the oldest mountains in the world

Isn’t time a weird concept? Like, at some point, human beings decided that our commercial needs were more important than the sun’s own rhythm, more pressing than the earth’s very rotation, and put numbers on the hours, created a false “high noon,” and then convinced everyone around the globe to just…go with it. Instead of allowing our creaturely bodies to follow the ebb and flow of the days and the seasons, we imposed a rigid structure – that doesn’t even work very well – and then invented the clock and set it to our own human-created idea of time. We’re stuck in it, now, this made-up idea that 6am means anything, while the sun and the moon just go on, ignoring our precocious death-march, rising and setting according to planetary rotation and seasonal needs. I can’t think about this too long, or else my mind gets very, very messy.

We are very caught up in our own human-made ideas of time, though. Are you someone who arrives early, late or on-time? Do you have a particular kind of calendar or detailed planner that keeps you tethered to your life’s plan? How often do you scribble sunrise or sunset into that datebook? How often do we take time to consider the pattern and tempo of what’s going on in the ground or sky, instead of inside our cell phones and smart watches?

I’ve been thinking about this as the sun takes a break for winter, as our planet leans over and sends us into these months meant for hibernating, re-grouping, gathering ourselves in. I’ve been thinking about time. It started by wondering about all the people who have lived through global catastrophe before – floods and flus, urgency and upheaval. And then, I started thinking about the earth itself. Talk about upheaval.

I grew up in the midst of the oldest mountains on earth. The Appalachians first formed over 480 MILLION YEARS ago. That number is so big that my brain can’t even grasp it. They grew for 200 million years, then Pangea broke up, the mountains unfolded, and it took another couple hundred million years before volcanoes erupted and plates banged together and the mountains I know were thrown up into the sky. 65 million years ago.

For millions of years, those mountains stood, subject to wind and rain and rivers that carved routes across and down and through them. Ancient plants grew. (Did you know that the Magnolia evolved BEFORE BEES? It grew to be pollinated by beetles, because God hadn’t created the bee just yet). Animals evolved, and thrived, and then went extinct. (did you know that Appalachia is the Salamander Capital of the World?) It wasn’t until 16,000 years ago that humans started hanging out in my mountains, native peoples like the Cherokee who were summarily killed and evicted when European colonizers arrived thousands of years later.

I find that geologic sense of time, in which humans barely register as a blip on the graph, to be hopeful. My mountains – the peaks that have cradled my heart and formed my faith – existed so far before me, so long before humanity, even, that I can’t begin to imagine all that they know and all that they hold. What power does my Google calendar, the tyrannical digital ruler of my days, have in the face of such longevity? My despair over day to day challenges pales in the light of tectonic ruination and volcanic rebuilding. There’s this line from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that is something like my life verse (and Annie Dillard has always been something like my life force, Pilgrim something like my life’s source):

“Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

The mountains are home. I’ve always known that. When I finally launched myself off to college in the flatlands after a year of false starts, my Mom drove up on the Blue Ridge Parkway when the leaves started turning that fall and took panoramic photos with a real, film-based camera, had them developed and sent them to me in the mail. Those mountains lived on my cinderblock dorm wall as long as I could keep them from fading. But what home actually means has changed over these decades. The mountains are still where I want to be, where my soul is oriented, the true north of who I am.

These days the mountains are also something bigger, richer, more cosmic and geologic, not just my own individual home, but part of the underlying and reassuring reality that human existence is created and contingent, a blip on the timeline of the world, part of an existence that we did not construct and do not determine. We can fill our calendars til the cows come home, fiddle with Daylight Savings Time all we want, hem and haw and fuss and worry about fitting it all in, but none of it changes the stark reality that we are not in control, here, that there is another orogenic plan at work and we are tiny, powerless subjects suspended in its wake.

And given all the damage that humans are doing these days, all our self-important apocalyptic predictions and pleas, I find that hopeful. That the oldest mountains in the world aren’t buying our bullshit or suffering us fools. They’re just looking on from their Paleozoic perch, shaking their heads and clucking their tongues at our Anthropogenic hubris.

parables

Did you know that in Matthew and Luke – the two robust, narrative gospels about Jesus’ life – nearly half of all the things Jesus says are in the form of parables? Matthew clocks in at 43% and Luke ratchets that up to 52%. John doesn’t do parables at all and Mark, hellbent on getting from the stable to the tomb in 60 seconds or less, only includes 6. But Matthew and Luke – who expand on Mark’s skeleton frame to give us bigger, richer, juicier accounts of who Jesus is and why he matters – spend most of their dialogue time repeating Jesus’ weird little stories that we call parables.

My tiny congregation spent time this fall studying Jesus’ parables together. We had a New Testament expert join us to kick it off, and then we blazed our own trail through scripture, with the help of Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine. I’d read her book before, and spent time studying and preaching every one of the parables that we studied, but I was still blown away alongside my people as we worked to understand Jesus’ enigmatic teachings in new ways.

It turns out that Jesus had a repertoire of around 40 stories that he probably told over and over as he traveled across the Galilee, and none of these stories were dry legal lectures on scriptural interpretation or treatises on the sinfulness of the people who showed up in hordes to listen to him. Jesus would probably be appalled at most of the preaching we do and tolerate in churches today (but then, I’m pretty sure Jesus would be appalled at lots of things we do and tolerate in church today). Jesus told stories, and they were stories about the stuff of every day life. God does not show up in the parables as a named character at all. Well, there’s one disputed possible God-character in a parable set in the afterlife, but for all intents and purposes Jesus was not telling stories about gods and their expectations.

Instead, Jesus told stories set in kitchens and gardens and family homes, stories filled with sibling rivalries and labor disputes, courtroom dramas and kids who got lost. Dr. Richard Lischer, who wrote the Interpretation Commentary on the Parables (a big deal if you’re a preacher) and joined us for the first session of our study, told us that Jesus’ parables act as a bridge between secular and religious communities. But that does not mean that Jesus lured people in with a good story and then pulled a bait & switch to evangelize them or trick them into following him, joining his congregation or professing allegiance to any particular belief system: Jesus told the stories and then just…let them lie. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine says that he would tell a story and then expect his hearers to go and work it out on their own – maybe the best form of teaching.

I am fed up, burnt out and tired of most of what passes for church these days, but Jesus never bores me. I am never disappointed when I spend time seeking to understand who he was and what he taught. The parables – stories of tiny things with huge impact, hidden things holding great meaning, stories of what mercy and justice look like in PRACTICE instead of in memes – reminded me why I’m still devoted to this way of life.

I love teaching. I got to create my own curriculum for this study, custom-built for my beloved congregation, which is one of those tiny, mighty things with huge impact, a place where we try, together to practice mercy and justice in material ways. Our congregation, like most congregations, has gotten even tinier over the last year, and studying Jesus’ teachings about the power of small things to surprise and delight has been hopeful. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to things like mustard seeds and yeast, turns our attention away from kings and politicians and power brokers to laborers, outsiders, widows and enemies. I suspect that we would all do well to shift our attention in this way, right here and right now – fewer fear mongering notifications on our cell phones and more time spent chatting with our neighbors, less time wallowing in the headlines and more time noticing what’s going on down the street, down the stairs, in our kitchens, in our gardens.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of God is like yeast. The kingdom of God is like someone who leaves all they have to find the one lost thing, their one lost kid, and throws a party when she’s found. The kingdom of God is like your sworn enemy saving your life. The kingdom of God is like Universal Basic Income. The kingdom of God is like…this:

plowshares

Raise your hand if you’re SO OVER online conferences. Yeah, me too. The internet has been a lifeline over these pandemic years: I discovered the joy of online RPGs (another hope post for another day), pastored people from across the state and across an ocean, and attended lectures and concerts with people I never dreamed I’d get to interact with so intimately. But so far as I can tell, the online *conference* dynamic is just one giant boondoggle. I’ve attended a dozen or so, and not a single one has been satisfying or well-done. The joy of conferences is the surprised hello in the hallway, the late-night drinks and new connections, the casual running-into and meeting-up with other people, and I’m convinced that there is no good way to recreate that over screens. I’ve seen a bunch of attempts, and have scrunched up my face at them all. A meeting, a class, a game, a worship service: sure. The internet can handle that, and we can get creative in how we build in interaction and attentiveness to one another. A conference, though? Let’s just draw the line right there.

BUT. I attended one (meh) conference this fall where I heard this song performed “live.” I mean, the artist was there, in the venue, and played it in real time as I watched from my tiny laptop hundreds of miles away. And even though it involved all those fiber optics and pixels and tinny digital decibels, the song stopped me in my tracks. And then, last week, the same song was a recommended hymn in my Advent worship resource. Here it is: Spencer LaJoye’s “Plowshare Prayer.”

You can learn more about LaJoye’s inspiration and process for the song here.

I’ve spent a significant portion of the last couple of years hearing stories from young people who have been deeply hurt – harmed, ostracized, abused, cast out, disbelieved, ignored – by the church. I’m pretty sure some of these folks will never darken the doorstep of a traditional “church” for the rest of their lives, and I think that is a very, very wise and healthy decision on their part. Nearly once a week, I decide to join them, then change my mind, then decide again.

Here’s the hopeful part: these people, at least the ones I’ve been listening do, do not believe that the church is right in their abuse. They have not decided to do what the church asked of them, which is almost always to sit down and shut up. Instead, they have raised their voices, sought out support, insisted on a hearing and then insisted on reparations. They have removed themselves from situations of harm, but they have not quit advocating for an end to the harm altogether.

I’m not sure what else to say, except that these young people have saved me. They have transformed my prayer life, and shifted the way I think about boundaries and belonging. I am in awe of them, chastened and emboldened, both. Their refusal gives me hope.

I pray if a prayer has been used as a sword against you and your heart, against you and your word, I pray that this prayer is a plowshare, of sorts

hopeful and hungry

During my sabbatical back in March, I spent one non-preaching Sunday with my friends Lisa and Sharon planting potatoes at Honey Bee Hills Farm. A couple of years ago, grounded at home due to the pandemic after years of traveling all the time, I finally realized my dream of becoming a CSA member, and Honey Bee Hills invited all their CSA members out to the farm to help plant potatoes. It was fantastic!

CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a model of supporting small, local farmers. Members pay a flat fee up front at the beginning, and then receive produce regularly throughout the season. That way, farmers have large amounts of cash in hand to get their season started, and members are assured a regular delivery of local, seasonal produce. The customer, having paid up front, assumes risk alongside the farmer. If there’s too much rain or not enough, too many pests or too few pollinators, you might not end up getting what you paid for. But that has always been the way of farming, and it’s much more honest and elemental – and delicious – than buying hothouse tomatoes shipped across the country.

These days, farmer’s markets and CSA arrangements have a whiff of classism and virtue signaling about them. Somehow, we humans have managed to brand and stratify the most elemental of human activities. What and how and where we EAT – one of the only universally necessary activities for existing in a human body – has been turned into a branding tactic, a way to symbolize who we are, how much money we have, what kind of people we hang out with, and how much worth we ascribe to ourselves. Even as I *savored* the produce that filled my fridge and stomach every week from Honey Bee Hills, I wondered about the injustice of the fact that I am able to afford the (steep but worth it) up-front cost while hundreds of families struggle to access much of any fresh produce – much less local, organic, delicious kinds like this.

But: I grew up going regularly to the Roanoke City Market, the oldest continuously operating farmer’s market in Virginia. My Grandpa Bobby told a story about being sent down to the market when he was a kid to buy a whole chicken and bring it home on the bus. My grandparents knew the farmers on the market by name, asking after their kids and siblings while they palmed peaches, talking about the possibility of rain while they filled paper sacks with half-runners. Buying your produce from a local farmer wasn’t a status symbol; it was just how you – and everybody else – got the food you needed to feed your family. How did something so simple become so fraught?

I’m not sure how to articulate the hopefulness in this conflicted joy of mine. I have been SO happy and nourished and connected in being a part of this local, organic farm CSA. It changed my diet and the way I deal with waste. It seeded in me a newfound appreciation for the people who grow and tend and harvest the food that nurtures my body and being. And, along with working at a local food pantry, it made me aware of how absolutely ridiculous and inhumane our food systems are.

Farmers Liz and Rich at Honey Bee Hills have been some of the most generous donors to the Parktown Food Hub, where I work. Their local, organic, delicious, fresh produce has fed me and also hundreds of neighbors who struggle to feed their families. The South Durham Farmer’s Market, where I picked up my CSA box every Saturday, participates in both SNAP Double Bucks (doubling the value of public food assistance when folks use it on fresh produce at the market) and a WIC program that makes fresh produce accessible to eligible WIC recipients. There are stopgap measures in place to make good, local food available to everyone. But it isn’t enough. It’s not sufficient. Everyone should be able to have a bag of beautiful, lovingly grown, filling, nurturing vegetables to stock their fridge each week, whether they make $50,000 a year or $5,000.

I suppose part of the hopefulness of this unfairly expensive joy is that my eyes have been opened. I want to continue eating this way AND I want it to be accessible to everyone, too. Farmers Liz and Rich sold the farm this fall and returned to their work as international aid workers, so my fridge is sort of empty and forlorn at the moment. I’m actively searching for ways to eat fresh and local while at the same time supporting processes and practices and policies that allow all my neighbors to do the same. This is Durham, so there are a zillion possibilities: The Tall Grass Food Box supports Black farmers. Feed Durham is a grassroots community cookout that started during COVID and has evolved into a huge, volunteer-led, love-filled operation. I just learned about Transplanting Traditions, which supports refugees in growing and sharing traditional foods, a work of food sovereignty.

And my own South Durham Farmer’s Market is a treasure trove of local food, including mushrooms, honey, even freshly harvested NC OYSTERS. And that in itself – the sheer number of options for eating local food – is hopeful, I suppose. That there are so many folks literally invested in changing the ways we share food, that so many of these people delight in growing things that nourish and surprise and encourage me and all my neighbors, that this fundamental human need to feed ourselves and one another has led to so much innovation and creativity and mouthwatering bliss.

Now I’m hopeful AND hungry.

baldwin

The leader of a course I took this fall mentioned James Baldwin’s memoir, “No Name in the Street” during class one evening, and I went out the next day and bought it. I am not a James Baldwin expert, just an admirer. I haven’t read everything he ever wrote, just a sampling. I cannot tell you anything that Baldwin could not tell you himself, and better. You should read Go Tell it On The Mountain or The Fire Next Time, go watch If Beale Street Could Talk or I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin opens windows in my brain. It feels like he is writing from yesterday, not half a century ago, reporting from the streets in 2022 instead of 1968.

Lines from Baldwin show up all over the internet, especially if your internet algorithm looks anything like mine. But I hadn’t heard this one, from No Name in the Street, before, and I have grabbed it, claimed it, stocked it in my heart’s library for frequent and eternal reference:

Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.

I have been disappointed again and again by people these last few years – both by other people and by myself. Institutions, individuals, governments and denominations: not, in action, worth very much. I have been disgusted and depressed, thrown my hands up in the air in surrender. And still, even in the midst of this tectonic shifting of belief and belonging, the accelerated erosion of trust and loyalty, the unprecedented miracle of each human being persists. It’s a paradox, requiring more humility and compassion than is regularly at my disposal these days.

But, thanks to Baldwin, I can try: to treat each person as the miracle they are, even while I protect myself against the disaster they’ve become. This is high level hoping, y’all, and I am still a novice. But I am practicing.

HEART

Sometime during the pandemic (my sense of time is addled), a new neighbor moved into the lower level of my building. She kept different hours than I did, going out late at night dressed to the nines and coming home very loudly in the middle of the night. Mostly, that’s just what apartment living is, living differently than the people who share your walls. Russell from downstairs works night shift at the front desk of an airport hotel, and we usually say good morning when I’m walking Fran. I’m sure I disturb Alexis, who lives underneath me, when I get up at the crack of dawn to write prayers on Sunday mornings, when she’s barely gotten home from her Saturday night out. I sort of like sharing walls with people and learning the patterns of their lives.

But this new neighbor didn’t really ever establish patterns. She got up and went to work in scrubs early most mornings, but nothing else ever resolved into predictability. As the weeks went by, it became clear that her new apartment was a place of refuge for a big network of young people. Folks came, stayed a while, got their feet under them, and moved on. I was annoyed at the lack of consistency and revolving door of neighbors, but I also came to have a grudging respect for how this young woman was created stability for a bunch of very young folks, and started to feel a certain protectiveness for them all.

But then one person came, and stayed. They were clearly intertwined in an intense relationship with the woman who had signed the lease, and the relationship got volatile. There were lots of screaming matches, some out in the parking lot. And then the screaming matches got physical. They’d fight, and the building would shake. I wasn’t sure what to do or how to intervene. Friends suggested I let these neighbors know that I was glad to offer a space of refuge or help, but I couldn’t even tell which person was the instigator or abuser and which one was being hurt the most. Usually, the fights would flare up and out pretty quickly, but one night, the building shaking went on, and on, and on, and on. I finally went out into the hallway, where another neighbor, Anna, was also looking worried. “Should we call the police?” I asked, wary of what extra violence and burden that might bring. “Yes,” she said. “I’m calling.”

The fighting neighbors were both young, Black, queer people. The two Durham City Policemen who arrived were very young, white, blonde men, with guns. I did not feel safer with the police and their guns present in the building, and I KNOW my fighting neighbors didn’t either. When the cops knocked on their door and announced who they were, the apartment went quiet. One of the neighbors silently left out the back door. There was no more fighting that night, and the police left without ever interacting with my fighting neighbors, a relief for all of us. A couple months later, those neighbors moved out, and I still wonder where they are and how they’re doing.

//

You’ve probably heard the slogan “Defund the Police,” maybe even read about the abolition movement where that phrase originated. I’ve lived a pretty police-avoidant life, mostly because of my race and class and not because of any particular commitment to clean living. But I have learned from friends and neighbors that in situations involving BIPOC or poor people, calling the police is hardly ever the right move, because police make a situation *more* volatile, bring guns and threat of arrest into conflict, and have a documented history of assaulting, harming and killing the people they are called to interact with. “Unless someone is actively dying,” a neighbor once told me, “we do not call the police. Ever.”

Here in Durham, folks have been organizing for years to shift safety and wellness practices out of the hands of police and into the hands of the community. I have been less active in this work as I might have been, my involvement confined to giving money and signing petitions, but I have been paying attention, too. In 2019, the coalition won their campaign to establish a city office of Community Safety. I 2021, the City shifted funding from 5 open police officer positions and $1 million from the County budget to begin a pilot program. In June of this year, the city deployed its first HEART (Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Team) teams – unarmed teams of licensed mental health clinicians, peer support folks, and EMTs – to divert 911 calls away from armed police response. If a 911 call comes through the dispatch that is about a suicide threat, a mental health crisis, trespassing, welfare checks, an intoxicated person, panhanding, nuisance, prostitution, public indecency or a lost person (where the person doesn’t have a weapon and isn’t being violent toward others), a HEART team goes to the scene instead of police officers. In some other, more dangerous situations, the Office of Community Safety is piloting a project that sends mental health clinicians out on certain kinds of calls WITH police officers, an attempt to de-escalate situations AND research just how many kinds of calls for help might be served by unarmed response teams.

You can learn more about these programs on Durham’s own website, in local news and in this feature spot with Sanjay Gupta on CNN. The data is overwhelming. Check out the city’s dashboard and you’ll see that the new initiative has responded to over 2,000 calls in the last 5 months (and, if they had the capacity, could have responded to over 6,000), that the unarmed responders felt safe 99% of the time, and that more than 3/4 of the situations were resolved immediately on the scene.

The HEART responders weren’t up and running when my neighbor called the police for the domestic disturbance in our building. Even now, a domestic violence call would be one that triggered a “Co-Response Team” visit – maybe a trained mental health professional would have arrived alongside those two young, white, armed policemen. But I read that during one of the HEART team conversations, the neighbor in need of assistance saw their white van and teal shirts arrive on the scene and said, “Oh, I was hoping it would be you guys who showed up!” The pilot program was only operating in a certain geographic area, and confined to weekday business hours. But already, the results have been so promising that the city has added a second team of HEART responders and expanded to 24/7 coverage.

And that, my friends, is hopeful. Another way of responding to need, put into practice, right here in my city. Not cable-news vitriol, not partisan bumper stickers, not empty talk: a real, creative, publicly funded, community supported, on-the-ground alternative, proving its worth and effectiveness in real time. I am so glad to live here in Durham, where hope and HEART walk the streets in teal t-shirts every day.

the dentist

You know those nightmares where your teeth just fall out of your mouth? It happened to me in real life last February. I was sitting on my couch one night, munching on some Cheetos, and an old dental crown just…fell out. Of my mouth. I had one of those hysterical reactions where you can’t decide whether to laugh or cry, called my mom, then made a list of emergency dentists to call the next morning.

I don’t go to the dentist because I hate going to the dentist. I don’t think I had any particularly bad experience at the dentist as a kid – my parents took me regularly, and I always needed something fixed – I just hate the experience. I hate sitting immobilized in that chair, staring up at the ceiling while someone else picks and prods in my mouth. I hate the feeling of that tiny hook they use to get the tartar off your gums, and I hate the way the drilling shudders through your skull when they have to clean something out. I hate going to the dentist, so I just didn’t go.

For, like, seven years.

It turns out that avoiding the dentist is a very bad plan for…avoiding the dentist. The morning after my hysterical tooth-falling-out episode, I called around to find a dentist that could accept a new patient for an emergency procedure. Several places told me no, but I finally got a “yes” from Riccobene and Associates Dentistry, right around the corner from my house. I showed up later that morning filled with dread and anxiety and, to be honest, not a small amount of shame about the way I’d neglected my own self.

Dr. Austin and the team of dental hygienists looked in my mouth, said, yep, that crown sure did fall out, and fixed me right up. And then they said, well, you should probably come in for, like, a regular exam to see what else needs fixing. And I said, sure, but let’s wait until after my month-long sabbatical in March, because Lord knows going to the dentist is not included on the list of things that bring me respite and relief.

In April, I went back. And then I went back again. And again. And again, and again, and again and again. I have been to the dentist TWELVE times this year, all told. Dr. Austin and her team replaced old fillings, did a couple new ones, cleaned my teeth with a WATER THING instead of that horrible old metal pick, sent me to an endodontist to see about re-doing an old root canal gone bad and, when that turned out not to be feasible, pulled an old rotten tooth right out of my mouth. They set me up with flossing instructions and a shiny new electric toothbrush. On Halloween, I went for a 6 month check-up and, for maybe the first time in my adult life, emerged from the visit CAVITY-FREE.

I hate going to the dentist. Every time I went into the office, I told them that, and every time, they responded with patience, kindness, humor and care. I drug so many years of anxiety and shame with me into that dental chair this spring, feeling terrified and panicky, mortified about the state of my teeth, and embarrassed by my mortification. My blood pressure, which they took before every procedure, was off the charts. I have new breathing techniques and meditation destinations, now. If you’re reading this, then I probably prayed for you from that dentist’s chair this spring, because I prayed for every single person I could think of during those procedures in order to distract myself from the terror and anxiety and fear. I read about sedation dentistry – where you’re under anesthesia for the duration of whatever procedure you’re having – and seriously considered it, even though it would have meant spending MORE thousands of dollars in dental bills.

But here’s what happened, at every single one of those appointments this year: I showed up, wracked with fear and worry and shame, and I was received with gentleness, understanding, and compassion. Every. Single. Time. Dr. Austin explained everything in minute detail, which is my love language. Jon, who was my hygienist several times, taught me more about 80s pop music than I ever hoped to learn, keeping up a constant monologue for HOURS to calm me. Another hygienist told me all about her nieces and nephews and what a great place that office was to work in. Another woman, when she learned I was a pastor, spent a solid half-hour detailing her recent molar pregnancy (If you are not a pastor, you may not know that this is an inevitable result of telling someone you are a pastor: they either apologize for their sinful living OR pour our their stories of vulnerability and pain. And, honestly, if you want to be distracted from your own dental discomfort, just do a quick google of what a molar pregnancy entails. Whoa.). One hygienist was pretty quiet, but managed, in her silence, to convey such a depth of care and compassion that I felt rocked to sleep.

What I’m saying is that these precious people saw me, heard me, refused to judge me. They took me in, offered gentle humor and clear explanation, and then they did what they do every single day: they healed me. Literally. They extracted the rottenness that was festering inside of me, and filled it back up with newness. They did not make fun of me for letting the rot grow. They did not shame me for being so wracked with guilt. They did not tell me it was my fault, or chide me for neglecting my dental health. They didn’t criticize or blame me one single time. They just took me in and had compassion on me, told me a joke and got to work fixing what was wrong.

I know, because I have had a lot of conversations about going to the dentist this year, that many people have dental horror stories: botched root canals and criminal prices, callous doctors and unending pain. I am really grateful that this place had an open appointment the day my tooth fell out of my mouth, that I somehow stumbled, blindly, into their care.

And it’s hopeful, you know? That there are people out there – in my case, literally right around the corner – who are showing up day in and day out to receive hurting people with open arms and zero judgement, welcoming us into their care with a joke and a smile, sitting us down, fixing what’s broken, removing the rotten pieces and…healing us. Every single day. Right around the corner.

Thanks be to God.

junior varsity

I should really get out more. That’s what I told my sister as we sat in the bleachers of the auxiliary gym watching my nephew’s JV high school basketball scrimmage last week, because I found myself completely, totally, entirely caught up in the high school basketball game. Correction: not the high school basketball game; the junior varsity scrimmage.

The game WAS a good one, even though both Leah and Mike, my brother-in-law, had warned me not to expect too much. But those kids played hard and fast, and Tyler’s team ended up winning by a single point. The gym was full – a huge crowd for a Tuesday night JV scrimmage – and the fans were IN IT. In the 3rd period, a kid from the opposing team ran into a layup – which he missed – and as he and the defender floated back down, the ref blew his whistle. The entire gym waited with bated breath for the call. When he pushed his hands out in front of him and pointed at the shooter, calling an offensive foul and curtailing any chance of a free throw that would tie up the game that had been a hair’s breadth apart for minutes, we all, collectively, as one being, both sighed and cheered in relief.

Here’s what’s hopeful about a JV high school basketballs scrimmage: the coaches for both teams were COACHING. I mean, COACHING – pacing the line, constantly calling out plays and encouragement, giving individual direction, getting the players on the bench to start chants and cheers and applause for their teammates. The bleachers were filled with kids’ parents, families, and friends. There was a varsity scrimmage happening across the parking lot, but still the JV gym was full of people showing up on a Tuesday evening to support those kids. And we weren’t scrolling our phones while we sat there, either, we were present, attentive, totally engaged in what was happening, in what those kids were doing out there on the court.

For a time, my life was filled with teenagers. I spent a few years as a youth minister, and was bowled over by how much I loved it. I’m not a charismatic dude with a guitar, and I prefer a quiet nook filled with books to loud music and amusement parks, but holy cow did I love those kids. They were smart, and honest, and tender and kind and always, always surprising. I didn’t know exactly what being a pastor to teenagers would look like, but it took me to places of incredible joy and incredible pain. My heart will forever be mapped around a teenager-shaped spot of tenderness.

And I realized, sitting in that auxiliary gym last week, what a marvel it is to show up for young people in times like these. Those coaches don’t have to coach like that. Those families aren’t required to show up like that. There are no VHSL rules that require players on the bench to clap and chant and cheer for their teammates. Nobody made the guy standing at the end of the court nod and chant and call&response his way through that scrimmage, cheering those kids like he was on court at an NBA championship game. Leah and Mike could do all kinds of things with their time, but they spend their weeknights and weekends at Tyler’s games – baseball and basketball and then a little more baseball – choosing to invest their time and energy and love with him in the simplest, most powerful way possible: showing up, consistently.

I am thinking, this morning, about all those folks who invest so heavily in young people: parents, yes, and teachers and coaches, youth ministers who lose sleep on lock-ins and retreats and mission trips, grandparents who spend their retirement in stinky high school gyms and elementary auditoriums, mentors and friends and foster parents who make room in their lives for young people, all the ways we wizened, cynical adults insist on loving and encouraging and shaping kids for a future we have trouble imagining. If that’s not hope, I don’t know what is.

advent, anyway

My Aldi Cheese Advent Calendar doesn’t start until December 1st, but here it is Advent already, anyway. For the past few years, I’ve written every day during Advent here in this space. I wasn’t sure I could muster the wherewithal to do it again this year. I’m not ready for the season. It’s 70 degrees here in North Carolina today, a Thanksgiving cold has turned me into a pitiful sack of snot, and it has been a hard year. I don’t want to decorate, I’ve barely thought about gifts, and I’m struggling to get in the appropriate Advent headspace for worship planning and church leading. I am burnt out. I know I am not the only one.

Lately, I have felt like doom, despair and misery are choking out all the good stuff. Maybe I’m a little depressed, or maybe the world is actually not such a great place at the moment. Maybe it’s both. In the last several weeks, I’ve been in multiple conversations with older folks who said, in no uncertain terms, that there is a certain relief in knowing that they will not have to live long enough to see the inevitable consequences of our current collective choices. I’ve also been praying for too many younger people whose friends and peers are choosing to end their own lives – or those of others – rather than continue enduring the pain of living in this world.

I am neither old nor young. I turned 40 this year, so I don’t have the luxury of knowing that I’ll exit this world before climate change renders it uninhabitable or virulent politics make it even more inhumane than it already is. But I am also old enough to know that things do, as they say, get better, that how I feel today is not how I will feel forever, that no pain is eternal. I am a little annoyed at the older people for their relief at impending exit and I am a lot heartbroken for the young people who chose theirs prematurely. I am here, in the middle, forced to reckon with how to live in the mess.

So, I think this Advent I will write each day about a thing I have witnessed or experienced or encountered that gives me hope. Not ephemeral, generic, free-floating “hope,” but grounded and gritty, real people doing real work that has real power. I am out of practice, in both writing and hoping. We’ll see how it goes.

If all else fails, there’ll still be cheese.

the institution cannot love you

That’s me, 14 years ago, washing the feet of an elderly church lady at a Love Feast service during my Brethren Volunteer Service orientation in Kansas City. For years, this framed photo sat on my desk. I love it. I love Love Feast, I love foot washing, and even though I do not know the woman in this photo – a stranger who welcomed me to her church’s meal that fall – the picture reminded me that what I was choosing a life of service. Every day, while I attended Zoom meetings and worked on databases and sent emails, this photo reminded me that what I was doing was actually serving the church.

I took that photo off of my desk last year. I still love Love Feast, and foot washing is still a big part of how I understand following Jesus. But I don’t believe, anymore, that serving the church is a worthwhile way to spend my life.

The Queen’s death this week brought out all kinds of feelings from all over the world. I recommend, especially if you are a white person from the United States, seeking out the responses from people who live in nations colonized by the British Empire. Those responses comes in all shapes and sizes, and especially for people who’ve been colonized and oppressed by the monarchy to which Elizabeth willingly and repeatedly sacrificed her humanity, they don’t necessarily include mourning.

I cannot imagine the pressure that Elizabeth endured as Queen, the expectation that she would live up to the circumstances of her birth and family and subsume her humanity into a role of power stretching back centuries and undergirding global empire. That she was so young when she was coronated compounds the pressure, I’m sure. And yet, decade after decade, she continued to decide to serve the institution and present a facade of stability cloaking centuries of violence, murder, oppression, and dysfunction. There’s no way the Queen was unaware of the harm her reign imposed – her own uncle abdicated the throne because of its restrictions on relationship, her daughter-in-law was killed by intrusive paparazzi, her grandson left public life because of the white supremacy baked into the whole thing. And that’s just her family, not to mention the constant clamor for relief from people of nations her crown colonized and invaded and held under her thumb. You can read historical accounts of all the horrific things the Queen refused to acknowledge or address – a simple Google will get you all you need to know.

I’m not British, and I am not the subject of any royal, so I don’t know what it’s like to have my Queen die. And I wasn’t born into a royal family, so I have no idea what it’s like to ascend to the crown and live a life with the attendant expectations. But I do know a little about the pressure to serve an institution, to maintain institutional stability, to pretend to be a “bridge-builder” or “peace-maker.” I know a little about being expected to ignore and paper over violence and harm for the sake of “unity.”

There is a wily idea that loyalty to institution, that spending an entire life in service to an organization or structure or system is laudable. In institutional life, loyalty, stability, and consistency are held up as the greatest good. “Keep calm and carry on,” right? But what happens when you learn that the institution, organization or system to which you’ve pledged your loyalty is consistently doing harm to people, and refusing to acknowledge or repair it? What does “stability” mean when it maintains violent practices and structures?

When I started listening to people who were being harmed by the institution, the virtue of loyalty came into question. Those folks were being hurt and harmed repeatedly, and the church had zero mechanism for hearing their cries, much less acknowledging or addressing them. Forget about repentance and repair – not even on the table. I was getting praise left and right for being a “church leader,” maintaining the institution for another generation. Someone even said to me “you know, I used to worry about the survival of the church, but then I listen to young people like you and I’m much less concerned.” I heard that, then, as a deep compliment – and that’s how it was meant. I hear it now as a horrifying prediction: that I could have continued sacrificing own humanity and that of others to a harmful institution indefinitely.

Tressie McMillan Cottom says, over and over, “the institution cannot love you.” Institutions are not people. They are systems and structures built with the express purpose of maintaining themselves from generation to generation. Institutions do not take into account the well-being of individuals. They do not contend with power dynamics. They do not CARE who they hurt or harm: they exist in order to exist. Only human beings are capable of love. Only human beings can grapple with the complexities of human relationship. Only human beings can participate in repentance and repair.

So, I stopped expecting the institution to love me back. I stopped sacrificing my own humanity for the sake of institutional stability. I stopped willfully ignoring people in pain in order to keep systems and structures viable. I would much, much, much rather hold on to that part of my humanity and the humanity of people I love, even if it means witnessing structural and institutional collapse. Because the institution cannot love us. But we can love one another.

Who knows how much grappling the Queen of England did with these questions. She had access, after all, to unlimited distraction and immense amounts of power. Plenty of opportunity to ignore the deep ethical questions of a human life, just like all of us. Her death mostly makes me sad – not for England or the Commonwealth, but for her. Sad that she decided, over and over again, in the current of incredible global and ancestral pressure, to sacrifice her humanity for the sake of a violent, inhumane and evil institution that repeatedly and unapologetically harmed human beings across the globe.

It seems like a good occasion for us to reflect on our own willingness to do the same.