a light

The Aldi Cheese Advent Calendar was very gouda-forward this year. There was regular gouda, yes, but also: mustard gouda, jalapeño gouda, mediterranean gouda, red pesto gouda, black pepper gouda, and smoked paprika gouda. That’s…a lot of gouda.

This is a difficult season for so many people. I’ve been praying for folks who are sick, folks whose kids are sick, people who are stuck at home – and in airports – for Christmas thanks to the once-in-a-generation winter storm, people with fresh grief in need of comfort, people with always complicated family dynamics that are heightened during the holiday season. I’m worried this morning about the unhoused neighbor near our church building and hope he found someplace warm to spend the frigid night, and the power company just announced rolling blackouts to avoid a total power grid failure. On Christmas Eve. Thats…a lot of difficulty.

In these unrelenting seasons, it can start to feel like the difficult things just pile up until they start to repeat themselves. Another day, another weird flavor of gouda. How many ways can this crap get reheated and remixed? What other ridiculous condiment can Aldi throw into cheese? How long can Covid keep ruining Christmases? When will we ever learn to be gentle with one another? Can we ever figure out ways to make sure everyone has a warm place to spend the night? Is it even possible to live lightly enough on the earth so that we don’t face these crises of energy?

I feel you, Advent calendar. I am also limping across the finish line. And yes, I can’t keep the candles in my Advent wreath burning more than a couple of days. Love and joy gave up the ghost (again) this morning. But you know what? John doesn’t kick off his gospel by saying that the Light shines in…the sunshine. Mary and Joseph didn’t get put up in a 5-star Bethlehem resort. Jesus was born in an occupied territory, and his family became refugees as soon as he was born. Hope isn’t a thing we grab onto in times of gentleness and ease. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

Thanks for being part of this Advent journey, y’all. I’m adding you all to my Christmas Eve prayers, that whatever this day brings, it includes some gentleness and light in the midst of it all. Merry Christmas.

hope in the dark

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.” 

That’s from Wendell Berry’s novel, Hannah Coulter. It’s one of the descriptions of “hope” that I’ve been holding close this season, that I hold close all the time, actually. Hope is not expectation, and confusing the two can be horribly devastating. Expectation has a clear end-goal, like your elementary school report card. There are benchmarks and roadmaps and clarity of preferred outcome with expectation. Expectation, especially when we aim it at other people, gets very dicey.

Hope, on the other hand, is rooted in uncertainty. It is a posture that submits to the power of not-knowing. It requires curiosity and humility, a willingness to open our eyes and widen our search criteria. Rebecca Solnit has been another steadfast companion in this hope hunt. From her book, Hope in the Dark:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

(A sculpture I stumbled upon at the NC Botanical Gardens this week, the dandelion as a sign of hope)

I am fed up with both pessimism and optimism. They are, among other, more dangerous things, boring. I do not have much patience for hand-wringing these days, and even less for toxic positivity. I want to find out who is doing something interesting, and why, and how. In all the gigantic, complicated, cosmic and geologic conundrums filling the headlines and the cable news tickers, I want to hear stories about people on the margins and around the edges who decided to stop standing idly by and chose, instead, to believe that what they do – alone or with others – matters, whether they’ll ever know it or not.

It’s why I wanted to tell these stories this season – places where something is gaining traction, where people and systems are experimenting, trying and failing, knocking on walls until they hear a hollow spot, examining the perimeters until they notice a tiny place where the barriers are giving way. There’s no room for pessimism in this kind of living, and I imagine constantly brushing up against the violence of the murderous systems that govern our lives makes optimism hard to come by, too. But I do think that there is a lot of joy in it all.

I don’t know what comes next or how we get there, thank God. But I am, here at this strange juncture in this weird timeline, intensely curious and full of hope.

peace covenant

Last month, I sat down at a District Conference lunch table with a pastor I hadn’t spent much time with before, and we had a really lovely chat over our sandwiches and chips. This man has been a bivocational pastor for years, in a part of Southwest Virginia that regularly gets written off as irredeemable in a dozen different ways. He asked about how the new Brethren splinter denomination had affected my ministry and congregation, and then he said “Yeah, those guys tried to get me to come on over there with ’em, but you know I just think the job is about loving the people in your church. Don’t matter much what the church is called.”

It was clear from the few minutes I spent talking with this pastor that he’s really good at that: loving the people in his congregation. And it’s clear that they love him right back. That conversation in itself was hopeful. The glimpse I got of his ministry was hopeful.

I haven’t written about the church much in these little Advent essays, and that’s intentional. For one thing, I’ve written more than my fair share about the church over the years. And, for another, I just don’t find much hope in the (boring) (overwrought) machinations of church these days. But I do find hope in my tiny little congregation, and in the work of loving the people there. In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, I love my church.

If hope is partly about being okay with not knowing what the future will bring, my congregation lives a constantly hopeful existence. The last few years have been intense for everyone, and while Peace Covenant has pivoted and shifted and done intense discernment and made big changes in our life together, it has happened, for the most part, with only small doses of anxiety threading through the system. The congregation is always game to experiment – with hybrid worship, online music, visio divina Bible studies, partnerships with nearby congregations, new outreach ideas, even finagling the congregational governance structure so it fits our reality and doesn’t burn out our people. During the pandemic, we did serious work around white supremacy and racial justice, became an officially open and affirming congregation, spent months learning new prayer practices together, won grants for outreach projects, and sent nearly 1,000 handmade greeting cards to residents of four local nursing homes. That’s a tiny sliver of the life of this community, and it doesn’t even touch on the ways people have shown up for one another with visits and prayers and cookies and meals and cash.

In January, my role as pastor will move from 1/2 time to 1/4 time. That’s a big change, and combined with the smaller attendance and giving numbers, it has produced some anxiety. But already, I can see gifts of the shift emerging: a young adult volunteered to do worship tech on the weeks that I’m not preaching. Leadership is nurturing a relationship with a nearby Mennonite congregation that has tons of potential for shared ministry. Guest preachers are lining up for their chance to join worship. People are stepping up, creative possibilities are becoming clear, and the lightness with which this congregation holds their property, traditions and corporate purpose is coming to bear, once again.

When I first came to Peace Covenant 7 years ago, the phrase that they used to describe themselves was “informal but competent.” Since then, I’ve talked about this beloved group of gracious, committed, faithful people as “tiny but mighty.” I think, today, I’d add another phrase: “anchored but agile.”

Because this congregation knows its purpose, and it does not lie in property management or attendance figures, budget spreadsheets or ecclesial governance. Those are all important pieces of life together, and devoted people spend dozens of hours caring for them. But all those things serve the deeper, larger, all-encompassing work of loving one another and our neighbors well, of witnessing to the expansive love of God. Being anchored in that sense of purpose allows the congregation to weather change, to be willing to experiment and explore, to float on seas of uncertainty without fear of capsizing.

This has grown my own hope. Peace Covenant’s groundedness, openness, curiosity and commitment is hopeful. The congregation is, like nearly every other congregation these days, facing another round of big changes. But they’ve done that before, I think, and the questions these days, aren’t about “whether” or not things will work out; only “how.” And those curious “how” questions are hopeful.

foster families

I think this is a first in my blogging life: a guest post!

When I asked you all to share the places you’ve seen hope this year, my aunt Susan sent me a whole essay. She’s part of Summerdean Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Virginia, and their congregation has become active supporting kids and social workers in the foster care system. I know, because one of those kids was at our Thanksgiving dinner, that they are also intentional about connecting with and caring for parents and families of children in the system when it’s possible, and that they work to prevent children from entering foster care in the first place. Read about it in Susan’s own words!

I see HOPE in the actions and love of those persons involved in foster care!

I have had knowledge of foster care for a long time, probably since prior to 1976.  My brother in law was a foster care worker, my in-laws had foster care children.  In those years I really did not think much about why foster care existed or why it was needed.  The kids my in-laws had were a part of the family and loved and nurtured like their other kids.  But in the last 10 years, I have learned and observed much about foster care and had much more personal experience.  Summerdean COB has practiced “caring for the least of these.”  We have learned and experienced much as a church about foster care.   There are 200 children in foster care in Roanoke City and 5000 kids in foster care in Virginia.  Some people became passionate about foster and orphan care.  They encouraged others to care about these children.  Summerdean has met many physical needs through our church’s ministry, Project 127 and has supported a community ministry, Care Portal to meet needs.

BUT, more hopeful, people have become involved in foster care.  In our small congregation (average attendance is about 85) 11 adults or 6 homes have qualified as foster care providers.  All but one home has had children in their care.  The other home has recently qualified and is expecting a placement.  I have lost count of how many children these homes have served.  The children who were in the homes were loved, fed, clothed, and brought to church while with the foster family.  Over the last 4 years, FOUR, yes, FOUR precious children who were in foster care because their parents were unable to care for them have been adopted into Summerdean families where they will be loved.  THIS IS LOVE IN ACTION!!  THERE IS HOPE! These adopting families are supported in many ways by our congregation.  Our congregation is also offering encouragement to Roanoke City social workers in various ways.  

I had the privilege of praying for many of these families and children.  Today, there was a court hearing for one child to determine his future, my prayer is for wisdom for the judge and that the child will be in a safe, loving home.

Do you know that there are times when kids have nowhere to go?  They cannot stay in their home and a placement cannot be found for them.  What happens?  They live at the Department of Social Services until a place can be found.  This means social workers have to stay at work 24/7 to care for these children.  Love in action again-our congregation tries to take food to these kids so they don’t have to eat fast food all the time.

There is hope because someone cares enough about the children to insure that they are not in an unhealthy or dangerous home, someone cares enough to want these kids to thrive.  There is hope that these children will become productive adults.  But the real hope is seen in the children’s faces, in their hugs, in the smiles, to see them thriving, to hear them tell me Christmas is Jesus’s birthday.  Hope is seen in the families willing to give so much to provide for these kids. 

our hope

I used to be a big blog reader. I loved getting regular glimpses into other people’s worlds, dispatches from lives that were very unlike my own. The world moved on, though. Blogs got commodified and internet trolls amped up their game and then Google reader died and so did most of the vulnerable, personal, accessible online writing. I miss that old world, and so here I am, still stubbornly writing in this free & open format while everyone else has moved to substack newsletters with paywall protection. <shrug emoji>

One of my favorite bloggers was Rachel Held Evans. She became a big-time writer eventually, publishing several books and developing a serious following, getting critiqued and cancelled for being slower than some to reckon with race and gender justice. When she died in 2019 at 37, she left a massive emptiness in a particular part of the Christian writing world. But in the early days, I loved her blog because of the way she respected and included her readers. She didn’t treat her corner of the internet like a bully pulpit; she was genuinely interested in *conversation,* and built her website and her writing projects around attempts to facilitate spaces where people could contribute instead of simply consume. It was relational and conversational and generative, and I miss those internet places.

People don’t participate in that kind of conversation out in the internet open very often anymore. We got lazy and mean, and folks are, I think, reluctant to be honest and vulnerable in public. Which makes it all the more delightful when people choose to do it, anyway. I asked y’all what has brought you hope this year, and you answered, all over the internet. Here’s what you said:

Like me, a lot of your hope lies in young people. I am not surprised:

  • The acceptance of my two grandsons into a new city’s school. Their family moved from Davenport, IA to West Liberty where my son is CEO of WELEAD. The city is very diverse and the boys are in classes (2nd and kindergarten) with children that look like their aunts and uncles. Their intelligence isn’t a problem fir their teachers, as it was in Davenport.
  • One of the signs of hope in my life has been observing the positive changes in the young man who is my daughter’s boyfriend. His new position at CyberWoven has brought a much more positive attitude towards his/their lives!
  • My 20-year old daughter’s interest in understanding and voting on issues that affect us all
  • Watching my son grow while still being young enough to want snuggles
  • Improved math & reading scores (from a teacher)

Young people, yep, but also BABIES, in particular, and people who know the (not so hopeful) trajectory of our planet’s future choosing to have them:

  • Is it cliche to say the mere existence of babies? And children? They make me want to fight for everything good in the world
  • My climate scientist colleagues are having a baby!

But you’re finding hope in older people, too:

  • Elders who are still growing spiritually at 107…
  • Spiritually strong people who fall down but get back up again (thinking of some spouses of my hospice patients).

Gardens also featured prominently in the web of hope – again, not surprised:

  • I have had a lot of reasons to not be hopeful in the past year. I think the things that gave me much hope were in my garden. I forgot to water the tomato seedlings I’d started indoors, but managed to revive 3 of them, and 2 produced fruit. I gave my Italian parsley a “final harvest” for the year when overnight temperatures were supposed to drop below freezing, three times, and it bounced back each time. I pray to be as resilient and fruitful as the plants in my garden, trusting God to do the invisible work that makes them flourish.
  • My children actually taking care of a garden this year so they can get a pet.

A lot of your hope came from people being people – leaders with integrity, yes, but also people who disagree with you, volunteers showing up at just the right time, and church ladies doing their church lady thing:

  • Volunteers showing up when we can’t hire people – which might be something doing things for free when we can’t pay an employee to do it.
  • People who are working to build a better world. My great hope is that I have such a long list that continues to grow..
  • The sunrise each morning and the sunset each evening, the moon and stars, choirs and prayer services from St. Martins-in-the-Fields in London where they not only pray for all requested persons; they pray for the homeless, refugees, immigrants, war torn countries, the lonely and elderly, the grieving and for leaders with integrity.
  • For people who challenge my way of thinking. I may not agree with some of what you say but I read your posts every day to hear opinions and views that make me take a minute to question my views and possibly invite more investigation.
  • Church ladies knowing how to fix child meltdowns when I’m lost.
  • Our Pastor, Beth Jarrett.
  • Reading about OEP staff.

There’s also been a lot of hopeful healing this year, and even in situations where bodily repair wasn’t possible, hope amidst the grief of loss:

  • prayers for healing answered
  • Prayers for Cindy (Forbes) Jones
  • A year of good health, many friends with power of prayer, the recent passing of my elderly Mom and a close family friend/priest.  
  • A very dear friend lost her husband due to pancreatic cancer. And it was quick with only 2 months from diagnosis to his last breath. I was privileged to be with him a week before he died as friends prayed with him & said our goodbyes & wept. Despite he overwhelmingly grief, our prayers were prayers of hope, because we all have the assurance that we will be together again. We firmly believe that this life is not all there is & our longing for Christ’s return is even greater because this friend has gone on before us.

Some of y’all had some intensely hopeful experiences in 2022:

  • Visiting the Nobel Peace Center Museum in Oslo today and reading about all the amazing people who believed in risking everything to build a more peaceful world (through the work and examples of the Nobel Peace Laureates for over the past 100+ years!)
  • Meeting so many people in med school with such a wide variety of views/passions and realizing this new generation of doctors is one with a heart for continuing to make change 

And some of you are particularly practiced at finding hope in unexpected places:

  • Lindy and Zoey (a dog and a cat!)
  • Water volleyball!
  • Neglected Sourdough starter

My aunt Susan even wrote an entire essay about what has brought her hope, and gave me permission to share it here, which I’ll do tomorrow. I am encouraged by all these signs of hope, buoyed by your willingness to see and share them. I would love it if you kept sending me your glimpses of hope in the world, all those real, specific things that remind you that we live in a shifting, changing, dynamic and undetermined world where so very many things are still so very possible.

community care

I really liked the sermon I preached yesterday. I preach week in and week out, and the fact that I, personally, like a particular sermon does not necessarily have any correlation at all to its merit or power. Preaching is a strange thing. It’s not just writing, though that’s important, and it’s not just public speaking, though that can help. There’s an essential component of knowing your congregation, like being an embedded journalist except you don’t even have the benefit of the journalist’s objectivity because you’re all up in one another’s lives. And then there’s the part about how the Holy Spirit will sometimes hijack the whole thing, with or without your knowledge. It’s weird and I mostly love it, and I am also pretty happy this morning that I don’t have to preach again for three weeks.

Anyway, I liked the sermon I preached yesterday. The resources we’re using this season come from A Sanctified Art, and yesterday’s focus scripture was from Luke 1, when newly pregnant Mary packs up and travels to stay with her also-pregnant cousin Elizabeth for three months while fetus Jesus gestates. Mary shows up on Elizabeth’s doorstep and Elizabeth can barely contain her excitement. She dances and sings, the baby in her womb leaps for joy, she declares Mary – a pregnant, unwed, teenage cousin whose presence at Elizabeth’s far-away house is probably because she couldn’t stay at home in the whirl of shame and surveillance and accusation – to be “blessed among women.” And the commentary and reflections got me thinking about how there was absolutely no way that our spare nativity scenes, which almost always feature only Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, are accurate. Where are all the other people?!

We know, from history and even scripture itself, that the holy family was surrounded by friends and family, cousins and community from the very beginning. Mary lived for three months with her cousin while she was pregnant. If Joseph was “descended from the house and line of David” and had to travel to Bethlehem to get counted for the census, wouldn’t his brothers and cousins and aunties ALSO have had to make that journey? Didn’t they ALSO need to find some sort of AirBnB or Mennonite Your Way while they were there being counted? And even if the aunts and uncles had to bunk down in the next stable over, wouldn’t they all be crowded around the manger once that tiny baby was born? Wouldn’t they have been bringing Mary strong teas and cool cloths while she labored? Wouldn’t they have taken Joseph our for a walk or a drink while he waited?

And, we know that when Mary and Joseph did return home to Nazareth, they wouldn’t have bought some single family starter home to begin their life together. They almost certainly lived in a compound of extended family with three or four single-bedroom houses arranged around a central courtyard that had an oven, a cistern, a millstone and some goats. Co-housing at its purest. It is pretty ridiculous, when you think about it, the way we’ve photoshopped community care out of the nativity stories. It is pretty ridiculous, actually, the way we’ve erased communities of care from our own lives.

Last week, y’all shared dozens of places you’ve seen hope this year. I’ll write about those tomorrow. Sharing those experiences was an act of community care: I asked for help, and you provided. I have been the recipient of so much community care over the years, welcomed at so many thresholds and cared for by so many communities. I bet you have, too. The startling realization of preaching that sermon, though, is that Jesus – Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor, Savior of the World, King of Kings and Lord of Lords – was cared for, too. That over the course of Jesus’ own lifetime on earth, from before he was born until after he died, he was the recipient of gracious welcome and community care. He was fed, burped, rocked to sleep by people other than his mother. He was watched out for, corrected and redirected by aunties and uncles. He grew up with brothers and cousins and a passel of other kids, and he learned from teachers and grannies and probably a priest or two. He had 12 BFFs who committed to walking across Galilee with him for years, and in every town they entered, some cousin or stranger provided a meal and a place to spend the night. When he died, a rich stranger gave up his own cemetery plot so that Jesus’ body could be properly buried.

And that is hopeful: that even the Savior of the World relied on the care of his community; that his own life was saved over and over and over by people who understood that we belong to each other, in very tactile and material ways. That Jesus’ life was filled with teaching and preaching and healing other people, yes, but it was also all made possible because other people rocked and fed and taught and healed HIM. That even Jesus never even attempted to do it all on his own, so maybe we should give up trying, ourselves.

untellable tales

I read a novel last week about a pastoral search committee. Yes, a pastoral search committee. We writers will just write about anything, won’t we? The novel, called Search by Michelle Huneven, is a novelization about the author’s real-life experience serving for a year on the pastoral search committee of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It’s a good book. Not great, not on my 2022 favorites list, but good and solid writing filled with complicated characters and plenty of interpersonal conflict. I was distinctly impressed with the author’s ability to capture the everyday drama of congregational life, to give the small-scale drama of life together some airtime. I’m curious if people outside of church world are appreciating the book as much as I did, or if my high rating is because the people and context are so intimately familiar to my personal and professional life.

That intimacy has, apparently, gotten the author in hot water with the real-life people who were involved in the real-life search process that she turned into a novel. My Facebook web is pretty large, at least in the ecclesial sense, and a UU minister told me that there is an uproar across the denomination, because author almost certainly violated covenants to keep the work of search committee confidential, and, even worse, real-life people are recognizing themselves in the fictional characters, and are not necessarily happy about it.

I don’t know UU drama, but I know church drama. Confidentiality and transparency are dueling commitments in this work, and discerning which conversations and situations need to be aired out and which require careful, close tending is a very, very delicate ministry skill. Some of my colleagues choose to err on the side of caution and keep everything – every conversation, every story of trauma or transformation, every meeting and every process – close to the vest. I understand that impulse. And I also strongly disagree with it, especially when “confidentiality” compounds harm and reinforces unjust power dynamics. Whenever possible, I lean toward transparency.

And that “whenever possible” is actually a lot less frequent than you may think, especially having read all these little essays about other people that I’m writing during Advent. The work of a pastor includes being present for so many intimate moments and deeply personal struggles that I would venture to guess that a solid 75% of what I’ve done and where I’ve shown up as a pastor over the last decade are stories that I’ll never tell in public. And y’all, I tell a LOT of stories. Think about that: if 25% of this work yields enough story-telling to fill weekly sermons and daily writing, just imagine the stories I could tell…if I could tell them.

That’s not meant to be a teaser or a threat – those stories really are not mine to tell, and I won’t. I don’t need the cautionary tale of that search committee novel drama to know that telling other people’s stories is fraught with ethical conundrums and a zillion ways to mess it up. The trepidation I’ve carried this season about how people will respond to my words is fairly heavy – and I’m writing NICE THINGS! I never cared this much when I wrote angry things! I have been diligent about asking permission before writing about folks in this series, and sending the links to people to let them know that they are out here in public on Al Gore’s internet. Transparency + confidentiality, y’all, they go hand in hand.

What I’m trying to say is that my list of things that brought me hope this year also includes at least a dozen things that I cannot write about, at least not yet. They are stories of tender caregiving and hard-won relational repairing, incredible bodily healing and powerful boundary setting. My list includes a long string of names of people who have spent this year acting as caregivers, to aging people and tiny people. It includes a not-insignificant number of people who have fought The Man and, such as it is, won. It includes people who gave up and dropped out and decided to live outside the systems of oppression that kept them small, and then quietly, consistently, lovingly called me – and others – over and over to insist that we could do that, too. You won’t see stories like this in the headlines, because their power isn’t in how many ad views they can generate; their power is in the very smallness, the very intimacy and ineffability of their impact. Actions speak louder than words, I suppose.

But I’m a word girl. They’re what I’ve got. I wish I could tell these stories, let you all in on the depth of love and resilience and disciplined hope that I get to witness day in and day out. For now, just know: hope really is all around.

my dad

This year, the year I turned 40, my teeth went bad and I developed high blood pressure. I mean, yes, sure, teeth rot over time and blood pressure ratchets up with age and stress. I did not spend the last decade stewarding my body very well. The truth is probably more like: this year, the year I turned 40, I finally started going to the doctor regularly and being attentive to my aging self. But it sure feels like 40 arrived and my body summited the peak of vitality and immediately started going downhill.

I am a responsible, independent adult whose vocation involves caring for others all the time, and I mostly manage my life pretty well. But when things go wrong, my first instinct is still, usually, to call my parents. What a gift that I still can, that I still want to. In the middle of the teeth saga, after I’d gone to the endodontist and found out that one of my teeth couldn’t be saved and had to be pulled, I called my dad. I knew Dad went to the dentist a lot, that my dental genes were a straight chip off the old block, but I didn’t know, until I called him in a very, very anxious moment, that he had also had a run-in with the dental profession around age 40, endured a spate of fillings and root canals and extractions himself. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I did all that. You just gotta keep on top of it. Now I go to the periodontist and get the gum treatments, and it’s actually kind of pleasant and the doctor is my friend!”

The other week, when another doctor suggested that I might need to address my slowly rising blood pressure, I called my dad again. The blood pressure thing feels even more urgent than the teeth – harder to manage, for one, and you can’t just pull out your circulatory system like you can a rotten molar, for another. “Yep,” Dad said, “I’ve been taking blood pressure medication for almost 30 years! Started when I was right around your age.” Dang it, Dad. These genes are messing with my youth!

If you know my Dad, there’s a very good chance that you love him. He’s tall and friendly and always up for an adventure. He’s got a secret handshake that he perfected thirty years ago and people – especially young people; I watched my nephew launch into it when he saw Dad after his basketball game last month – STILL greet him with it. He’s funny and steady and a really good friend. When I asked the other day on Facebook what has given y’all hope this year, one of you answered by simply tagging my dad’s name in a comment.

And you know what? My dad gives me hope, too. Even in the midst of a pandemic, even during a weird pandemic retirement, even through a prolonged season of grief, he still finds ways to connect with people and enjoy life. My friend Ann said a few months ago that my grandparents had somehow figured out how to live their best lives in the way that made so many other lives better all at the same time, and that is how Dad lives, too. I hope I can figure out how to carry on the family tradition. I hope that disposition of enjoyment and connection flows through my genes just as definitively as bad teeth and high blood pressure.

Today is Dad’s 65th birthday, and while I think he might be having trouble believing he’s that old, I’m pretty sure he’s going to find a way to enjoy it, certain that he’ll still be cracking jokes and sharing secret handshakes, whatever this new year may bring.

Happy birthday, Dad! Love you lots.

hope help

It’s the 20th day of Advent, and I am tired. I made a master list of all the things that need to get done in the next 8 days: finish lingering work projects, submit job applications with end-of-year deadlines, manage documents for a lease renewal and a new health insurance policy, keep up with two current part-time jobs, finish my Christmas shopping, buy groceries for all the special dishes on deck this week, bake cookies, make party mix, fix oyster stew, host a Christmas Eve gathering at home, plan and lead Christmas Day activities at church, pack and prepare to be on the road for a week as soon as Christmas lunch ends. The list is long. I don’t need to tell you what that feels like – I’m sure your list is just as long, if not longer.

Lists are life. At the outset of Advent, I sat down and made a list of the hopeful things I wanted to write about. The list was robust enough that it convinced me to take on the daily writing on top of the busiest time of year, and it has been a really important practice to carry me through this weird season. I’m still committed to writing every day. There are still several entries on the list waiting for their turn to be featured, but the list will end before Christmas arrives. So, I asked on Facebook yesterday, and I’ll ask here, today: what, specifically, has brought you hope this year? Leave a comment, here or there. We’ll keep hope alive, together.

In the meantime, some words on hope from Jan Richardson:

Rough Translations

Par’ elpida ep’ elpidi.
—Romans 4.18, Greek New Testament (Literally, “Against hope with hope.”)

Hope nonetheless.
Hope despite.
Hope regardless.
Hope still.

Hope where we had ceased to hope.
Hope amid what threatens hope.
Hope with those who feed our hope.
Hope beyond what we had hoped.

Hope that draws us past our limits.
Hope that defies expectations.
Hope that questions what we have known.
Hope that makes a way where there is none.

Hope that takes us past our fear.
Hope that calls us into life.
Hope that holds us beyond death.
Hope that blesses those to come.

tomato seeds

Our plucky little garden at the Parktown Food Hub operates, for the most part, on donations. We re-use and re-purpose things you would probably never guess had a second life hidden inside them. Our raised beds are constructed out of used shipping containers. The good soil in the beds is the result of three years of amending the North Carolina clay with broken bags of soil and mulch donated to us by the friendly folks at Triangle Ace Hardware down the street and our gorgeous house-baked compost, itself made up of the cast off of the cast off of the cast off from our broken food systems, and an unimaginable tonnage of shredded cardboard packaging.

Even Fran volunteers out in the garden.

The compost at the Hub is hard-working. Prevailing wisdom is that you shouldn’t put meat or dairy in your home compost pile because it will make the whole thing smell or attract unwanted diners to the pile. But our compost? It’s so fast and full and filled with browns (all that shredded cardboard packaging and unending fallen leaves from around the property) that it can eat up almost anything we feed it, save those dad gum tools of the devil, the produce stickers.

Last fall, Honey Bee Hills, one of the farmers at the South Durham Farmer’s Market (who share their food with the Hub every week throughout the year, getting elusive fresh produce into homes that struggle to find it) donated a boatload of tiny, delicious sungold tomatoes. Things move fast at the Hub, with literal tons of food coming in and going out each week, but we weren’t quite fast enough to get the tiny sungold tomatoes out to neighbors before they started to wilt and leak. The whole lot of them went into the compost, where the fruit decomposed and joined all the other rotting waste in making us more gorgeous soil. But those sungold seeds…

This year, we we shoveled the beautiful, dark brown compost onto all our spring beds in the garden and planted new seeds in them: lettuce and herbs and peppers and squash and cucumbers. And before we knew it, those sungold seeds, hidden away in the dark, dank, fertile world of the compost all those months, started sprouting…everywhere.

Tomato sprouts came up in the pepper bed.

Tomato sprouts appeared among the squash vines. 

Tomato sprouts filled the cucumber plot. 

A raised bed full of lettuce got taken over by sungold tomatoes. We tried to weed them out and finally, after weeks and weeks of weeding, just gave up and ceded the lettuce bed over to sungolds. The herb garden which we had neatly trimmed and tended, filled to bursting with the largest tomato vines I have ever witnessed, where tiny tomato after tiny tomato budded and grew and ripened faster than we could pick them. Volunteers spent several hot, sweaty Saturdays trying to wrestle the vines into submission. We had so many tiny tomatoes that we decided to send people home with tomato sauce kits – sungolds and herbs from our garden and a little recipe for how to roast and simmer them into homemade sauce. 

I have weeded out more tomato sprouts than you can imagine over the last six months, so many that the tiny little tomato stalks have filled my dreams some nights – and they JUST KEPT COMING. I think finally, here in mid-December, after a giant construction project and a few freezing nights, we *might* have come to the end of the sungold sprouts. Maybe.

I shared this story in a sermon about the parable of the mustard seed back in October, and when I told Farmer Rich from Honey Bee Hills farm about it, he quipped: “Just goes to show, doesn’t it, that sometimes you reap what you DON’T sow!” And, well, his sermon would probably have been better than mine.

I’ve already written about how Rich and Liz sold Honey Bee Hills and are living on their sailboat, now, and the hopefulness of people upending rotten food systems to make sure everyone has enough. But I have also found hope this year in the seeds themselves. Those sungolds were done. Finished. Rotten. Kaput. Left for dead in the compost pile. We were grateful for their service, grateful for the donation, grateful to have them added to the rotting mound that would eventually become new soil, but we never expected that they would SPROUT. We did not plant those seeds – they hid out, waiting for the right moment, and when the sun finally arrived, they did what they do: found water and light and germinated, grew into giant vines and produced food that ended up feeding a dozen or more families.

And I wonder, in these days when things are dying all around us, if we might choose to believe the truth of the garden: that what we perceive as the end might actually be a beginning in disguise. That those systems and habits and familiar patterns that we sense fading or being taken, abruptly, away from us might not be lost to total oblivion. Maybe, instead, they’re just in the process of shedding their detritus and hiding the seeds away, wintering for a while until the conditions align for them to break open into the new thing, in the new place, for the new people.

I suspect that is happening all around us. I hope it is true.