Thursday, December 25

Reflections on the past 24 hours

These are mental snapshots of the last 24 hours. What a wonderful Christmas!

Misty evening.

Candles in worship.

Time of quiet.

Beautiful niece sitting beside me. Helping (?) me run sound board. Giggles. Rumpled hair. Beautiful dress. Smiling. Always smiling.

Holy communion. Silent night.

Driving through fog.

Passing site of accident.

Arriving at the White house (their name is white - but it is as grand as The White House all decorated for Christmas). Rejoicing. Stocking stuffing.

Writing cards to family.

Getting sleepy...look at time...2am?

Morning early! Must finish cards....must finish cards...

Coca-Cola.

Tater tot waffles. With cheddar. And chiffonade of proscuitto. Win.

Orange danish. With the bottoms cut off. Just like Mom used to make! :)

So much food. Cookies and sausage pinwheels and bacon pinwheels and sausage balls and ham and (whoo...we sure do seem to like our pork products...) oyster stew and fried oysters and monkey bread (with real monkey!) (just kidding). We had cheese ball and bacon wrapped little smokies and waffle quesadillas.

Wrapping paper.

Happy faces.

Boundless joy over 150 feet of bubble wrap. Aunt Chris gives the best gifts.

Patient Patrick and Saint Susan. Aunt Chris loves you!

Dimples.

Joy.

Incredible noise.

Chatter. Interruptions and fractured conversations. Happy anyway.

Heavy thoughts.

Quiet determination.

Feeling helpless to assist. Praying anyway.

Family together.

Christmas was perfect this year.

Friday, October 24

Verified and ready for deployment

Tonight at Sager Brown was the traditional Thursday night vesper service. It is an opportunity to reflect on the week's mission and ministry - and a chance to worship together with our new friends. I was honored to be the worship leader for the service led by various members of all the teams here. This afternoon I finally succumbed to a cluster headache that has been lurking for a couple of days - the medication made me groggy and a long nap made me feel like my brain and body were disconnected. As I sat waiting for the service to begin, I wondered if I would be able to make it through. I was swatting mosquitos (the state bird of Louisiana) and staring into space - then Geraldine began playing the piano and people around me were humming along.

A peace swept over me and I felt my spirit lift. Suddenly the headache and its lingering effects faded into the background. The service began and it fed my soul. As the congregation sang the hymns, I felt renewed. The worship team led in scripture, prayer and song - and then the congregation had an opportunity to share stories of experiences that blessed them this week.

We heard how individuals served by cleaning seniors' apartments and were blessed to hear about their lives. We heard how touched volunteers were by interactions with residents at the food distribution. One man told how people's faces lit up when they got to see the UMCOR Depot materials manager Freddie and hear his hearty greeting. Freddie is a big guy with a heart to match. Whether he is riding around on his forklift moving materials or stopping to give fellow staff member Rolanda a good natured ribbing - you can feel the love oozing out of every pore. Freddie is someone you just want to wrap up and ship home with you. But you'd need a big crate.

As the vesper service entered the sacred time of celebrating the Lord's Supper - the congregation sang a hymn that is fairly new (anything past 1970 is considered new in the Methodist church!) - One Bread, One Body. The lyrics to the refrain are "One Bread, One Body. One Lord of All. One Cup of Blessing which we bless. And we, though many, throughout the Earth. We are one body in this one Lord." That pretty much sums up the whole experience.

We join together - as different parts of the same body. Some of us are toes, some are hands, some are ears and others are feet. God takes all the parts and joins them together. We have come together and as this one body - we can accomplish great things.

After the service, a lot of hugging happened. And people exchanged phone numbers and emails and promises to find each other on Facebook. We don't want to lose the connections that we have formed. It will be hard to say goodbye (or just "see you later") but in our hearts we know that we will all still be a part of the same body.

United Methodists are part of a connectional ministry - each individual church contributes in some way to the whole. Some is through monetary apportionments (literally A Portion Meant - for others) and one way is through the connected ministry of UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief). This depot/warehouse contains kits created by United Methodist congregations all across the country. They merge together here in tiny little Baldwin, Louisiana for review and verification. Then they are scattered back out to the world.

We are much like those kits - we were sent from our congregations, supported by friends and family to come here to Baldwin where we have been tested and made ready to go back out into the world. Are we ready for deployment like the kits you see here? I sure hope so. I know I'm a little more ready than I was a week ago. When kits are deployed, the container is blessed by the volunteers working in the depot at that time...tonight's vesper service does much the same thing. And I pray that we will be a blessing to all those we encounter as we continue our work as the body of Christ.

Thursday, October 23

Entertaining Angels Unaware

Tonight's team devotions focused on strangers. And there are no stranger people than the ones I'm traveling with (**rimshot**). No seriously...

Karen asked us to remember back to when we went to summer camp or something like that - to recall that feeling of anxiety and feeling out of place and uncertain. Then she asked if we still felt like that after a couple of days at camp. Everyone agreed that we met new friends and by the end of the week we didn't feel anxious anymore - we just felt sad that we would be separated from our new friends. Then she asked if we had a similar feeling when we arrived at Sager Brown - I know that I certainly did, and this is my third trip here!

Dorothy and Sherri
But within a day, I had met all kinds of great people that I want to know for the rest of my life. I think about Pastor David who has a sense of humor that is dry, a smile that is quick and a passion for serving others. Then I think about Melissa from Tyler, Texas who has the warmest spirit. She leads missions for her church and has given me new and exciting ideas to share with our missions committee back home. And the wonderful lady who has joined our group verifying health kits - we love Dorothy so much that when we were asked for a name for our dinner ticket tonight, Gordon and Sherri gave the name Dorothy. :)


Others in our group shared stories of "strangers" they have come to know. Jack, the spry 91 year old who worked tirelessly distributing food to seniors today...and in the process inspired even harder work by members of our team. Cathy the RN who has doctored members of every group including two of our team...her love of caring for others benefits all those around her. (she's also a hoot - dancing for sweet potato pancake day and laughing when I said that snowy egret tastes like chicken).

Mom and Melissa working (?)
Still more stories were shared about meeting strangers and being blessed by that exchange. Garland, Renee and Carole encountered a Baldwin resident who welcomed them to sit on the front porch and hear stories - they enjoyed the time as much a the lady did. When the seniors were picking up their food, Belva's favorite part of the distribution was the opportunity to chat with the people being served. Carl (aka Dad) has spent the week working on houses in the community. One young man whose house was being repaired is a paraplegic - his damaged roof caused ceiling damage and now that the roof has been repaired the Sager Brown outreach ministry worked to repair the ceiling. Another project involved stabilizing a porch that was in danger of collapse. A few man hours and some support posts later, a life was made a bit better.

Sometimes we think that in order to change the world we have to do something huge and sweeping: cure cancer, donate a wing for a hospital, write symphonies or design cathedrals. The fact is: the little sparks make the real difference. Some suggestions from the team during devotions tonight included:

- tell someone they look nice today
- tell the drive thru worker they have a great voice, or tell them you don't know how they keep it all straight during the rush hour (let them know they are doing a good job...)
- look someone in the eye and say "good morning" as you walk your dog
- compliment a coworker
- learn your server's name and use it when you say "thank you" (you'd be surprised how many people they wait on that don't even look up)
- send a personal note (or email, or Facebook message, or tweet...if you are a twitterer) that says to another human being "I appreciate the person that you are."

Because in doing this, we spread love. And isn't that the point? You don't know what an impact that may make on someone's day...or even their life.

Wednesday, October 22

Appreciating the Joy of a Great Meal

We worked hard in the depot today...but the topic of today's post is food.

One of the benefits of being part of a mission team at the Sager Brown UMCOR Depot is the wonderful food prepared by the Sager Brown staff. The depot is where the work happens, but right next door is where we sleep and EAT! (And the administrative offices, outreach office and the shop are there also...I'll tell more about that later in the week).

The buildings are actually part of the former campus of a school and orphanage begun in 1867. The Sager Brown mission school served families and children of Louisiana for over 110 years before it closed. In 1992 when Hurricane Andrew devastated the gulf coast the buildings were placed back into service during the recovery efforts and UMCOR Sager Brown was born. If you'd like to read more of the history, click here.

Some of the buildings are used as dorms. The simple accommodations are clean and pleasant, but no expense is wasted. The groups that come to volunteer in the depot or doing work in the community pay far less than a hotel and meals would cost and are rewarded with bounteous feasts thanks to the skills of the kitchen crew.

Yesterday's breakfast was biscuits, gravy and sausage links. Lunch was Ham with Pineapple and a lovely concoction of cheese and spaghetti (sort of like mac and cheese but with a higher cheese-to-pasta ratio), dinner was burgers and sweet potato fries. There is a great salad bar at lunch and dinner that includes pickled okra and there are always delightful desserts. I'm hoping they could start catering the Kiwanis lunches I attend twice month!

But today was a special day - sweet potato pancakes for breakfast and crawfish etouffee for lunch. And cheesecake for dessert.

One of my blog followers (and Facebook friends) commented while I was in the midst of writing this "quit telling us how very, very well you are eating! Tell about how very hard you are working!" Yes, we are working very hard. But part of the experience is the fellowship and camaraderie of meals, devotions and even sitting around playing cards. It is the total package that makes this experience unique. We laugh and sing and work and sweat and tease and cajole and support and pray for each other. I want my readers to know that being part of a mission team isn't a monk's life.

I think that is a misconception that we need to break - being Christian and serving others is fun. It is a joyful existence. You don't have to be serious all the time. You still get to have fun AND believe that God loves you. You can serve others AND smile and enjoy life. We focus hard on the work at hand but when we have the opportunity, we also get to embrace the great talents that God has given the staff in the kitchen. Today's crawfish etouffee was probably the best I've ever had. After a hard morning in the warehouse opening cases of toothpaste to be included in the health kits (toothpaste is heavy!) - the staff greeted us with smiling faces and delicious food to get us refreshed and ready to go back at it again. Even Jesus took time to recharge his batteries.

It is a great time here. We are meeting new friends, serving people in the community with home repairs and cleaning, providing assistance with a monthly food distribution for seniors and yes...verifying and packing a LOT of health kits (3 pallets today alone)! But equally important is the fact that our entire team is being reminded that Christianity isn't a gathering of sourpusses wonking each other over the head with Bibles and pointing out each others' shortcomings...we come in joy to serve the Lord because we have received so much. My favorite artistic rendition of Jesus is a picture of him laughing - it reminds me that God loves us and delights in us.

Now...to bed, to rest and prepare for another day. Morning will be here before long!

Monday, October 20

Making the machine

Day one of work at the UMCOR Sager Brown Depot. The depot is the main distribution point for relief supplies from the United Methodist church to global and domestic disasters. During orientation today we heard that in 2013 the value of goods shipped was just over 7 million dollars. It included 369,286 health kits (which contain a hand towel, washcloth, bandaids, soap, fingernail clippers, comb, toothbrush and toothpaste); 124,010 school kits; 11,032 clean birthing kits; 5,248 cleaning buckets; 19,859 layette kits; 5,040 sewing kits; and 2,471 bedding kits.

It is a great example of what happens in connected mission - individuals in churches all across the country make kits using instructions found on the UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) website. Then the kits are gathered, often at the regional or state level. They are then shipped to Baldwin, Louisiana where they are verified and packed to be ready for distribution when the need arises anywhere in the world.

My morning began a little rough...I'm rooming with 7 other people. 2 of them snore. Really loud. So I put in my earplugs. At some point when folks were starting to get up, I pulled the covers over my head to block out the light. The next thing I know...Carole is poking me in the chest. I uncovered my head and said something like, "what?" to which she replied "breakfast." I looked at my phone and saw that I had four minutes to get to the dining hall. I made it in three. My hair was a wreck, I was wearing flip flops and my glasses...but I made it just before the bell rang. Whew. Not sure why it didn't occur to me that earplugs that would block out bears on my right and left would also block out the sound of my alarm. I'll need a new plan tomorrow morning.

What was the best part of working today? How easily everyone works together. I've worked in a lot of different environments - but this situation is different. I think that the difference is that everyone leaves their ego behind. They are flexible and fit in where the greatest need is, instead of where they want to be. I worked with two amazing guys in the packing station. We had all worked in that area before but this was the first time we had worked together. We came up with systems to keep the work flowing smoothly. Sure, things came up through the day that needed troubleshooting and whenever that happened - we just came up with solutions.

I observed that in other work areas - people sharing the work load, helping each other. Efficiency and accuracy were more important than volume and who was getting more done. It is a different kind of work environment than "normal."

Many years ago I was in a show called "Stop the World." I was part of the clown chorus. During that show the director (who was Kevin Bacon's first acting teacher...making me two degrees separated and that makes all of you three degrees separated from Kevin Bacon! But I digress...) wanted the clown chorus to represent a machine. He was actually kind of a lousy director...he pretty much worked with the principle actors and left us to figure out our blocking on our own. So the six of us went to work turning ourselves into a machine. It was six performers. With six giant egos. A piece of stage business that took 4-5 minutes of the show took nearly 2 hours to perfect.

I think watching the 30-40 people working in the depot today - merging into an efficient and beautiful machine was more wonderful than any work environment I've ever been a part of.

What great strides we could make in this world if we could all lose our egos and just focus on the end goal - improving the world one tiny bit at a time. As part of devotions tonight we sang "Pass it On" which starts with the lyric: It only takes a spark, to get a fire going. And soon all those around, can warm up to its glowing. Be a spark. You don't have to do any more than that...

Greater than the pieces

The sun has set over Bayou Teche and the mission team from Centenary UMC is settling in for the night. As I reflect over the two days of travel, one word comes to mind - patience. The trip from 1501 Rivermont Ave. to Baldwin, Louisiana is a shade over 1000 miles. If you could drive it without stopping for gas, snacks, rest or bathroom breaks - it would take about 15 hours. Reality makes it more like 18 hours. Despite the cramped quarters and monotony, the group of 14 people in the church van and a mini van remained more than just civil...we actually got to know each other a little better!

Bringing together different people with diverse talents, differing personalities and widely varied interests is pretty much a parallel to what this mission is about (and it also parallels churches and society as a whole). You take the best of each individual part and when combined - it creates this perfect mosaic. That reminds me of a story I was listening to in the van (I'm not much of a morning person so I spent the first part of today's drive listening to Father Greg Boyle's "Tattoos on the Heart" and playing Fruit Ninja).

I've shared the book "Tattoos on the Heart" with a great many people. I've also included his illustrations in sermons and probably on this blog. It is an illumination of the concept of compassion and kinship through the stories of gang members served by Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program in the poorest parish in Los Angeles. But I digress...the story I remember from this morning involved Pastor G (his nickname from the homies...short for Greg) spending time serving alongside prisoners in a camp in Bolivia. He tells about a time that he and one of the prisoners made an illegal pot of iguana stew. Apparently the prison camp food was beyond bad - so one afternoon they found the opportunity to scavenge some vegetables (okay, the prisoner swiped the vegetables from one of the guard's houses while G acted as reluctant lookout). The amazing thing wasn't the fact that they managed to make the stew without getting caught - it was what happened while it was being created. In an unusual iteration of the classic "stone soup" tale, other prisoners found G and the prisoner, were invited to join and each one brought a secret, precious stash to add to the pot. The iguana was joined by a handful of coarse salt, a shriveled jalapeno... Each brought to the feast something precious and the final product was enjoyed by all.

That is what we do when we join together. We bring what we can - something precious and sacred to each of us - and the final product is an incredible mosaic of talents. It becomes something more than just the sum of the parts. It doesn't make mathematical sense - it is beyond explanation.

I look forward to this week that will surely involve hard work, personal sacrifice and yes, patience. I will strive to step back and let the mosaic come together without trying to fit the pieces together. And at the end of the week we will find that we have been a part of something bigger than ourselves. Bigger than the sum of the parts.

My fellow team members and I will share the experience with you through the week. Please be in prayer for us.

Wednesday, October 8

An Opportunity to Change Lives

I have spent far too long away from The Beaten Hamster. I just get so busy, ya know? But I have something really exciting to share with you, so I'm back!

On Saturday, October 18, I will be part of a 13 member team headed to do mission work in Louisiana. Baldwin, Louisiana is the home of the Sager Brown United Methodist relief supply depot where thousands and thousands of relief supplies flow from congregations to the world.

Imagine that you've been hit with a natural disaster, like a hurricane (easy to picture here in Virginia). Maybe you've been displaced from your home. All you have are the clothes on your back. You are feeling alone (even if you are surrounded by a bunch of other people going through the same catastrophe). Now imagine a person walking up with a package that includes a wash cloth, hand towel, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, nail clippers...and a few other items. You get the opportunity to clean up and feel a little more human. It can change your perspective. Perhaps give you the desire to keep going.

Imagine you are a living in a poor village in Africa. You want to go to school more than anything. You know that education is the key to improving life in your village, improving life for your family. But you lack school supplies. Or what the school considers proper attire. Enter the UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) school kit or sewing kit (or both!) and you have the tools you need to start that life-changing path to education.

Or perhaps you are in a third world country and pregnant. You know that your baby has less chance of surviving because of infections incurred during the birthing process. You may not even have a blanket and clothes for your newborn. Birthing kits provide necessary tools, like a sanitary razor blade to cut the cord and clean string to tie it off. Layette kits provide some basic clothing that can help a new baby survive in a challenging environment.

And I get to be a part of making that happen!! I will be working in the warehouse helping to check the kits (they have to be exactly as the customs forms indicate or the whole shipment could be seized) and pack them for shipment. The relief depot works hard to be certain there are kits ready to ship at a moment's notice. When disaster strikes, we'll be ready.

Most of the week I'll be wielding a tape gun and box cutter...but the trip is about more than just the work. I get the chance to grow closer to the team I'm traveling with - and to get to know teams from across the US. There is something amazing about being part of a group all pulling in the same direction. Which brings me to my last point...

I want you to be a part of this too! In addition to prayers and following our team's progress via my blog and the Centenary UMC Facebook...I need something tangible. I need a few more bucks to pay my way to Louisiana and back. If you can kick in $20 (or more...or less) you can send it me by mail (Chris Howell, 207 Maple Drive, Madison Heights, VA 24572), you can email me money if you have PayPal (hamsterbeaters@hotmail.com) or you can send the money straight to Centenary United Methodist Church, 1501 Rivermont Ave., Lynchburg, VA 24503. Heck - even the church has PayPal! You can click here to go to CUMC's donation page. After you've entered your info...on the second page, please click on the "special instructions for recipient" and note that it is for the Sager Brown Mission trip - Chris Howell.

Thank you - and stay tuned to see how the trip goes! (click here if you want to see pictures from a previous trip!)

Saturday, July 12

Are You Weary?

Due to repeated requests by friends and family who were not able to hear the message I delivered on July 6 at Cove UMC, I am publishing that message here. I hope that you find value within it.

Matthew 11:16-19 (NRSV)
16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

Matthew 11:25-30 (NRSV) "Jesus Thanks His Father"
25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In the gospel reading, Jesus begins by calling out the leaders of the current culture. It reminds me of a story about a rather pompous-looking deacon who was endeavoring to impress upon a class of boys the importance of living the Christian life. "Why do people call me a Christian?" the man asked. After a moment's pause, one youngster said, "Maybe it's because they don't know you."

That describes the situation that Jesus was faced with as he began his ministry. Oh, sure, the talk was all about how one could live a righteous life...but when you got right down to it, the leadership of the day was missing the forest for the trees!

The Ten Commandments was the basis for righteous living. It was handed down to the people of Israel through Moses. Ten easy rules for living – No other gods, only me. No idol worship. No irreverent use of God's name, Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, Honor your father and mother, No murder, No adultery, No stealing, No lies about your neighbor, No lusting after other people's stuff.

Simple, right?

Then why are the next three chapters of Exodus full of extra instructions? And then there is Leviticus...and Deuteronomy? Because we are human...and nothing is that simple when you involve humans. Church, and indeed the world, would be perfect if God didn't let all these humans in!

Laws are interesting things – here are a few laws that you'll find amusing:

  • In Lexington, Ky., there is an ordinance forbidding anyone to carry an ice-cream cone in his pocket.
  • In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts it is against the law to eat peanuts in church or to use tomatoes in making clam chowder.
  • In Kansas an old law states that you cannot eat snakes on Sunday or rattlesnake meat in public.
  • In Zion, Ill., it is illegal for anyone to give lighted cigars to dogs, cats and other domesticated animals kept as pets.
  • In Oklahoma you cannot take a bite of another person's hamburger.
  • In Baltimore, its illegal to take a lion to the movies.
  • In Nicholas County, W. Va., no member of the clergy is allowed to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit during a church service.
  • Oh...I'm in trouble if I go there!

So at the beginning of the gospel lesson, we find Jesus opening with a cutting declaration about the nature of much of the discourse he sees happening among the leaders of his culture. Legalism. He says they’re like children in the marketplace, complaining because other children won’t dance the dance and play the game they want to play when they want to play it. This is why, he says, prophets like John the Baptist and himself don’t get rave reviews by religious leaders. John was declared a demoniac because of his asceticism, while Jesus was considered a drunkard and glutton because of his conviviality at meals with known sinners.

There’s no pleasing some people.

But this story says more than just that the bickering was commonplace. These are the leaders, after all. Ultimately, they’re not just playing their own separate games. They’re playing the same game: rivalry. And each is trying to enlist as many others to their “side” so each can declare itself the winner and rightful ruler of all.

Sound familiar?

We hear it all the time in our modern culture. You need to worship THIS way, MY way to be right. We need to sing THESE songs, the ones that I like – to be right. You're not properly baptized if it isn't by immersion in the river... You're not a proper Christian if you choose to study a different translation of the Bible than me. You're not going to heaven if you haven't checked off these items on OUR list.
You're either on OUR team doing things OUR way...or you're wrong and doomed.

Their game of rivalry is more than just childish. It’s wearing, wearying, life-denying and destructive. Through it, leaders turn life into their own private war, with them at the top, and whomever they can enlist through their influence as expendable soldiers on the front lines. There are no real winners, except rivalry itself.
Aren't we tired of sitting down with our rule book deciding who is IN and who is OUT?

Dr. Seuss wrote many wonderful stories and books – one of my very favorite was always the one about the star-bellied sneetches. In the story (which is part of the book Sneetches and Other Stories) there is a group of yellow creatures named Sneetches. Some of the Sneetches have a green star on their bellies. The star-bellied sneetches start discriminating against the sneetches without stars. If you don't have a star, then you are shunned by the ones that DO have a star.

Enter Sylvester McMonkey McBean. With his fabulous invention, the Star-On machine, the sneetches can have a star for just 3 bucks. So now the ones who originally had stars are mad because they aren't special anymore. McBean has a Star-Off machine that will take their stars off for 10 bucks! But then the sneetches who had new stars just pay their money and take their new stars off...so they can keep being part of the RIGHT crowd.

As a kid, I loved looking a the illustrations of sneetches going in and out of these two machines. Finally...all the sneetches are broke...McBean drives off with his machines and a truck full of their money. Some of the sneetches have stars, some have more than one...some have none. But they are all a little wiser.

Whether you are looking at the early church that Paul was writing to in Rome or the modern day church – we have to stop being in the business of deciding who God thinks is worthy. That is exhausting our resources.

That is why the passage from Matthew continues with Jesus calling the wearied and overburdened to come to him for rest? Jesus doesn’t play “rivalry.” He plays “deliverance,” deliverance made possible because the kingdom of God has drawn near.

The rest Jesus promises is not a vacation or escape from this life. It is rather a different way of engaging life, under his teaching and direction, rather than under the compulsive direction of those who play rivalry and judgment. There is a yoke. There is a burden. There is work to be done, and we need the team to do it together. But this work, this plowing in the fields of God’s kingdom, is not about who has the best or most popular. It’s about a making way for harvest of righteousness, and justice, and love for God and neighbor, and then bringing in the abundant sheaves.

So this week’s reading has a lot to say to all of us just now, wherever we may be, where rivals may call for the church to divide unless they get their way on some issues.

To all of us, Jesus says, “Come to me.” Leave the game of rivalry behind. Don’t let those who play that game overwork you (like oxen), whoever you may be. Learn from me. Live as my disciples. Become bearers with me, in word and deed, in work and relationships, in public discourse and in secret prayer of the good news of God’s kingdom drawn near. Learn from me how your good work contributes to an abundant harvest for all.

Leave the judgment part to God. We are not really very good at it anyway.

A few years ago, 1996, when the Olympic Games were held in Atlanta, GA – an American police officer named Richard Jewell became known in connection with the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Discovering a backpack filled with three pipe bombs on the park grounds, Jewell alerted police and helped to evacuate the area before the bomb exploded, saving many people from injury or death. Initially hailed by the media as a hero, Jewell was later considered a suspect. Despite never being charged, he underwent a "trial by media" with great toll on his personal and professional life. Eventually he was completely exonerated and Eric Robert Rudolph was later found to have been the bomber. In 2006 (after ten years!?), Governor Sonny Perdue publicly thanked Jewell on behalf of the state of Georgia for saving the lives of those at the Olympics.

We are human. We are quick to judge. We often discover that our initial judgment is completely wrong. We see the surface appearance of a person or a situation. We think we have all of the facts. Or at least enough of the facts. Here is a story about a quick judgment that I think we can all relate to:

It was a cold winter's day that Sunday. The parking lot to the church was filling up quickly. I noticed as I got out of my car that fellow church members were whispering among themselves as they walked to the church. As I got closer I saw a man leaned up against the wall outside the church. He was almost lying down as if he were asleep. He had on a long trench coat that was almost in shreds and a hat topped his head, pulled down so you couldn't see his face. He wore shoes that looked 30 years old, too small for his feet, with holes all over them, his toes stuck out. I assumed this man was homeless and asleep, so I walked by through the church doors.

We all enjoyed fellowship for a few minutes, and then someone brought up the man who was lying outside. People snickered and gossiped, but no one bothered to ask him to come in, including me. A few moments later church began. We all waited for the preacher to take his place, and to give us the Word, when the doors to the church opened. In came the homeless man, walking down the aisle with his head down.

People gasped and whispered and made faces. He made his way down the aisle and up onto the pulpit. When he took off his hat and coat my heart sank. There stood our preacher... he was the "homeless man." No one said a word... the room was silent and still. Then the preacher took his Bible and laid it on the stand. "Folks, I don't think I have to tell you what I'm preaching about today."

We need to get out of the judging business. We need to get down to what God really wants us to do. He did not send us to measure people with a yard stick and see how they meet our goals. He wanted us to take good news into the world!

In Matthew 22 Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment. He said to love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind – that is the greatest and first commandment. Then he said, Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus took 10 commandments and packed them into two. Love God – if you do that, then that takes care of the first four of the big 10: No other gods, only me. No idol worship. No irreverent use of God's name, Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. Love your neighbor as yourself – that takes care of the other 6: if you love your neighbor (everybody) then you will honor more than just your father and mother – you honor everyone you meet. If you love everyone the way you want to be loved, you won't need to be told not to murder or steal or practice adultery or covetousness.

So the big ten becomes the basic two. And still, we humans didn't seem to grasp it. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus tried one more time at the Last Supper. John 13: 34-35 reads, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Nowhere in there does it say anything about IF a person is worthy of your love or IF a group agrees with what you have to say. It says love one another.

The rule book went out the window when Jesus came on the scene. That's the major reason that the establishment decided he had to GO!! He was hanging out with all kinds of people that the leadership found to be unworthy – tax collectors, prostitutes, harlots, common people. He spent no time currying their favor. They – the star-bellied sneetches of their day! Nope, he hung out with the riff-raff that had no stars on their bellies. And they probably didn't even have the three bucks to buy one!

Jesus met people where they were – and showed them that they were worthy of God's love. It wasn't about rules or pedigrees or stars...it was about being a child of God.

Jesus reminds us not to let ourselves become distracted by the game of rivalry or any leaders anywhere who play it. As compelling as it may seem, life is not sustained there.

Instead, life is beaten down, worn out, and used up there. Life, is sustained as we continue to take on the yoke of Jesus, and the burden he gives us, and learn from our meek master what it means to bear it with patience, and kindness, and love.

Are you weary? Take a break from deciding who is worthy – leave that work to the one who can handle the pressure.

The we can get back to the true labor, the true plowing, the true waiting, and trust in God’s abundant harvest among all those beaten down by the rivalries and lifted up by God in this age and in the age to come.

Tuesday, July 1

Another Job I Can't Do

Readers recently discovered that I am NOT good at everything. You are all mighty shocked, I am sure. Brace yourselves - in addition to discovering that I would NOT be a good server, I have to tell you something else. I would also not be good at commission sales.

Sure, I can sell members of my church a lot of frozen casseroles. And I have sold lots and lots of Girl Scout cookies. Wait...that's not right...I have bought lots and lots of Girl Scout cookies.

Straight commission sales...add in a snake and a small child and you've got my personal definition of hell.

I did try it - once. I was in my early twenties and disenchanted with my job stuffing inserts into the newspaper. I answered one of those ads in the classifieds that looks really cool: Be your own boss! Unlimited earning potential! Set your own hours!

My antennae should have been alerted when the "interview" was scheduled for a Sunday evening at the offices of Thousand Trails in Rustburg. And when I arrived and found myself part of a "group interview" - the alarm bells should have been ringing. But they weren't - because I was young and trusted the advertiser. NEVER trust advertisers. From politics to products, advertisers have one goal: make you want what they are offering.

But I digress...a pair of energetic young college students (one male, one female - both very attractive) spent half an hour telling us about the untapped sales universe opening up before us. We all had the opportunity to make unlimited money selling time-share campground spaces. Time-share camping. Yup. And while the good looking young hunk was telling me how intelligent and go-getting I appeared to be (during our private interview...10 minutes long....) - well, I sure was passionate about getting out there and selling a whole bunch of seniors with RVs on the joys of camping in the great city of Rustburg, Virginia.

On the drive home, I started to come to my senses. And then I tried my pitch on my parents - who kindly informed me that it wasn't something that they were prepared to invest in. I tried my pitch on about three more couples in my circle of friends...then I gave up. I am sure that there are people out there who could have made that job work.


No...you know, I'm NOT sure that there are people out there who could have made a good living at selling time-share camping in Rustburg. It really was a dreadful "product" to sell.

This all came to mind when I young man that I know and love was enticed to go into commission sales. Same energetic pitch...same delirium caused by smiling people saying "this stuff practically sells itself! You make $15 for every meeting you set up. You'll be rich in no time..."

Actually - this young man came to his senses much quicker than me.

But it still angers me that companies feel it is okay to take advantage of young people in this way. Dangle some fat cash promises and the "joy" of being your own boss (generally, people suck at being their own boss. Especially college-age people who haven't had a lot of bosses to model after). It's a crappy and unethical way to make a buck. Usually what happens is the family of the young person buys stuff "just to get them started." And then they might be generous enough to refer a few friends and colleagues (great way to lose both!) before the young person realizes they could make more money selling their plasma.

Ethical companies provide sales training AND support. Good sales jobs usually start with a "draw" (a base salary while you're learning the ropes) that declines over time (after all, there has to be an incentive to start making sales!). But it has become an acceptable practice to have young people bust their humps, selling stuff to their unsuspecting family and soon-to-be-former friends...then when the young people run out of leads - you just cut them loose and suck in some more.

I'm not going to buy stuff from companies like that any more. That includes a lot of our local car dealerships.

And I'm not going to try to sell any more time-shares for Thousand Trails.

As I told a telemarketer one day when they were trying to sell me an internet listing service, "perhaps you should go into a more ethical line of work...like drowning kittens or prostitution."

Hamster beaten.



Friday, June 20

Salute to Servers

I always thought that I'd be really good as a waitress. After all, I like food. I like people. And I have a good enough memory to be able to bring people unsweet tea when that is what they are drinking (a pet peeve of mine...taking a big swig of my refreshing beverage to get hit by the cloying sweetness of southern sweet tea). What could be hard about serving?

Everything.

I tried it when I returned from my last season at Kings Dominion. I lasted for two, yes...TWO lunches. I didn't even make it to dinner service. I admit, it may have been a mistake to start at a local fine dining establishment. The place was Emil's (where Isabella's is now) and the kitchen was ruled by the iron fist of Urs Gabathuler. A German chef that made Gordon Ramsey look tame. Highly talented, but extremely particular. The server who was "training" me put the fear of God in me. This was not the fun interactive experience that I had expected. Then I was stunned to realize that most diners do not even acknowledge their server is human. Perhaps it was the location. Perhaps it was that particular clientele. But my conversations with servers makes me suspect that it wasn't just me. All of these customers gave their order to the tablecloth and handed the menu AT me (not TO me) over their shoulder. When I showed up at dinner service on my second day with a spot on my white shirt (tiny grease spot...probably from lunch) and was sent home to change...I just stayed there.

My respect for these hard working folks has never wavered.

My goal now is to be their best table of the day. I want them to smile and know that they are appreciated. Maybe I can't do anything radical like Rachel Ray's new show "The Big Tip" - where they give $1000 tips to two worthy servers and one $10,000 tip to the most special one they feature. Find it, watch it, bring tissues.

I have mentioned in this blog before that service with a smile can turn my day around...I'd like to tell you about a couple of the people I regularly interact with in local restaurants that have done that lately. Now you know, I love several local restaurateurs: Rob Pearson at Charley's (not the one with the O') and Uday from the Hot and Cold Cafe'. But they aren't really servers, so they don't qualify.

On the top of my list is my new girl Whitney at Injera on Main Street. Ethiopian food. Whitney greets everyone (but especially me) with a big smile and a welcoming attitude. She is working for a restaurant that features a cuisine that is new to Lynchburg. She recognizes that and takes the time to offer each table more information about the menu. She admits that she is a carnivore, but doesn't stop me if I decide to order one of the vegetarian dishes. She keeps my Coke filled and my attitude light. It all looks effortless - but I know that it isn't. She is pretty to look at, but it is her warm spirit that makes me walk in the door hoping she'll be there to brighten my day. And when she said that one way to remember her name was Whitney Houston, she laughed at my "crack is whack" joke and smiled when I sang a little bit of "and Iiiiiiiii will always loooooovvveee youuuuuuuu..." I should probably leave a bigger tip next time I visit.


Just down the street at Robin Alexander, I can always count on Joanie (as in "loves Chachi") for excellent service. She remembers that I like the chicken noodle soup - so even if I don't ask what the soup of the day is, she'll tell me when they have my favorite. She knows my sister will always order the sweet potato fries with raspberry melba sauce to dip them in. She knows that I think that is grossly sweet. Our drinks never run empty. She doesn't hover. My only complaint is that she is so quiet, I've been startled by her sudden appearance a couple of times. Or maybe that is just my lack of observation... Or maybe my sister (and frequent dining companion) is really loud?

One of my favorite servers is at the Cavalier. Yes, I think that Wells Duffy is also an owner...but he carries a lot of food around there - so I'm counting him in. Not everyone sees Wells as a warm and inviting presence. But they are missing the fluffy bunny within that gruff exterior. He always greets me and asks about my parents. He never fails to get every aspect of my table's order perfect (and some of my people are particular). Drinks rarely find themselves empty. And my favorite line is always delivered with his unique charm - as the basket of seasoned potato wedges land in the middle of the table: "be careful, the fries are hot." He knows that we know they are hot. We've been here hundreds of times. But I still feel cared for when he warns me the fries are hot. I still bite into one while it is the temperature of the sun...but that is not his fault.

And one more mention (though I could literally write this post all night long...there are so many extraordinary servers that I have encountered) - Nicole at Depot Grille. I wrote about a month ago about the train derailment that I was on the front lines for. I mentioned in the post that the derailment happened just after my table handed off our credit cards to pay our respective checks. What I didn't mention was that in the midst of the chaos of people streaming out of the area - Nicole found me (crouching behind a car) to let me know that she had our cards and would keep them safe. While there were train cars on FIRE less than 100 yards away, she wanted me to know that she was watching out for us. Yes, Nicole always smiles - like Whitney. Nicole is pretty familiar with my ordering habits and will point out specials that she knows I like - like Joanie. And just like Wells, she would probably warn me not to put blistering hot fries on my poor tongue. But I have to give a special nod to anyone who would stop running away from a very dangerous situation to reassure me that she would take good care of my credit card. I'm very glad that both of us survived that experience. She is pretty darn special.

To everyone who puts up with customers - thank you. A lot of us are so wrapped up in our stuff, we forget to acknowledge your service.

To anyone who does it in the food service industry - you amaze me. You do something I have found that I just can't do. I appreciate you very much.

Friday, June 13

Shop Local, Eat Local, Have Big Fun!

Tomorrow at 10:30am will be the convergence of three of my favorite things.

#1 - shopping local. My family is very aware that I abhor the giant stores like Target and Walmart. I know you can find lots of different things under one roof. I can get a snow shovel, cat food, a new DVD, cord for my phone and a bean bag chair. I'm just not sure that is a good thing. It may be a huge variety, but I know how those stores treat their vendors because a company I worked for had a client that produced a popular hunting video series that was sold at Walmart. They dictated the price point and the terms - the vendor just had to make the budget fit. And when I say they dictated the terms - they routinely demanded up to 120 days to pay. And if the hunting dudes didn't get paid for 120 days, you can see how that rolls downhill.

So I prefer to buy local. I'd rather spend a couple of extra bucks to get my snow shovels and cat food from a business owned by a guy who actually lives in the area. Does that mean there aren't going to be mass-produced goods? No. Does it mean that I can count on the factories producing those goods to treat their workers fairly? No. But I think that the likelihood increases.


#2 - being part of a cash mob. I wrote about my first experience "in the mob" when the cash mob visited local grocer Anderson's Market. The concept is simple: a group of people show up at a pre-arranged time/place to shop with $20 (or more...!) to bolster the community spirit of shopping with a local store. It is fun and has given me a reason to stop in at places that I might not have shopped at otherwise. Our last cash mob was at Virginia Garden Center where I found wonderful and healthy plants. I also discovered knowledgeable and caring staff. I plan to return there for more stuff. On another occasion I ended up downtown at a little artistic place called Pastiche. Totally cool - completely off my radar! I am quite pleased at the variety of places our mob has visited. I can't wait for tomorrow's (Saturday, June 14) spot.

#3 - hanging out in a hardware store. Oh my goodness - I do love a good hardware store. Sure, I make trips to Lowe's from time to time. Actually worked for a Lowe's vendor for about a year and spent a LOT of time in the Lowe's stores in the great state of West Virginia. I was setting new displays in the faucet repair section. I learned one thing - customers in the Lowe's stores in WV are so desperate for assistance, it wouldn't matter if the vendor vests said "Inmate" across the back, they would ask me for help anyway. Regardless of the downsides of being in a big box store (and being in increasingly random places in WV...ever heard of Logan, WV? Had to drive through the back parking lot of the liquor store to get to the Super 8)...I loved all the little boxes of connectors and washers and nuts and stuff.

I have always loved hardware stores. The smell draws me in - a mixture of lumber, metal, fertilizer and rubber. I delight in discovering all the weird little things that a hardware store has to offer. Sure, you got your bolts and nuts and screws; hammers and screwdrivers and staple guns; seeds and plants and plant food - but then you turn a corner and find kitchen tools like meat thermometers and turkey basters - turn another corner and you find plungers and brooms. It would be the best possible place to have a scavenger hunt. Where else could you possible find a step ladder, garden hose, mop bucket and replacement seal for your granny's pressure cooker?

Tomorrow's cash mob will be at Lynchburg's True Value Hardware. I haven't been there in years! I'm looking forward to finding the perfect Father's Day gift. Something like an axe handle or hummingbird feeder or pocket knife...the possibilities are nearly endless! Come join me in the adventure!!

Then perhaps I'll EAT LOCAL and make a quick stop by Anderson's for some cheese and those marshmallows that are like having Lucky Charms without the pesky cereal part!

Tuesday, June 10

Saying Goodbye

I recently wrote a post about the "Mayas" in our lives. I have been fortunate to encounter a lot of extraordinary people in my life. One of the first was my mentor Joe Campbell (read my post about him by clicking on his name) - he taught me how important it is to not dismiss people because they are different. He talked with artists, writers, poets, people abducted by aliens, musicians, hypnotists...lots of different people. And yet he still had time for the mental ramblings of a twentysomething.

I have written in this space before about my great friend Kathleen Sihlanick - a lady who broke the glass ceiling before anyone realized it was there.

Today I feel I need to honor another person who has had tremendous impact on my life - my Pastor, Rick Ecklund. It is with a heavy heart, because he is moving to another church very soon. The blessing and curse of being a United Methodist - where pastors are sent, not hired. I read a very amusing book recently called "The Search Committee" about a team of Presbyterians searching for their new preacher. Although I could certainly relate to the personalities of the characters (ALL churches are full of characters), this idea of a search committee is foreign. In the United Methodist denomination the conference bishop, his/her cabinet (yes, we have had a woman bishop in the Virginia UMC Conference!) and the district superintendent make the decision of who goes where.

Bishop Cho, District Superintendent
 Larry Davies and Pastor Rick.
When I was growing up, it seemed like the minister moved about every 4 years...whether that was true of every church's minister or just Madison Heights UMC, I do not know. I do know that I have become accustomed to the fact that pastors leave. There are good reasons for that process - congregations can become too reliant on a pastor, or begin to follow the pastor instead of God, or become so set in the status quo that "we've never done it that way before" becomes an acceptable response to new ideas.

Every minister that I have been blessed with has brought different gifts to the church. Some are incredible speakers, sermons challenging and inspiring the members each week. Some are great theologians, Bible scholars, educators - those have encouraged increasing knowledge of the Bible and church history. Still others bring organization skills or pastoral care or an emphasis on spiritual gifts. Sometimes it is just new blood that a congregation needs to reignite their ministry.

Though I am used to this process - this particular change (after eight years!) is going to be harder than ever. Mostly because Pastor Rick has been the first to encourage me to explore ministry from the pulpit. He and his wife Pastor Liz Ecklund (also a United Methodist minister) have challenged me to look at the possibility of ordained ministry. I am not sure what direction I will go with that calling - I am still trying to discern what path God wants me to follow. But when I mentioned it as something that had been marinating in my mind - Rick was on my side. He did not sugarcoat the challenges that a pastor faces, but he reminded me that if God wants me on that path, I can rely on him to be with me through it all.

Rick popping Jiffy Pop for a movie
night at the church. Note, he is popping
corn ambidextrously!
Pastor Rick is not universally loved by every single person in the church - people who are universally loved by everyone are usually trying to be what every person wants them to be. And that just isn't real. Rick is who he believes God wants him to be - someone focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ - and is completely real about it. When meetings get bogged down with disagreement, he reminds us of what our true purpose is supposed to be as a church: to be witnesses of Jesus Christ's redeeming love in a hurting world. And if the disagreement doesn't have something to do with that, it is petty and should not be what we get focused on.

A new stole to remember Centenary by...
I like that he is real. He is not a repeat of the last pastor, or the one before that...he has confidence in his gifts and uses them to the best of his ability. He is willing to hear new ideas (and float a few of his own) and try new things. Maybe "we've never done it that way before" OR maybe "we tried that and it didn't work." The default isn't "I don't think so" - the default is "let's give it a whirl."

Make no mistake, he is grounded in the core beliefs of Christianity. He believes that God sent his only son into the world - not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. He just respects that not everyone agrees on some of the details - and that shouldn't stop us from doing what we are supposed to do. Be the light. Love one another. Stop judging...that isn't our job.

Rick is a great minister - I love to hear his sermons (he preaches from the common lectionary - so I can study the scriptures ahead of time! Then I can compare my "take" on the scripture with his.), he is wonderfully caring (I can always count on him for a listening ear), he tries hard to connect our congregation with the mission and ministry of the district, conference and United Methodists around the world. I will miss his leadership. I will miss his guidance. I will miss his friendship. I'll even miss his dry Yankee sense of humor.

I'm ready to embrace the transition. I look forward to what new gifts and talents Rev. Doug Gunsalus will bring. He must be good - his last church kept him for 13 years! And I wish Pastor Rick the best as he settles into a new appointment at Main Street UMC in Bedford. Maybe he won't be universally loved there either, but I am willing to bet that it will be the vast majority that come to love and respect him...just like me.

Friday, May 30

The Mayas in Our Lives

I love this introspective gaze.
This week we lost a beautiful and talented lady...Maya Angelou. She was a person full of light, despite the darkness that so often surrounded her. She was deeply introspective and had a way of conveying that emotion through her storytelling. If you have not read some of her poetry or prose, I can't express how much you are missing. I began with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - like most of you, it was assigned reading in some English class. I didn't get it at first - because I was this goofy white kid who had led a pretty sheltered life and here was this woman talking about her struggles. Every time I read it, I find a new level to appreciate. It is much like watching a garden mature...tall trees lending a hushed luxury of green everywhere.

Since I did not get to know...or even meet!...her in real life, she will live on in her powerfully written words. Thanks to wonders of the internet, I can even see her sing and hear her recite Still I Rise. I mourn the loss to the world - but the most direct affect I felt at her passing was the moment I thought of some of the Mayas who have directly affected my life.

Passionate.

Deeply introspective.

Kind.

Tenacious friends.


This reminds me so much of Susan
It became apparent when a friend posted on Facebook how she would miss Maya Angelou being in this world. And I reflected on how very much like Maya this friend is. She is a free spirit, lives in some frozen tundra in California? I never realized how much it snowed in Lake Tahoe - but she posts crazy pictures of snowshoeing and bears eating bird feeders and her whole body smiles in pictures! I met her when I was a theatre rat. Hung out at the theatre ALL the time. Sets, lighting, props, painting...I was game for anything.

I met Susan when she stage managed the annual performance of The Nutcracker. And for regional ballet, these people pulled off OUTSTANDINGLY professional performances. And she scared me a little bit. But I learned how to stage manage just watching her. Those were my base skill sets for most all of my employed life - some of my favorite years were standing in the wings. She was my best friend's mom, and hanging out with them was always a time a uncontrollable (snorting milk out of your nose...) laughter, intelligent discussions...acting, singing, passion! Susan Shank Mix, one of the best Mayas in my life.

Yep, Carlton laughed just like this!
Another one was a guy, but he was definitely a Maya. A fierce educator, a defender of children's need to learn in their own way, larger than life. Carlton filled up a room with light from the moment he walked into it. He laughed fully - he would just throw his head back and howl! He gave my family (and a think a few hundred other families over the course of his teaching career) a catch phrase that helps us get along in the world: "Keep it in your head." Reminding us that we all know what you are thinking - that it isn't something helpful - so the best course of action is to just swallow it down. No need to say it. Just keep it in your head. Be the bigger person. Let it go. My sister commented on Facebook today (May 30, his birthday) that Carlton would have loved Facebook. Indeed he would have. The world lost him wayyyy too soon. He was one of those rare people who could look you in the eye and talk to you and make you feel like the most important person in the world. He and I had a chance to have several conversations during a turning point in his life - as he left his position as my sister's roommate in Richmond. He never treated me like a kid sister - I was proud that he saw me as an intellectual equal. Which I found incredibly inspiring.

People change our lives in tremendous ways. They change them in subtle ways.

It reminds me of a favorite quote from Maya Angelou. It was in the April 2011 edition of O, the Oprah magazine (had to Google that, but wanted to be respectful of her intellectual property). "You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot...it's all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that, I try to make sure that my experiences are positive."

I've always kind of shorthanded the same perspective on life...We are the sum total of our experiences. Whatever you are going through is giving you something for the road ahead. Maybe you'll be able to share your life experience with someone, help them to avoid a pitfall or endure a rough patch. Be sure to soak up all the experiences that you can!!!

Thank you to all the Mayas in my life (this post would take till Tuesday if I shared everything!).



Friday, May 2

Skidding along the edge

Well. I did it again. Came close to the edge and dodged death again.

The first time I remember doing it was my first year working at Kings Dominion. I was headed to Richmond for a preseason weekend of work at the Mason Dixon Music Hall and left a little later than planned and ended up in dark driving rain. Rolled my mother's 74 Superbeetle. When it stopped rolling, my foot was on the dashboard. Oh, that's right...beetles got no dashboard. Leg was out where the windshield was supposed to be. What saved my ass then? Seatbelt. And back in those days I was horrible about wearing my seatbelt. Still not as good as I should be... I walked away. Pretty much unscathed.

Another time, I was in Canada. We were headed from Canmore to Banff to pick up one of my Canadian brothers from work. It was October. I had just arrived that day and moronically was wearing shorts. Anyway, black ice...spinout...come to rest against the center barrier. Figuring, "cosmetic damage" and about to get pointed in the right direction when the truck came up over the same hill where we had hit black ice. And so...he's headed straight toward us skidding along the same barrier we were on. All I could say was, "Johnny, get us out of here." Stupid, right? Like he has a magic wand? But all of the sudden, the truck jackknifed to the other side of the road, up on the jersey barrier on the right shoulder. Double trailer. The gas tanks by the cab blew just before it slid past us. No one was injured. The truck burned for 4 hours. We were stuck on the side of a cold highway for a very long time (unable to reach the brother in Banff, who pretty much had figured we were goners hearing reports of wreck and fire on the highway. didn't help that he was at a bar during the wait.) But once again, walked away. Still pretty much unscathed.

And it happened again yesterday. That train derailment that happened in Lynchburg? I was there. Front row seat. Glad we hadn't opted to eat out on the deck. I think I'd be in therapy if I had watched it that close. Instead I was with my co-workers from Rush Homes at a farewell lunch for an awesome volunteer who helped us through major transition. We had just finished lunch and handed off payment to our lovely server Nicole (who I loved at Jazz Street Grill and still love at Depot Grille) when we heard strange train noise. If you dine at the Depot often enough, you get used to the sound of trains passing by. I don't think it is possible to have lunch without at least one train passing. Unless you're on the deck when the brakes are squealing...eeeeek. But this sound was just weird, and sudden. And then I think there were some thuds and I looked up and saw the look on the faces of servers standing by the window at the kitchen. Something was seriously wrong. Seriously. So you stand up. You look out the window.

You see tanker cars. Not where they should be. And tangled. And on fire. And black smoke. And you think, "what the hell?" And somebody a shade more able than you says "go. get out of here. just go. now." And people go. And nobody is trampled. And nobody is screaming. They are just going. But you lose track of the people you were with. And you head where your logic tells you to go. And then you can't find the person you thought you were with. And you look at the cars and the flames and wonder how long they can withstand that heat before they blow. And take everything you can see around you out. Including your dumb ass crouching behind a car, taking a couple of cell phone pics - because, why not? Something to identify your body with.

I shifted perspective there - because that is what happened at the time. All of those times. I step outside and see this incredible thing happening around me. And I know there isn't a damn thing I can do to change the outcome. So, there I was. But they didn't blow. And we got away. Once again, I walk away. Pretty much unscathed.

There may be something I need to examine here. I can tell you...yes, I felt the heat. It was like a bonfire. (the train conflagration, not that I am headed to hell. no matter what some of you may believe!) And yes, I was unsure what the next minutes, or seconds would hold. But, nothing happened to me. Sort of.

I'm headed to the beach where I will ponder these things.

I think I must still have something I need to do, or learn in this life. I know I've blown through at least 3 of my 9 lives. Maybe 4 or 5...

Could have been a different day today, but it isn't. Just another incredible story to tell Alex Trebek when I finally make it on Jeopardy.

Saturday, April 26

My Sister is a Rock Star

Haven't posted in a while. Lots of reasons but the chief one was that some of my mental energy was dealing with a situation with my sister Karen. The first born. The pretty one. Now, the rock star patient.

Ya see...that thing that touches a whole lot of families, a serious health issue, touched our family. Karen has been dealing with one of those. It would be disrespectful to disclose details. But I've been trying to notice anything useful and positive that comes out of coping with a crisis. I have noticed a lot. Here are a few.

- I didn't think I could admire my sister any more than I did a few months ago...we're a pretty tight knit family. But she is a rock star. From the very beginning of this "adventure in health care consumption" she has been a model patient. She went from consult to consult, getting a lot of complicated information shoved at her; she dealt (with some help from another great sister) a mountain of paperwork; AND she kept her positive attitude. Then, during this last few days of intensive healthcare consumption, she progressed faster than anyone could have hoped. And while recuperating - she did what Karen always does - befriends every person she comes in contact with.

Karen greets everyone she meets with a smile. She finds out their name. She uses it. Karen is just like that. She amazes me. And during her stay with the incredible professionals at UVA Health System in Charlottesville, VA - she got to know (even if only in a small way) each person that she came in contact with. I saw how she knew her ICU nurse Crystal's hometown, that one of her patient care professionals was from West Africa (I'm afraid to name a lot of names, wouldn't want to leave anybody out. Karen would be able to write this part with great detail.) I could tell with one exchange that Karen knew a young lady had a frustrating morning and that she was happy to know that the day had smoothed out for her. I'm glad I had a chance to notice that.

- I got to spend time with my brother in law. I noticed how he adores my sister. He still picks on her - otherwise she might think she's really sick. But I saw a lot of love in between the lines.

- I saw how many people will stop in their busy lives to support each other. Sure, the husband and the parents and such are there the most...but unexpected sacrifices of time from family and friends were there, too. So many people took time to reach out with an email, a card, a text, even visits! She now has balloons and flowers and a crazy-eyed stuffed fat monkey keeping her company. And a big pile of e-cards (thank you, UVA Health System volunteers!) from a wide circle of friends. I noticed that - and saw it replicated with other patients and their families.

- I got to go to Charlottesville and Trader Joe's. Hey, it's a positive... And I noticed how much I enjoyed dark chocolate covered pretzel thins.

It is easy to focus on the obstacle. There have been (and will be) times that a crisis is a wall you keep running into. For just a moment, from time to time...just lean on the wall and look around...maybe there is something positive hiding in that situation. Maybe.

hamster beaten

Saturday, March 22

Deep Breath...Atlas is shrugging...

I've never put much store in those tests that tell you whether you're an introvert or an extrovert or a Type A, B, Z personality. We're all a little bit of all of it at different times and places. Sometimes I'm shy - YES, seriously. But if I push past it - I can be the life of the party. Inside, I'm just not sure why all the cool kids hang out with me sometimes. But I'm glad you all do!

This has been a hell of a week. Maybe a little longer than a week - but it's been exhausting and emotional and trying. And part of it was this Type-whatever I am that makes me unable to ask for help until I'm about to snap. Whatever that is - I'd like to lose some of it. I just want to keep up this smoke and mirror that makes people think I'm super capable and infallible. I fear I may have oversold my product...

I'm not invincible. Not infallible.

I'm human.

I've taken on too much and forgotten to take care of me.

But today I was reminded that I don't have to carry everybody's loads. I need to trust people to carry their load and ask for help with it when they need it. Sometimes I find myself more invested in a person's life-load than they are. I've got to step back and let them deal with "their stuff" in their way. And be able to offer connections to resources but giving them the dignity to move forward under their own steam.

So - I've been trying to juggle a lot of people's worries and situations and concerns. I'm going to start handing them back. But with the understanding that I'm offering support, but not able to make the choices for them. Grownups got to deal with their drama, not spread it around, eh?

So...I'm taking a deep breath. Trying to regain balance again.

Reminds me of a post...about the last change in season.

I'm ready to embrace the sun.

this winter has been...too long...

feeling like a Sleestack

sorry, this was getting too serious. Go to bed hamster, you're tired..

Monday, March 10

Life Could Be Worse!

Things were a little chaotic in the past couple weeks - so I hadn't had a chance to share this exciting adventure:

One evening I decided to relax after a particularly horrible day by putting a log in the fireplace. I use those nifty pressed logs because they are simple and clean. My favorite brand is Duraflame - they have a lovely product that will burn up to 6 hours. My local Food Lion sells them by the 6 log case and I enjoy them very much. They only have one down side - they burn REALLY hot for the first 5 or 10 minutes.

On this particular evening I had settled down on my cushion in front of the fireplace with my back to the fire, much more pleasant than having the hot fire beaming on my toes and face. I was fiddling with my phone, updating my Facebook to say, "In a bad mood after a challenging day - have removed myself from other humans so I don't inflict my bad mood on them." Just before I hit the "Post" button, I heard a noise behind me.

I reached back to check the damper, figuring I hadn't pulled it all the way out and that the noise was metal expansion. Then I saw something move. That got my attention! Setting my phone aside, I stood up and looked into the fire to see...what? Is it squirrel? Is it a RAT? Squirrel? Rat?

Then it moved again and I could tell why I was confused...it was indeed a squirrel...with his tail fur on fire! With the fuzz burned off, the tail looked like a rat. Okay. Now that I've identified it - what now?
My squirrel was not this calm or cool!

Daddy? DADDY? Help! There's a squirrel on fire in my fireplace!

At this point the squirrel attached himself (had to be a boy squirrel - no female could be this stupid) to the fireplace screen - now looking like something you'd see suction-cupped to the back window of an SUV. My useless cat responded by stepping on my cushion, sniffing the smoking squirrel and looking at me. As if to say, "hey, you got a problem over here." And then the cat left the scene.

Calling louder to my upstairs housemates (who are now muttering to each other "did somebody call me?" "not me, maybe Chris?" "did you hear something?") I got their attention and started to look around for something to contain a fire-squirrel.

The fire is getting to its hottest point.

The cat is gone.

I keep picking up empty log boxes - finding that each brand uses boxes that have giant holes in their top when closed. I reached for a gift box that a friend gave me cookies in...way too small for a squirrel. Might have been able to transport a fire-mouse...

Now Mom and Dad are on the scene...and much like the cat, they seem to be cognizant of the fact that "hey, you got a problem over there..." but don't seem to have solutions yet.

Finally, I got a trash can and something to use as a lid - but as we tilted the screen forward to get Smokey the Squirrel...he headed for some sort of perceived safety. Under the grate. Thus, under the fire. Which is, I may have mentioned, really hot. So with the world's longest fireplace poker (I believe Dad made it himself - it is about 5 feet long) we got Smokey into the can, covered him up and Dad released him into the back yard.

Most every morning I look around for a squirrel with a fur-less tail. I hope he made it.

Sure changed that evening!

I used to think, after a tough day/week/experience that at least I'm not being chased by Sleestack. Now, at least I'm not a squirrel on fire.

Tuesday, February 25

The Wild Idea

I get these crazy wild ideas at about midnight. This is actually an idea that has been percolating in my mind for a while - just got more specific last night. I've even bounced the idea off of a couple key folks!

The short answer to "what is your idea?" is "I want to turn a room at our church into a mini theater." But I've started to expand on the idea. The room in question is currently being used as the middle school Sunday school classroom and a computer center (largely a tragic collection of donated computers that run Windows 2000 and play DOS games). I think it has the potential to be so much more!

The computer center will have to go live in another room - once the theater is a theater, it needs to mostly stay a theater.

The windows can be blocked with foam insulation sheets that we can even let students use as art project space! I think we've got 5 windows to deal with. The foam insulation can be cut to fit snug (and that makes this wild scheme completely reversible in the future).

I think it would be super-nifty to paint the walls black. Behr makes a paint you can scrub - so we could even use the walls like a giant chalk board (without the expense of actual chalkboard paint!). I even envision a special event when we could make glow chalk (there are kits), move the chairs, let the kids decorate the walls and have a black light dance!

To have chairs that will be easy to move but comfortable enough for watching a 2 hour movie - BAG CHAIRS!! Cheap, replaceable, light weight! They can be potential canvases for another art project! Sharpies and artistic talent would be the only resources needed.

The great thing about this scheme is that the room would be useful for all ages! The adults might want to gather to watch a travel video, see a presentation (like Powerpoint), take a class on How to Use Facebook or What is a Browser Anyway? The room would be setup so that a person of minimal technical skill could walk in, put their disc in the tower and hit play. I'll use my Dad as a test monkey.

The cost for the transformation will be minimal - paint, chairs, projector and a couple of speakers. We've got everything else we need!

So, then I got to the wild part of my idea. Let's get the JIFF kids to help with the transformation during their Spring break! I just need adults to supervise a couple hours each afternoon/evening for 3-4 days!

And some bag chairs...

And some folks to help me convince any naysayers that this is a good idea.

That is epic idea #1...I've got another one cooking...