doomscroll

1 Kings 18:17-18: When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18 He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.

One of the delights of working for the church is working with young people. Some of y’all think I still AM young people, but I’ve got twenty years and a decade and a half’s professional experience on the college students that join Ministry Summer Service every year.

This past summer, those intrepid interns pivoted with us to an online version of what is usually practical immersion into ministry. (Read some of their reflections on the experience here.) We met every week, and every week an intern shared a devotion. The very first devotion included a reflection on Matthew 5, and this line that struck me so powerfully that I wrote it on a post-it and stuck it on my desk, where it has remained for the last six months.

I do not consider myself to be especially “prophetic.” My experience of people who claim that adjective for themselves includes a heaping helping of hubris. I mostly try to tell the truth. I love that this note includes “witnesses” in with the “prophets.” Witnesses share what they see. They describe and proclaim, articulate and name. Witnesses tell the truth.

And truth is not always convenient or welcome. I love this exchange between the prophet Elijah and King Ahab. The King sees this guy show up – again – and says “is that you, you trouble-maker?!”

This is how it always goes, isn’t it? The ones who point out the inconvenient truths are labelled “trouble-makers.” It doesn’t matter how humble, steady, faithful or committed to the group’s flourishing the truth-tellers are; if they are telling truth that unsettles, provokes, demands change then they get filed away as “instigators.”

“Oh, there she goes again, making another mess I’ll have to clean up.” I know this is how some of my telling the truth has been received, because people have SAID it, both to and about me.

I know I’m not alone. God’s prophets and witnesses have ALWAYS gotten into this kind of trouble.

But I am committing Elijah’s response to memory: I’m not the trouble-maker here, bro; you are. You are the one ignoring reality, disregarding God’s commands, submitting to the idolatry of “don’t rock the boat.”

mask up

Isaiah 61:3: to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

In April of 2007, I was in seminary in Atlanta. My sister was a student at Virginia Tech, but she was studying abroad in Ecuador. We grew up in Hokie country. Our grandfather went to Tech. Our dad went to Tech. We were raised on weekend trips to Lane Stadium and winter drives to Cassell Coliseum. I didn’t go to VT, but I was a Hokie, anyway.

When Seung-Hui Cho, shot and killed 32 people before shooting and killing himself on the VT campus, my sister and I were both far from home. That sucked, a lot. Everyone at home was grieving, together. She was especially far away. She decided that she would end her time in Ecuador short so that she didn’t miss the communal grieving. She didn’t know what it would be like to come home, months later, and have to do the work of jetlag, culture shock and grief on her own.

I went home, too. How could I not? A month or so later, when my entire family converged on Atlanta for my graduation, they all wore matching t-shirts commemorating the loss. When I showed up at their hotel room, they handed me a package with my own shirt in it. I put it on. How could I not?

Communal grief is a slippery, complicated thing. Everyone grieves differently. I remember when a long-time pastor left the church I was working in. The staff tried to slow everything down, to accommodate for the grief that was squirting out of everyone in different ways. Some people withdrew, others were all of a sudden in our offices weekly if not daily. A beloved older woman – who was especially connected to the former pastor and his family – showed up in my office one day. I was trying, again, to explain the slow-down and the need to make room for grief and sadness. She lost it: “If I hear ONE MORE WORD about GRIEF, I am going to tear my hair out!”

Fair enough.

Everybody deals with grief differently, but we all have to deal with it. If we don’t, it marinates inside of us, hardens into cruelty or molders into depression. Grief is meant to be FELT, and it will badger you in one way or another until you consent to feeling it. Communal grief – when all of us are losing something, together – is especially tricky because some people feel grief in one way and other people feel it in diametrically opposed ways, and some people are standing by refusing to feel it in any way and managing to stifle and stymie the rest of us with their own internal roadblocks.

I am curious and wary of how – or if – we will grieve the tragedies that have made up 2020. We have lost so much, beginning with precious, beloved people. But grief isn’t relegated to the death of persons. We grieve over lost opportunities, lost traditions, lost hopes, lost plans, lost relationships, lost progress. We grieve all kinds of losses and in 2020, the mountain of loss is tall and steep.

What do we need to do to feel the grief that is banging on our hearts’ doors? Will we even be able to feel it while we’re stuck alone, in our own homes, separated from one another and the invitations to be sad, together? Would it help if we all got t-shirts and wore them, in grieving solidarity, on the same day?

There are actual practices grounded in ancient wisdom for how to grieve. Spiritual traditions know what they are: set aside time. gather. lament. remember. bless. eat. 2020 has been particularly hard because we can’t gather. This interrupts the tried and true wisdom of how grief goes.

Back in the spring, when clergy were trying to get our heads around how to minister in these times, I decided that if there were a death in my congregation I could not stay away. I couldn’t imagine leaving beloved folks to grieve alone. People have died – too many – and while I have not stayed away, exactly, I have not gone to sit shiva or make the pastoral visits I would have otherwise. Instead, I have texted prayers, listened to grief over phone lines, dropped off soup on porches. I’m telling you: it sucks.

And I can also feel the wisdom of the ages seeping in around the edges. What do we do in grief? We slow down. We take time to feel our feelings. We yell and scream and mourn and keen. We tell stories. We name what has been lost. We bless life and memory and eternal possibilities. We eat.

I hope that those of us who carry the wisdom of these spiritual practices can make our voices known in the coming months. I hope that we can create and curate spaces where grief is welcome, where lament is part of life, where we can gather – in whatever way possible – to remember and tell stories of what might have been and say, out loud, what we’ve lost this year. I hope we can do this in ways that are invitational and sacred.

Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of JOY. Everybody knows that when you work hard at numbing one emotion – maybe, for us right now, the overpowering grief of this year – you end up muting ALL emotion. We cannot experience JOY unless we are willing to feel our grief, too.

So, here’s your tiny pastoral invitation: light a candle, get out your journal, go for a run, put on a sad Christmas music playlist, bake that old family treat, get out the photo album of Christmases past, or just sit on your couch and stare at the lights on the tree and let yourself GRIEVE. I promise – really, it’s in the Bible – that it will be better that way.

And: Christmas is coming. The Christ-child is about to be born again. And when that kid grew up enough to pick up heavy scrolls and read sacred texts, this is the one he chose, leaving us all to assume that HE is the one who will provide for those who mourn…give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Weeping may last for the night, but JOY comes in the morning. (Psalm 30)

poor connection

Habakkuk 3:14: You pierced with their own arrows the head of his warriors

I spent 28 hours on video calls this week. Twenty-eight. Hours. Zoom, WebEx, Skype and FaceTime. Most of those hours were one-on-one or group meetings in which I was leading or actively participating, which meant I could not do the sanity-saving trick of keeping my own video off and folding laundry while listening. That’s a lot of hours of staring at this tiny laptop screen. Too many hours, in fact. Annie Dillard always rings in my head when I start calculating discouraging tallies like this: “the way we spend our days is, of course, the way we spend our lives.”

I do not want to live a life of video conferencing. Surely you’ve all read the articles by now about how Zoom tricks and overloads our brains. It’s a cheap alternative to real, rich human interaction that I pray remains a temporary pivot for these times.

I miss so much about being together in body as well as spirit. I miss singing together in worship, praying together in person, dinner parties and concerts and lecture halls. I miss getting on planes and winding up in other cities with people I love. I miss fits of laughter. I miss hugs.

And, at the same time, I have found myself more intricately and intimately connected to more people during these months. My tiny congregation is growing. I have an eternal Skype group conversation always open on my desktop. My local clergy group keeps saving me in moments of uncertainty. The monthly meeting of young CoB women in ministry is precious time. My therapist and my clergy coach are still keeping me afloat. My text messages are full to overflowing. I have a Marco Polo group with my extended family that saves little ridiculous gems. Here in a few minutes, I’m going to shut this damn computer down and go work in the community garden, masked and far away from friends doing the same thing.

Which can only be the grace of God, right? That these poor imitations of connection we’ve designed can, in fact, be vehicles for the real thing. That laptop screens can facilitate confession and encouragement and community building. That I can sense, even over the internet, when a friend needs help; that I can communicate, somehow, that I do, too.

We are built for connection, and we are so hungry for it that we will take it in whatever form it comes. I am grateful for video calls. They are turning my brain to mush and I will still keep staring at you through this tiny screen until we can be together again because I LOVE you and I NEED you and after these ten months I understand that fact as inescapable and paramount.

pivot

Psalm 126:4-6: Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

Is there any way to say “PIVOT” without seeing that scene from Friends in your head?

Will it be helpful or exhausting to make a list of PIVOTS we’ve made in 2020?

Probably exhausting. Let’s not try it.

Pivoting is something humans do. We are good at it. We’re creative and innovative beings who know how to problem solve. We meet challenges and work around them all day, every day, sometimes without even knowing we’re doing it. My wells of anger come from Christians simply refusing to do what they have been created to do; refusing to pivot when pivoting is necessary to preserve life. Humans are born pivoting, though some of us enjoy it more than others.

But, just like in that stairwell corner in the episode, there is a limit to human pivoting. Sometimes, the couch just won’t make the turn. Sometimes there isn’t enough pivoting in all the world to solve the problem put in front of us. And other times, we are so exhausted from having to orchestrate a new pivot every day (every hour?) that our reserves of problem-solving abilities just dry up. Do you know about decision fatigue?

Good leaders know this about humans. They understand that people desire to do good and be compassionate and problem solve together, and they leverage that innate desire to get us all pulling in the same direction. They communicate with transparency. They scan the horizon so that they can prepare everyone for the next problem, and explain the next pivot so we can all turn the same way.

Good leaders do not yell at people in frustration. They do not scream nonsense words, blaming the people when the pivot stops working. They certainly don’t throw their friends and followers under the couch, crushing them with the weight of the problem. Good leaders make decisions and execute them.

Good leadership goes a long way. But even good leaders who know how to lead a pivot can’t get ahead of every curve. Pivoting is human, and it is partial, circumstantial and temporary. What the psalmist is writing about is RESTORATION and REVERSAL. Those are divine actions. The Negeb that the Psalmist names dried up until the rainy season arrived and then it flowed full again. Those who sow in tears will reap with joy. Weather patterns and seedlings’ growth are not things human can control. They are divine reversals, holy mysteries.

I am tired of pivoting. I’m fairly creative and I like problem solving, and I am tired of doing it every day. I am ready to submit myself to the mercies and refining fires of the Divine who doesn’t pivot but reverses fortunes entirely. I am ready for real, substantive, merciful, restorative change. And I know that kind of change comes – not from human striving, not from human leaders good or bad, not from any human-orchestrated pivot, but from Divine Intervention.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord. We are tired of pivoting.

post-covid

Psalm 126:1: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Yesterday, my doctor’s office sent an email assuring me that they will notify me when it’s my turn to get the vaccine. Until I opened their email, I hadn’t realized that I was carrying some hidden anxiety about whether or not I’d have to sign up, stand in line, qualify, fill out paperwork or…what. I live in Durham, and my health insurance covers the privilege of being a patient in the Duke Health System, which is world-class and far-reaching. Because of my geographic location, I have access to incredible health care. Here in Durham, the Public Health Department has opened up *multiple* drive through testing sites where you do not need a) an appointment b) proof of exposure c) health insurance d) symptoms e) payment or f) any form of identification to find out if you are infected with COVID-19. I recognize how rare this access is. My family in Southwest Virginia say that testing is just not accessible or feasible as a way to protect one another.

I also currently have a job that pays for half the cost of my health insurance. I’ve never had employer-based health insurance before, and even with this plan I still pay over $500 each month – half the cost of my rent – to insure my single, young-ish, healthy self. This employer-based health insurance is also currently requiring me to *take my own blood* and send it off through the USPS (a service which at this moment is struggling to get a paperback book I ordered three weeks ago to my doorstep) to prove that I meet certain biometric requirements in order to avoid a $200/month surcharge.

THIS IS ABSURD. All of it. Every single detail of America’s health insurance maze is ridiculous. We have decided that only the wealthy deserve care.

As of today, Durham’s ICUs are 95% filled. In 3.5 weeks, North Carolina’s hospitals will reach their ICU capacity. In 5 weeks, we’ll reach entire *hospital* capacity. Even though I live in this excessively resourced town, even though I have the privilege of being insured, if I have a stroke or a heart attack or need a ventilator to help me through a COVID infection in the early weeks of 2021, I will not have access to the necessary care.

That is scary. And you know what? It has been the daily reality for the majority of Americans for a long time. I heard just this morning of a young person with COVID-related breathing issues who was scared to go to the ER because they couldn’t afford the medical bill. This is the reality for more than half of our country.

THIS IS ABSURD.

I’m trying to wrap my head around a post-covid timeline, hoping that by the end of summer, perhaps, we can eat inside restaurants again. But those personal expectations are so deeply irrelevant to the hard and immediate work we need to do, together, to decide that EVERYONE deserves care and then, to create policies and practices that make it happen.

“…we were like people who dream.” Restore us, O Lord, to being people who practice care.

dumpster fire

Malachi 2:10: Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?

“Why, then, are we faithless to one another?”

I’ve been writing these daily reflections straight from the fire hose of fury that’s filling my soul. It’s been 11 days’ worth of daily writing, and I still have not plumbed the depths of that anger.

I know (and my therapist reminds me!) that anger protects us from grief. Sometimes, this is good and healthy – it keeps us going when we have to carry on through chaos. And sometimes, anger prevents us from being honest about the more complicated feelings underneath it.

Yesterday, I sensed a shift away from the high-pressure rage. It was the slightest dip into sorrow. There is so much to grieve, now. Our faithlessness toward one another is at the top of my list.

The white American church at large is a dumpster fire, and my own Brethren tradition is no exception. We’re going through a divorce at the moment. I used that word publicly a few months ago and got in trouble for being so precise. It was not among the official “talking points” for how to speak about the current state of affairs. (Never mind that I had never been privy to any conversation about the current state of affairs or included in any discussion of the proper talking points – or what they might be…I still got reprimanded for speaking plainly.)

This chapter of Malachi is where we get that line about how “God hates divorce.” And I can tell you right now that God does not hate divorce between two modern-day humans when it ends abuse, when it frees Her beloved children to live fully into their created beauty, when it liberates captives and ends violence. God loves divorce when it frees us to be people of deeper justice and mercy.

The passage from Malachi is talking about church splits. The prophet is using divorce as a metaphor for what went down between the people of Israel and the people of Judah. It was nasty. The people profaned the ancient covenant and forgot that they were bound to one another as God’s people.

The divorce playing out in the Church of the Brethren is an example of being faithless toward one another. It’s easy for me to make assumptions about the motivations of the people who are leaving, but I will try not to do that, here. What I can say is that nobody trusts anybody, anymore. Part of that is because individuals and movements have manipulated polity, worked in secret and abused their power. Another part of that is because our systems and structures – every one of them – is built on groundwork that assumes trust in one another.

Our credentialing polity assumes trust in congregations and district ministry commissions. The process of making an ethics complaint assumes trust in district leadership. Annual Conference – the highest authority in the denomination – assumes trust in our Standing Committee and the delegate body. Our polity is loose and weak because it assumes that our commitment to one another will be the backbone of our life together.

This has always been a problem: for women seeking to follow a call to ministry, for non-white people seeking justice or accountability for our eye-popping racism, for LGBTQ siblings committed to claiming that this church belongs to them, too. The “trust” that existed was a white, male, heterosexual commodity. It still is. What’s happening is that the white, male, heterosexual power structure is starting to be held accountable to all the ways that they have misused that foundational assumption of trust…and they DO. NOT. LIKE. IT. ONE. BIT.

(Apologies, can’t help myself from making that one motivational assumption.)

Those of us who are not white, or male, or heterosexual have reason to question the assumptions of trust that keep our entire structure operating – we always have. The people who question, though, have been systematically dishonored, defrocked, disrespected and cast out. There was no space in the structure of “trust” for their questions, assertions, and critiques.

I believe that we are experiencing the result of all those people who asked and spoke up and lost their church because of it. I think that we are finding wiggle room. I think the assumptions of trust are being proved false – and since they are the bedrock of every process, procedure and practice, they are taking the institution down with them. I believe that this is holy destruction. I believe that death+resurrection is the way of Christ.

(this is part of the #unmuteyourself #advent2020 devotional)

fake news

Psalm 27:12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they are breathing out violence.

One of the reasons I have avoided writing – privately and publicly – for so long is that I have been reluctant to get vulnerable in public. I don’t like writing otherwise; I detest doublespeak and platitude and long, flowery paragraphs that say exactly nothing. Say what you mean. Omit needless words.

These last few years have felt like every dystopia come to life. Huxley’s doublespeak and the Hunger Games’ entertainment sacrifice show up in my Twitter feed and on your television every day. We are so inured to the lies and cruelty, the callous absurdity of the world we live in that we find it FUNNY.

Being vulnerable in my writing has been dangerous in recent years. I know what happens when women become the target of angry men on the internet, and I have brushed by that horror closely enough to recoil in terror.

I do have enemies, on the internet and in the flesh. I know some of their names. Some of them know that they are harassing me, others think they are being “peacemakers” or “neutral parties” instead of exacerbating situations of abuse, violence and harm with their inaction and equivocation. The prayer group at my church prays for my enemies – by name – when I can’t bring myself to do it.

Psalm 27:

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    and lead me on a level path
    because of my enemies.
 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
    for false witnesses have risen against me,
    and they are breathing out violence.

I do not want to live in terror, recoiling from the threat of harm. I have censored myself so many times that it has begun to feel like second nature. Here at the end of the world, that feels like a gigantic waste of time and energy – both for me and for you.

I know how scary it is to say what you mean. I know the thrill and the terror of speaking into existence a truth that will upset both friends and enemies. I suspect you know that feeling, too. Plenty of us are avoiding honesty in order to avoid harm, or anxiety, or discomfort, or the pain of being ostracized. I get it.

And also: it is not worth betraying yourself in order to keep the peace. It is not worth disobeying the God of the Universe who gave you that wit and wisdom and wily desire to tell the truth. Keeping your mouth shut for the sake of maintaining a false peace will kill you – body and soul. I have watched brains explode and spirits be extinguished. That time that you were waiting for? It is here. We are at the end. Our souls lie in the balance. Just tell the blessed truth.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

existential dread

Acts 2:37: Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Peter’s answer to those guys’ question – which they ask after hearing about Jesus being the Messiah – is to “repent and be baptized, so that all your sins may be forgiven.”

I listened to Bryan Stevenson on the most recent episode of the On Being podcast during my (very chilly) walk this afternoon. Stevenson – who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and is behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors victims of lynchings – uses language of mercy, repentance, confession and redemption freely and without shame. He talks about America’s history of racial terror as something that we need to REPENT of – and how repentance requires, first, confession.

And this is where, for me, faith traditions become so important, because in the faith tradition I grew up in, you can’t come into the church and say, “Oh, I want salvation and redemption and all the good stuff, but I don’t want to admit to anything bad. I don’t want to have to talk about anything bad that I’ve done.” The preachers will tell you, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to first repent, and you’ve got to confess. And they try to make you understand that the repentance and confession isn’t something you should fear, but something you should embrace, because what it does is open up the possibility of redemption and salvation. And we have a very religious society, where we talk about these concepts on Sundays, on Saturdays, whatever, but we haven’t embraced them. We haven’t employed them in our collective lives. And I think that has to change.

Bryan Stevenson, On Being Podcast

Confession and repentance aren’t outdated, antiquated relics from an irrelevant spirituality – they are embedded parts of what it is to be human. We are flawed beings, who mess up and make mistakes and hurt and harm one another, over and over again. Inflicting hurt – and receiving it – is just part of being a person. Confession and repentance aren’t things to be cast aside, ignored or condescended about; they are, like Stevenson says, practices that “open up the possibility of redemption and salvation.”

Every person who has ever set foot in a 12-step program knows this truth – that there is no healing without honest confession. Every therapist, counselor or pastor who has received confession, be it of the sacramental order or an informal admission, knows the relief that comes when someone is finally able to say, out loud, the thing they’ve been carrying silently for so long.

Reparation, redemption, salvation and healing only come after confession and repentance. We can’t get there any other way. And these deeply human dynamics don’t only operate on the individual level; they are also important in organizations, institutions and national identities. It is important for me – you – each of us to reckon with our own twisted sinfulness, mis-steps and mistakes. But the groups and structures we are a part of also have histories of harm that must be confronted, confessed, and repented.

What would it mean for a congregation to confess and repent? A denomination? A city? A social service agency? A university? A family? What does it look like?

I suspect that a lot of the existential dread some of us are feeling these days has to do with a backlog of confession-worthy history and formation. We don’t know what to do next or how to survive in chaos or who we really are because we have not been invited to reckon honestly with ourselves.

More liturgical traditions have form and pattern for this, something I often long for:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

unmute

Isaiah 40:6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.

It’s the end of a long Sunday. I have led Zoom worship, preached a Zoom sermon (that included a video of baby goats getting hugged,*) attended a two hour church board meeting, sent a dozen emails for my other church job, made sure the dog got walked the appropriate number of times, made a crockpot dinner, and attended to various other odds and ends. It is the end of the day. This daily writing practice really works better when I get to it at the beginning.

Because if I had more time or energy or bandwidth to write coherent sentences, I could say a LOT about Zoom and muting ourselves and how to be a hospitable host in online meetings and why the internet sucks and how it is, nonetheless, saving us right now. I am a tyrannical Zoom host. I take my powers very seriously. I think I am good at muting the people that need to be muted [when the leaf blower starts up in the background or their wifi is emitting that strange clicking noise] and unmuting the ones that look like they are ready to speak [a certain twist to the mouth, a deep inhale, the wildly waving arm trying to get my attention].

I could write so much about how unmuting ourselves is intimidating and dangerous, how speaking your mind can get you pretty swiftly and squarely into hot water and also how important it is to speak the things that we’ve been given to say. I wish more of us had the courage to speak up. I don’t mean parroting political talking points or sharing misinformation or arguing about meaningless things. I mean speaking up when we are convicted, when we receive a word from the Lord, when we sense that *this* piece of information or perspective or explanation or confession is important and would further the conversation. I wish more of us were willing to be vulnerable in that way, to share our ideas and let them be tested in conversational community. I wish we took our speech more seriously. I wish we believed that what we say could change things significantly. I wish we would finally get tired of mealy-mouthed platitudes and doublespeak and demand that the people in charge used declarative, definitive statements.

I would have a lot to say about all that, if I weren’t so beat, if it weren’t Sunday evening, if I hadn’t skipped the requisite Sunday Afternoon Preachers’ Nap.

Instead, here I am at the end of the day, being faithful to this Advent practice even though I am wrung out. Crying out, even though, like Isaiah, I’m not sure what it is I’m supposed to cry about right here and now.

* this video about goats getting hugged, because the passage that today’s text is from – Isaiah 40 – ends like this: He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

new normal

Ezekiel 36:26: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

I hiked over 25 parks, preserves & trails this year – all within a couple hours of my house. I haven’t tallied all those steps up, but I know I hiked hundreds of miles. When being indoors is dangerous and travel is off the table, what else was I going to do? I’ve always loved hiking – moving, being outside, seeing what there is to see. And this year, when I couldn’t travel at all, the project of exploring new spaces close to home helped tame my wanderlust.

I’ve also been cooking and eating at home way more often, just like everybody else. I make it a point to get takeout on Tuesdays and Saturdays from favorite local spots, but other than that it’s been a year of vastly improved kitchen skills. I’m not an expert and I don’t cook all that adventurously or all that well, but I did learn this year how to feed myself healthy food, on the regular, and to enjoy the process of doing it. I like meal planning and grocery shopping and being in the kitchen. I really enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that my fridge contains several meals, prepared lovingly by myself for myself, that I will not have to do the last-minute what’s-for-dinner argument in my head this week, that I will not end up going through a drive-through again for another less-than-satisfying salt-fest.

All of that hiking and home cooking has resulted in a better relationship with my body. It turns out, when you near 40, your body starts to demand attention in ways that it did not before. I have been mostly healthy for most of my life, which isn’t about strength or blessedness or God’s favor – it is sheer, unadulterated luck, with a healthy side dish of privilege. For the most part, my body has just…done what I needed it to do. It just…works. Except for one ovarian teratoma that I named Steve back in 2009, my organs generally do their thing. I know that is not to be taken for granted.

Today, another colleague died of an aneurysm. In 2016, my boss, mentor and friend died of the same thing. Last year, a friend and co-worker caught one just early enough to survive, thank God. “WTF is up with the aneurysms?!” I asked the surviving friend. “We’re unhealthy,” they said. “Over long periods of time.”

All of these colleagues work – or worked – for the church. In addition to the exploding brains, the last few years have also served up mental health crises, prolonged ICU stays and troubling boundary-breaking behaviors among our small denominations’ executives and leaders. And while the church is certainly not the only place that fosters ill health in its employees, it sure does seem like there’s a pattern, here.

Being unhealthy isn’t just about blood pressure or obesity. It is also embedded in the schedules we keep, the refusal to take vacation time, the insistence on over-functioning, the over-identification with our work, the pathological sense of obligation to institution, the inability to cut programming even as we cut staff again and again, the assumption that a sense of duty will fill in the gaps of being underpaid, the falsehood that serving the church is the same thing as serving God.

Since the summer, I’ve started getting headaches that won’t respond to ibuprofen or Tylenol. I think it’s Zoom fatigue, too much staring at this tiny laptop screen. I got a standing desk, I’m doing more yoga in addition to the hiking, I’m contemplating starting one of those anti-inflammatory diets. But what if it’s not just Zoom fatigue? What if these headaches are my body’s warnings that people don’t change systems; systems swallow people whole?

I’m posting GALLERIES of evidence in this blog post – see how healthily I’m eating?! See how much I’m hiking!? As if that were proof enough to stave off the death-dealing ways of this institution that I keep insisting on being a part of; as if climbing another mountain can keep my own brain from exploding.

But another colleague died today. I would like a new heart, God, and a new spirit, and, while you’re at it, could you refresh my brain a bit, too? Shore it up against the coming onslaught?