no exceptions

Last summer, after some 18 months of deliberate learning and discernment, my congregation joined the Supportive Communities Network, a group of congregations and organizations who are public and clear in our affirmation of LGBTQ siblings. The process for our congregation was good and holy, and our final vote was unanimous. We were both deciding to be who we already were out loud while also submitting ourselves to a continuing journey of transformation.

Since we joined SCN, I got to participate in a series of conversations for pastors of new-ish SCN congregations earlier this year. One of the topics of conversation was the 1983 Church of the Brethren statement on Human Sexuality. This statement is now almost 40 years old, and one of the questions we wrestled with was “If the Church of the Brethren were to write a new statement on the same topic, what should it say?”

Those statements are – ideally – products of faithful communal conversation, study and discernment. But our church has systematically excluded, silenced and shut out the people to whom that statement has done the most harm. I am new to hearing the heart-rending realities of this harm, not because it wasn’t being pointed out but because my own ears were sealed up with pride and privilege and a desire to belong. People in the Church of the Brethren have been naming, identifying, lamenting, calling out and rebuking this harm for decades. I get to know and love some of them.

When someone tells us that they are hurting, we are called to weep with them. When someone tells us that WE are the ones who have hurt them, we are called to humbly repent and work to repair the harm. This is the way of Jesus.

And yet, when LGBTQ siblings in our church name their pain and explicitly describe the ways that we, the church, our polity, our processes, our individual and communal actions have caused harm, we have chosen, over and over, through words and actions and processes and policies to DO MORE HARM. It is happening right now, in pulpits and Standing Committee meetings and private conversations and in the ways that this very blog post will be shared and maligned and held up as an example of all that is dangerous and sinful. I can guarantee you that my supervisors will receive at least one angry email about the fact that I, a denominational staff member, would dare to affirm the harm we have caused and be so audacious as to suggest that we work to repair it. It happens every time, because the ones who are doing the harm don’t want anybody to know how much pain they are inflicting.

What should a new Church of the Brethren statement on human sexuality say?

There are all sorts of things we could say, all manner of scriptural affirmations that bodies – all bodies – and relationships – all relationships – are holy, full of the promise of rich delight and faithful covenant. There are beautiful ways to speak about our desire for everyone to experience whole, healthy, committed relationships.

But if I were writing a new statement, repentance would be as far as I could get. There is such tonnage of harm that we have inflicted, such a massive weight of pain to hear and process. Until we listen humbly to the harm we have caused, until we participate fully in honest repentance, until we walk through real, intentional, invested processes of healing with those we have wronged – over and over and over and over again – we have no standing to speak into this question. No standing whatsoever.

the edge of now

It’s March! We made it! January and February are finished. Here in North Carolina, winter is done. This weekend, I planted peas, cleaned off my porch, and brought home a hyacinth from the farmer’s market to bloom on my dining room table. I left the windows open all night, and the neighborhood birds started singing at precisely 6:01am.

15% of the US population has been (at least partially) vaccinated against COVID-19, including my parents, my grandmothers, approximately one third of my congregation and – as soon as the Walgreen’s website updates appointment times far enough in advance to schedule a second dose – me, too. Those numbers should shoot up as supply increases and the new Johnson&Johnson vaccine streamlines some processes. Case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths are falling quickly.

the family calendar is celebrating, too.

I have high hopes for this spring and summer: gardening, outdoor patio dining, a lot more hiking. I plan to get back to my goal of visiting all 40 NC State Parks, and that will involve taking a couple road trips. I want to hug my grandmothers, and return to visiting parishioners in the hospital. This morning, it all seems possible – maybe even imminent.

The refining that the last year has done has been powerful. I don’t have huge, fancy, expensive desires for this coming season. I just want to hug people, visit them when they’re sick, drive a couple of hours to climb a mountain and sit on my porch to watch some seeds turn into plants turn into food. I have tried several times to set larger goals or make longer-term plans, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I just want to return to a few simple, free pleasures. I am mostly looking forward to relief from the constant sense of dread that has coated over the last year.

This morning, I can feel the edge of it. And I am grateful.

death & taxes

I did my taxes yesterday. Clergy taxes are ridiculous. I’ve done them for ten years, now, and while I understand the operating principles behind how they work (thanks to the deep wisdom and clarity of Deb at Oskin Tax Services), the process is not exactly efficient or logical.

Clergy are common law employees who are exempt from FICA and must pay Self-Employment taxes on their income. FICA – the taxes that get withheld from your paycheck if you’re NOT clergy – ends up being about 7.65% of income. Self-Employment tax – how working people non subject to FICA withholding pay into the Social Security system – is 15.3%.

Hear that: your pastor pays TWICE the tax that you do.

Yes, there are other relevant details about clergy tax oddities – we can claim part of our income as an income-tax-exempt housing allowance. This is historically connected to the practice of housing clergy in parsonages. But we still pay self-employment tax on that portion of income. It is, all things considered, not a great deal.

rejected, again.

It’s pretty gauche to complain about income and taxes in this particular moment when 15 million more Americans are struggling to find enough to eat than were at this time last year and several of my neighbors are depending on an extension of the eviction moratorium lest they lose their house. And also, part of my work is to support part-time pastors in the Church of the Brethren. 77% of our congregations have part-time pastors, and a troubling number of those pastors are teetering on the edge of becoming food insecure or mired in poverty themselves.

In the Church of the Brethren, full-time, salaried congregational pastors have only been common practice for approximately two generations. Historically, congregations were led by unpaid, volunteer leaders called from within the community. And still, in 50-75 years, we’ve managed to ASSUME that not only should every church have a full-time pastor but also that those pastors belong to their congregations, body and soul. I cannot tell you how unhealthy these assumptions are.

In the last couple months, I have heard conversations requiring part-time pastors to be available 24/7. I have heard people quote full-time hours as 58/week, which means that a half-time role would still be responsible for 29 hours – nearly impossible if that person is also working a second, half-time job to make ends meet. I have read job descriptions that attempt to cram three positions’ worth of responsibilities into 19 hours/week. And surely, you’ve heard the old saw: “there’s no such thing as a part-time pastor!”

It is true that pastors don’t work 9-5 hours. Ministry happens on life’s timeline, and illness, death, grief, pain, and joy don’t confine themselves to the workaday world. But expecting pastors to be available 24/7, loading their plates with more tasks than any being could possibly carry, refusing to acknowledge a pastor’s other commitments, responsibilities and need for rest: this is wrong.

And, on top of these unthinking and unfair expectations, churches subject their pastors to DOUBLE the tax rate that they pay on their own income.

If churches decide to employ people, then they are bound to treat those people with fairness.

Scripture has a lot to say about this:

Exodus: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy…you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”

Jeremiah: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages.”

Deuteronomy: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.”

(…for a start.)

I *love* what I get to do as a congregational pastor. I *love* my congregation. My congregation is very careful to follow published guidelines around salary, checks in with me regularly about my hours, invests in mutual ministry…and they know that the way they compensate me is not exactly sustainable by itself. I can be a half-time pastor because I have a second job that provides some health insurance and pension benefits. I am a single person without a family, without debt, and without significant health struggles. And even with all that privilege, this arrangement is not sustainable for the long-term.

Here’s my plea: treat your pastor better. If you can’t pay them a living wage, taking into account the tax burden they bear, then reduce their responsibilities. Figure out how to do ministry together without dumping everything on the paid employee. Take responsibility for learning how clergy taxes work. Ask your pastor what ministry you can get involved in. Regularly audit how many hours your pastor is working for you. Remember that in this country, people actually died for the right to contain a working week to 40 hours and stop expecting your pastor to work 60 hours in order to keep their job.

in the garden

I got to work in the garden this morning, one of my favorite pandemic activities. The weather and my schedule have kept me away for the last month. I missed it.

You can watch the seasons change in real time in the garden. Things root and sprout and grow and die and hibernate. Noticing the differences from week to week is a really graceful way to mark the passage of time. Much healthier than what I have been doing: curling up in a ball on my couch and whining about how the rain and gloom just won’t go away.

In the garden this morning, I cleared out some raised beds that still had remnants of greens from the fall and planted sugar snap peas. Planted! Peas! It’s the end of February, and it is time to PLANT things. Hallelujah. Peas are the early crop, of course, and we’ll harvest and pull them up and re-plant those beds several times over the season. But the act of sowing seeds in soil, anticipating the magic of watching them grow with nothing other than light and water and a little tender care is hopeful.

I also got to deadhead some of last season’s mums that were starting to show some new life – I didn’t even KNOW that mums were perennial. The local ACE hardware store donates leftover seeds from the previous season, and this batch includes a LOT of pumpkins. So we started envisioning a pumpkin patch by the back fence, ornamented with these mums – leftover from a garden store’s autumn sale.

I came home and promptly tended to the skeleton of a mum hanging basket that I’d abandoned on my own porch, hoping that it, too, might have some new life left in it.

Nearly everything in the community garden is donated, re-used or recycled. The raised beds are made from shipping crates. The compost comes from the connected Food Hub’s waste. The plants get donated. The labor is all volunteer. I love it. It feels like magic – that simple things otherwise tossed into the garbage come to life and turn into FOOD that feeds me and my neighbors all year long.

Nothing profound to say here, as I write late in the day to fulfill my daily writing commitment: just deep, deep gratitude for the magic of the ParkTown Food Hub Garden and the privilege of getting to be a part of it.

working 5-9

I had work meetings every night this week, which is a regular occurrence these days, and pretty standard for pastoral schedules. I juggle two jobs: a congregation and a program designed for and led by multi-vocational pastors. The bulk of this work necessarily happens in hours other than 9-5, since most of my colleagues, constituents and congregants are busy with other commitments during the daytime.

In general, I prefer a flexible schedule that allows me to take a long lunch or a slow morning when I know I’ll be working from 4-8pm. Especially during this time of year, it allows me to be outside when the sun is shining, sitting down at the computer once it sets. I worked 8:30-4:30 in a flourescent-lit cubicle for a couple of years and hated it with a passion.

yep, a book about BOUNDARIES on the top of the pile.

But sometimes, the weird schedule starts to wear on me. This year, my tiny apartment has seemed more like an office than a respite. There is no strong delineation of workspace from leisure space, no standard hour to mark “working” time from “living” time. Sure, there are all kinds of tips and tricks for working from home, and I’ve tested them all out: take a walk around the block at the beginning and end of your day to replace your commute & put boundaries around that time; make sure to put on shoes when you go to your desk to be productive; carve out specific and dedicated space for work; turn e-mail notifications off on your phone; shut the computer down for the weekend.

Some of those things are helpful, but when work doesn’t exist within clear time boundaries and EVERYTHING is happening in the same, tiny physical space, boundaries are hard.

I am generally good at boundaries. I came with them pre-installed in my personality, I think. Fridays are my sabbath day and I’m decent at protecting that time. But in weeks like this one, when I’ve been in meetings until just before bedtime and Zoom calls ate up all the reflecting and processing time, when my day off is taking place in the same chair where my workweek happened, driven inside because the clouds are back and the rain just won’t stop…it takes more than one or two days to remember how to exist as a being who is valued for who I am and not what I can produce.

This is not meant to be complaint. I love my work. I prefer flexible schedules. I understand the privilege of being able to work from home right now. It’s just an acknowledgement that everything is harder, these days, and that the delicate boundaries and balances we had been using to survive in the times before the pandemic have been, to put it mildly, completely obliterated. We are grasping for handholds and, in many cases, barely holding on.

This is just me being honest about what’s hard, in the hopes that honesty opens paths for mutuality & creativity. And now, seeing as it’s Friday, I’m going to close my laptop and go do some LIVING instead of getting caught up in even more WORKING.

delight

My congregation is partnering with our neighbors at the UMC church down the road for Lent, and using these Again & Again resources. Last night, Pastor Anita led a devotional time of scripture & visio divina with art created for the series. (It’ll be every Wednesday evening ’til Easter, and you are welcome to join, too.).

One of the pieces of art we reflected on was called “I Delight In You,” a digital painting with collage by Lisle Gwynn Garrity:

The way visio divina works, we are invited to sit with the work of art and notice where our eyes are drawn. What do you see? What do you notice? Can you imagine yourself inside this image? How does the image make you feel? When you pair the image with scripture (for us, last night, the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1), what connections do you make? What does the image illuminate in the passage?

Try it out, if you want.

Yesterday, the sun shone uninhibited in a way that it hasn’t been able to all month. The temperature climbed up to 75 degrees, and the spongy ground finally dried up a bit. I decided to take my lunch out to the lake for a beach picnic, to celebrate. But when I arrived, excited about my turkey sandwich on the sand, well…

…there was no beach.

The month of rain had caused the lake – built for this very purpose of controlling the region’s flooding – to leap over its shores and swallow up picnic tables, pavilions, parking lots, volleyball courts and playgrounds. Kids trolled the new shoreline and leapt over flooded sidewalks. Franny sniffed her way through the flotsam and jetsam. I rolled out my picnic blanket on a piece of high ground and ate my lunch in the sunshine, anyway.

I tilted my head up – just like the person in the painting – and soaked in the sun, there on a dry island nearly surrounded by flood waters. The rain is returning tomorrow, for the better part of a week, and I willed my whole self to be like a sponge, collecting as much of the warmth and encouragement and promise of spring as I could for those few moments.

The pain and grief and trauma and anger will keep coming. A friend told me this week that we should prepare ourselves for the emotional kickback once we’re through the worst of this pandemic, that when we’re no longer completely invested in survival, those responses – anger, irritation, anxiety, depression – will find the space and make themselves known, and we should get ready to welcome them and give them the necessary space.

And still, even in the midst, there are moments of sun to be soaked in, moments of gratitude to be fully expressed, signs of promise to be caught and inscribed on our hearts. We get to turn our faces to the light and receive its gift, even if we’re sitting on a tiny patch of dry ground and surrounded, still, by ever-so-slowly-receding floodwaters.

Thanks be to God.

to be of use

This morning’s devotional reading called to mind a poem by Marge Piercy:

To be of use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

I talked to my grandma the other day, who told me that my aunt Susan had sent her a new/old quilt for her bed. “I sort of thought it was too nice to use, you know, but Susan convinced me to put it on the bed and use it, so I did.” Her nursing home has been in some version of lock-down for almost a year, now, and she lamented the fact that no one other than the nurses and aides who come by her room would get the chance to see her new/old beautiful quilt. I told her that I’d be sure to take a photo and upload it to her Instagram page whenever I am allowed back in to see her.

I have several beautiful quilts – made by my grandmothers, great-grandmothers and church-lady quilting groups. I LOVE them. In a “grab what you can because the building is on fire” scenario, I pick up my dog, my laptop, a few important papers and probably one of those quilts – for practical as well as sentimental reasons.

the dog is a fan of the quilts, too

These quilts weren’t made to hang on walls; they were made for a purpose. When I was little, I sat under a few quilting frames in the First Church of the Brethren basement while my grandma and her church lady friends stitched and chatted above me, and I know that those ladies weren’t imagining the fruit of their labor ON DISPLAY. They were working together at a task, creating something beautiful with a purpose. They set to work, together, on something that would go to work for someone else.

Over the last months, when in-person visits and funeral services have been hard to carry out, I have found myself resorting to food delivery as pastoral care. I made soup. I shared jam. I showed up on porches with beef stew and homemade bread. I wasn’t doing any of that to impress people with my culinary skill; it was a way to share care and warmth in physical form, a way to show up when showing up is complicated and difficult.

We need to be of use. It’s how God created us. We are not creatures who thrive in isolation; we are human beings created from the very beginning to long for interdependence and mutuality. If you listen closely, you can probably hear your own soul crying out in these times when interdependence is cursed and mutuality is cast aside. It’s why I share stew, and it’s why I rant about how we are ignoring the ways we harm each other with our ignorantly selfish actions. My soul is longing for a community and a context where I can hitch myself to the rest of the team and pull together in the same direction. I want to be of use.

My tiny congregation is a place like that, and I am deeply, humbly, bowed-down grateful for that reality. I know that when I show up with soup, someone else is coming right behind me with cookies. I know that when I suggest a book study, someone else will follow up with an embodied plan to put what we’re learning into action. I know that when I grow weary, someone else is right behind me to pick up the slack. It is a gift and a grace.

There are other contexts where I am less certain of my usefulness, less convinced that the gathered crowd is all looking in the same direction, much less straining in the mud and muck toward the same destination. No matter how much energy and effort I sink into these pursuits, the isolation of patiently pulling on my own – or as one of a few partners situated far apart among the many – is deadly.

“I want to be with people who submerge in the task,” Piercy writes, “who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm.”

May I, may you, may all of us together find places to be of use, to move in a common rhythm to do what needs to be done.

to be in my body

I’ve done yoga every day this month. Twenty-three mornings in a a row. I finish my coffee, pull up Yoga with Adriene on the laptop, and plop down on my living room floor. I don’t have a yoga mat, because the only places in my tiny apartment without carpet are the tiny kitchen and the tiny bathroom. I don’t own yoga blocks or yoga blankets or yoga pants. I’m not a pro, or even well-versed. I have no idea what the Sanskrit words mean, and I regularly wonder if this white-lady-led YouTube channel is endorsing cultural appropriation.

But for twenty-three days in a row, I have sunk out of my head and into my body and it feels luxurious. Adriene uses words like “yummy” and “nourishing” and despite my resistance, I find myself thinking of yoga in those ways. “Oh, I get to forget about my hamster wheel monkey mind for this half hour and experience my body and breath, instead.” I look forward to those moments of moving and breathing and stretching.

I’ve known for a long time that I live too much in my head and not enough in my body, but recent years learning about what it means to be an Enneagram 5 and the ways that my own internalized white supremacy fences me off from bodily intelligence have underscored the power and necessity of being in my body.

Benji the dog and Adriene’s plant game are huge perks of the practice.

It’s weird to think about, and weird to write about because, well, that’s the point: to receive knowledge and wisdom that resists articulation and intellectual codification. I have trouble explaining what’s happening on the mat and for a long time, that bothered me. But this go-round, this month of daily sinking into the criks in my neck and the tightness in my hip, this process of recognizing which vertebrae tend to collapse and how my left ankle is tighter than my right one, this regular invitation to just BE IN MY BODY without explaining or critiquing or analyzing it…it has been a gift.

The other day’s practice was a breath meditation, a “pranayama potion.” Adriene led us through breathing exercises, controlling our inhale and our exhale, moving deeper and deeper into carefully modulated cycles. It was HARD. My breath has not been trained in those ways. The twenty minutes of breathing took every ounce of focus and concentration I could muster. And at the end, when she instructed us to “bat the eyelashes open” and return to a normal cycle of breath, I emerged from the meditation in a state of awe. “WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED TO ME?” I said, out loud. Franny didn’t even stir from her morning nap.

Sometimes (when the world allows), I lead sessions on Spiritual Practices with BVS volunteers. We go outside and pay attention to light and sound and texture and perspective. We try out the Jesuit Examen and Lectio Divina. These are all spiritual practices, I tell them, and they are all universally available. Wherever you are, whatever your mood, however many stressors or traumas are unfolding around you, you always have access to these small, powerful practices. Notice the light. Touch some tree bark. Walk through each moment of the day thus far. Listen for a word or phrase that strikes you differently than all the rest. Take a deep breath.

Doing yoga this month reminds me that the most powerful spiritual practices are free and universally available. We don’t need subscription services or fancy outfits to tune in to our breath and our bodies. We don’t need tropical meditation retreats or specially crafted worship services to reconnect with the One who created and sustains us. Having a companion is often a good idea – whether it’s the yoga instructor on the screen, the pastor leading the prayer, or a friend by your side. But the world is constantly available to us. Our attention is ours to spend as we choose: binging Bridgerton or lying still in savasana, listening to our deepening breath and giving thanks for these bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made.

another rant

Here’s something from this last year that I don’t quite understand, yet: why haven’t we heard *any* large-scale, mass encouragement around mutual survival behaviors?

I’m thinking about all those wartime home-front posters from mid-century encouraging people to plant victory gardens, save fuel, hang tough to get through together. Are we so far gone that we can’t even manage to articulate the impact of our collective behavior?

It has been hard for me to quiet the JUDGY part of my responses over these few months: I am super annoyed at people who refuse to wear masks, infuriated at churches who’ve chosen in-person, indoor gatherings over the well-being of their communities, totally incensed and weirded out when I hear that people I know, love, and assumed to be on the same wavelength with are doing things like eating out in restaurants and flying in airplanes…for fun.

Turns out, there has been some great art of mutual encouragement – like this Wisconsin project.

On the one hand: it’s not fair to judge individual behavior without giving equal credence to the abject and total failure of the systemic contexts around us: yes, college students at UNC are doing completely irresponsible things over there in Chapel Hill, but they’re only able to make those choices because the university’s administration decided to bring tens of thousands of young people with not-yet-fully-formed-frontal-cortexes onto campus and stuff them in dorms together while also outlawing most of the things that college students do to let off steam. People are choosing to eat in restaurants because our government has chosen, in a dozen different ways, to sacrifice lives for the sake of profit. I understand that individual behavior always happens against a backdrop of institutional and systemic realities. It’s not helpful to scream and shame people for acting in their own self-interest in the face of a government who clearly does not value life.

And also, these decisions that people around me are making also seem to make very, very clear that we – as a society – don’t understand ourselves as part of mutual, interlocking relationships. What I do affects you, and what you do affects me. Choosing to dine inside a restaurant is, in my understanding, an irresponsible choice, not because it puts you and your dining companions at risk, but because it forces the underpaid and already struggling wait and kitchen staff of that establishment to be exposed to FAR more people than a strict take-out operation would. Flying in an airplane is a choice that forces dozens and dozens of other people – airport employees, TSA agents, flight attendants, mechanics, pilots, taxi drivers, Starbucks employees – to endure exponential exposure, day in and day out.

The people who are dying – still 2,000 each day here in the US – are not rich, well-off people with the options to spend discretionary income in ways that endanger other, less-fortunate people. The ones who are dying are people who are forced to work in dangerous situations in order to survive. It seems to me that my own individual decisions should not be about what risk I personally am comfortable taking on – though that is part of the calculus, for sure – but more importantly, an honest understanding of how many other people I am forcing to risk their own health and well-being by choosing this option.

I don’t want to be here, mired in angry judgement forever. And I also want someone to make this clear: we are bound to each other and your behavior – especially right now, in this global pandemic that’s been mismanaged by federal, state and local authorities time and time again – has an immediate and potentially deadly impact on everyone around you. It would behoove us to consider whose lives we’re choosing to put in danger when we make these choices.

the birds on my block

I’ve become an amateur, backyard birdwatcher during the pandemic. Last spring, I bought a tiny field guide and spent a lot of time on my porch, staring at the branches of the crab-apple tree that covers my front windows. I learned that I have a ton of Carolina Wren neighbors (who liked to sneak onto the porch itself until Franny terrified them away from our eaves). There’s a pair of chickadees, too, who always give me a thrill when they show up, and the cardinals love to chase each other. The woodpecker that hangs out on my block is such a ringer for his animated cousin, Woody, that I laugh every time I hear him and glance up to see a cartoon playing out in the tree above.

Then there is the neighborhood red-tailed hawk, who we like, and the resident wake of turkey vultures, who we do not. (Did you know that a group of vultures is called a “wake”? Well, that’s true only when they’re all perched in a group up in the trees or, here in my neighborhood, on the giant transmission towers that ferry the power lines cross the walking trails. It’s because they’re all sitting around, heads hanging as if they were in mourning, apparently.) I know all the reasons to appreciate vultures – they’re better than rats, they efficiently dispose of roadkill, etc., etc., etc.- but I still hate them.

It’s been a long winter. Here in North Carolina, the birds never really leave entirely, but over the last couple of weeks I have still been able to sense the presence of their return. I hear the wrens outside my window before my morning alarm. The bluebirds and cardinals were going crazy in the woods, feasting on worms, I suppose, after the week of rain.

And on a long walk yesterday, I saw a bird that I didn’t recognize. I’m still a bird-watching newbie, so that really doesn’t mean much in the grand scope of things, but it still made me excited. That bird is YELLOW! My brain flipped through its tiny repertoire of known birds: not a wren, not a chickadee, not a cardinal, not a finch, DEFINITELY not a woodpecker. I filed the shape and shade of the tiny little thing away, kept going on my walk, and by the time I got home, I’d forgotten about it.

But this morning, I heard the birds singing me a good morning song, again. I took the dog out and noticed them already up and at ’em, fully engrossed in their day’s packed schedule of singing, swooping, snacking and, you know, busily being BIRDS.

I came inside and picked up the field guide. Small bird, shades of yellow, here in North Carolina.

A PINE WARBLER! It lives in the tops of pine trees, eating bugs, caterpillars and spiders from the bark. Very vocal.

I’m reading The Wild Way of Jesus in morning prayer during this season, and all this talk about neighborhood birds is reminding me of an interview with the author, Anna Lisa Gross, on the Dunker Punks Podcast that I had the pleasure of hosting. Anna Lisa said, in that interview, that we need wilderness – maybe now more than ever. But she also assures us that we don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to immerse ourselves in wilderness: “It’s not practical and it’s not necessary to go out beyond places where there are roads or where there is wifi just to get into the wilderness. I think we can do that in our own lives.”

She invites us to “tune into what is living in our own neighborhoods. What’s alive in an empty lot or in that strip between the sidewalk and the street, or what is growing up through cracks in the pavement?” Anna Lisa picks up trash in her neighborhood as a spiritual practice, which she sees as “pledging allegiance in a small, prayerful way to the myriad living creatures in my city, on my block.” “I don’t even understand more than the tip of the iceberg of who is living on my street,” she says, noting that humans and squirrels and semi-stray cats take up a lot of space but are only the very beginning of the incredible diversity of LIFE and creation on any given block.

So, I’m paying more attention to the birds on my block. I was doing it before Lent began, but I appreciate Anna Lisa’s invitation to see this practice as a way to enter into the wilderness, even if the wilderness, for me, looks like a very infrastructure-rich suburban neighborhood trail that skirts power lines and busy streets.

The birds *fascinate* me. They live entire lives right in front of my nose, and I barely notice. We’re neighbors; the least I can do is learn their names.

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?