,” I said. “I’m trying so hard to get it right, but I don’t know where the target is, I can’t see, and I’m dizzy.”

This might not be a metaphor for the ages, but it does pretty much sum up how it feels to be ministering right now. I’ve never done this before. We’ve never done this before. Not that I read books or anything, but even if I did I wouldn’t be able to find one about pastoral care during a pandemic in modern America. There is no book. Everyone is just making it up as we go, and doing the best we can. Myself included. 

I had hoped that God would infuse me with profound thoughts and wise words during this kind of thing, so that I could preach sermons that would impact the masses (and by masses I mean the 20 or so people that regularly attend Church of the Beloved).  

And yet, God has not given me wisdom. God has not inspired the most beautiful poetry I have ever written. The Spirit has not breathed on me words that will propel us through this difficult time with poignant serenity. 

No, God has given me parodies. 

Now for clarification, I tend to credit God with most of my creative efforts. There is a freshness to a spark of creativity that for me, feels divine. My creative self feels like my best self, my God-given self, and so practicing that creativity is part of practicing my spirituality. 

All that said I’m not sure if God really wants any credit for my recent creativity. 

Spoiler alert, tomorrow’s parody is going to be a love song to my weighted blanket. So…

But pray as I might for inspiration on my sermons, that’s not what’s coming. Neil Diamond hits are coming. 80s hits in general. But I mean, try to tell me 80s music doesn’t bring you closer to God because I. WILL. FIGHT. YOU. 

The parodies have been fun, and I do think there is wisdom to making space for fun and joy in the midst of stress and anxiety. I believe God yearns for that for us. But parodies don’t solve the fact that here I am, on the third week of this pandemic, preaching to you about… I’m not sure what. When I dig deep into my soul for a sermon I find a valley of dry bones. And not a prophesy to be found. It’s just dry. Real dry. 

So that has been a struggle for me. In the midst of everything else being a little bit of a struggle. Preaching is kind of the thing that I’ve always been a little lucky with. The words come. But maybe it’s because I’m working so hard to also figure out facebook live or Instagram live or how to get in the same screen with my musicians – maybe there’s just not enough room or something. 

I don’t know. 

When I read these readings for this week – the valley of dry bones and Lazarus rising from the dead – my first, second, third and fourth thoughts were “we don’t need a sermon on these readings. These readings speak for themselves right now.”  What can I possibly add to these words that have already been spoken here tonight? Surely everyone feels the dryness and despair of death right now. Surely everyone longs to have new life, new skin, new health breathed onto all of us. Surely I am not the only person desperate for God right now, wondering if Jesus weeps with us in this uncertainty and worry. 

So yeah, no sermon needed. You can read. 

But typically, when I read a passage of scripture and there’s no sermon there, it’s because I’m not engaged with the right parts for me. So I suppose as an act of desperation (because cancelling church really felt like an easy way out) I kept coming back to the readings. I kept reading and praying and reading and praying until finally I realized what the issue was. 

And now listen – this is the part where I’m just reaching around blind trying to find where the tail of the donkey is meant to land. I don’t know if my searching for meaning in these passages reflects what you need to find or connect with in these passages. But since I can’t see – since I’m a little dizzy myself – all I can do is take my best guess, and tell you what it’s like from behind my blindfold. 

What I realized, when I came back to the readings again, is that even though my well of inspiration for preaching might feel like a valley of dry bones right now,  do not feel like a valley of dry bones right now. And I don’t feel like Lazarus, dead in the grave, waiting to be brought back to life. I don’t have anything to say about that new life being breathed into the bones, into Lazarus, because I don’t feel that way right now. We are surrounded by death and the threat of death, but I do not feel death myself. 

In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel alive. Perhaps the most alive I have ever felt. NOTHING that I’m doing in my life is unconscious right now. I am aware of every feeling: every surge of anxiety, every tear of despair, every swell of joy, every wave of panic. I am aware of the people and the communities and the practices that matter most to me in my life, and I’m aware of the things that fill my time that simply don’t matter – the things that have become important by default. I am aware of how precious my loved ones are, and how much all those strangers that felt so different and apart from me before a month ago because we held different political or world beliefs suddenly matter to me. I’m aware of how much I have taken things for granted – the availability of food at the grocery store, the waiter in a restaurant, the experience of sitting next to someone at a pew and hugging them at the peace. And this whole range of human experience and emotion existed before three weeks ago, but I simply wasn’t always conscious. 

So the last thing I need right now is more life. More flesh. More breath. 

These readings weren’t doing anything for me because in my own confusion and disorientation I decided that I should most connect with those that were dead in these readings. 

But I am not dead. I am so very alive. 

I am not Lazarus in this story, I am Martha. I am Mary. I am experiencing a life event that is so outside of my typical experience that – like grief – it brings everything around me into sharp focus. I am confused and uncertain and there has been loss – not quite the same as the loss of a loved one, but a more nebulous loss that I can’t yet define or explain. And in my hazy grief I realize what I didn’t appreciate before, and what really matters now. But the clarity of purpose doesn’t cancel out the darkness and despair. 

I am Mary, and Martha, meeting Jesus on the road and saying 

“Where have you been? What exactly are you doing here? If you were here, this couldn’t have happened.” 

That these two women would meet Jesus, and be so very bold. It is stunning. And though Jesus could have rebuked them instead he meets them with tenderness, greatly moved, and disturbed in spirit. And he asks, do you believe? 

And even in their doubt, even in their grief, even in their accusation, even in their confusion and unknowing, they believe. 

They don’t know how Jesus will undo what has been done. They don’t know he could transform their grief into joy. They don’t know how he could make right what had gone so horribly wrong. But somehow, when pressed, they admit that they believe. I believe you are the Messiah. 

Maybe it’s because I have the benefit of these stories my whole life, but more likely because I have seen God transform even my darkest moments into light, I believe too. I believe that in a way I cannot anticipate or understand that God is working here, and that resurrection – a resurrection beyond one that we could possibly have experienced before – is coming. 

If we are very, very lucky, we will come out of this with a strong grip on our alive-ness, and those things which we have realized with such clarity will continue to hold meaning in our lives. And maybe resurrection for us will look like an end to apathy and complacency. Maybe resurrection will look like a collective restructuring of how we spend our time – our most precious resource. Maybe resurrection will look like a wave of compassion towards the people around us, even those that are different, because we realize they matter. The possibilities for resurrection are endless. 

While I look forward to the resurrection ahead, we are still in Lent now. We are still in the waiting. Still in the wilderness. And there’s no telling what the timeline will look like for wilderness vs. resurrection in this particular season. I am not sure if the wilderness will be confined to 40 days or if the fullness of the resurrection will be realized when our church calendar changes to the Easter season. But regardless of how this timeline works out, we need both of these experiences – the wilderness and the resurrection – to be in relationship with one another regardless of the calendar date and the season of the church year. The people we become in the wilderness will determine how we live out the resurrection. Our aliveness and awareness matters  – now, and in what is to come. 

And in the meantime, if all you can muster is to meet Jesus on the road and accost him – ask him where he’s been or what the hell he’s been doing, or tell him that if he was really here all this wouldn’t have happened. Well? Jesus can handle it. Jesus will meet you where you are with tenderness and understanding. God transforms this world whether or not we can understand what’s happening in it. Abundant grace rains down on us regardless of if we are cranky and confused or grateful and accepting.  Resurrection happens even in our darkest moments of doubt and despair. 

And that is something we can believe in. 

Amen.

tenderhearted

In 2018 our summer theme at ECC was 1 Peter 3:8: Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

When I met with the rising counselors and young adult staff in January to choose the theme, this verse jumped out to all of us primarily because of two words:

Tender Heart

At the time, we were feeling weary by the divisions in our country, and wanted to spend the summer exploring ways that we could soften towards the people around us, especially those who were different than us. We wanted to be tenderhearted.

Over the last few days I find myself reflecting on that theme with some regularity. This experience we are all living together is scary and confusing and wild and challenging and creative and unexpected. And through all of the unknowns and anxiety I have begun to experience something else as a theme through it all: tenderness.

Last night I walked into a cold barn with Faith, Joyce, and Lance for our third livestream service of Compline since this whole thing started in earnest. The four of us have said Compline in the barn together hundreds of times before, but always surrounded by at least another couple dozen people. These gatherings have been different – all of us spread out, a phone perched on a tripod, and the cold quiet filling the space around us. It looks a little like this:

Leading the service is surprisingly emotional. Words that we have said over and over again somehow take on new meaning.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping.

Last night, as Joyce read the words to her favorite Compline psalm, 91, I felt chills through my body as she read the words

“There shall no evil happen to you,”

and we responded,

“neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.”

We are only four of us standing there, but somehow in the starkness of the empty barn we can feel all of you with us. And it is very, very tender.

The same is true for me at home, where I set up a home office after finally coming to terms with the fact that I would be working from here for some time. The first thing I set up was my prayer bowl, and a space where I could begin each day shuffling through the prayers that people have shared with me, and offering some of my own.

(The prayer shawl was made for me by members of the camp community in 2004 when I was working at camp the summer my father died and before I left for seminary.)

Yesterday I sat and prayed and wept, and even though I was all by myself, I felt everyone there with me. And it was tender.

What’s so interesting to me about all of this is that we aren’t doing anything we couldn’t have done before. We could have done a livestream Compline before this – we had the technology. We had the barn. We had the people. And I could have set aside a space for prayer in my home. We could have shared Church of the Beloved services on the internet – and allowed other people the access to the beautiful music and worship we share together there each week.

We could have done all of these things. We just didn’t.

There is something about sharing this experience together that brings into sharp focus how much we matter to one another – how much we rely on one another. We are sharing anxiety and grief and confusion, and suddenly it opens doors for creative new ways of connecting and consequently, for a tenderness that perhaps we don’t always experience together. Even though this time is scary, it is also beautiful.

It’s worth noting that sharing anxiety and grief and confusion with the larger world can also cause us to be a little more brittle. (For example, in the middle of writing this post I got into an argument with a family member that caused to me to feel decidedly not tenderhearted. Life is complicated.) I think that makes these shared experiences of prayer and connection even more important. With any luck the tenderness we share doing Compline together online help us to be tenderhearted to the people we are with in the grocery store line (and to our family members). With any luck tenderness can become grace, and we can see the people around us scared children of God, all of whom deserve connection and prayer.

I will be curious to see how we go back to “normal” whenever normal comes. I’d love to believe that this experience is shaping who we are as people of God. I’d love to believe this is fundamentally changing who I am as a priest, and helping me to re-prioritize the most important parts of my job: not email, but prayer. Not administration, but worship. Not excel sheets, but connection.

It’s impossible to know what will happen even though I have some guesses (some changes, other things resorting to the way they were before). But regardless of what comes in the future, I will be grateful today for the very tender connection I feel to all of you right now. We might not be together in person, but we are together in spirit, and I love being with you in this way.

Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Bonus picture with Faith!

joy and sorrow

Well, the livestream of Zumba I offered from ECC certainly seemed to be a hit for people.

Some other time I’ll cover how totally mortified I am to think of all those people seeing me dance like a moron all by myself, or we can unpack why I felt the need to double wave. Lord have mercy.

But late last night, as I watched our engagements and number of views climb I started wondering why there was so much of a response to this post. I figure it must be one of two reasons:

  1. You all are very kind, and you sympathy-liked or commented on this post to try to lessen the sheer mortification you were feeling on my behalf. Or,
  2. People are really craving some joy right now.

I think it’s mostly the second option (thanks to those of you for whom it was the first – I see you, and I appreciate you.) I felt the joy while I was doing it. I had to face the screen towards me so I could make sure I wasn’t dancing out of view, so I saw the comments and likes coming in as I danced. I felt like we were together. The sun was out, the music was blaring, and even though it made my whole body hurt the jumping and dancing and smiling really worked. I wasn’t faking that up there – I was joyful.

I went to bed feeling a slight vulnerability hangover but mostly really glad that so many of us had shared something fun together. Some of you sent me videos of you dancing in your living rooms (it’s not too late to still do that!), many of you sent words of thanks. I felt connected. I felt grateful. I felt good.

This morning I woke up and laid in bed while I listened to the rain outside wondering what today would bring. I find planning pointless these days, because nothing happens as I think it might. I came downstairs and poured myself my coffee and picked up Facebook (because I don’t heed my own advice) and almost immediately saw this comment in my Facebook feed:

And in a moment, I was crying in my kitchen.

I’ve been doing a lot of self talk lately. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still being paid. I have people in my house so I’m not totally alone. At least for now I can still stand in the barn at ECC and read the words of Compline. The internet exists. I have toilet paper. I should just be grateful. This could be so much worse.

And all that is true. But what the wise mama on my Facebook feed said is also true. There is grief in this for every single one of us. We have all experienced so much change so quickly. We have experienced loss and at the time of this writing we have no idea how much more loss we will sustain before this is over. Grief is wholly appropriate. It felt good to cry.

Which got me thinking. Yesterday I saw our collective deep craving for joy, and today tapped into a well of grief I didn’t know I had. And I bet I’m not the only one carrying that around. So if the need to experience these two emotions is so strong – what’s happening in us as we move through these days?

My best guess is that we are walking around trapped in between. It’s incredibly hard to access joy when we are so anxious, and it feels almost taboo to do so when we know so many people are struggling. And I think we are terrified to tap into the grief for fear of being overwhelmed.

So what happens instead is we are hovering in this middle place – this purgatory. We don’t allow joy or grief and so instead all that’s left is….anxiety.

But friends, we need to be brave here. Brave enough to feel. We needed to dance together yesterday, and we might need to cry with one another today, and we need to allow for that full range of emotion. Each of these moments – the good and the bad – they pass. I think we will do well for ourselves if we let ourselves sink in to both. Allow yourself a good belly laugh and the high of endorphins, and allow yourself to sink into a pile of tears. I don’t think these feelings will overwhelm you – I think they will set you free.

I want to leave you with some of my favorite words on this idea, from the writer Kahlil Gibran.

Please go easy on yourselves, friends. This is hard, and we can do hard things. Even when the hardest part is just living into all the feelings that come up along the ride.

The inevitable and the optional

My mother has offered me countless nuggets of wisdom over my lifetime, but one of the ones I remember well and yet have always struggled with is a Buddhist saying:

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. 

The first several times she offered this to me I couldn’t grab hold of it. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, and I couldn’t figure out how to parse out the difference between the two. 

Then one day, after I had experienced a devastating break up and my first real heartbreak I was sitting in my room wallowing in my tears, which had become a regular practice. I glanced down beside me and saw the novel that I was reading, lying in wait for me to dive back into the story. I looked at the book, considered it for a moment, then shook my head. “No,” I said to myself, “I just feel like all I can do is sit here in my misery. I don’t have the capacity to read.” 

And then, suddenly, the lightbulb went off in my brain:  Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

There was no avoiding the pain I was experiencing from the loss of a relationship. That pain would be with me until it went away (which took about a year, for what it’s worth). But I did NOT have to choose to sit with misery as my companion. I could pick up my book. I could lose myself in a story. I could allow myself some reprieve. 

As we all sit in wait of what the next thing the CDC or government is going to recommend in the midst of the spread of COVID-19, I have found myself reflecting on that nugget of wisdom quite a bit. That exact line doesn’t work, but some variation of it does:

Gathering information is necessary, panic is optional. 

Planning is necessary, obsession is optional. 

Staying home if you’re sick is necessary, buying toilet paper is optional. 

Kidding on that last one, of course. Couldn’t resist. 

But here’s the thing: I’ve been trying to send out a couple of emails for 48 hours now and I can’t get it done.  I can’t get to it because I’m either fielding phone calls from people who are spinning with the magnitude of this thing or I’m pacing my kitchen trying to figure out if I have enough food in the freezer for…what? I’m not even sure. The not-knowing what exactly is about to happen is causing its own anxiety. 

This is unchartered territory for us, and there’s a lot of unkowns still. But there are also some ways we can mitigate the anxiety, and walk through this as informed, careful, sane humans. I believe in us. We can do this. 

Here are a few thoughts I’ve had about how to navigate this time – how to choose NOT to obsess or panic:

  1. Easy on that social media, Sparky.  Listen, as we’re being asked to practice “social distancing” this is perhaps the most grateful I’ve ever been for technology, because we still need to be connected. But your Facebook newsfeed is dangerous territory right now. This is a great time to create some groups and post encouraging words to one another, offer support, and share cat videos. If you are accessing Facebook on a computer browser, consider getting a news feed eradicator extension, which allows you to go on Facebook and visit the groups without seeing the newsfeed. 
  2. Watch Love is Blind, not CNN.  If there’s ever been a time to give thanks for crappy reality shows, it is now. You can read articles and listen to podcasts (as long as you are checking your sources) to get the information that you need, but the news media is trying to fill a 24-hour news cycle and they will sensationalize. Wouldn’t you rather see Amber get engaged?
  • Laugh. We don’t need to be making light of something that is very serious, but a little levity will go a long way for us right now. And the internet is full of amazing memes and gifs to keep us going.  Endorphins, people. We need them.
  • Exercise. Doesn’t need to be fancy. Push-ups in your living room will do. (See what I did there? I made you laugh! WE ALL KNOW I DON’T DO PUSH-UPS)
  • Read a book, play a board game, listen to a podcast. All of these things will help you unplug for a while and you can, at least temporarily, forget about coronavirus. Your brain needs a break! There are countless podcasts that will inspire you and help you connect with God, like this one
  • Check in on someone else.  Like I said earlier, we need to be connected right now. Take a Lysol wipe to your iphone and start using it! Call people you often call, and call people you don’t usually call. See how they are doing. Crack a few jokes. See if they need anything. If you are young and healthy and good about not touching your face, deliver a few groceries to someone that can’t leave the house. If you are in a position where your income will not suffer from not being at work, buy an amazon gift card or some groceries for someone who isn’t as fortunate. Doing something for others will help you feel like you do have control at a time when it’s feeling like control is being taken away from you. Take it from Olaf:
  • Go easy with self-medicating. Wine and brownies are starting to look reallllll good right now, but ultimately will not help you have your best brain. Moderation is important, and so are vegetables.
  • Pray. Crazy, I know, but I’m convinced that this will help too. For me, it’s especially helpful to do something with my hands. Folding origami stars, for instance. Write the name of someone you are praying for on the paper and get to work. Write letters or cards to people letting them know you are thinking of them. Read scripture.
  • Listen to music – all the music. It will soothe your soul. Start with this one, which I have a particular affection for.
  • Breathe. We’ll get through this. We are taking extraordinary measures to prevent things from getting worse. It feels extreme, but we are being as careful as we can be. We are helping keep people safe and healthy.

Friends, this is hard, but we’re in this together. Please love yourselves and others – love is the very best antidote to fear. And when you find yourself faced with a moment where you can choose something other than panic – do it! You’ll be glad you did.

Quick note: Some of us have very real anxiety issues, and I am not trying to suggest that you can choose your way out of that. Call your doctor and have your prescriptions refilled. Call your therapist, because insurance companies are approving phone meetings right now. Take care of yourself. (THEN watch Love is Blind.)

Promises

The following is an appeal letter that went out to our ECC mailing list this month. Please enjoy the story. We are grateful for all you do for ECC!

Towards the end of last summer we were sitting at dinner one night when there was some kind of disturbance outside where the campers were sitting. I heard lots of people jumping from their seats and yelling. Some of my older staff, seated inside, also jumped up to move to the windows to see what was happening.

My heart skipped a beat, because the commotion immediately indicated to me that perhaps there was a fight breaking out. The movement of people to see what was happening and quick response triggered my response before I could stop it.  It only took a second for my brain to catch up and remind me that I was at camp. In the totally unlikely event that a fight had broken out, one of my staff would have yelled for me immediately. I took a breath, and decided it was probably some other teenage silliness. I decided not to feed into it by getting up to look, and let it play out.

Seconds later, one of my program staff turned from the window where she had moved to see, and looked across the room to me. A smile beaming from ear to ear she called out:

“There’s a rainbow!”

As fast as my heart had panicked moments before, it melted to mush.

These kids, man. In a world where their peers leap from their seats to watch or video tape a fight breaking out in high school, they caused equal a commotion to see a rainbow. I moved outside to see myself, and noticed that most people had abandoned their trays and tables to look up to the sky in wonder.

It was the magic of camp in one fleeting, beautiful moment.

In Genesis, God points to a bow in the sky while making a promise to Noah, saying “this is a sign of my covenant I make with you.” He is promising to protect and are for Noah and all things now living.

In June at our 70th Anniversary Gala, many of you made a promise to ECC to make a sustaining monthly donation to our ministry here. We were overwhelmed by your generosity, and we are now heading into 2020 with the promise of funding that you have made. It will help us budget and plan with more ease, and those gifts will ensure that campers can come to a camp where the cool kids jump up and start yelling like fools when a rainbow floods the sky.

What we learned at the Gala is something we have known at ECC for years – many hands make light work. So many of you committed to a small amount of money every month, but together those commitments change the financial landscape for ECC, and help us enter a new phase of our lives and ministry.

If you are not already making a monthly pledge and would consider making one, we would welcome your participation in our sustaining donor program.

If you already make a monthly donation and would like to increase it, we would be most grateful.

If a one-time annual gift is a better fit for you, we get that, and we are so humbled that you would consider ECC as a recipient of your generosity.  

If you aren’t in a position to give or to give more, I hope you’ll find joy in a good story about a rainbow.

The ECC community never ceases to astound me. Your love and commitment to this ministry keeps us going, practically and spiritually as move through our program year. Your promise to support and uphold ECC helps us to realize God’s dreams for this place, and together you bring bright bows of color to our common life.

Thank you for all you do for ECC!

Love is the energy,

Meaghan Brower

Faith’s Sermon, Nov. 24

This sermon was written and delivered by Faith Bessette at Church of the Beloved, Sunday, November 24. The audio of this sermon can be heard here:

Last week when Meaghan asked me to give the sermon today, she said it might be a good space to talk about my experience in Colorado this past year. 

It honestly feels like some kind of fever dream by now. 

It was a total whirlwind of change, and growth, and frankly some punches to the gut about the reality of what we’re facing as a nation, as a planet even. 

I think we’re in a compassion drought. Maybe we always have been. 

Maybe I was blinded by sweet lifetime movies and candy coated facebook videos of dogs reacting to their owners coming back from deployment. 

Not that those things aren’t pure & good in their own ways.. 

But we’re lacking in long term compassion I think. We are living in an age of instant gratification. Constant access to content that fuels our feel-good cravings. We can click and swipe and watch- an infinite amount.

We have an ability to continuously shovel a synthetic feeling of compassion that feeds our human condition in just the right way. 

Is that bad? I’m not sure. But I think we’ve lost a little bit of the rawness and realness of what it means to be human, in relation to others experiencing this flawed human world too. Or maybe I’m just full of it. Who’s to say?

When I read the gospel, an obvious connection to this idea popped out. 

We’re dropped into the scene of Jesus’s crucifixion, this iconic picture of three crosses stuck perpendicular to the ground. 

“They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” 

I reread the gospel a few times but just kept getting stuck on the people standing around, casting lots to divide his clothing, in that moment of crucifixion, of helplessness. 

Rifling through his stuff for the things they wanted for themselves, when he was at his most vulnerable.

Even when I repeat it, I’m sure you can picture it in your minds eye. 

It’s a pretty grotesque idea really. 

But right beside this picture in my head, I saw a mirror image almost.. 

Of something that used to happen at  the shelter sometimes. 

 For those of you that don’t know, I spent a year in Denver as a full time volunteer at an overnight shelter for youth experiencing homelessness. It’s called Urban Peak.

I met hundreds of young people, all unique in their situations, and levels of independence. 

As is expected at a non-lock down facility, folks would come in for a night or two & sometimes we’d never see them again. 

Others would stay longer, some had been there for years. 

But often, we’d get teenagers just passing through for short periods of time, for one reason or another. 

Some people showed up with rubbermaid bins, duffel bags, even trunks full of belongings they’d picked up along the way. 

Some would show up with a single plastic grocery bag. Personal belongings change in value when you’re homeless. 

For some, they can mean absolutely nothing. Things don’t carry as much value when you’re struggling to survive. There’s something that happens in the brain when you experience trauma like that. 

Any kind of trauma really, but I noticed a specific shift while working with these young people. 

Suddenly, anyone you meet, anything you do, anything you have, it’s all surrounded by this survival instinct. 

This feeling of imminent loss that’s nearly impossible to shake. Especially at 17. 

You could have a full wardrobe one day, a couple of pairs of shoes. 

A cell phone. An ID, a social security card.  But if something goes down that make you feel unsafe.  You run. You run and you don’t look back. Because that’s all you know now. Your body is running on fear 80 percent of the time. 

Fear of not making it out of this dark place,

 fear of others who could hurt you like your loved ones did, 

fear of not being enough for other people to see you.

 Really see you as someone who is human. 

At that point, a loss of things is just apart of surviving. That’s one common extreme. 

But others hoard. They keep everything they can gather, anything that they can stake a claim on,  huddled up in trash bags underneath their bunks.

 Oversized clothing, broken electronics, even trash. 

But on the day word would get out that so and so was MIA, hadn’t shown back up to the shelter in a few days, got picked up because they had warrants.  

It was a free for all. 

I want their shoes, I’m taking their backpack, etc etc. 

Other kids, casting lots to divide their clothing. 

At this person’s most vulnerable, most helpless and likely most fear filled moment. Their own possessions, some of the only physical things they have relationships with, 

are stolen, snatched up, their owners forgotten. 

In these two cases, those choices were often informed by an innate human instinct. 

On one side, to run in fear. The other, to take advantage of that vulnerability to feed your own desires of gathering… stuff. 

What’s so powerful about this gospel is that we’re seeing Jesus be human. He is at his weakest point. Nailed to a cross and one thousand percent vulnerable. As are the criminals beside him. 

As they cast lots for his clothing, they are bidding on pieces of him, pieces of his humanity. 

When you’re homeless it’s hard to see other people as human. You can barely recognize yourself as one. When you’re at the lowest of lows, with what feels like no one to turn to, it’s hard to remember what it feels like to be a part of a civil society. To follow the polite rules put in place to show each other basic compassion. To think that you still have a right to your own humanity. It’s easier to live into the idea that others look down on you, because you can then allow yourself to be spiteful and self serving. 

And I won’t blame them for it!! 

We all have the capacity to act in the same way, and we often do!!! 

 When I sat with these kids, talking, laughing, arguing. Experiencing the most beautiful and ugly parts of them. I could feel a constant itch at the back of my brain, this could be you. This could be any of us, the right set of circumstances and there we are digging through someone else’s trash bags for stuff to fill our own. 

There’s a document we fill out with each client when they entered the program at Urban Peak. An intake form to gather some more info about where they’re at, and how we can best help them. 

And there’s a section asking about where they slept the previous night. There were subcategories, and the most common one checked was filed under “not fit for long term human habitation”. 

Filed under this were places like tents, cars, the street, mental hospitals, shelters. Shelters like the one I worked at. 

The government classifies those things, and a few others, as places unfit for humans to exist long term. And they’re right! 

These kids are obviously cared for, fed, clothed, given access to free hygiene products and facilities, free medical care, and free options to further their education. 

BUT. There is a shift in the human psyche when you are labeled homeless. 

There is a fight or flight switch that is flipped on. 

There is a dog eat dog mentality when people look at you like you’re no better than a dirty animal. 

I’m sure that’s hard to hear. And it’s also hard to see. 

Not to say that all people view homeless teenagers like that. They don’t. 

But that’s hard to believe when you’re in the thick of it you know?

To look into the eyes of an 18 year old boy, pretty much thrown away by any loved one he’s ever known, in and out of detention centers and jails for crimes he committed to survive, crimes he committed to be spiteful of those who can no longer see his humanness. 

To know inside that he needs love and care and someone to trust in. 

To know how funny and kind he can be. 

To know he writes poetry in his bunk when he feels sad. 

To know that he is being nailed to a cross and put on shameful display when he begs for money on the street because Mcdonald’s won’t hire a convict with a face tattoo. 

To know that when we lose our ability to recognize humanness, 

 we make others feel less worthy of love & support & basic human rights like affordable housing and good food.

I don’t tell you all this to make you feel bad. To paint you a sob story of a poor homeless teenager. Because he wasn’t that. None of them were. They were human. 

Humans who were resilient. Humans who were funny. Humans who were so so smart. Humans who have potential. Humans who are capable of incredible feats of compassion and love and kindness. 

Humans who are capable, of nailing others to crosses because they made a few choices that we might not understand right now. 

Just like you and I. 

I tell you all this to make the point that the people you make assumptions about, the people who are different than you, the people who have made choices, or had choices that were made for them, who landed in less than ideal situations. 

They are human. 

They deserve that title. 

They deserve grace. 

They deserve to be seen as whole people who are capable of great and wonderful things, capable of change. 

They just need a little love, understanding, and consistency to get them there. 

We are all capable of that. 

Capable of giving that to criminals, to the bad guys, even to people less than like-able like the guy in charge of our country right now. (I know.. barf.)

We can look at this gospel as a lesson in recognizing humanness, and the importance of treating people with dignity. Even those who we find it hardest to give.

 Jesus was crucified between two criminals. 

But there were three humans nailed to crosses that day. 

Three humans humiliated by the hands of their fellow man. 

Three humans who deserve better. 

Who deserve compassion with longevity. 

Let’s give it more freely, to others, to ourselves. Sometimes we’re crushing this human thing! Sometimes we aren’t. 

Let’s give compassion to the idea that there are some circumstances that leave us feeling nailed to our own cross, naked and vulnerable. 

Move with intentions of love, look people in the eye, 

and grant others grace in their moments of unbridled humanity. Amen.

the girls

The Girls, as I like to call them, played at PPAC last Thursday with the RI Philharmonic Orchestra.

I’ve seen them in concert with an orchestra three times, and it never disappoints. The orchestra manages to put music to the way my heart has always felt listening to Indigo Girls, and it is perfect.

I know that sounds corny but I don’t mind getting a little corny when it comes to my favorite musical group of all time. I started listening to the Indigo Girls when I was 12 – and in fact the first time I ever heard their music it was live at the Folk Festival in Newport. I was hooked from there, and remember riding my bike with their cassette tape in my walkman, searing every word of Closer to Fine into my brain just as every other fan of theirs has ever done. Their music and lyrics have been with me through every major transition in my life, anchoring me and helping me to not lose sight of who I am when everything around me starts to shift. I learned most of what I know about harmony by listening to their voices blend and sitting with my sisters while we tried to match their tone.

My love affair with the Indigo Girls had started prior to my arriving at ECC as a teenager, so I was ecstatic to learn that at the hippie summer camp I was attending I was suddenly one with the cool kids because I knew Michael Stipe’s part in Kid Fears. I soaked up every minute of numerous talent show acts where people sang the familiar songs, and as soon as my sister Kate was old enough to be at teen camp with me I pulled her up on stage with me to sing. Perhaps the greatest heartache of my young (and older!) life is that no one in my family played guitar, so all of our Indigo Girls songs had to be sung a capella… oh, the agony.

Now that I’m back in Rhode Island anytime The Girls come to town I have at least 3 friends who reach out to me to see if I plan to attend the concert. This time around we miraculously managed to get a big group of tickets, and 11 of us planned an evening out together: dinner and the show. I can tell you as a working mom with two small children this kind of social event happens approximately never, and it was so exciting to walk into a restaurant and sit at a table with 10 friends. Here we are:

It should be noted that those of us from Gen X did not grow up taking selfies.
We did our best here.

As soon as we gathered and started to catch up I started to laugh to myself a little as we realized just how deep into this particular stage of life we all are. We all marveled at being out on a Thursday with so many people. We joked about how at the dinner part of the night it always seems like a fun idea to go out after the show, but we knew we’d all go home and straight to bed because….who are we kidding. We talked about work and home and what foods we are allergic to and how hard it is to keep appropriately-sized clothing on our children as they grow. Riveting stuff.

When it was time for the show we blazed over to PPAC in time for everyone to use the bathroom before settling in, and we remarked how great it is to be at a show that you can mostly sit down the whole time and you know it’s going to be over in an hour and a half.

When The Girls took the stage we applauded and hollered just like every other Gen X woman in the room (there were a handful of men and Boomers in there, but they were definitely the outliers) and when the music started we simultaneously started wiping tears from our faces.

The thing is, with music that has brought me through my entire young adult years, I can’t hear it without replaying so many pivotal moments from life. The shows that I have attended with so many different friends start to carousel through my mind, and I remember what was happening in my life at each one. Their music is balm for my soul but it is also the soundtrack of my life, each song a different chapter.

After the first couple of songs I was able to leave memory lane and bring myself back into the room. As I settled into the show I couldn’t help but feel a new wave of gratitude that after all these years I was surrounded by my camp friends – singing and laughing and wiping tears away together. The group of eleven of us were not all at camp at the same time, and we don’t even socialize together as one group – in fact we swapped out many ticket holders with new people when others had to bail. But we all have this shared camp experience, and a shared love for the music we sang at talent shows, and it didn’t matter one bit if it was the first time we all got together socially or the 100th time. We sang those songs like we were swaying in front of the Little Theater together at a Talent Show.

Before the night was over we saw at least a dozen other camp friends – waving to the ones with the good seats down by the stage, texting others in various parts of the theater, and jumping up and down and hugging one another in the bathroom during intermission.

They say change is the one constant in life, and that has certainly been true for me. But this past Thursday I was profoundly grateful for two other constants in my life: the beautiful music of the Indigo Girls and the deep and abiding friendships I have with my camp friends. And with that combo? Well – closer I am to fine.

Boys will be boys.

At Music Camp, Fran McKendree comes to spend the week with us and lead our chorus time. He helps with Rock Band and worship and work projects too, but chorus is the highlight of the day for all of us, and Fran’s music and presence is a tremendous gift to us.

This morning at all camp chorus Fran led us in a song he taught us years ago. The song comes from Malawi, and the words repeat: Da ku o na moni.

The song loosely translates to: I greet you with my eyes, I greet you with my heart. I know that God is in our midst, I greet you with respect.

He asks us to partner up and sing this song to one another – looking into each other’s eyes. There are hand motions we use with each repetition. Moving our hands from our eyes to the person we are facing. Motioning from our heart to theirs. Moving our arms up and towards one another. And at the end, a small bow of respect.

I tend to be pretty comfortable with most spiritual practices, but I’ll be honest that the vulnerability required to sing this song catches me off guard each time we do it. As a culture we don’t spend much time looking into one another’s eyes. Asking a room full of teenagers to do it – over and over – in small and large groups always feels like a big ask to me. But each year – with no hesitation – everyone participates, and they are all in. Each year it brings me to tears watching the way they greet one another.

But this year, something in particular struck me while I was watching the group sing and dance today. I noticed the boys – the young men – who were singing and dancing and motioning from one heart to another.

These boys did not hold back. They didn’t hesitate. They just starting singing and moving and acknowledging God in their midst. Watch some of them here:

Aren’t they great? I noticed them right away. And within moments of seeing them together my heart started to do that melty thing it does at camp all the time.

I started to think about what it’s like to be a young man in America in 2019. How there’s a needed push for an end to toxic masculinity but still enough toxic masculinity around that it’s hard to find an abundance of role models about how to be instead. I started thinking about how much pressure there is on young males – and teens in general – to be “cool” and “popular” – to dress a certain way and act a certain way. I thought about how they are told that they can’t be too arrogant but they also can’t be too sensitive and how hard (impossible) it must be to find that perfect middle ground. I thought about how desperately we need vulnerable, faithful, joyful, brave men to help us bring about a much needed culture change. We need men who will show great love and enthusiasm for one another, and who will help change the world in all the best ways.

I realized as I watched the boys dance in front of me that if they can just harness this feeling – this joy and love and openness that they experience at camp – and figure out how to live this way in their lives outside of ECC, they WILL be the change we need in the world.

Here’s more. You can see it too:

My eyes were leaking at this point, as Fran encouraged the group to gather in a big circle, still singing. He asked if anyone felt inspired to jump into the circle to dance. And who jumped right into the circle?

Boys. Teenage boys.

(and one girl)

I worry about the state of our world a lot. Who doesn’t, right? But I have to tell you, for these minutes this morning I felt so much hope.

Boys will be boys.

We hear it all the time. We’ve identified it as part of the problem behind some of the toxic masculinity that can be so dangerous in our culture today. But watching these boys this morning all I could think was, boys WILL be boys. And here’s what that means at ECC:

Boys will dance. Boys will sing. Boys will cry. Boys will look one another in the eye and acknowledge God’s presence in their midst. Boys will pray. Boys will do musical theater. Boys will play sports and boys will play instruments. Boys will be boys even when they were born with female body parts. Boys will be silly. Boys will hug. Boys will laugh. Boys will support. Boys will forgive. Boys will love.

And these boys? I’m convinced they will change the world.

Kids These Days

Go ahead and tell me teenagers are terrible. Do it. Go on.

Because I’ll fight you.

I know, I know – they are self absorbed (so were we). And they take selfies all the time (allow me to show you my photos of my 9th grade trip to Paris where I took 6 rolls of film, mostly of myself standing in from of some historical landmark). They are entitled (not their fault actually, that’s on us).

I don’t care what you say. You just can’t convince me they are terrible. I have seen far too much good.

Take this week, for example. It’s Bridge Camp – my most favorite time of the year: when ECC welcomes campers with special needs to come spend a week at camp and high school students come and make sure they have an awesome experience. It’s heaven on earth, people.

HEAVEN. ON. EARTH.

Our Bridge Campers are the most fun, gentle, loving, hysterical, smart, kind, and wonderful people on the planet. They come through the gates of this camp and they just bust our hearts right open from the minute they step out of the car.

I’ve worked with people with special needs for 20 years on and off, and I love every single thing about them. But the thing that most inspires me is the way they live without inhibition. They experience the whole range of emotion and human experience as the rest of us, but they don’t always get hung up on the expectations of the world and our dreadful societal norms. When they are sad, they cry. When they are angry, they yell or sulk. When they are happy, they dance.

Oh, if we could all live this way.

But the best part about Bridge Camp (and I dare say ECC in general) is that once camp starts rolling we all become inspired to live with the same open-heartedness. Our high school campers (helper campers) are SO nervous when they greet the Bridge Campers and their parents. They want to do it right – they want to make a good impression, and connect with the Bridge Camper, and help them feel at home. They try so hard, and for the most part they get it just right.

Then, after about an hour has passed: magic happens. Everyone relaxes, friendships form, laughter erupts – and we are all transported to this incredible place that I am convinced is a preview of the Kingdom of God.

And then what happens? Well, a group of supposedly self-absorbed, narcissistic, entitled teenagers start tripping over themselves to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to make sure that our Bridge Campers have the time of their lives.

It is so stunning to behold.

Like these two – awake early, and sitting in the pavilion coloring and chatting:


Or this teen, playing guitar because the camper she’s paired with loves music:

Or this teen, making sure her camper can find her place during Compline:

And come on – get a load of these sweet faces, making sure the camp has popcorn at the carnival:

Then there’s this group – just relaxing on the front lawn taking in a little sensory time.

I could show you a thousand photos. Everywhere you look at this camp it’s just sheer beauty. Every year I want to tell you all about it, but it’s so good, so beautiful – it’s hard to find words.

But this year, I had to try. These teenagers, they deserve a little positive PR. They are so kind. So tender. Insert all the good things I could possibly say, because I mean them all.

Just go ahead and watch this video of some of our campers singing together today (yes, that’s Jen crying in the background. We adults spend the whole week crying – there’s no getting around it).

How’s that for beautiful? “Make our way to a world that we design…”

We’ve just got it all wrong when it comes to teens. They want to be good. They want an opportunity to help others, to make an impact, to share love. You know who’s generous, hard-working, faithful, and fabulous?

Kids these days.

See the video of our whole week together here:

Trust

At pre-camp this past week our Assistant Director, Adam, led us through a training on emotional intelligence.

After spending some time unpacking how we consider and identify our own feelings, he switched gears to talking about how we show up for one another and how we can show up for our campers. He posed the following question:

“Think of someone that you that you haven’t known for very long, but that you trust. Why do you trust them?”

I was immediately transported in my mind to a few weeks prior, when, the morning after our 70th Anniversary Gala the timing worked out such that I was able to sit in the green chairs with a camp friend that I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. Social media allows me to keep up with what’s happening in her life (at least on the surface level – with the major details covered) and so we were able to dive right in – asking one another to fill in what happened around and outside of the status updates.

Quite quickly the conversation deepened in nature, and we started sharing more personal details about what had happened in our lives over the two decades that had passed since we had last seen each other. We covered some of the heartaches and disappointments we had encountered. We spoke of the joy and the growth. We commiserated about life’s challenges.

At one point a few minutes into the conversation, when we were sharing about some of life’s more complicated bits, she said “I mean, I trust you. But it’s hard to talk about these things with other people.”

I nodded in agreement. I could have sat there with her in those green chairs for hours talking about all of life’s things. It was so easy – as if only a minute had passed.

I have reflected on that moment so many times since then. Because as deeply as I shared her sentiment and feelings of trust I couldn’t help but shake my head a little at how funny it was that we felt that way. We haven’t seen each other in twenty years. And since the conversation I keep trying to remember: were we even that close when we worked together? Did we talk much? Were we in the same cabin? Was I a good friend to her when we were slogging our way through hot summers together in the 90s?

Somehow, when we sat together that day, all that didn’t matter. She was my camp friend, and we had shared an experience together at ECC that made her someone I could fundamentally trust. More, I knew I could be real with her. That I didn’t have to pretend life was a pretty show of status updates and instagram photos. That time I spent with her was sacred, and if it’s another 20 years that goes by until we sit in the green chairs again, I imagine that same sweet intimacy and trust would still hang in the air between us.

I’m guessing that when Adam said “think of someone you trust that you haven’t known for very long”, that most of the staff thought of their camp friends. The intensity of the camp experience allows friendships to form in a few hours over a work project, or sharing a meal together surrounded by 100 other people, or sitting on the porch together on night duty dodging the moths. Adam effectively brought the training home, reminding us that we have a short period of time to build trust with our campers in order to ensure they have a safe camp experience. And, he reminded us, it is entirely possible to build that trust.

I’m here to tell you, it’s a trust that lasts.

Camp friends.