the Ordinary…made Extraordinary

My very favorite Christmas tree ornament is a flat ceramic Santa, given to me when IIMG_0557 was very small, and made by a friend of my grandmother’s. For close to 40 years, this Santa has hung on a Christmas tree in my home, wherever that home has been.

Sacred symbol he may not be, but my Santa ornament reminds me of the very heart of the Christmas story as my faith tells it: that I am/we are loved.

I’ve never hung him without this sense of big picture, this realization that what is right now is not what has always been or what will one day be. He’s been with me lots of places, this little Santa, and he’s with me still.

December has long been my heart’s home. I have no rational explanation for this, just a calm knowing that in winter’s soft grey skies and the stark lines of bare tree branches and the clearness of a full moon on a December night–there’s something real in all that, something that reminds me that no matter how cold or dark it might be, there is, beneath it all, and so always somewhere in me, too, life…pulsing, waiting.

(I speak from a history of privilege–I know this–from happy Christmas memories and December days rooted in tradition and love. This is not so for all people, and I grieve that.)

I know, too, that this December, my heart’s finding it harder to settle in, to breathe in deep the goodness lying in these days and so find strength. There are a multitude of reasons for this, and the reasons don’t matter so much as what gets experienced and learned in the midst of their wreaking havoc on my beloved December.

What I’m learning is this:

  • that the constants in life matter most, even if represented in a silly ceramic Santa
  • that the Nativity story is not a perfect one–it is, in fact, wrought with fear and heartache and uncertainty
  • that despite this fear and heartache and uncertainty, things I am knowing–for myself and so many I care about–in a new way this December, love still comes…somehow
  • that this is not the first time the world seems to have tilted into chaos–that Jesus was born into terror and war and poverty and political posturing, too…that biblical Bethlehem and modern day global life have a lot in common
  • that my daughter’s speaking, “hope, peace, love, joy…that’s the order of the Sundays, mama,” is blessed balm for a grateful and tender heart–because it means that despite her longing for an American Girl Look-A-Like doll from Santa, she knows what really matters

Forgive me if my icon for all things holy this most precious of Decembers (because it is–even if I’m not quite understanding that yet) is a Santa ornament, but I live and move and having being in a story of finding the sacred in that which is ordinary.  

In the ordinary made extraordinary, by the grace of which the angels sang, and the shepherds stood in awe, and in which Mary trusted to see her through.





We Need Each Other

The older I get, the less sure I am of most things. But if there’s one thing I know to be true in this life it is that we need each other.

Most especially when we think we don’t.


Last night I had, through my work, the opportunity to visit with a group of about 20 pastors–the vast majority of them having chalked up decades of service to the Church at this point in their lives and careers. This is especially remarkable if you are aware, as I am, that the Church they first fell in love with and made promises to lead and serve looks very little like the Church they are still seeking to love and lead and serve today.The world is not as it was then. And so neither is the Church.

Part of what I do professionally these days (which is still a surprise to me) is work with a program designed to help foster sustainability in ministry for pastors. Put conversely, the program is rooted in research about clergy burnout/clergy health and well-being and what pastors might need to be healthier and avoid the mind-numbing, soul-sapping reality that is burnout (of any kind).

I’ve known burnout. Maybe you have to. And it feels just like it sounds: burnout. Nothing left. No gas in the tank. No possibility that the match will relight. No desire to do the work  you once loved, rather, a desire to run far from it in pursuit of something that will give you life and purpose and meaning again.

I also know/believe that the root of burnout is isolation.

Isolation happens when we forget that we are not islands unto ourselves. When we forget that we were, at our very first breath, created for relationship. When out of our own fear or pain or stress level we block out the very people we need most. When we are unable to trust and so retreat inside ourselves with the insistence of a box turtle traumatized by a neighborhood dog.

Because we often feel as if the weight of the world is, in fact, to be carried upon our shoulders, clergy persons are especially susceptible to burnout. We have no one to blame but ourselves and our very tender hearts for this. Still…it is.

But whether clergy or business-types, CEO’s or stay-at-home moms (or dads), caregivers or entrepreneurs, men or women, Christian or Muslim, GOP or DNC, we cannot exist (for very long or very well) in isolation. And when we attempt to do so, we wilt. Slowly. Like the quiet fading away of a peace lily that’s been left neglected in the office lobby since last year’s Christmas party.

It is, inherently, against our very nature to silo ourselves off from one another. 

There are people I’ve known who have brought out the very worst there is in me. The result of this is usually me feeling terrible about myself and losing any sense of humor or creativity (normally my two great salvations in difficult situations). And it’s easy to say, “Well, I don’t need her in my life anyway.” Or, “I don’t have to work him anymore, thankthebabyjesusandallthesaints!”

But the truth is that these people, they teach me things about myself that matter (even if what’s being taught is something I didn’t want to know), and for this reason alone…I need them. Or at least needed them for a season. And they are, even if in just a small way, part and parcel of who I am every day becoming.

Because I am a person of Christian faith, I am consistently humbled and amazed by the great truth of the Christmas story–a story that lays out in no uncertain terms that God created us for one another. As if to say, “Clearly you’ve forgotten that this life, it’s about the journey together, despite what personality clashes or differences of opinion you might have, and so let me remind you, with the most vulnerable among you, a baby, what it means to have life together.”

And y’all? In a world where teenage girls are stolen in the dead of night, and where black folks and white folks are rioting in the streets over our mutual distrust, and where more people than we’ll ever know are walking around with more pain than we could ever imagine assailing their hearts, and when guns designed to kill people are an acceptable accessory….

In a world where all this is true, I know no other message that needs more proclaiming than this:

We need each other.

We need each other.

World AIDS Day

Yesterday was World AIDS Day. And most of the day I had these snatches of things I wanted to say–thoughts and memories that would cross my mind. I never got around to writing them down, but this morning things are quiet and dark and still. Writing comes easier in such stillness.

aids-2I do not live with HIV/AIDS myself, nor am I at any measurable risk of that happening. But I love very much people who do. And I’ve met others. And studied the statistics regarding HIV/AIDS worldwide. And the conclusion I’ve come to is that far too often HIV/AIDS, a disease that does not itself discriminate, becomes a tool of discrimination and fear and hate.

In 2013, there were approximately 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS. 16 million of those were women at least 15 years old or older. Around 3.2 million of those were children under 15 years of age. That math translates into this: the majority of those 32 million people are women and children. And while I haven’t looked at global stats broken down by countries or communities in a while, I know that those women and children largely come from countries and communities that are impoverished and have been for generations. They also mostly aren’t white.

Statistics are statistics and if you want more (or want to check mine) surf on over yourself to the World Health Organization’s pages on HIV/AIDS and do just that. I encourage it. Really.

But the bottom line is this: HIV/AIDS is preventable. Treatable. Manageable. And yet an epidemic soars and people die and while there are folks all over the world on the front lines of advocacy and research, there are just as many folks who think it doesn’t matter, or far worse, judge those who have it as deserving of it.

That’s not okay with me. 

Because a dear friend is positive. And I know him to be a person who has lived his life in service to others with a level of compassion most folks would struggle to even consider.

Because a child I know and care about is positive, and he’s got a smile that lights up any room he’s in.

Because I know young people who have struggled with drug addiction, specifically drugs that use needles that sometimes aren’t clean.

It should not be okay with you either.

Because across this whole wide world women are subject to sexual and physical abuse as if chattel, as if less than human, as if solely objects to be used.

Because across this whole wide world children have no voice. And therefore are often invisible. Even, and sometimes especially, as they lay dying.

Because being gay is not a crime. It is not a sin. It is who some people are. The way we, across the whole wide world, collectively, have judged and pushed aside those who identify as gay continues to be a blight on the soul of humanity. Many gay men (not all) are at high risk for HIV/AIDS, but that is no reason to judge even further. What it ought to be is a reason to invite conversation and understanding such that healing is made possible.

Because drug addiction is entirely non-discriminatory. Heroine, especially, is an equal-opportunity predator when it comes to age, race, socioeconomic status or any other qualifier of one’s lot in life.

At the core of all this, is, I believe a matter of faith. It’s easy to talk about caring for the least of these. It’s another matter entirely to get our hands dirty and our hearts broken for those who hurt most and who hurt alone in God’s world. 

I’ve long thought it appropriate that World AIDS Day falls in December, a month when we spin closer to the shortest and darkest and stillest days of the year in order that we might spin back out into light and new life. Appropriate, too, that it falls just at the beginning of Advent, for people of Christian faith, a season when we are called to remember what it means to hope against the darkness, and to make room for something new and unlike anything we’ve known before.

And so I hold up to the darkness, trusting light will emerge, those who live with HIV/AIDS and those who love them most. And I celebrate those who fight for their lives every day. And I long for a time when disease of any kind–but most certainly this one–is no longer cause for fear, but a prompt to compassion. For all God’s people.

Hope Sunday

She held the tall slim candle with confidence, raised up ahead of a gaze focused on both the candle and the worship space ahead of her. With the concentration of a child who realizes she’s up to something important, she slowly climbed the chancel steps and then carefully lifted the candle to its right spot in the Advent wreath. And then she stepped back so the child behind her could light the candle accordingly.

A few minutes later she took her place in the pulpit, the curly top of her head most all the back half of the sanctuary could likely see, with her too short for grown-up sized lectern. And then she spoke, “All good gifts come from God…,” the first line of a lengthy (for a seven year-old who in the not-so distant past could not yet read) reading designed to help those gathered enter into the season of Advent.

By her last line, “God and sinners reconciled,” words echoing the Christmas carol that would next be sung, her sweet clear voice, just a tad timid at first, had grown strong and sure.  

And her mother, sitting four rows back (much closer to the chancel than said mother ever otherwise would), could no longer hold back the tears brimming up from the depths of a very grateful heart. 


I was not prepared for how powerful it would be to hear my daughter’s voice reading sacred words on this first Sunday of Advent, this Hope Sunday. She’s still so small, in the grand scheme of things. And yet there she stood, calling forth words from another time and place altogether, and yet words present with us still today, the innocence of her tone and inflection somehow exactly right for such mighty and holy declarations of God’s love for her and all of us.

I spent some fifteen years in congregational ministry, and during those years I loved preaching Advent most. These days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are the days that ground me for the rest of the year. The words we speak and preach and sing across the four Sundays of Advent are the ones that have always brought me closest to God, the ones that have made the most sense to me, held me fast, no matter what was happening around me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love presents. And lights. And peppermint mochas. And National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

But mostly I love to hear, as that one song my daughter and I both love goes:

A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Because that voice reminds me that all is not lost. That in the face of all that may threaten to undo us, throw us off course, make us believe that perhaps evil has the day after all, there is, after all and always, hope.

I’m not sure how you declare such hope in the face of Ferguson. Or along the border of the United States and Mexico.

I’m not sure how you declare such hope to someone who has just received a diagnosis of cancer, or just lost a loved one, or doesn’t know how Christmas will be Christmas at all because he’s just been laid off and there’s no one but him to be Santa to the kids at home.

I’m not sure how you declare such hope when heartache is more real than it has ever been and so you’re having a hard time seeing past it into anything else.

Except that…I do.

I do declare it. Beyond everything that would tell me/us not to, I hope. And I do that because I trust in the ultimate goodness of the Universe, despite being unable to prove that goodness to myself or you or anyone else.

I know this much is True–the story of a baby come to save the world (the facts, or “truth,” around said birth not mattering one wit to me) is such a powerful one because at its very core is life. New life, dropped right into the sometimes chaos and sometimes hurt of living, announcing to anyone who’ll listen that beauty is still among us. That a better way is possible.

And that way is love.

It makes all the sense in the world that children led the worship service I attended this first Sunday of Advent. This Hope Sunday. After all,

“…the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6 NRSV)

May it be so.

The Education of Stevie Davis (Part One?)

(One day I’ll finish the story below. And, in truth, it’s entirely too long for a blog post. Forgive me for that–or just tuck it away for a day when the waiting room or the carpool line’s taking forever.

The best authors will tell you that you have to write from what you know. And so in this story are sketches of small Kentucky towns, memories of experiences both professional and personal, and an attempt at exploring what it’s like to have that which sure and known snatched away. Just. Like. That.)


Cow Hill, Kentucky isn’t the sort of place where much happens. Ever.

This was Stevie’s first thought as she sat down at her small wooden desk, Mac laptop open, the lines under the question, “Please write 3-4 paragraphs about a significant life event that has influenced your college and/or career choice,” blank.

Maybe the question was fine for potential University students coming from the city. Or major tourist towns. Or out-of-state or country. But she was pretty sure the Admissions Office wouldn’t know where Cow Hill even was, much less why the question seemed so ridiculous to the star student in this year’s high school graduating class.

And for the hundredth time she thought, What am I thinking? There’s no way I’ll make it on that college campus anyhow, even if they do, somehow, accept me.

Stevie was thirteen when her English teacher, a young man assigned to backwoods Kentucky for a stint with Teach for America, had called asking if he could stop by the house one night for a chat. Her grandfather, Stevie’s mother and father both since hers were killed by a local boy who’d thought it a good idea to drive after sampling his own grandpa’s moonshine all night, had agreed, and then, after putting the phone back firmly on its receiver, turned gruffly to Stevie and barked, “What’s your teacher want with me?”

“Don’t know, Grandpa,” Stevie said, quietly, the familiar heat brought on by any kind of attention rushing into her round cheeks. She looked down at the table where she sat, pushed the remains of dinner around on her plate and added, “I’m not in trouble or anything. Promise.”

“Better not be!” he said, short and stern, and then took a long drink of coffee, his liquid fuel any time of day and the one thing Stevie had learned to make often and well as soon as she was old enough.


The next evening Mr. Jackson came over just after supper, and he and Stevie and her grandpa sat down on the porch, the atmosphere solemn. It was almost spring and the evening air, still with a hint of coolness, felt positively alive with twilight bird calls and chirping crickets and the sweet smell of tree buds just starting to burst.

“Mr. Davis,” Stevie’s teacher began, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about your granddaughter for a while now. I’ve noticed some things–important things–and I think it’s past time I shared them with you.”

“Get to it, son,” Stevie’s grandpa replied, “What’s my girl done? Why are you here?”

Mr. Jackson coughed. Grinned. Sat up a little straighter. He was amused by the older man’s obvious distrust, even though he’d expected it. Education wasn’t a real high priority in these hills, he’d learned, and those who’d never really experienced it considered all educators suspect as a result.

“Mr. Davis, I’m not sure why it is you think I’m here, but what I’ve come to tell you is, your granddaughter, she’s gifted. Stevie’s really, really smart sir. Intelligent and quick. And she’s becoming quite a writer, too. And sir? Well, I think she needs–would benefit from, I guess–some extra schooling.”

As Mr. Jackson said what he’d come to say Stevie found herself thankful for the mask of nightfall, the glare of porch light faint enough to keep her teacher or her grandpa from seeing the pleased grin threatening to crack her face in two.

Mr. Jackson went on, “I think she’s special, sir. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. And I’d be happy to work with her some, in addition to what we do in school, so that she learns as much she can.”

Stevie’s grandpa sat silent for a moment, his jaw stiff and his whiskers twitching. Stevie thought she saw him swallow, hard. And she knew in that instant that her grandpa’s pride was close to bursting through his rough exterior.

“Well now,” he said, finally, “I don’t guess it’d be my place to stand in the way of Stevie here making the most of herself.”

And so began The Education of Stevie Davis, Cow Hill’s sudden resident scholar.

On Mondays she stayed after school, working her way through Shakespeare’s plays with help from Mr. Jackson. On Wednesdays she tutored elementary kids who were having trouble writing– “It’ll help you, too,” Mr. Jackson insisted. And on Saturdays she read. Whatever she could get her hands on and sometimes twice through. “I want you to read anything and everything,” her teacher directed, “the classics, the Bible, stuff by Kentucky authors, things women write–whatever. Just read.” And so she did, keeping Cow Hill Public Library on its toes and, when she had a little spending money, pleasing the owner of the dusty little used bookstore with her delight when new titles came in.

They went on like this until summer came and Mr. Jackson went away until fall, leaving Stevie with a reading list a mile long and, more importantly, a sense of adventure she’d ever known before. Suddenly the world outside Cow Hill seemed a lovely and grand and exciting place and she wanted to know as much of it as possible.

Her grandpa would warn, “Don’t get too high on yourself now, girl,” and Stevie would calmly nod her head, the manufactured edge in his voice not enough to disguise how immensely proud he was of his son’s only child.


Mr. Jackson moved on to a position at a revered public high school down in Nashville, Tennessee once he’d fulfilled his Teach for America commitment. Stevie missed him when he left but continued her studies diligently, the thought of college her constant motivator. To see much of life outside of the Cow Hill town square would mean some enormous effort on her part, but she was determined.

And so now she sat, the online application in front of her looming like a giant sow let loose on a Cow Hill country road, stuck stubbornly just where it was and keeping anything approaching from moving forward for fear it might upset the pig and cause a scene. She had no idea what to write, what to say, that could possibly, she thought, matter.

“Stevie! Stevie! Stevie–please! I need you!”

Her grandpa’s cries finally broke through her frustrated reverie and she jumped, fear rising into her throat at the alarm in his voice. Stevie’s grandpa never sounded like that.

She rushed toward the sound of his voice, adrenaline moving her through the house like a bird dog on its first hunt of the season, until she found him in the kitchen, his right arm clutched across his left shoulder and one knee already fallen to the checkered linoleum floor.

“Grandpa!” she screamed, landing terrified at his side as he called her name again, “Stevie!” dropped his second knee and then sank, his whole body falling in an instant that seemed like the slowest of lifetimes to his granddaughter.


The emergency medical team that responded to Stevie’s frantic 911 call said probably her grandpa was dead before he hit the floor. They meant it as help, she knew, to ease any thought she might have that he’d been in any pain. But the words sounded cold.

Cold, too, sounded the funeral home director, a too-polished and too-rich man whose stale breath couldn’t be disguised by the peppermints he sucked endlessly, his saccharine words of “I’m so sorry for your loss,” simply the first line in his hard sell to Stevie of “our very finest casket, handmade from the finest craftsmanship with the eternal rest of your most loved one in mind.”

She shook her head. Numbly, but resolutely, backing slowly out of Teegarden and Sons Funeral Home as she did so. “But Stevie!” they protested, and she kept moving. Deciding in a flash that to bury her grandpa anywhere but straight into the home soil he loved, under his favorite tulip poplar, with the spot where the rabbits laid their babies every spring nearby, was surely criminal. When her back hit the heavy double doors of the funeral home lobby, she turned, shoved against them, and ran with all her might until she reached the 1953 Chevy truck, a birthday present from her grandpa on her sixteenth birthday. Fumbling for the keys, her hands shaking and her entire being aware of the stares coming from town storefronts and cafe windows, she fell into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition and jammed the gas as hard she could with her right foot.


When Stevie was a baby, her parents just gone, a young black woman from the other side of the highway had helped take care of her. Bessie Curry had been Stevie’s whole world in those early years and it was to Bessie she ran now, the work-hardened dark hands soft as they ran over Stevie’s forehead, “Sshh baby, it’s gonna be alright,” the words Bessie murmured over and over as Stevie sobbed hot angry tears. Bessie’s husband Tom stood silently by, moving about to fix tea and shush the grandchildren while Bessie rocked Stevie back and forth, just as she’d done many a night years ago, only this time a few pats and lullabies could not make the nightmare go away.

Stevie could not imagine a world without her grandpa, and there was no fixing the giant ache this left etching itself across her soul, eating away the secure happiness she’d known her whole life long and threatening, it seemed, to undo her limb from limb. She had no map for this desolate expanse of heartache.

By way of explanation (or, Someone Stole My Coffee)…

My father and I have a great many things in common.  We both love Willie Nelson, good whiskey and red velvet cake.  We’re stubborn. We can be terribly sarcastic.  And generally we aren’t really good at hiding how we feel about a person, place or thing.  We’re also easily distracted by shiny things.  And, along with my sister, we share a deep and abiding love for coffee.  Good coffee.  Coffee that smells like heaven, tastes like mercy, and fills your soul with enough warmth to make difficult days manageable.

We’re both also Christian clergy (not the judgmental, hateful kind—the other kind), ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and several years ago, we were at a big church meeting together.  Thousands of people involved.  High-rise hotels, convention center, exhibit area, the whole nine yards.  We each had responsibilities at the event, and so our paths most-often crossed hurriedly.  One morning, just as I got settled in to the exhibit booth I was hosting, Dad walked out of the convention center meeting room, having been present for an early morning business session.  He looked exhausted–like he’d been up way too late or gotten up way too early, or perhaps both.

“You okay?” I asked, “You look so tired.”

“I am,” he said, and then without one word, and with a movement so quiet and sly I almost missed it, he picked up my just-purchased, steaming-hot, perfectly-doctored cup of Pike Place blend and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye said, “Thanks for the coffee!” and walked off into his busy morning.

And I sat there stunned, disarmed by how quickly and effortlessly and joyfully he’d stolen my coffee!  It took me a few minutes to gather my senses long enough to call a friend I knew to be on the way down to the convention hall and plead desperately into his cell phone, “Will you bring me some coffee please?”

These days, I often feel as if someone has just stolen my coffee.


Coffee is a constant in my life. Healthy or not, when I don’t have it, I know it–I feel a bit off-center, not quite so grounded, and not quite myself.

Sort of like new jobs.  Or new babies.  Or new relationships.  Or new homes.  Or new landscapes.  Or new rules.

Sort of like divorce. Or a cancer diagnosis. Or the loss of a loved one. Or ______ (fill in the blank with any life-changing adventure that begins with fear and anguish and continues with heartache).

I’m quickly approaching 40 with a whole lot of “new” in my life. Some of it so joyfully welcomed, and some of it painfully battled through. And yet here’s the thing—through all of that is gratitude. Gratitude for this “brutiful” life (as the amazing Glennon Doyle Melton coined).

Still…some days…stolen coffee. You know?

I wish I had answers for how to quickly find a new and warm mug of joe to stabilize things again.  But I don’t.  The good news is that I’ve got friends waiting in line at a coffee shop close by, awfully gracious in their willingness to be with me during some very uncertain times.  Even if all I need is for them to order a “Grande Pike please, with a little room for cream.”

Because the truth is, very little in this life is known.  And even less is certain.  And if you’ve got relationships with others that you know, thank God, you can depend on, even when you are at your very worst and most pathetic, well…you’re doing better than those who don’t.  And should probably stop and breathe a quick prayer of thanksgiving for the ones who walk most closely and faithfully with you in this life.

I’m not entirely sure where this new blog is going—but that’s sort of the point. Because do we really ever? With anything? Despite our best intentions, hopes or plans?

Regardless, I hope you’ll come with me. If know one thing about this life, it’s this: it’s so much better when it’s lived alongside one another.