Happy Valentine’s Day, Governor!

Today, over a thousand Kentuckians concerned about the future of our state’s environment, livelihood, culture, and people gathered on the steps of the capitol, capping off a weekend of protest that involved a handful of our local celebrities, including the more widely known Mr. Berry. This colorful group of folks carried signs, chanted chants, played music, hollered, swore a little bit, smiled a lot, passed around petitions, signed Valentine’s Day cards for the governor, and, well, supported a cause they believed in.

The “I Love Mountains” rally occurs every year about this time, around Valentine’s Day, when Congress is in session, as a way to push for clean-energy legislation and, at the same time, end mountain top removal.

I’d never been to a rally like this before, and though I’ll refrain from getting political, let me just say this:

It was pretty darn awesome.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand how complicated of a situation we find ourselves in. I know there are no easy solutions, and many of the folks I listened to today are not fair and balanced in their reporting.

But still.

Being surrounded by a group of passionate yet peaceful folks, who may be hollering but are hollering together, it was a great place to be. Old folks and young folks. Wheelchair-bound and stroller-bound. Dogs and guitars. Hippies and coal-miners. Hand-made signs and signs snazzy enough to have been used in presidential campaign. (If you’ve not read the slogans before, you might enjoy “topless mountains are obscene,” one of my favorites.)

This was a big crazy mob, and it was community.

I even got myself a new bumper sticker.

A common bumper sticker around here is “Friends of Coal.” I like this better.

Check out I Love Mountains or Mountain Justice for more information about ending mountain top removal, learning more about the process, and tracing your home’s power back to its source.

Stuff, Community, & 31 Pairs of Shoes

I’ve been thinking a lot about “stuff” since November, back when I mentioned that I had come across the 100 Thing Challenge. Life was crazy at the time, but even then I knew that I was in need of some serious thought about getting rid of stuff. Here’s what I wrote:

Our stuff really gets in the way, in the way of community, in the way of emotional health, in the way of life. Not because it is stuff that we don’t need (though we certainly don’t need it all), but because it is OUR stuff, and we like to surround ourselves with us.

I decided about a month ago that I was going to unload. By half.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like my stuff. I pride myself on being frugal and not throwing things away, on still wearing clothing and shoes I had in high school, on primarily buying things on sale.

Did you catch the verb in that last sentence? I pride myself…

That’s a sure sign there’s a problem here.

So half of it was going to go. Some of it offered to friends, some of it donated, some of it recycled (scraps of material are being turned into pillow stuffing, for instance), but it was not going to hang around and weigh my life down.

I decided to start with shoes. Check this out:

That, my friends, is my bed. It is a king-sized bed, and it is covered with shoes. My shoes. Thirty pairs. Add to that the pair I was wearing when I took this picture, and you’ll get 31. Thirty-one pairs of shoes.

And even though this includes three pairs of slippers, winter boots, old sneakers, flip-flops, and gosh, the shoes I got married in seven years ago, I’m still embarrassed about it, quite frankly.

But it’s a good first step.

Goodbye, shoes. I’d say I’ll miss you but, the truth is, I probably won’t.

It’s just stuff.

Community, Mourning, & Food: Let Them Eat Pie

For the second time in less than two months, J & I found ourselves this week surrounded by family in mourning. We drove to Western Pennsylvania and gathered with family from far away and from close by. We mourned, yes, but we also celebrated; cried, but also laughed; we hugged, and we remembered, and we ate.

Did we ever eat.

On Wednesday evening, the day we arrived, so did a vat of potato salad like I had never seen. At least ten pounds of potatoes lost their lives and quite a few onions, too–after seven of us ate it for dinner, along with a delivered meatloaf, only 1/5 of the salad had disappeared.

Two full dinners arrived on Thursday, and by Thursday evening, we had more loaves of bread on the counter than people in the house. We had soup and beef stew, cole slaw and salad, lemon cake and raspberry bars. And every time we turned around, more food arrived: breakfast food, dinner food, desserts, desserts, desserts. By late Thursday night, an aunt joked that nobody had stopped by in awhile, and within a few minutes the doorbell rang. Breakfast casserole and muffins!

In days like this, we know what community is.

Grandma had lived in the same town for her near-ninety years. She and Grandpa went to the same church for the sixty-one years they were married. They raised their kids here, and many of their grandkids. This is the community J has known his whole life. And for the last ten years, it is a community that has welcomed me in, too.

One of my favorite moments of the last week came on Thursday afternoon. Some of us had been outside in the cold looking at a renovation project, and when we stumbled inside, we found that three pies had been delivered: a cherry rhubarb, a coconut cream, and a blackberry-blueberry combination. As the pies were pulled from their baskets, we realized that they were still warm.

Grandpa was sitting at the table in the kitchen, and we were all standing or sitting around him, marveling at the pie excellence in front of us.

And then the patriarch requested a piece of pie.

Right now.

Before dinner.

And so the pies were cut, first just the cherry rhubarb. Then the coconut cream. Then the berry. It became clear that if we wanted to eat pie, we’d better grab it while we could.

That is the image of community I will carry with me in the coming months: Grandpa, requesting pie in the middle of the afternoon, and the rest of the family surrounding him, happy to oblige.

Coffee, Conversations, & Solving the World’s Problems

I have a friend who is truly amazing. She roasts her own coffee and it is beautiful. We tried yesterday to roast our own coffee and it was not beautiful. It looked nothing like hers. I also imagine that it tastes nothing like hers.

Unfortunately, my home-roasted coffee beans were intended to be gifts, so before I risked giving them away, I decided that we better taste test. J does not drink coffee, so I offered to take one for the team and try a mug from each of the batches (regular and decaf).

As I was brewing the first pot this morning, our friend Daniel, who is a temporary housemate, woke up and came into the kitchen. Lucky for me, Daniel drinks his coffee black.

Unfortunately for him, this coffee was not black. It was brown. And not a very dark brown.

*sigh*

Still, Daniel gave me props for it, though I had my doubts. As I got the second pot ready, Daniel prepared his breakfast, and we headed into the dining room table to sit and drink our less-than-black coffee while pot number two brewed.

Daniel & I sat and we talked. We ate and we talked. We drank coffee and we talked. We talked about being frustrated with our inability to care about everything in the world, and change everything in the world, and make a difference with everything we see that is messed up with the world. And we talked about the difficulties of knowing things aren’t right but not being able to visualize a solution. We talked about the call to be a Christian and how difficult it is. We talked about “giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s” not being an excuse to live our lives the way we want to live them. We talked about the “lesser of two evils” as not being a solution when it comes to voting. I talked about an article I’d recently read about the history of agriculture in Haiti; Daniel talked about his first-hand experience with mountain-top removal and fishing in polluted waters in eastern Kentucky where he grew up. We pulled out the laptop to look up the ‘Better World Shopper‘ website to see where Fallmart ranked (grade: F) and to look up Kroger Corporation to see if it’s on par with Fallmart (those are the only two grocery options in our little town).

All of this over one cup of coffee.

By the time the second pot was brewed, our trusty housemate Adam had gotten out of bed and meandered into the kitchen. He got to try the decaf roast, which was thankfully a bit darker and masquerading as a satisfactory cup of coffee. I told Adam that we’d been sitting and solving all of the world’s problems while he slept.

Solving the world’s problems.

Well, maybe not.

But some days I don’t wonder if a little dose of community in the morning really could solve the world’s problems.

And even now, most of the time, I’m surprised to find community right there at the dining room table, as if it was just waiting for me.

Maybe it is.

Counting Down (Christmas Eve): “Still We Try to Listen”

[Read the introduction to this series of “Counting Down” posts here.]

The lamplit streets of Bethlehem we walk now through the night. There is no peace in Bethlehem; there is no peace in sight. The wounds of generations, almost too deep to heal, scar the timeworn miracle, and make it seem surreal…*

It’s easy to get stuck, to think things are the way they are and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s easy to make excuses and say that things can’t be different because we’re human or we’re depraved or both. Or they can’t be different because there aren’t any better options and we’ve gotta work with what we’ve got.

It won’t surprise anyone to find out that I just don’t buy it. Call me naive, but today, this day just before Christmas, I can’t help but think that those excuses are not what the liturgical year teaches us.

I was visiting with a friend recently and I was talking about this YouTube clip I’d watched about capitalism. Though I’m no economist, I was telling my friend, the whole concept of capitalism as an economic system, to some extent, requires that somebody somewhere get exploited. You can’t just make endless profit. You can’t just make something out of nothing. (I’m sure I was going on much too long as I ranted about this.) So my friend looks at me and says, quite simply, “Well, what’s your suggestion then? What’s a better system?” Some of you are probably thinking that, too. And you’re also wondering why I ever decided to write about this today of all days.

Well, friends. It’s Christmas Eve. There is a better way. I don’t have all of the answers, not even close, and I’m not sure what it needs to look like but, quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing arguments about how it’s just not practical. We aren’t stuck. Not now, not ever.

Head on over to the manger.

There’s nothing practical about it.

…The baby in the manger grew to a man one day. Still we try to listen now to what he had to say: ‘Put up your swords forever. Forgive your enemies. Love your neighbor as yourself. Let your little children come to me.’

* from “Little Town,” off Over the Rhine’s holiday album, Snow Angels

Counting Down: “A New Redemption Song”

A friend of mine helps to coordinate a local outreach called “Timothy Christmas,” which I’ve heard a lot about over the three years we’ve lived in our little town but hadn’t ever bothered to ask anyone about. I knew that toys were collected by the kids in our church, and I knew that our Sunday school sponsored a local family who otherwise wouldn’t have a Christmas, and that we took the family Christmas shopping and gave them food. That sounds pretty straightforward, right? What else is there to know?

Well, I was talking with my friend on Monday night about this and how she got involved in this outreach more than twenty years ago. It’s a story worth retelling, and it actually begins a year before Timothy Christmas was started. That year, a few days before Christmas, my friend suddenly found herself to be a single mother with two little girls. To the outside world, she looked fine–she had a house, she had food, she had her kids. But there wasn’t any money left for Christmas. She went to the Christmas Eve service at church and knew that afterwards she’d be going back to an empty house without gifts for her girls. But when she came out of church that night, she found an envelope on her car. Inside that envelope was fifty dollars. That anonymous gift of fifty dollars–to this day she doesn’t know who left it for her–provided Christmas in a way she hadn’t expected.

The next year, Timothy Christmas was started for local families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to celebrate, and it focused primarily on children by asking children who did have lots of toys and Christmas gifts to select one of value to give to a child who had nothing. The outreach has grown from there, and now provides gifts and food to a significant number of families.

And there are more every year.

A few days ago the main headline at CNN was called “Hungry at the Holidays,” and since I so rarely see news stories worth reading, I couldn’t help but click on it. It mentioned a food ministry on Long Island that offers turkeys and other food items to poverty-stricken families on Thanksgiving and Christmas so they can enjoy feasts like the rest of us take for granted. Last year, they provided 25,000. This year they’ve received requests for more than 42,000.

The same article mentioned that fourteen percent of Americans, that’s 1 in 7, are currently receiving financial assistance relating to food.

Remember how I mentioned that even right here in my little town, thirty to forty new families are seeking assistance from local food pantries each month? Thirty to forty new each month. My town is not that big, nor under extraordinary economic pressures. This is life in America, “post-recession” (whatever that means) or not.

As we crawl toward Christmas morning, let’s spend some time asking for new eyes and ears, to re-envision, to really hear, what we might be called to do come Christmas. Maybe it’s significant, like an entire life-path-changing decision; or maybe it seems insignificant, like committing to buying an extra can of tuna or jar of peanut butter every time we go to the grocery store to donate. Who knows?

But I guarantee that if we listen, if we look, if we wait, we’ll be able to hear, to see, and to know.

Lord, we need a new redemption song. Lord, we’ve tried–it just seems to come out wrong. Won’t you help us, please? Help us just to sing along? A new redemption song…

— from “New Redemption Song,” a track off one of Over the Rhine’s holiday albums, Snow Angels

Counting Down: “Only God Can Save Us Now”

I haven’t tried to hide the fact that over the last two days, and for some time now, I’ve been thinking about brokenness–the world broken by poverty and hunger and injustice; broken social systems; broken churches; broken people who feel hopeless and abandoned. But I’ve also been thinking about broken bodies, the physical pain of living in this broken world.

In my family, as I write this, a loved one is lying in intensive care, in an unreliably conscious/unconscious/responsive state. I am not there to be with my family, to sit with those who are sitting and keeping vigil, wait with those who are waiting, or pray with those who are praying.

So I sit here. And I wait here. And I pray, often without words, as Advent trudges on, as bodies keep breaking, and the world seems big and dark. And sometimes it’s all too easy to forget what this waiting is all about. It’s not for naught, you could say. There is hope, even here, even in this waiting, even when it seems hard to locate it.

And that’s where Over the Rhine keeps sneaking into my thoughts. Karin Bergquist has written a gorgeous, haunting song about the nursing care facility where her mother, a retired nurse, now lives after suffering from a stroke. Karin took the time at each concert this weekend to tell the stories of the folks who show up in the song–each story, each broken and beautiful character in this tragedy/comedy. (Karin says that the tragedy is what we know and experience, and the comedy is the grace we’ve been given to deal with it.)

This is a song of compassion, of looking through the pain and the brokenness, of seeing hope,  of seeing what it is that we’re waiting for, as we wait in this season of Advent.

In this special song, there’s a refrain that is a quote from Geneva, one of the residents of the home, when Karin asked her how she was doing. Her response? “Only God can save us now.”

Here’s the opening of the song:

Margie struck Geneva with her baby doll. Barb knocked off the med cart coming down the hall. Bob leads the congregation with “How now brown cow”: Only God can save us now. Jean sings “Fuzzy wuzzy, fuzzy wuzzy was a bear.” Miss Cleve sings “Hallelujah” from the choir in her chair. Behind his busy apron, Raymond’s naked standing proud: Only God can save us now. . . Who will save me? From myself? And the night? . . . Only God can save us now.

– “Only God Can Save Us Now” from The Long Surrender.

Counting Down: “We’re All Working the Graveyard Shift”

[Read the introduction to this series of “Counting Down” posts here.]

Thanks to a mini miracle, J & I found ourselves at three Over the Rhine concerts last weekend in Cincinnati: Friday night was a special “world-premiere” concert of their new album that will be released early next year, Saturday night was a holiday concert at the Taft downtown, and Sunday was their annual “Sunday Soiree” at St. Elizabeth’s.

There were a handful of songs that were performed at each of the shows. One of those, which is also one of my favorites from their new album, The Long Surrender, is worth a mention as we countdown to the end of Advent. Here’s an excerpt:

All my favorite people are broken. Believe me, my heart should know. Orphaned believers, skeptical dreamers, step forward: You’re welcome. You’re safe right here. You don’t have to go. . . Is each wound you’ve received just a burdensome gift? It gets so hard to lift yourself up off the ground. But the poet says we must praise a mutilated world; we’re all working the graveyard shift–you might as well sing along.

— From “All My Favorite People,” on The Long Surrender (which you can buy online here for an immediate download)

Linford introduced the song by mentioning how difficult it was to write. No, not difficult, but rather that there was something in this song that just needed to wait to be revealed, and that they’ve been working through it, waiting on it, wrestling with it, for four or five years now.

There’s something about it, though, that really resonates with people. You could feel it in the audience, among those of us who knew the song and those of us who were hearing it for the first time. Maybe there are just lots of orphaned believers and skeptical dreamers hanging around these parts. Maybe we know brokenness when see it. When we feel it. When we say, yes, that’s me, too.

All my favorite people are broken…

What is it in this song that just feels real to me? Well, it reminds me of how the world tends to work, how the world is. It’s a good Advent song because it calls us both to attention and to acceptance of our brokenness. Life isn’t perfect. It’s hard.

But it’s beautiful, too.

You’re safe right here…

Advent is about creating a space that is safe, where the ugliness of the world and of ourselves is open and revealed. It’s only when we can look straight at ourselves and the world that something more–miraculously–can be revealed to us. Only when we love others, the world, and ourselves, in all our fear, and pain, and brokenness, can we be we prepared to see. To really see.

We’re all working the graveyard shift…

This is my favorite line because it’s so loaded–we’re all in it, it’s late at night, and it’s dirty. Still, we are called to be community to each other.

We’re in this brokenness together, folks. And that’s part of the waiting of Advent, too. I’m not good at that part and haven’t been feeling up to it lately. I don’t like being up late, for one thing, or being uncomfortable and dirty, and most of the time, quite frankly, I don’t feel like singing.

That’s another reason why this song is good for me.

…you might as well sing along.

Beginning the Countdown: “We’re All Broken”

Christmas is nearly here, and I’m not ready.

This overwhelming feeling of not being prepared, though, isn’t because I haven’t finished my Christmas shopping or cookie-baking or gift-making or travel-plans-arranging (though of course I haven’t).

It’s not that I’m not ready for Christmas. It’s that I’m not yet ready for Advent to be over.

How can it be that even when you light candles in your living room and watch the the circle of tea lights getting brighter and brighter, even when you try really hard to avoid listening to the cheery Christmas carols announcing the already-born Savior, even when you have been wearing long underwear for three weeks trying to stay warm in a drafty old house in central Kentucky, how can it be that Advent is slipping by you and you haven’t even taken the time to be still?

Well, now I sit in a frigid, unfurnished basement with a genuine Grandma-made afghan around my shoulders, having nearly finished everything that had been looming over my head from last week. And I’m wondering how I can be still and prepare my heart in the very few days that are left before Advent is over and we move into a new season, a season of feasting rather than fasting, of celebration rather than yearning, of joy rather than preparation.

I don’t know the answer, truth be told, but since our weekend turned out to be unexpectedly packed full of Over the Rhine music, I’ve got it seeping out of my pores. And so to Over the Rhine I am turning to help me countdown the last few days of Advent.

Last summer I asked OtR’s Linford Detweiler about the way their music tends to (what I call) “sacramentalize” ordinary, lived experience, finding beauty in brokenness. His answer is where I want to start this week:

Take the unwillingness to divide the world into sacred and secular, or an unwillingness to divide the world into the broken and the unbroken—we see that those divisions cannot be made. We’re all broken, and it’s all sacred. So that is sort of where we try to live. And if we fail, on a personal level, I think songs can remind us what we aspire to.*

Take a deep breath and then read it again. And then one more time.

That is Advent.

We’re all broken, and it’s all sacred.

________________________________________

* Excerpts from our conversation can be found here on the Christianity Today website.

List-Making & Advent

My sister-in-law recently opened an old notepad and found a hand-written list from a few decades ago.

photo-7It was in a childish curly cursive, and at the top of the list was the name “Liz.”

That is me. It was my list.

I have no idea what the story is behind the items on that list—I only had a goldfish for 48 hours before it died a tragic death, but I did have a troll and I did love Tetris. Seeing these scribbles from my childhood makes me happy, though, because the truth is, I am a compulsive list maker. And now I have proof that I always have been!

Lists keep me calm when my mind is running a mile a minute before a trip, keep me organized at the grocery store, remind me of the items I need to do, need to ask the doctor, need to send e-mails about, need to…need to… need to…

In a nutshell, lists help me prepare for what is to come.

And that’s what Advent is all about—preparation.

Here we are in the third week of Advent already. That pink candle of the third Sunday is to remind us—and reassure us—that we’re more than halfway to Christmas! That there is joy coming into the world very very very soon. That even as we remember why Christ needs to come again every year—because this is a broken world—we also remember that he already came, bringing joy into that brokenness, and will come again, bringing joy into our brokenness.

But that pink candle of the third Sunday also does something else—it reminds those of us who feel like time is slipping away from us that we better GET OUR REAR ENDS PREPARED. Christmas is a-coming.

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time living in the present moment. It is hard to slow down and breathe and pray in this season. I’m being circumnavigated by a toddler at all times, I can’t even remember if I’ve brushed my teeth this morning, and the last time I looked at my calendar I swear it was only October.

The season I’m living in doesn’t much feel like the season of Advent.

The season I’m living in makes it hard to prepare my heart for Christmas, to say the least, which is rapidly sneaking up on me.

There’s not much I need more than a kick in the pants.

So I think I’ll go put that at the top of my to-do list this morning.

To do:

Kick in the pants.

________________________

I realize nobody else is paying attention to these things, but on the off chance you are, you can make note that this is not a recycled, 3-year-old post. It’s my contribution to our church’s annual Advent devotional guide for this year.