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Thanks to my friend Michael for inviting me to share a story at the Tenx9 event at Wild Goose Festival last weekend. This particular story has been mulling around in me, looking to be told for the last 7 years. 

I had just finished exams, may of my junior year of college, and was living in those sweet days when the work is done but no one has left for summer break. We all played, enjoying all the best things of being 19. I was going on lots of late night drives to the mountains for star-gazing and late morning coffees with my best friend, lots of dancing and movie watching and philosophizing over secret beers. And here’s the best part. As part of my major in theology and ministry, studying community and small group models, I was getting ready for a trip to England—solo!—to go stay at a Christian intentional community. I had my passport, a fat reading list, and a marked up train schedule I printed off the national rail website. This cluster of people in the English countryside had some secret to what it meant to live together in Christ, something different and deeper than a Sunday morning church service. And I was going to go over there and see it for myself.

Then I got the call.

Granny, my mother’s mother, had been fighting cancer, making it through the brutality of chemo and radiation with the help of her quirky humor, her faith, and a whole lot of vodka. But just then she suddenly collapsed, and after my grandfather, known as Buddy Bob, got her to the hospital, the doctors told her that it had spread so rapidly—just since that last set of scans!—that her organs were shutting down.

My plans changed. Instead of playing for a month before England, I chose to go with Mom down to Eutawville, South Carolina and help take care of Granny.

That’s right, Eutawville. Population 350. You just drive right up there and get of 95 at Santee and hang a right. You can’t miss it. We bump down off the Old #6 Hwy onto a dirt, no, a sand road into the veil of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks. Hospice had beaten us there, replacing Granny’s pretty four poster with the automatic hospital bed. That smell of home health was there, too, that mix of antiseptic and sick, and it competed with bacon grease and magnolia blossoms and the enduring stale cigarette smoke that had caked into the wallpaper before Granny finally made Buddy Bob quit lighting up at the kitchen table ten years earlier.

So we kept the busy vigil of the dying-but-not-dead, trying not to see how quickly her tiredness was taking over, trying not to wonder about the new bulges we saw on her back and sides, trying not to consider whether the nonsensical talk was from the cancer or the pain meds.

There was also sweetness to it. We gave her pedicures and looked through every photo album. We turned away nosy church ladies and welcomed the true old friends, gatekeepers for the queen. I climbed the most precarious branches of that old magnolia in the side yard to keep the blossoms fresh on her bedside table. Each day I rubbed lotion on her hands and helped her take small sips of cold water.

One day Granny got a craving for pineapple. You’d better believe I was lickety split in two minutes driving down to the Piggly Wiggly for a pineapple. You want a bloody mary for breakfast? You got it! (Although, let’s be honest, that had been a time honored tradition in Eutawville) On another afternoon Buddy Bob got in his head that a good steak might help her energy, give her some strength, so he sent me running off with $100 cash to the steak man, who worked from the back of a convenience store/butcher shop. Four of the best filets you can imagine, grilled rare and served up with tomatoes and corn from the garden and her own pound cake recipe.

But so soon she could no longer manage steak, much less sit at the table for a meal, and would doze off by dinnertime.

One day I sat next to Granny, reading while she napped, when I heard, “Booop. Boop boop boop boop!” I looked over. She was awake, smiling at me, wiggling her fingers overhead. “Hey Granny, what’s that?” She laughed. “These are my antennae.” “Oooooh, you’re antennae. Ok.” She closed her eyes again. Man, those meds… After several minutes of silence Granny said, “Listen.” Ok. I’m listening. “There are so many wonderful, beautiful things in this world. And if you don’t have your antennae up, you just might miss them.”

Granny died only a few weeks after I got the call, and we buried her in the holly hill cemetery, just like she’d wanted. Her church lady friend sang, “I Can Only Imagine,” just like she’d wanted. Back at the house we ate poundcake and strawberries, just like she’d wanted.

And a few days later I went to England. It didn’t occur to me not to. After all, I was 19 years old and I had an adventure to find, the heart of Christian community living to discover. I hopped on a plane for London, then a train for beautiful green Hampshire, to the manor house turned dormitory, down the little road from the quaint village—they say Jane Austen did some writing there. For two weeks I spent my mornings reading Henri Nouwen and drinking PG Tips. I spent my afternoons doing farm chores, cooking simple food for 50 people, and talking about God and life and art with all the other strange stragglers who’d shown up to this community for a few days or a longer sabbatical. England in June has 15 hours of sunlight each day, all the beauty and time you could hope for. I was ready with case study questions, ponderings that had come up during my college studies, and carried them around in a little notebook. With eagerness I attended every lecture in the great hall, morning prayer in the little worn chapel with hay bale pews. I was at every church service and lunch dialogue. I interviewed the full time community members, watched everything and jotted notes obsessively. I soaked in as much as I could, trying to understand, analyze, and qualify: what does it mean to be a person of faith living in community? I watched and listened. I tried to be a part of the common life, but really, I was there to study it. I never really talked to the others all that much about Granny and all that I’d just seen and lived. It didn’t occur to me to.

One evening I went to hear a talk by one of the full time community members. Prior to working in the community, he had worked in palliative care—a hospice doctor. He spoke about Jesus’ incarnation and what it might mean for Christians in community to be God incarnate all over again. He said that the world is full of wonderful, beautiful things-pay attention! They are signs of God at work around us. And doggone. You know what? That doctor said that most of all, we meet Jesus and we are Jesus any time we live into his teaching, any time we practice the beatitudes, any time we give someone so much as a sip of cold water.

The next morning I walked to the village. I went straight to the phone booth around the corner from the pub. I shoveled pence out of my pocket and into the slot, dialed international, and heard myself say, “Mama? I think I have to come back home.”

Faithful and Perfect, Yes and No

A few years ago, I started to recognize and work on my perfectionist and achievement tendencies, thanks in no small part to encountering the Enneagram and learning about the gifts and troubles of my 3 type (you can learn more here and here). I read and meditated on being honest about my failures and limits, of working to be “faithful” instead of perfect. The idea here is that I can be faithful in my work and habits, plugging away and doing my best with grace for myself, open to the possibility that life can be good without being The Best. It’s the freedom to respond to one more invitation to responsibility with a “no,” when a “yes” for perfect’s sake would throw off balance, or rob emotional and spiritual well being.

Of course, if you adopt an idea and fail to re-examine it for a few years, guess what? “Faithful” is just a new name for “perfect,” a word well intended now hijacked by that addiction to have my shit together all the time and with excellence.

Suddenly this week I found myself in that manic frame of mind, thinking that a job change, moving into a new home, being our child’s primary caretaker, and adding a full-time summer intensive at Sewanee would be fine.

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But it’s not fine. I’m a human being and need to do things like eat and sleep and play with my baby and talk to my partner. If this formation to be priest is going to be more than just hammering out course credits, there needs to be adequate space to actually learn, not just regurgitate.

What dramatic life shift have I chosen, you wonder?

I’m just going to take one class instead of two, and try to remember to drink more water. That’s pretty much it. Because, frankly, I don’t trust myself to keep a good heart with a lofty goal plan—it’s too easy to slip into measuring and grading how well I’m doing… on letting go of accomplishment. And for someone whose identity is wrapped up in being turbo all the time, it’s harder than you’d think to say “no” to efficient, to closer graduation dates, to career advancement. Instead, this summer I’m going to say “yes” to a glass of wine in the evening with A., “yes” to good sleep, “yes” to painting my new bathroom and meeting our neighbors, “yes” to actually reading for class. Maybe even “yes” to potting herbs on the balcony or doing more little yoga videos.

How about you? What are you saying “no” to this summer? What gets a resounding “yes”?

Catching up

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated the blog or carved out space to write. Seminary mama has been hard at work on finals, life transitions, and new projects. Don’t be fooled by a nice blog template—there have been a lot of hot mess mama moments and half-developed term papers, and I’m trying to find the grace in good enough parenting and good enough theology.

Shoot. S. just woke up from his nap…

Alright. We’re settled with an iced coffee for me and a dumptruck full of cheerios for him. No, really, this is how we snack.

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To start, I’m now three weeks into a new position as the Director of Youth and Children’s Ministries at a great little parish in Nashville. This position came as a major answer to prayer, providing financial stability, career development, and more structure for our family in just the right season. St. Ann’s is a beautiful bunch and I’m honored to join and serve their community.

Some of my blogging energy has been redirected to developing a regular content feed for the parents, providing some conversation starters and lectionary tie ins that families can use through the week. Feel free to subscribe and let me know how the conversations unfold!

 And finally, right now I’m transcribing an interview for my friend Michael, whose next book will explore conversations of power and justice and reconciliation. It’s such an honor to contribute to his work and get to hear the first draft conversations with some amazing peace and justice workers. This guy is a great interviewer picking great minds—keep an eye out for the book!

As things settle out I’ll be getting back in a groove with making space and quiet where the reflections can grow. But of course, baby is about to start walking, so we shall see how the writing schedule goes.

Talking with kids about Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have the great joy of working part time at St. Augustine’s Chapel in Nashville. It is a beautiful community of people who are actively seeking healing for themselves and the world.

We’re a predominantly white congregation, and in preparation for our participation in Nashville’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day March, I developed this quick sheet for talking with kids about King and the Civil Rights Movement. For well intentioned white folks, it can be a struggle to know what words to use, because many of us were taught that to speak of race at all is a racist thing. The last thing we want to do is mess up and instill harmful ideas in our kids. But studies have shown that not talking about race replicates our white supremacist social structures about as well as outright racist propagation. So however muddy and difficult, white people of faith and goodwill, we’ve got to do our work around race, and we’ve got to start at home. Talk to your kids. Read the books. Head out to local MLK Day events, and for heaven’s sake don’t let that one holiday be the end of it. Keep an eye out for ways to plug in with Black Lives Matter. Pay attention to local legislation that might replicate injustice for people of color and the poor. Patron black owned businesses on purpose. Listen deeply to the world. Take your kids with you, and keep talking about it.

This is written with white families in mind, and I wanted to share on the off chance that it can be useful to your family or faith community.