Uncategorized

A deer. Some memories. And perhaps a little hope.

He wasn’t bothered at all by my presence.

The deer at Berry College are largely unfazed by humans, as they are part and parcel of life on those 30-something thousand acres, even in well-populated places like the big lawns students trek across on their way to class or the library or the dining hall. 

He had friends – three does. They were a bit more skittish and moved further away when they saw me. I was a half hour early for an alumni choir rehearsal, part of the reason I’d come to Mountain Day Weekend (a huge homecoming and reunion weekend for those of you who don’t “speak Berry”), and he and his small harem were lazily moving about the expanse of lawn and trees in front of the college chapel – a gorgeous brick and column structure that’s been around for a century. I know nothing about architecture, I just know it’s beautiful, and to walk through its big double doors is something akin to Moses approaching his burning bush.

I moved quietly to a bench that sat under a tree, just beyond the walkway to the chapel, and the buck started. The bench was nearer to him. I made no sound. And slowly and quietly as I could eased onto the corner of the bench furthest from him. We maintained eye contact the whole time. 

And then I just sat there with him. No words. Soft breath. He held his gaze for some time, as did I. I smiled, and whispered to him that he was pretty cool and I was glad to see him. 

Eventually, more people came. And he wandered off to a more secluded spot. 

It was the most present I could recall having been in a very long time. And in telling someone today about that moment, with that deer, I found my throat clogged with sudden, unexplainable tears. 

****

The opening lines of one of my most favorite novels read, “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” (The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy)

Three brief phrases, but in them is the truth of how a place can – for better or for worse – get in our bones, wrap itself around our very soul and take up residence in our hearts such that it can never really be gone from us nor we from it. 

That place is, for me, Berry College. It is not perfect. Nowhere is. And you can’t be part of every day life in a place for four years without both good and bad things happening there. At least not and live. 

But if there’s a place that calls me home, where I know my feet are grounded upon soil that understands me, where I’ve been nurtured and challenged and given room to speak truth as I have known it – it is Berry College. 

I came to Berry in the fall of 1993, my sights set on becoming the next Katie Couric. I declared broadcast journalism as my major, taking an English minor simply because I love words and stories so much I couldn’t imagine spending four years not studying them. 

The English minor held. The major morphed to a general B.A. in Communication. Between those two things I wrote, spoke, and studied writing and speaking to my heart’s content, reveling in any opportunity to delve into relationships, how we communicate and how the stories of our lives often define us.

I also, despite my attempts to avoid doing so, found myself filling up any available elective space with religion classes. Old Testament. New Testament. A seminar on Amos, and another on Hosea. 

Berry was, and is, a mixed bag theologically – I valued that then, as I do now, because I believe that our individual life experiences cannot help but influence how we read Scripture and how we understand God. That said, when, during the fall of my senior year, I made the decision to apply to seminary for graduate school, I was pretty taken aback, hurt, even, when several student peers told me I couldn’t be a minister. That was men’s work. 

Almost exactly twenty-five years later, on the second Sunday in October, I delivered the sermon for the Mountain Day Weekend worship service. The full sanctuary held some of the people I love most in the world, and I remember thinking, as I began speaking, “How in the world did I get so very lucky?”

God’s hand was all over it.

And y’all, it had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with how, if we’re paying enough attention, listening hard enough to our lives, are present enough, we sometimes find ourselves exactly where we didn’t even know we were meant to be. 

****

I told a friend this week that I am overwhelmed with how loud and angry the world seems. My own city is rife with overcrowding and poverty and violence. An election cycle is in full force and this makes me anxious in all sorts of ways. Mostly because to my left and to my right are people I love and I am tired of all of us getting played by people more interested in power than anything else. Our children are literally not safe at school. Friends and family are critically ill. Milk is entirely too expensive. And I very selfishly cry sometimes at the thought that maybe I won’t actually one day make it to Ireland. 

I’ve lost any notion of how we face such unending chaos and grief and fear. I only know that we must endure it, must live our lives for something better – because I believe with all that I am that God is still all love, and always present, even right here in the muck and grime.

I know this, because I know what it is to join with fifty or so other voices who’ve never all actually sung together, but who can, while in a chapel we all love, after a mere few hours of rehearsal under the direction of a masterful musician, make the music of John Rutter sound like the very mercy of God come to rain down on all that threatens to scorch us. 

I know this, because there is a four-point buck wandering around Berry College who sure is something, and he reminded me that there are all sorts of holy moments in this world. And most of the time we miss them. 

But sometimes we don’t. 

Sometimes the very ground we walk on, the very air around us, is on fire with the presence of that which binds us close to one another, and to God – and in one short burst of grace we see it, just for a second. 

And in that second is everything that matters most in this life. 

In that second is healing. 

In that second is a reminder of who we are and where we came from and what will eventually call us home.

Uncategorized

The one where I broke things, and it made me think about how much we’re all hurting, all the time.

It was not my finest moment.

I was tired. Frustrated. Anxious about a project at work. Masking insecurity and that sort of self-doubt that leaves you shaky inside with a superfluous anger.

I stomped up the stairs, working up a righteous kind of mad at the world, and continued stomping to my room where I, with great intention, slammed the door.

In the two seconds it took for a rush of air to get caught between the vehemently closing door and a fireplace mantle, I slipped through, just as that rush of air scooped up a china jewelry tray, and a framed vintage vinyl recording of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” slamming all of it to the foot-wide slab of marble flooring below the mantle.

I’ve never seen glass shatter with such a resounding crash. Never seen it splinter into more pieces than I could possibly count. Jewelry bounced across the bedroom floor as it landed, thankfully away from the marble and on to the carpet. And the china tray that held it all found shelter from the impact as it landed on top of the album’s cardboard sleeve.

I stood there. Frozen. A rush of shame flushing my cheeks, the temper I’d worked myself into dissipating faster than one boxer-terrier mix and a teenager could fly up the stairs to see what had caused such sound and fury.

***

The two middle fingers of my right hand will not draw up next to each other. Or even lie on a flat surface lined up together. There’s a thin, ragged V separating them — so much so that I can Vulcan salute like I wrote Mr. Spock’s character myself.

They weren’t always as they are. I think I was about 11 when, enraged as only a pre-teen can be at my mother (for what I’ve forgotten long ago), I’d rushed sobbing down the long hallway of our South Texas home, yelling, I’m sure, some sort of promise to never speak to her again, and took a flying leap onto my double bed, only to have my right hand land before the rest of me, wrenching the two middle fingers away from one another, the ring finger remaining, from that day on, slightly crooked.

I have a vague memory of (of course) immediately running back to my mother, shrieking in pain, her sympathy and desire to fix the pain perhaps less than it normally would be (and, y’all, let’s be honest — rightfully so).

***

Rushing off in a huff, giving into anger (and whatever other emotion it’s making a feeble attempt to mask) – these things do not work out well for me.

There is a time and place for real anger. For grief or anxiety or fear to give full voice to its presence in such a way that our true (in that moment) self is known and can be tended to. Things that are not spoken, are not faced, cannot be healed.

But man-oh-man y’all. The issue we name is so often not it at all.

A good 90 percent of the time we’re all walking around so wounded we cannot even speak the pain. But the thing is, pain will not be silenced. And if it is not given it’s moment, it will find another way — settling into our jawline with the fierce spasms that TMJ sufferers know; bubbling up when we least expect it because a movie character or storyline makes emoting possible; tightening our shoulders.

Or, worse yet, forcing itself out in self-harming behavior, angry words at those we love, sabotaging important life-giving relationships because we can’t get out of our own way long enough to see what’s keeping us from the promise of goodness and life on the other side of what’s eating us alive.

****

We don’t like to talk about our not-so-fine moments. We don’t like to own up to the times when the very worst of us triumphs over the very best and we’re left wondering how we got to this particular minute, with a treasured gift lying in pieces on the floor, our heartbeat beginning to slow now that the explosion has passed, somehow finding the words to say, quietly, “I’m so sorry. This is just not good, is it?”

I will never stop saying this — because I believe it in the very depths of my soul: As individuals, as communities, as a country, we are white hot with pain that has not been given its moment to speak its truth. And it is drowning us- so we gasp for air by clinging to our sides of the aisle, pulling against our terrified chests our long-held beliefs about what’s right and wrong with nary a thought to how our belief might tread on someone else’s deeply held faith or desire or dream. We are a country lost in a sea of tremendous pain, and instead of facing it, instead of letting it wash over us, we avoid its hurt by hurting one another, by pointing fingers, by declaring “stupid” those who see the world differently than we might.

****

Where does it hurt, y’all? What is inside you that feels so tender that you can barely stand to name it? What dream are you so afraid to acknowledge, for fear your heart might once again lie broken on the kitchen floor? What is it that scares you so much, what is it that has made you so sad, that your only defense is to strike out at another?

What’s working you into such a sea of tangled emotion inside that you can’t see what’s good around you? What’s worth giving thanks for? What’s possible? What’s real and true and worth fighting for?

These are things we have to ask ourselves, first, before anything else gets sorted out.

Like I had to kneel down at the edge of hundreds of pieces of broken glass and sort out, with self-care and intention and patience, where I was to start, so that the shards could be picked up without tearing anything else apart.

We were made in and for love, y’all. Created to know joy, to live life with and for one another. There’s no way to know any of this without also knowing pain.

Our hope lies in letting it do its work, letting it speak its truth, so that those tender, sharp places can be made whole again.

Uncategorized

Full circle.

This will likely not be the last thing I have to write about my trip home to Berry College this last weekend. But it is, for now, the thing I need to write. I’ve never used this platform to publish a sermon manuscript. But, some folks have asked. And, while I wrote these words for Berry, as I was invited to preach the sermon for the 2022 Mountain Day Chapel Service (an annual homecoming and reunion weekend for Berry alumni), I wrote them out of a heart that believes these words matter for all of us. Because we are, all, longing to come home. My great hope for all of us is that we one day will.

I also wrote them knowing that when I was a student at Berry 25 years ago, there were those on that campus who did not believe I could be a preacher, because I am a woman. I hope that if there is a young woman out there who has been told the same, that she can read these words and know that, “Yes. You can. In fact, God needs you to do so.”

***

Home By So Many Ways

Berry College Chapel

October 9, 2022

Good morning, y’all. I truly have no words for what an honor it is to be here today, in this capacity. I’m a little awestruck, to be honest, so, I’m going to begin by reading a couple of passages from the Gospels – each of them referencing a place called Bethany– a little village in Judea, couple miles, maybe, from Jerusalem. Reading these scriptures will 1) help me settle in a bit and 2) set the stage for the words I want to offer today. And, maybe you’ve heard some of what I’m going to read before. 

The first is from the Gospel of John, right at the beginning of chapter 11, and it reads: 

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,a “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarusb was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

The second is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10:

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.l Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Mary, Martha, Lazarus – y’all know that new-ish country song, “Famous Friends?” The guy who sings it – Chris Young, I think – tells about his hometown crew, folks who were big time in their little town, famous, even on their home turf, but that no one else would’ve ever known. Well, Mary, Martha and Lazarus – they were Jesus’ hometown crew. His famous friends no one else had ever heard of. At least not until Jesus’ followers started writing about them. 

Bethany was also the place where an unnamed, but some folks believe perhaps a Mary, anointed Jesus’ feet with fine oil, the place where Jesus cursed a fig tree (that’s a whole ‘nother sermon and maybe you can ask one of the religion professors about it, students), and,  the one place mentioned as a spot where Jesus spent the night during the week before his crucifixion. 

Bethany, was, for Jesus, and for those who knew and loved him best, home. 

****

I was a sophomore here at Berry before I worked up the nerve to ask my advisor if I could join the Concert Choir to fill some of my elective hours. She said I sure could, and so, I, having not really sung since I’d left high school, showed up in this very chapel, first day of classes for the new school year, terrified that it would be painfully obvious that although I could certainly carry a tune, sing well, even, I was no match for the vocal majors I’d heard warming up in the hallways of the Ford buildings.

It was not easy to be a member of the Berry College Concert Choir in 1994. Harry Musselwhite cared – cares – deeply about making good music, and about doing so well, with crisp consonants and tall vowels and deep breaths that will carry you right through the most difficult line of John Rutter or Gabriel Faure. We worked. Hard. And some days it was super frustrating. 

And some days, it was pure gold. By mid-semester, I knew I’d found my place. My people. And the hours I spent in this place, with those people, working through some of the world’s most beautiful music, were hours that challenged me. Shaped me. Forged me for far more than a choir concert. Because more than anything else, when we were perfecting a line from Candide, or a single note from Verdi, we were learning what it meant to be our best and truest selves in a way that only determined individuals working towards a common goal can. It was, as I reflected on it recently, rather revolutionary. Especially in light of a world that is, daily, more divided along lines drawn by politics, socioeconomics, race, gender and just about any other line in the sand you can think of. 

Where is your place? Who are your people? Where is it that you know, like Jesus did with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, that there was, without doubt, a chair for YOU at the table, and space for YOU to be exactly who you are, even when everything around you seems to be falling apart? Where is it that you would choose to spend the night, right in the middle of the worst week of your life, with nothing certain and everything in chaos?

****

I graduated from Berry 25 years ago. Which, first, seems impossible. But, second, y’all so much has changed! There was a pay phone at the end of the hallway in the East Mary dorm when I was a student. A. Pay. Phone. You better believe I knew how to charge a call back home to my parents’ house in Winder, Georgia, on that pay phone. 

But also. There’s TikTok now. 

And Loretta Lynn is dead. 

And so is Michael Jackson.

Also, did y’all know there was a football game here last night? And I’m not talking about Ted Lasso or the Premier League. Like, actual American football? Did anyone ask Martha Berry?!?

There’s folks that should be here, too. I know my class is not the only whose lost classmates we loved – many of them far too soon. 

So much has changed….

Some of you in this room graduated 50 years ago. Some of you a year ago. Some of you are professors who’ve lived a whole career as Berry College faculty, and some of you are parents who are just glad that Mountain Day gave you an excuse to come check on your kid midway through her first semester of college. 

However it is that you are here this morning, whatever connection to this place, this school, this home, has brought you here – we’ve all come by so many ways. 

Some of us have come by way of heartache – life stories having not gone at all as we’d planned and dreams we once had shattered on the kitchen floor. 

Some of us have come by way of sorrow – loved ones lost and relationships broken.

Some of us have come by way of cancer or diabetes or Parkinson’s or some other serious illness. 

Some of us have come by way of carpool and baseball practice and juggling professional and personal lives with a triple latte in hand and a daily prayer that we’ll make it through. 

Some of us have come by way of standing in the trenches of injustice and demanding that all God’s children know real equality and true freedom. 

So many ways. So many stories. So many different paths we took from this place, and so many different paths that have brought us back. And I wonder how those of us returning after some time might be finding each other different. 

I wonder how Mary and Martha found Jesus different when he showed up, road worn and weary at their place, knowing the fate that awaited him, and also knowing that there, with them, he was safe. Bonded in their common faith, their common desire for Jesus’ message of unconditional love and grace to be known. 

We are, this morning, gathered together in a moment of reunion, come from a world torn apart by hate, by rage, by grief – we are a broken people in this country, there is no way around that fact, and I would imagine that we have come to this space with as many different ideas about why that is as there are individuals gathered here. 

But I also know that what draws us here unites here. What draws us here is a mountain woman who believed that education mattered, and who was determined that even the poorest of mountain children were deserving of such an education. What draws us here is a woman who believed that book learning matters, yes, but so do the things we learn with the beating of our hearts, the things we learn with the work of our hands. What draws us here is bigger than each of us, and it calls us to a way of being in the world that, I believe, is capable of making a difference – of healing, even, some of broken places. 

I mean, did it matter at all, your time here? Does it matter that you’ve known life in this place? A place that came to be because Martha Berry was brave enough, visionary enough, revolutionary enough, to speak when women weren’t often allowed to, so that the children around her could dream of a better future?

Does it matter that you call – or at least once called– Lavender Mountain home?

It does to me. 

I can’t y’all how many people in my life in Louisville, Kentucky just roll their eyes when I start talking about Berry College. “We know, Julie, we know. It’s the most beautiful campus and the biggest campus and there’s lots of deer. We KNOW.”

(Although, in recent months, the fact that season 4 of Stranger Things was partly filmed here, has, I admit, earned me street cred with my teenage daughter and her friends.)

I wonder if sometimes the disciples rolled their eyes at Jesus when he said something about Bethany. “We KNOW Jesus. Mary and Martha are there, and Lazarus is the coolest. We KNOW.”

Bethany mattered to Jesus, by all Gospel accounts. It shaped him, I think, for ministry, perhaps in ways that weren’t obvious, but that were no less important.

Whatever way you’ve come here this weekend, whatever path led you home, it isn’t like anyone else’s – and yet, there is something so incredibly sacred about so many of us finding our way here. 

Common ground is extraordinarily difficult to find these days. Heartbreakingly so. Every day, it seems, we find new ways to pit ourselves against one another. 

And yet – here we all are this morning. On common ground. 

Here we are. Home. 

The real question, though, is what difference will it make when we leave again?

Uncategorized

For the wee hours of a Friday…

There’s an odd comfort in the green dots along the right side of my screen – their light says I’m not the only one in my time zone awake at 4:30am. If “never alone” is the core desire of our hearts, then I suppose, for this moment anyway, Facebook has offered solidarity for once, as opposed to its way-too-normal pattern of encouraging us to tear each other apart with half-truths and false outrage.

A friend from high school…another mom from church I know just a little…a few clergy pals…a former youth group member who I know is a new dad and so I can guess why he’s awake. And me. My own head full of all the things parent and professional never mind the zillion other bits of news and moments of worry begging at the edges of my mind for its attention.

Did you know there’s still a war in Ukraine? I wonder how many moms are awake in the middle of the night there, maybe just praying they’ll see sunrise.

I sit curled up on my couch, coffee brewed earlier than usual, my incorrigible-but-darling mutts not even ready to make their morning dash for the backyard, and I marvel at the sweetness of this life I’ve been handed. Nothing perfect about it — it’s shot through with things I wish I had gone different, words I wish I’d said sooner or not at all, dreams shattered on the kitchen floor and a thousand fears that gnaw at the edges of stubborn hope and a real faith that no matter what, God is to be seen and felt and heard.

Whatever it is that you face this Friday, y’all, whatever joys await, whatever sorrows weigh heavy, whatever heartache is threatening to undo you, whatever happiness lurks on the horizon…whatever it is, the only thing I can offer is what I know for sure: You are not alone.

Neither are those mamas praying for an end to bombs and bullets in Ukraine.

And on the days when everything seems just a bit too loud, too much, too…everything…perhaps, “You are not alone,” is just exactly what we need.

And more than enough.

Uncategorized

phlebotomies. trauma. and, perhaps, hope.

A super fun (sarcasm font) complication of how long it took for my particular form of lymphoma to be diagnosed is that I have, for well over two years, been carrying way too much iron around in my blood. Which is particularly ironic (in that Alanis-black-fly-in-your-chardonnay kind of way) when you consider that I was also acutely anemic prior to diagnosis and treatment. I do not even pretend to understand all the science, despite due diligence of researching Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia (a “lazy-ass” cancer as my WM friend Lisa calls it, because it smolders, sneaky – like, wreaking mild havoc in ways that make it hard to call it what it is).

In my case, two years of (we now know) pointless iron infusions led to a toxic build-up of iron in my blood, while I still remained anemic. The damnedest thing, right? Then a brilliant oncologist said, “Ooh, this is lymphoma,” and I immediately had all sorts of tests and treatment. This past spring it became super necessary to deal with the iron situation — if you don’t, it comes after your liver and kidneys (and I’m not here for that).

My ferritin levels in May hovered around 1000. A “normal” ferritin read is more like 200-250. My oncologist would feel better if I were at 100, just to be safe. Since mid-May, I’ve had 11 phlebotomies — a weekly draw of about 17 oz of blood, that is then thrown away (which breaks my heart, but no one wants my cancerous blood), making room for new, non-iron laden blood, to be made. It’s exhausting. And frustrating. And throws a real wrench in the 24 hours after. Because, you know, I’m down a pint. But–drum roll, please–it’s working, and as of last week, I’m sitting pretty at 260 for my ferritin level.

Come on, 100!!!

My blood is toxic. And it had begun affecting my overall health and wellbeing in potentially awful ways. And the bad stuff has to go, to make room for good stuff.

The bad stuff has to go, to make room for good stuff.

****

I spent an hour each with two compassionate, brilliant, insightful women today. One is my therapist, the other is my massage therapist. One takes care of my head and my heart and the places those two parts of me intersect. The other takes care of my tense shoulders, knotted hamstrings, and pesky TMJ.

They both help me find the things inside me that are, perhaps, affecting my overall health and wellbeing, and then work to help those things resolve, heal, relax — enough to make space for more good stuff to grow.

The bad stuff has to go, to make room for the good stuff.

****

Our bodies hold our unresolved, un-dealt-with trauma, y’all. And if you’ve lived very long at all, you’ve known trauma — in some form or fashion.

Significant loss is trauma. Betrayal is trauma. Acute bodily injury or illness is trauma. Abuse — in any form — is trauma. A dysfunctional family of origin is trauma. Divorce, even if it is the best decision you can make with the situation at hand, is trauma. Mental illness is trauma.

And, of course, so is life-changing tragedy. War. Poverty. Violence. Political toxicity (I’m looking at you, USA).

You know what else is trauma? A freaking global pandemic.

****

We are, collectively, holding more pain than we know what to do with.

We are, individually, fostering everything that has brought us to where we are, good bad and ugly.

We are, as communities, groaning, with an ache we can’t even describe.

We are, y’all, toxic with unresolved trauma. Full-up with a grief we don’t even have words for. Yearning, with hearts that don’t even know how to express it, for belonging, for safety, for the kind of love that leads us to our best selves and calls us home to all we ever wanted.

And while I am no expert on any of the things I speak of, I know for sure that if we do not find a way to both name and face the heartache, we will, eventually, fall victim to it.

****

I have long believed, more so now than ever, that our hope lies in each other. And I know that this terrifying.

I really, really do.

We are so afraid of being truly known, even as we long to be. So afraid of being fully loved, even as we beg to be. So afraid of being our true selves, even as we ache to be.

It’s madness. And it’s killing us.

Phlebotomy seems easy in the face of all this, even as it quite literally drains me every week. And yet — in it is physical manifestation of all that I have written here. Because it makes me feel weak. Vulnerable. Like nothing is for certain. Watching that pint of blood drain out of me is a reminder of all that makes me human, all that makes me afraid, all that makes me fear the dark, scary corners of our lives, where our deepest fears dwell.

And also.

It reminds me that light cast on those dark, scary corners is medicine. That in our frail humanity is actually tremendous strength. That in my story and yours, there will, of course, be trauma that threatens to undo us. And that also in our shared story is a promise that we are never alone.

And that in your blood and mine runs the ever-present, grace-filled, unending love of a God who has not, I promise you, brought any of us this far to leave us alone or broken or without hope.

The bad stuff has to be let go, so this good stuff can get to work.

****

This Thursday, I’ll see phlebotomy as space-making. As exactly what it is — an opportunity for healing.

And I’ll pray that somewhere in your week is a similar moment of such grace.

Uncategorized

scene from a coffee shop.

One of the things I missed most during the “lock down” days of the Covid-19 pandemic was working at my local coffee shop.

I’ve worked from a home office fulltime for four years now, and prior to that, often enough that I usually spent the first couple of hours each morning curled up in a favorite corner, fresh latte in hand, letting the hum of the espresso machine, the buzz of chatty baristas, and streaming music blend into the most perfect background noise for a morning of emailing, brainstorming or writing.

Said coffee shop has been back open for a long time now, but I’m just now finding my groove there again. Strange that something I missed so much became something I had trouble remembering to return to.

I woke up this morning knowing I was going to have trouble concentrating at home. Every single point of possible distraction was illuminated: laundry, a needy dog, dishes in the sink, landscaping I wish I had time for, even closet organizing, which I despise, seemed to be screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!”

I threw everything I needed to do my actual job in a bag and walked away.

****

I had just finished a muffin, was enjoying my first few sips of latte, and was wading through email when I noticed them – an older man, maybe early 70’s, white, hair neatly coiffed, dressed nicely but casually in jeans, tennis shoes and a tucked in gray tee, and a young man. The young man, shorter, slighter and with dark olive skin, was in a coat, and I quietly laughed — the temp hits 65 here in Kentucky on an August morning and people done with a long humid summer start dressing like it’s Thanksgiving.

The young man spoke, and I realized, through his garbled and halted speech that he was likely either a survivor of brain injury, or, he had a developmental challenge of some sort. He hollered a cheery hello to the baristas, and the older gentleman smiled, placed a gentle, but firm hand on the younger man’s shoulder and said, “Just two coffees, please.”

It took everything in me not to stare, because y’all, I was hooked. I desperately wanted to know things — who were they? Why were they together? What was the story?

Reluctantly, I returned to the tasks on my laptop screen.

And then, two minutes later, I heard, “Hello!” I looked up to see the younger man standing right next to me, his companion looking at me with what could only be described as a silent plea to be cool about this invasion of space and quiet.

“Hello!” he said again, louder this time. I smiled, closed the email I was working on and said, “Hey there.” He grinned — so big, y’all. And the older gentleman’s face relaxed and he offered a slight, grateful nod of his head in my direction.

The younger man asked me a question. I couldn’t understand him so I said, “Can you say that again?” He did, and I tried, but I just could not make it out. His companion saw my desperation and immediately came to my rescue, “He wants to know if you’re from Egypt.”

He wants to know if I am from Egypt?

I rolled with it.

“No, I’m not from Egypt.” The younger man looked disappointed, so I added, “I was born here. In the United States. In Arkansas.”

Y’all, you’d have thought I’d offered him a million dollars and a new pony to boot. He turned to his companion, a smile splitting his face and echoed, “Arkansas!” I laughed, out loud, and said “Yep, Arkansas.”

He turned right back around and told me something else, quite emphatically, and again I looked to the older gentleman for help.

“He wants you to know he is from Baghdad.”

“Baghdad!” I said, and my new friend nodded vigorously, as I added, “That is much further from here than Arkansas!” And he just cackled.

I guess maybe the older gentleman thought I needed to return to work, because he kindly and quietly redirected the younger man to a nearby table and their coffee. I watched them for a moment, hundreds of questions on the tip of my tongue, and then went back to my screen.

Ten minutes later, I heard a faint voice, that sounded like it was saying, “Bye!” but I was caught up in responding to a coworker. “BYE!” I heard it again, louder this time. I looked up and there was my friend, waving fiercely and the older gentleman just shaking his head in amusement.

“Hey! Bye,” I said, “have a good day, ok?” He nodded, and then reach out his fist for me to bump it. I obliged, but just as my fist was going to make contact with his, he grinned, quite devilishly, and jerked his fist back, smoothing it over his ear while managing what I think was a wink.

And I just laughed. And laughed some more as they walked away, the young man quite pleased with himself, and his companion chuckling, as his charge yelled, “Bye!” and waved at every single person on the way out.

****

And that, y’all, is why I work at coffee shops.

Because where else do you have a random conversation with a man from Baghdad who has trouble communicating vocally, but who did not hesitate to make connection with every person he saw.

Covid-19 has stolen such moments from us. So does social media. So does the fear of being shot. Our anxiety and fear and uncertainty about these days we are trying to survive sometimes causes us to make our world very small — circling up around ourselves the people and things we know for certain.

But this morning, my world got a little bigger. Because I know that somewhere in it is a young man from Iraq who thought I was worth talking to this morning. And I hope he has the best day.

Uncategorized

from the inside out.

My daughter attends a performing arts school where she majors in theater. She basically spends half her day in arts classes and half her day in academics, and her major class is the only class she has every day. Her “theater cohort” began together as freshman, and they will stay together through their senior year. She spends more time with these students and their teacher than she does anyone else except immediate family. They are her people — even when they are arguing, competing, annoying one another, and all the other things.

Today, Curly Girl read part of their assigned reading from the day’s lesson to me on the way home from school. It was about acting “from the inside out,” and talked about how the best actors aren’t the ones who put on a perfect mask and perform a role — even if they do so quite well. The best actors are the ones who bring their full selves to the art — who dig deep into their own person, with all their faults and brokenness and dreams and disappointments and joys and offer those things into the character they are playing. After all, the reading said, every role you play is your body, your voice, your life speaking — and the more vulnerably and honestly you do that…the better at your craft you will be.

“That right there!” I exclaimed, as I navigated onto the interstate and the inevitable stop-and-go traffic, “That’s not just acting! That’s being human!” She laughed, and then, with all the wicked timing that makes her so good at dry comedy on stage, she said, “You’re going to blog about this, aren’t you?”

****

I helped lead a conference last week for work — a hotel-based event with intense speakers and people flying in from all over the country and heavy topics. Lots of logistics. Lots of interpersonal heavy lifting.

This was not my first such rodeo. My entire career has largely been “up front,” in some form or fashion — whether speaking or writing or coordinating, I’ve never really been unseen as a professional. But holy cow…this time it felt different. I tried to suss out why — and at some point it dawned on me that it was, in fact, my first such rodeo post-pandemic, post-chemotherapy, post-March 2020 and everything after.

I could feel it in my bones — the hesitation, the second-guessing, the “Did I remember to do …?” or “Am I sure this the right way to…?” Several times, I found myself wanting to find the most lovely of masks, cover up my entire rusty and anxious being with it, and lead from a place of safety. Of (even if false) security. Of a projected version of me that felt much more likely to succeed than the sweaty panicky me.

I had a story I wanted to tell. It’s a story I’ve told before, and it comes from Captain America: The Winter Soldier — where Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Sam Wilson (Falcon) are running and they pass one another saying, “On your left,” and it becomes a bit of a joke in that movie…but as the Avengers story continues and, eventually, the Endgame is made obvious, “On your left,” becomes a promise — “I’ve got you. On your left. You’re not alone.”

I can’t tell it without crying. And, so, sometimes I choose not to tell it, even when I want to. But Saturday morning, as we were ending the conference, it seemed the only word that would do in the particular moment we were in. And sure, I guess you had to be there, but maybe you can imagine the twin convictions I had that the promise, “On your left” needed to be offered in the moment, and, that I could not do so without choking up, so there would be no mask. No retreating. No perfection. Just me — broken and weary and unsure, but also certain that everyone else in the room was also those things, and “on your left,” seemed the words that needed to be said.

(I also read my favorite Psalm, 121, and it mirrors “On your left,” quite well if you ask me and maybe that is helpful information for you churchy types who read this blog.)

****

I am more convinced every day that somewhere between the pandemic, TikTok, mass anxiety around violence and politics and whatever else is swirling in your life or mine, we’ve been stripped of our capacity for living our lives from the inside out.

Because y’all? Our insides are just too damn scary right now. Behind our keyboards is safer. From within our tribes is more secure. On our designated right or left side of the aisle makes us feel like we belong. Our insides are exhausted from an endless barrage of national and global crises, never mind our own personal ones, and the thought of sharing exactly how messed up we are from the constant assault of it all is really more than any of us can take most days. “Back to normal,” even if an illusion, feels more comfortable. Like my rescue Dolly’s kennel — she could use a larger one, for sure, but she likes the one she has, and so please do not remind her that her tail is sticking out of the bars, she does not care, and will stay right where she is ma’am, thanks.

And in the middle of all of this, a theater teacher at a public magnet high school is teaching my child to practice her art with her heart wide open, with her insides leading the way.

****

We have to stop hiding, y’all. We have to stop pretending that a four bedroom three bathroom house in the right neighborhood means much of anything at all. We have to stop thinking our flush bank account makes us special. We have to stop assuaging our own insecurity with an attempt at outer perfection that is not only futile, but utterly exhausting.

And also we have stop believing the lies our own doubts tell us. Y’all, we’re all just a mess. And we have to stop trying to be anything but who we are — we have to stop pretending we’re waffles if we’re really cauliflower.

****

Bring your full self to this life. Even if you cry in a hotel ballroom on a Saturday morning in front of 45 people, most of whom you don’t know all that well.

You’re you. And in you is something the world needs. 

Uncategorized

Lost men. Lost dogs. Lost everything. (facing our grief, even in its monotony)

Over a decade ago, I briefly shared an office with a coworker who was retired from the United States Air Force. He was very much in the midst of figuring out what “Act 2” of his life would look like. I was sort of in the same boat, having recently “retired” myself from 15 years of congregational youth ministry. We enjoyed sharing space and worked well together. 

Some of you who’ve heard me speak might know this story – but one morning, he came in, silent, moving with less energy, and his usual cheery “Good morning!” replaced with a terse, “Hey,” as he sat down at his desk. 

“You good?” I asked, unable to just let the obvious change in demeanor go.

“Fine.” 

“Um, ok. You sure?” I pressed. 

“My dog died.”

“Oh,” I responded, “I’m sorry. Really, I am. I know that pain and it sucks.”

He grunted a response and I let it go. Until about ten minutes later, when I heard the unmistakable sound of a grown man sobbing. 

“Hey,” I said, turning towards him, “It’s okay. Just cry.”

He whirled around, looked me square in the eyes and barked, “No. It’s not. You tell me, Julie – you tell me how I can stand over the bodies of six dead airmen and not shed a tear, keep it together, and my damn dog dies and I lose it!”

I did not say a word. I simply held his gaze until he’d regained some composure and then, quietly, told him again how sorry I was, and then listened while he told me about his dog. 

He never mentioned the six dead airmen again. And I’m no grief expert, but I know enough about how it works to be pretty confident that while, sure, his dog’s death was sad, the grief it caused to explode in him had a lot more to do with those lost men than it did the dog.

***

We are terrible at grief in the United States. I mean, terrible. And our inability to name the things we’ve lost and truly mourn that loss is costing us everything – our very humanity, in fact. 

Hundreds of school children have now fallen at the hands of killers with assault rifles, thousands of lives and entire communities changed as a result. 

Covid-19 has ripped at the already fraying seams of our life together – loved ones have died, significant occasions have been missed, vicious arguments explode over the efficacy of vaccines, our workplaces and work habits are forever changed.  

Inflation is blowing up household budgets left and right, and the level of stress this causes the average family gets played out in all sorts of unhealthy ways.

Political toxicity, false information, and zero room for civil discourse pervade every aspect of our lives and our “communication” has been reduced to snarky memes, cable news hottakes and whatever hashtag makes clear our allegiances. 

And against the backdrop of all of it are the normal losses of this life–disease and divorce and layoffs and shattered dreams. 

We are, y’all, awash in grief. Nothing is as it once was, and we have chosen to drown our complicated sorrows in fear and anxiety and constant attack, as opposed to naming the common enemies, and doing the very, very hard work of sacrifice, of relationship, on behalf of each other and our children.

Our grief, unnamed and undealt with, is exploding. We cannot contain it, and it frightens us in ways we cannot begin to explain. 

***

If you have not seen Maverick, the 35-years later follow-up to Top Gun, I highly recommend it (and if you somehow never saw the first one it is widely available on various streaming services right now, so catch up!). 

In making plans to see it, I expected to be entertained, and was curious about what they’d do with the story. 

I did not expect to be blown away by a box office smash that explored the effects of trauma, how grief changes us in profound ways, and how sometimes, healing happens when we don’t even realize we still need it. The loss of “Goose” in the first movie drove the entire storyline of the second movie. 

And isn’t that as it should be? Shouldn’t such a tremendous, unexpected, tragic loss drive, in ways good, bad and ugly, how we live out what we’ve got left?

***

There is a monotony to grief – it’s a long, arduous, path. Sometimes there are moments of relief – quick glimpses of grace that serve as enough hope available to carry us forward. But often it is just one uphill slog after another, even circling back on itself in unexpected moments that exhaust us and leave us wondering if we’ll ever see the light again. 

But y’all. I promise you. There is no way through it but, well…through it. It has to be named. Claimed, sat with, absorbed at face value. We have to let it overwhelm us long enough to want real healing – otherwise we simply toss it off to someone else, and, in doing so, multiply its harm.

I once heard a nonprofit leader say, “Hurt people hurt people.”

Read that again.

Hurt people hurt people. 

We are all hurting. Constantly and more deeply than we’ve got a healthy grasp on. Because damn this world is just so vicious right now. In so many ways. 

But we have to stop hurting each other – with our spoken words, with our social media presence, with how we engage in relationships, with how we behave (both actively and passively).

We have to stop hurting each other. 

***

Name what you’ve lost today. 

Sit with it. 

Lay on the kitchen floor and sob if you have to. 

Text or call a friend or a family member and share it. 

Find a good therapist if you need to (hint: we all do).

Let the reality of the loss overwhelm you long enough to make a desire, a space, for healing. 

There is no more avoiding what we’ve lost if we’ve any hope for a better way.

Uncategorized

(untitled)

It’s been a minute — over three months, actually, since I’ve come to this space to pour my heart out, to try and make some sense in my tangled spirit of what’s happening in the world. Written words seem futile in the midst of sound bytes and TikTok reels, truth actively constructed by pundits and tribalism to the point that anything passing for civil discourse is, most days, lost in the wasteland of cable news and social media.

And, my thoughts on the things ripping us apart these days — gun violence, abortion, inflation, immigration, even Covid-19–don’t fit into a nice box with a pretty bow, and so I generally dwell in murky grays, because I find life to be inexplicably complicated and horribly messy. And I think mostly the complexity and messiness terrify us, and so we cling to black and white.

I majored in journalism in college, minored in English. Written words, stories, are what I know, how I make meaning. Insta’s content creators care nothing for such words. And yes, I use both Facebook and Instagram, but I suspect to my detriment and heightened anxiety, especially as of late.

I dearly love people across the theological and political spectrum in our country — people on both sides of that damn aisle who love me, support me, enrich my life and who are daily conversation partners, people who have shown up for me with some kind of light in my darkest days. I sometimes vehemently disagree with these folks on either side. I sometimes am disappointed in these folks on either side. I sometimes wonder if they are disappointed in me. Most often, I lay awake at night insisting with the most stubborn and maybe even blind sort of hope that we will, somehow, find a way forward in this country I love, in this community I love, in these relationships that give me life. It is, most days, exhausting.

My daughter recently spent eight days in Costa Rica on a mission trip with our church. They had fun in that beautiful country, to be sure, but most of their time was spent working in acutely impoverished communities — building a wall where one was badly needed, installing a ceiling in a house without one, taking food boxes to families who depend on such deliveries. If you ask her how the trip was, she will say, “It was life-changing.”

Monday morning, on her fourth day back in the United States, as I drove her to her summer internship, she burst into tears. We’d been talking about all the things tearing this country apart, the news having exploded while she was away, and she said, “Mom. It was so peaceful in Costa. Nobody was angry with anyone else. Everyone smiled.” Through her tears, she went on to marvel at the joy of the people she served, and how mixed up she has come to believe our priorities are here.

We value the wrong things in these United States. And in doing so, we forget what’s best about us, what’s good and true about this beautiful nation and her people. We focus on wealth and power, first and foremost, serving our worst demons, instead of our better angels. And as a result, we’ve created systems of control and riches that care nothing for actual human beings.

Systems overwhelm us. They seem too much and it’s hard to really take a look at one and see how it developed, how it grew, how it corrupted, even, and how it might be fixed; or, if necessary, destroyed, to make space for something new. And because we don’t know what to do with these systems, we attack each other. We assume that any one person who identifies as pro-choice must not mind murdering babies, and we assume any one person who identifies as pro-life must not care about women’s rights. Neither of these media and politically propagated extremes are true. They just aren’t. But again, we do not to explore the gray, the complexity. We find comfort in absolutes, even if those absolutes are making us less than who God created us to be.

I could go down the list…because over and over again we scream, “If you are not this, you are that.”

I have spent more hours than I could even begin to count the last several months searching for the right words, the right story, to help bring about healing, understanding, real relationship — the kind that could redeem us all. Perhaps it’s misguided, arrogant, even, to think such right words or right story are even possible. Still–our narratives are all wrong and the only way to correct destructive narratives is to reshape them into narratives that build up, that offer hope.

What I long for is a world where we focus on the person. And if we do not agree with that person, we ask, “Why? Tell me about your life,” instead of turning away; a world where we value a person’s life story over a person’s current opinion; a world where we leave room for “I might be wrong,” or “I’d like to try to understand;” a world where we don’t try to make decisions about how another person ought to live his or her life, because we have not walked in his or her shoes.

Most of all, what I long for is the very blessed day when we catch a glimpse, even if only for a moment, of how God sees each of us: wholly and completely beloved.

Beloved.

Each of us.

You.

Your enemy.

That person you hate.

Beloved.

Each of us.

No matter what.

What would happen if we made naming that belovedness – in ourselves, and in one another — our aim?

How would it change tomorrow?

What would you do differently?

Who would you, just maybe, see in another light?

Beloved.

Uncategorized

On climbing mountains and moving forward.

Camelback Mountain – so named because from a distance it does, indeed, look like a camel, laying down, with its hump rising up high out of the desert – sits on the edge of Phoenix, AZ.

My work takes me to Scottsdale, AZ every January, and the retreat center where we stay is just across from the land at Camelback’s base. It’s a startling, bare sort of beauty, the way the mountain emerges from darkness at dawn and returns to darkness at dusk, the dominant thing from any viewpoint, and sometimes, well into evening, stars and moon lend their light just right and you can make out an inky outline of Camelback’s peak.

Camelback rises to about 2700 feet in elevation – it does so with no graciousness, no easing in – it is straight up, no mercy, and with, along the Echo Canyon Trail at least, multiple, “This is a good time to turn back if you are already struggling,” signs. There are no gently winding paths. No shaded hills. No spots to rest, really, even. You just go. Over giant rocks and around massive boulders and outcroppings, and if heights are not your thing there’s more than one place where looking down is not advisable. There are no fences between you and the sheer, rocky side of Camelback.

This past January, looking at Camelback the first night at the retreat center, I thought, “I need to climb that mountain.” I’d done it once before – ten years and another lifetime ago. But this time felt different. I needed to know that trauma and cancer and pandemic and work challenges and anything else could not keep me from this very difficult – both physically and mentally – thing.

It’s pure stupid to attempt such a thing on your own, so thankfully, when I suggested to my coworker that we have a sort of staff retreat and climb a mountain together he did not flinch. “If we can do this, we can surely raise that extra quarter of a million we need this year, right?”

Right.

We got water. Sunscreen. Snacks. We fully charged our phones and texted our departure time to two colleagues, promising to check in along the way.

Less than 20 minutes in I remembered why Echo Canyon Trail is described as “an intense and difficult anaerobic hike.” In just 1.2 miles it ascends 1280 feet. Sure, it’s no Kilimanjaro, but if your jam is usually a tame few miles of jogging through your neighborhood on a nice morning, well, it’s a bit of shock. 

And y’all, there’s one stretch of boulder climbing where if there is any way out, you are tempted to take it. Hand over hand, legs stretched as far as they’ll go, every muscle poised to boost you from boulder to the next, and as far as you can see, just more of the same. The only way out is up. And the only way up is to just do it – focused, careful, determined, and pushing away every single bit of fatigue. 

It feels as if it will never end. As if the summit, which is less than a quarter mile away at that point, will never actually appear and you’re going to be climbing that damn mountain until the day you die. 

I may have teared up at one point. And I definitely wondered what in the holy hell I’d been thinking. 

But then–I swear to you–I thought, “If you can do chemotherapy, you can do this. If you can be an only parent, you can do this. And if you can do this, you can certainly get that massive grant report done next month, you can certainly figure out managing your kid’s schedule and finances and home projects and Every. Thing. Else.”

Every. Thing. Else.

***

Y’all.

We’ve all got everything else. It’s just really difficult to find a way forward right now. For everyone I know. And whatever else we’ve got going on in our lives, we’re also all carrying this background communal anxiety– inflation and Covid and Ukraine and worrying about our kids in the midst of all these things and…good lord. I could go on and on. So could you. 

“Everything hurts,” a friend of mine said recently in a text message, and I knew what she meant. There’s just so much so horribly wrong. 

The day I started chemotherapy, my oncologist said to me, “You’re anxious today, Julie.” I laughed, super nervously, and said, “Shouldn’t I be?” He smiled and nodded his head, but then said, “It will be okay.” As the daughter of a cancer survivor, I’ve spent just about my entire adulthood fearing its presence in my life, and here I was, a chest port newly installed and IV drugs already making their way into my system when I’d barely had time to process the diagnosis. 

“You’re anxious today,” felt like the understatement of a lifetime. But there was no way out. There was only forward. Straight through the difficulty, trusting that somewhere, ahead, was something worth getting to. 

***

When the last bit of rocky hell that is the Echo Canyon Camelback climb gives way to a relatively easy few steps that get you to the summit, there’s something that gives inside you – it’s like the last hour or so’s difficulty realizes it was kind of a jerk and eases up long enough for you to regroup, catch your breath, and then … y’all…then…there are no words for the view spread before and around you. Miles and miles stretching in every direction, the air so sharp and the vista so clear that you just sort of collapse into the raw beauty of it, able, for a moment, to rest in the truth that you just did a really hard thing and you’ve every right to bask in the moment. 

We’re capable of so much more than we ever give ourselves credit for, y’all – I’m convinced with all that I am that God breathed into us what we’d need to live the life that same God calls us to. 

Hear that again: I believe God has given us what we need. Even when we cannot see it. Even when it seems so damn hopeless. Even when our hearts are broken beyond what can be spoken. Even when nothing seems like it could ever possibly be okay again. 

God has given us what we need. And has done so with a Love that cannot be matched, moved, changed or lost. 

***

You’re exhausted, I know.

You’re terrified, I know.

You’re overwhelmed with grief, and you’ve lost whatever scrap of hope you might have been clinging to. 

Your heart has been broken, again, and you can’t see how it will ever piece itself back together. 

I know. 

The weight of the world seems impossible.

I know. 

The summit seems unreachable. 

You can do this. I promise. 

And if you can do this, there isn’t anything else, ever, that you cannot do. 

God has given you what you need.