The “What is Love?” Project

I found myself asking a question throughout Holy Week.  The question was, “What is love?”  I wanted to ask in order to know again.  I found myself realizing that we speak of love in generalities, with romantic notions, but to live day in and day out seeking to walk in love with God, all of humanity, and creation—“What does that love look like?”  I decided to put the question out into the world, hoping for even a couple of responses.

There were truly amazing stories shared, that are too long for me to include here, but what surprised me was how many people responded with immediate comments that were deeply profound.  Here are some of the responses:

I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”

                                                                                                                                       Wendell Berry

From my Aunt in Richmond, Virginia, Years ago the Richmond newspaper ran this:

Love is friendship, it is quiet understanding, mutual confidence, sharing and forgiving. It is loyalty through good and bad times. It settles for less than perfection and makes allowances for human weaknesses.  Love is content with the present, it hopes for the future, but doesn’t brood over the past.  It’s the day-in and day-out chronicle of irritations, problems, comprises, small disappointments, big victories and working toward common goals.  If you have love in your life, it can make up for a great many things you lack. If you don’t have it, no matter what else there is, it’s not enough.

I asked my Aunt if there was an author or a date and she said, “just a folded-up bit of paper I have kept in my jewelry box for years.”

Love is loving the unlovable                                           Pam Hynes—Jackson, Mississippi

Love is the scalpel that cuts deep into the abscess of hate and starts the healing

                                                                                    Derek Ronnie—Cape Town, South Africa

Love is to try to begin the day again. Love is gratitude, graciousness, compassion, forgiveness, gentleness, honesty, empathy, generosity. Love is surrendering yourself without losing yourself. Love is remembering that, to truly love others, you must first love yourself.                                                             Victoria Nash Coulter—Vermillion, Ohio

Love bleeds willfully and joyfully

                                                                   Kahil Gilbran quoted by Joy Alford—North Carolina

Love is a decision

                                                                                    Glenda Howieson—Pinetown, South Africa

Love is presence, in the most dark and painful moments of life. Love is sacrifice and yet a gift. Love is committing to walk a path unseen through unimaginable trials and staying until the final destination.                                     Alynda Ponder—Jackson, Mississippi

Love isn’t easy. It’s hard, it’s messy, it’s painful. It never gives up. It holds on against all odds, full of hope, daring to dream of love returned.

                                                                   Leigh Anne Bassinger—High Point, North Carolina

Love is treating the next person, irrespective of any differences, as your equal and without prejudice.                                        Eddie Cyster—Cape Town, South Africa

Love is the binding force for life.

                                                                           Lynne Malley Green—Gulfport, Mississippi

Love is the foundation for being Christ-like.

                                                                          Sandy Hieronymous—Charlotte, North Carolina

I hope you found these meaningful….

With you on the journey,                                                                                                            Michelle

***To help support my ministry in South Africa, please follow the link for giving on this blog.

Keith Tonkel, what a name…

Keith Tonkel, his was a name I had never heard before, though so many around the world had.  I got a call from him after I graduated from Duke Divinity School in 2007, sharing that his Superintendent hoped he might meet with me once I moved to Mississippi.  After graduating I received a one year fellowship to look at Religion & Race through the Center for Reconciliation and after receiving 11 offers all around the country and the world, I had given up hope.  None of the positions seemed right.  I shared this with Keith and told him the position in Mississippi I was considering, didn’t feel quite right.  He asked me to tell him what my hope was.  I told him that I struggled with the divides that existed within the Church and hoped to serve with a community that had worked to form across lines of division of race, class, and any “ism”  to form community for all.  He asked me if I would mind sharing the story with him one more time, so I did.  He then said, “I wonder if you would let me fly you to Mississippi and help you find a place to serve.”

I was about three weeks away from graduation and so there was not much to lose.  I got on a plane, landed in Mississippi, and met him at Wells Memorial United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.  The church was described to me by someone who knew Keith as the most integrated church in Mississippi.  I walked in the church and had this sense in my bones, like none I had felt before.  Keith asked me to share my story with the congregation and then after the services, they called for an emergency Board and Council meeting to extend an invitation for me to serve with them.  It was a unanimous vote.  In between the meetings, the Associate Minister Todd Watson, took me for coffee and he said, “What do you think of our Keith?”  I shared, “Well, it takes some getting used to having him call you, ‘sweet pea’ and ‘baby’.”  Todd said, “You seem okay with it though.”  “Yes,” I said, “because I heard him call you ‘sweet pea’ and ‘baby’ too.”  Keith had his way.  He was the only man I have worked with that I would let call me “Sweet Pea”  and Sweet Pea I remain.

I served at Wells Memorial United Methodist for three years.  They were the most ubuntu3formative years of my ministry.  People would ask me time and again, how does Keith do what he does and I would share, “Keith is like no one else I have ever met.  It is not about what he says, it is not about what he does, it is about who he is.”  Keith was the real deal.  He didn’t speak prophesy, he lived it.  He was a walking billboard for love and that is not something that you can learn as much as it is something that grows in you.  Yet, Keith had a special anointing.  He consistently made choices that would grow love in others.  I remember him apologizing in front of the congregation for something that really was not his fault.  When I questioned him about it, he said, “I know baby, but really they were hurt and I want people to see the importance of loving others over being right.”

Keith was one of 28 ministers that signed the Born of Conviction Statement in Mississippi stating that they would commit their lives to ending segregation in the churches.  That decision cost him, but he leaned into ministry at every turn living out his motto of, “Loving, Caring, Sharing.”  I visited him when I was home last year and there was a cooler on his stoop that had drinks in it for the garbage truck drivers and the Mailman.  When I asked him about it, he said, “Baby, that is not for you, but we have some of that coffee you like inside.”  I shared my story about life in South Africa with him and he said, “I want you to promise me something.”  “Okay” I shared, “What?”  He slid me a check and said, “I want you to promise me that you will use this money just for you and trust God will cover the rest.”  He was that way…generous and caring in every way.

There are thiOrdinationngs I learned about ministry through Keith, but it is as I said before, it was more about who he was.  The day of my ordination, I wondered whether I might have to invite another clergy to stand with me, for Keith’s wife Pat died the day before.  Just before I was to be ordained, there was a rustle in the conference hall where we were meeting.  Everyone stood and began to sing, “It is Well with my Soul” and Keith came walking up to the platform to stand with me.  We were not supposed to address family after the moment of our ordination to keep the ceremony moving forward, but I stood and gave him the biggest hug and both of us had streams of tears pouring from our eyes.  I will forever be grateful for his love and commitment to me.

Keith had an understanding of what he called “chosen family.”  His table was rarely empty for choosing to surround himself with those that needed family.  He was advocating for the rights of a child one day and the judge told him he should take the child and so he did.  Keith changed the lives of many children over the years giving them space in his life, his home, and his heart.  All the members of Wells Memorial would know they were a part of Keith’s chosen family and I am thankful to have known he extended that space to me as well.  Keith Tonkel, it was a name I had never heard of before he called me that first day, but his is a name and a life I will never forget.

My prayers surround Keith’s family, the Wells Church Family, my Colleagues in the Mississippi Annual Conference, and all those who loved Keith.  May we remember him in our continuing on of “Loving, Caring, and Sharing” in our own lives.

With you on the journey,

Michelle

The Collar in Context…

I don’t wear my clergy collar every day, but many clergy in South Africa do.  I would have worn an Alb during services in the US and the collar mostly for Activist work or other occasions when I knew it was important for the Church to be seen as present.  This past Ash Wednesday, I had my collar on when I was walking home.  I walked past an art gallery that was having an event.  I was invited inside by a man who shared with me that he was in a conversation with a group inside that had just asked about the ashes on the foreheads of people on the street and would I explain what Lent and Ash Wednesday is all about.  I sat with them for almost an hour answering their questions about faith before I made my way out the door and up the street a bit further to my home.

A couple of days later, a waitress in one of the restaurants near the church askIMG_2140.JPGed me if I could teach her how to pray.  I asked her to sit down, listened to her story, and shared with her how important it was to allow our very being to rest in God, that we find our way to that rest in quiet.  I shared that the answers we seek can be heard best in the quiet and then I grabbed a napkin and taught her a way of understanding the flow of the Lord’s Prayer I learned long ago called the ACTS prayer.  A-stands for adoration, C-confession, T-thanksgiving, S-supplification.  Then we prayed, quietly, and with words.  Afterwards I finished the last two bites of my Friday pizza and headed back to the office, to get back to “work.”

I have taught three people that prayer in the past three days, each of them in the community right around the church.  I am not sure they would have known I was a Pastor had I not been wearing my clergy collar around them one day, but each of them knew who I was for my walking around the City as a practice—every day.  There was a woman who reached out to me yesterday who I met when I was walking in the Company Gardens months ago.  As I approached her yesterday, I saw that her eye was swollen shut and she looked like she had been beaten badly.  This was how she looked the first time we met.

I took her hands and listened as she told me what happened.  I didn’t know what to say, I felt at a complete loss.  Then she taught me my lesson for the day, when she said to me, “Thank you, it was the first time I could hear what it is I must do.  I know I must leave and it is because of you.”  I had taught her many months ago how to pray.  I shared with her that I can only guide her to a place where she can listen.  I can hold her hands and be with her, but it is God that gives us strength, that breathes life into us, and that it is because of God that we can know we are never alone.  I said, it is important that we thank God for this strength you found in trusting in this truth and we prayed.

She didn’t need me to tell her where to go or who to talk to, there were women in her community that guided her through all that.  She met me in the trees where we had first met, so that I could hold her hprayerands like I had once before and pray.  It is moments like this that remind me that I am but a breath of a presence in someone’s life, where God is their eternity, and I am so thankful for the trust that people extend to allow me into the holy space of their prayers and their lives.  I found myself unable to sleep last night for thinking about the gift of what it is to be someone who people stop on the street and ask, “Will you teach me about God?–Will you teach me to pray?”  I could barely catch my breath for recognizing the precious, holy, stilling beauty of it.

Thankful to be with you on the journey,

Michelle

What trees teach us about LIFE…

tree-of-life-prophetic-painting-mindi-oaten-art-colors-leaves-healing-of-the-nations_grandeFor the past six weeks, I have been journeying with a group in Cape Town, reflecting on the messages of discipleship, hidden in the trees of the bible.  The bible is bookended with stories about trees.  In the beginning in the book of Genesis, there are two trees–The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil.  The Tree of Life reappears in awe-inspiring imagery at the end of the bible in the Book of Revelation.

Psalm 1:3 names that “They shall be like trees planted by streams of water, that bear fruit in their right season, their leaves do not wither, and in all that they do, they prosper.”  The “they” in the psalm is the people of God.  They were likened to trees and so we can know that trees hold significant value and have much to teach us.  The word tree appears in the bible 288 times and there is thought to be 37 different types of trees mentioned.  What is it then about trees?

hiddenlifeoftrees

Peter Wohlleben, in his book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” shares amazingly beautiful stories about his experience with trees.  Wohlleben is a forester in Germany and he names that the trees that grow in the wild, have ways of creating their own ecosystem, they communicate with one another and with other wildlife, and their interconnected nature speaks to their majestic symbolism.  Before there was a term “World Wide Web,” there was a term “Wood Wide Web,” coined by a man named Dr. Simrad.  This term was meant to describe the ways in which trees elicit a communication network that is alive in the forests.

Wohlleben shares that the Birch trees have a way of equalizing the sugars in their leaves through the root systems they share underneath the ground.  The taller trees that have better access to the photosynthesis process, feed the shorter trees.  They have a way for caring for one another that is natural to their genetic makeup.  He tells a story of a fallen tree that demonstrated green growth due to the roots of the other trees feeding it.  They literally held the tree in life.  There are so many amazing stories in this book, I encourage you to read it to learn more about the Beautiful in the life of Trees.

the-grandfathers

I have loved trees as long as I can remember, but the significance of them in my spiritual journey grew in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  I served during that time as a Disaster Response Trainer, training teams to help with the clean up and recovery efforts after the storm tore threw the Gulf Coast region of the US.  I was a student at the time and one of my research projects was the Pastoral Implications of Disaster.  A group of us from Duke traveled to Mississippi to lead a Pastoral Care conference for the clergy in Mississippi.

As we drove down the Gulf Coast highway, I was mesmerized by a row of Live Oaks that survived the storm.  I call these trees, the grandfathers.  Entire mansions were swept out to sea, but the grandfathers survived.  As my hands touched their bark, and my eyes lingered over their limbs, I could sense within them strength.  This is the story of the trees, their systems of being together, create within them the capacity to stand.  Certainly there were many trees that did not make it, but those that did…they are hauntingly beautiful in their weathering and in their strength.

We are like trees in our need to abide.  John 15: 1-7 has this to say about the importance of abiding:
vine_and_branches

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

As we approach the season of Lent, I encourage you to find a tree that you can befriend.  Allow it to speak to you in a spiritual way, reminding you of our need to be strengthened.  What might need pruning in your life of faith, in order that you might be able to grow in strength?  Give consideration to your Lenten disciplines, for Life is a beautiful gift and we should desire to live it in strength, beauty, and with faithfulness that bears fruit.

As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he would have been praying in an Olive grove, for the word Gethsemane means, Olive Press.

olive-trees-van-gogh

Knowing what that word means has changed my image of Jesus and that prayer.  To know that he was praying as if he were being pressed in on every side, makes me want to be closer with him in that prayer.  Knowing that his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane cost him drops of blood, reminds me that our lives are meant to be faithful in one way–in our love for God and all of God’s creation, even at the cost of drops of our blood.  May the Spirit of God take deeper roots within you through out your forty days of Lent.

As always, I am thankful to be…

With you on the journey,                                            audio for Hidden in the trees bible study

Michelle                                                                                      www.cmm.org.za/bible-study/

***To support my ministry in South Africa, tax deductible donations can be received through the United Methodist online giving system, the Advance.  Look for the support Michelle’s ministry tab on the homepage of my blog.  Thanks for your love and prayers!

earth-child

The Face of Faith: Luke 18:1-8

                                                                                                       Sermon preached 16 October, 2016                                                                                                Salt River & Kennsington Methodist

Jesus asks a question at the end of the story.  He asks those gathered around him this:

“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

They have been taught about how faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.  They know about what is said in Hebrews about Faith being the conviction of what is hoped for and the assurance of what is not seen.  Jesus still asks the question of whether he will witness faithfulness among him?  His question was posed with such conviction that it makes a learned person doubt, they even know…what faith is.

Anne Lammott says that “When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility.”

Faith is believing in the ways of God even when there seems to be no way.  Faith is trusting that with God  “All things really are possible.”

Faith has a face only it doesn’t look like what we think.

Faith is the face of the woman who understands that God’s will covers her and steps out in that will trusting she’ll be seen and heard.  Faith has a face of a woman ostracised by her community who meets Jesus over a cup of water and runs away singing you have to “come and see.”  This man knows it all—every little secret there is for me to tell about myself and He loves me still.    This kind of faith we can’t list it on a resume or CV and there we have it, it is the kind of Faith that is grown.  It is grown through a constant turning from “what is right in our own eyes” to the one who helps us to have new eyes.

Jesus, this morning calls for us to have eyes that can see and ears that can hear, for among us this morning is one we would call a “nag.”

There is a saying, “No one likes a nag.” 

This is not what we hear from Jesus this morning.  He seems to be saying, have your fill… “nag away.”  The widow is in trouble and she is in need of assistance from the judge in the story, only she has drawn the short stick with this man for we are told he actually doesn’t care about God or much at all for people.

So much for the notion of a higher standard in the role of “public servant.”

The widow would have little hope with someone like this.  We can’t believe she had a very powerful voice in her community.  If she were to stay true to her role, she would be among those who would be voiceless, only it is as if someone forgot to tell her this, for she speaks out and speaks out and speaks out until the judge is tired of hearing her nagging voice and finally relents extending to her what is due.

This widow, she was fully loaded with chutzpah—the Yiddish word that means something like “cheekiness.”  It didn’t matter how many times the judge turned her down, she had it in her mind that she would keep coming to present her case until she received the justice she deserved.   Jesus uses this story to teach us about how we should engage in life with God.  It is as if he is saying, “demonstrate with God, Chutzpah.  Get your nag on.”

“Chutzpah in prayer” sounds like great fun, but there are some glaring questions right away.  One is, “Are we being encouraged to nag God?  Is God a God that needs our nagging?  And is prayer really about us getting what we want in the end?”

So, does God need our nagging? 

Soren Kieerkegard names that “the nature of prayer is not to influence God, but to change the nature of the one who prays.”

Are we to “nag” like the widow or are we to understand that we become like the widow when we nag God or are persistent with God in prayer?  We become like the widow in that we understand our need of God’s justice in the world around us.  We become like the widow in that our eyes are opened and our ears are opened when we stay with God in prayer.  There is no falling asleep in our lives, when we like the widow stay awake with God in prayer putting out there the unjust narratives.  Our eyes become wide open to all the needs, around us and they can flood our hearts, causing us to lose heart.  Prayer helps us to hold on in the midst of, to care in the midst of a world of hurt flooding in.

The problem for me in this story, is I for one am not like the widow.  Right away her Chutzpah would alert me were she standing in front of me today.  It would be as if she were standing in front of a crowd naked, a widow—pleading her own case.  That is just wrong.  She was one of the sacred one’s who was to be held under the wing of protection in her community.  We are told we are to care in particular for: the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, and always the poor.  So, what was she doing having to plead her own case.  It would be similar to when our friends from the Eastern Cape came to fight for their pension.  “Elderly sleeping on the streets…no man!”  This is not okay!  But there were eyes turned from the scene, people who had fallen away to the life of sleep.

Jesus puts before the people a parable of improbability.   All of this is improbable that an unjust judge who doesn’t care about God or people would care about a voiceless one in the community—no, he would tuck her away.  With one shake of the right hands he would demonstrate for us what is known as the “gentleman’s agreement” and she would be sorted and out of this scene.  It happens every day, open the papers and read.  People are sorted every day.  In the church even, people are sorted every day.  A whispered word here, a quiet meeting there, a smile and a nod and a “nagging problem” is easily tucked away.

So, what is it that Jesus is trying to teach the people?  This widow faces a losing battle and she is given the gift of justice.  How much more will the God of justice rain it down for the people who have formed themselves through persistent prayer to have eyes to see and ears to hear where they are in need of justice in the world around them.  It will rain down, God has promised this.  Jesus is saying, get out there and make a scene trusting when you are in the center of God’s will prayer will help you stay awake in that will, to not fall away.

For those who recognize they are on the side of power, the side where the leverage of the right handshake can open any door you want, the parable for us is really several chapters back in Chapter 11.  Jesus speaks there about the same need for persistence in prayer. There a neighbor knocks on the door seeking a loaf of bread and his friend looks at him as if he is mad.  The knocking continues and the bread is acquired and the famous words are spoken about prayer, “Ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.”

This has been interpreted by many to mean that we can ask for anything we want and we will get what we want, but when we pray…we get what we need.  If you keep reading in Chapter 11, you’ll read these words, “How much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”

For the widow, I am not sure it was only the justice due her in her argument with her opponent she was advocating for.  I wonder actually whether the widow didn’t need the scene, the crowd, witnessing her Chutzpah, in order that the eyes and ears of the people might be unclogged and that the need for justice might not be just her case, but everyone’s case.  “It was as if she were speaking the words…I have had enough.  I am done with this madness.  You will open your eyes, you will open your ears, you will see me and you will begin to live in what it is you say you believe.”

Our God is the God of justice; God does not need us to ask for what we are promised to receive.  God needs us to be aware—to have eyes and ears that hear and see the discrepancies in community.  In order that we might be on the side of God’s justice.  God needs us to be aware of our need of the Holy Spirit in order that we might have strength, courage, commitment, heart to be where we are needed to be.

Wendell Berry shares a warning about finding yourself in the midst of this sort of prayer…

This, I thought, is what is meant by ‘thy will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it.  It means your will and God’s will may not be the same.  It means there’s a good possibility that you won’t get what you pray for.  It means in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.

We don’t like to hear that we will suffer, but it is the life of the faithful actually.  I don’t know a way to follow Jesus and not find yourself in moments of suffering.

There is no more faithful description of prayer in the bible then the description of Jesus in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He invited the disciples to join Him in the garden and they could not stay with him in prayer.  Instead, we read they fell away in sleep.  Jesus was so faithful in prayer that he was bleeding in prayer—He was bleeding prayer.  And what were his words?  “If it be but possible for you to take this cup from me, but not my will, but yours Father.”  Jesus asked for what he wanted, but acknowledged that the will of God would be more faithful than anything He might ask for himself.  Jesus prayed blood and suffered greatly, but he was the living will of God and in the will of God he embraced suffering in order that widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor might know they were held in the center of it all.  The  voiceless are at the center of it all.  Lift up your voice and rise up the people of God to be at the center of it all.

Our prayers help us to endure in the midst of…, prayer keeps us turned in all of who we are towards the will of God, and in God’s will we might suffer, but it will always be a suffering that is for the greater good.

If the woman in our story today is being encouraged to “nag” it is not simply that she might get what she wants in her nagging, it is that her nagging might find her formed and shaped into the will of God and the will of God is that widows be cared for justly.  Her prayer was within God’s will because she was one of those named at the center of God’s will–at the center of it all with God.

The face of faith will not look like we want it to, for the face of faith will be a “nag.”  Sometimes we call “nags” prophets.  They are given their voice in the midst of shaping in the heart of the Holy Spirit of God.  Their voice pierces the darkness of our day waking us up all around to the need to turn towards the will of God…

To be on the side of the widow.

To be on the side of the orphan.

To be on the side of the foreigner.

To be on the side of the poor.

Prophets “nag” us with their persistence for their eyes are glued permanently to the will of God and they see so clearly the way things should be, and the speak for us with a sense of urgency in great times of need.  Jesus rises up within the disciple a new voice and that is the voice of the weak working to bring them to their knees.  We misperceive when we believe widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor are weak though.  It is they who know better than any the strength that comes from kneeling in heart mind and spirit.  They know what it means to have strength to endure and in the moments when the voices of the powerless rise “nagging” for justice, Jesus wants us to have our eyes on the scene, to not turn away, to not lose heart, to be strong and steady and ready to stand with all together in solidarity.

The cries for justice will always reach the ears of God, the question is will they reach ours?

The widow was nagging in the midst of the leaders in the community.  Jesus says be like her, get out there with your “Chutzpah” and put what is right and true in the eye of the people and witness what happens.  When we get out there and make a scene the will of God pierces into the lies and mistruths.

“It is in the fire of living that our strength is born.”

It is through the daily shaping of ourselves in the center of God’s will that we become the instruments God needs us to be and that is simply people who have eyes to see, ears to hear, a voice to speak out, hands and feet to work for change so that all God’s people might witness the ordering of the way things are meant to be by the people living in the center of what they say they believe.

Have Chutzpah, nag away, and allow your prayers for justice that live inside of you to be what wills you in your mind, in your heart, in your spirit, and in your every breath.

In the end, Jesus is naming that in our praying we become the face of faith, we become the widow in the midst of a community crying out the need of…the need for… the way to be… the will of God that for those who are sleeping, goes unseen.

Do not lose heart, pray continuously, and live your faith.

Cup of Tea & Pearls of Wisdom from Mimi

Cape Town Letters:  A letter to my God Daughter Avery Lee Jones

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Dear Avery,

I love you with a love that reaches you all the way from the other side of the world and finds its way back to me to send again and again.  I am writing you this letter from Cape Town, South Africa where I am living now.  I was remembering you when you were little and the commitment I made to be your God Mother long ago and so I wanted to write you to share with you little pearls of wisdom as I serve far away on the other side of the world.  The letters I write to you from this place I am going to title: Cups of Tea & Pearls of Wisdom from Mimi—for Mimi is what you chose to call me when you couldn’t say, “Michelle.”  It is a silly thing really, but I hope you will ask your Mom to buy you in the store some tea that comes from Africa.  It is called Rooibos tea and is grown right here in South Africa.  I drink it with a little bit of honey and some lemon sometimes and sometimes I drink it all by itself.  When your letters come, maybe you can drink a real cup of tea with Mimi, who loves you so much.

Love is so important Avery…

It is the great study of life to be able to receive enough love to then be able to give it away beautifully and well in a world that is full of others who are sometimes in a different place than you.  I met a woman yesterday who I pass by sometimes on the street.  I was tired for lack of sleep and I didn’t take time to talk with her like I usually do and she smiled at me still.  I realised our lives had touched each day enough for her to know the look of sleep on my face and not be offended for my needing to be quiet.  She was at a beautiful place and blessed me for it and I was in a grumpy place that you have seen in me when you have witnessed me in the morning before my first cup of coffee.  Always wonder about the place someone is in when they are grumpy before you receive hurtfulness into your heart.  Always try and turn moments between you and others into moments of wonder, rather than moments of judgement, for people were made for each other all of us and so when we arrive in front of each other at different places, sometimes we have to extend grace.  Be a giver of grace and love, like the woman I met yesterday.

You are living in the years where girls are not always nice to one another.  You will be comparing your body to the bodies of your friends.  You will want your hair to look like theirs and your clothes to have a bit of sparkle to them and for people to notice the beautiful in you and acknowledge it.  These are the years where people who spend a lot of time thinking about things will share that insecurities are born in life and especially born in the lives of girls.  You will begin to doubt that all of who you are and all that you have to give is not enough.  So, your Mimi writes you from South Africa today to remind you that you are beautifully and wonderfully made.  Your hair is that perfect shade of summer blond with those lovely little waves.  Your eyes have that inquisitive nature to them and you are kind and wonderful and thoughtful.  I love how you and your brother play together and how you care for him so well (especially when you realize you have not and then begin again in your journey of caring for him well)!  Don’t believe the lie that you are not enough!  You are amazing and I am thankful to have you in my life.

Conquer your fears Avery…

I still remember the first couple weeks of your life.  I was actually living with your parents at the time in the spare bedroom of your old house.  I was preparing to leave for seminary and was given the gift of seeing you just as you were born and spending precious, precious time with you those first weeks.  The story is told that one evening your mother and I were sitting outside your bedroom holding hands.  Your father walked by and looked at us like we were crazy (you know we kind of are), but we were waiting your cries out because that is what the books your mom had read said to do.  You had to learn to put yourself to sleep on your own and it was terrible torture for us to hear you cry, but eventually after a couple of nights, you stopped crying.  You learned to conquer those minutes of fear.  You were a brave little soul right from the start!

Fear sneaks up on us in life in ways that hold us back from living fully, courageously.  It is important to look at your fears closely and carefully and begin to face them, so that they do not make you freeze in moments when you should breathe, so always remember when you are afraid to breathe and wonder about why you are afraid.  The bible has a great phrase, “perfect love casts out all fear.” It is found in a letter 1 John 4:18.  I encourage you to read this passage with your Mom and talk with her about your deepest fears, where they might come from, and how you can work not to live scared in life, but to live with courage, hope, and risking in the possibilities that lie beyond fear.  To love well means we have to release our fear of others who are different and our fear of being hurt.  You will experience things in your life like pain and suffering, but allow those moments to teach you rather than define you.  You were brave right from the start Avery.

Do not live in doubt Avery, but believe…

The great truth is that you are held in a love that has no beginning and no end.  To learn to live in the love that God has for you, every person around you, and all of this beautiful creation is the gift of each new day.  Never doubt in the possibilities that can be achieved when you live and breathe and find your being in God.  Never doubt in the love of God.  When I was a little girl, much younger than you, my grandmother used to make me coffee.  It wasn’t until much later that I realised she was making me Café Mochas, for she would put just a tiny bit of coffee in and lots of chocolate and milk so that I could join her at the kitchen table as she drank.  She used to say to me, “trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, and in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.”  I didn’t really go to church regularly as a little girl, so it wasn’t until years later when I began to read the bible that I realised my grandmother had taught me Proverbs 3:5&6 a famous passage in the bible.  Learn to trust with every breath you breathe that you are a beautiful child of God, born into the world gifted in wonderfully amazing ways, to be a gift of love every day of your life to others.  Never doubt in God’s love for you Avery.  One day I will make you a Café Mocha, but for now drink your tea for I can actually see the questioning look on your Dad’s face  when I ponder our later years: Mocha Moments with Mimi.

I am thankful for both your mom and your dad and for their willingness from the very beginning of your life to share you with me.  I can’t wait to hug you next, but until then receive your pearls of wisdom and cup of tea.

With love from South Africa,

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Mimi

 

PS: Tell Ethan he will get a letter too and kiss him real big on his cheek for me!!!

 

Breath of Life

Cape Town Letters: An Open Letter to my Bishop and all my friends

Dear Bishop Swanson,

lifeGrace and Peace to you from Cape Town, South Africa.  It was on my list of things to do to write you and all those who support me this past weekend.  There is a writing I still must do, but I am delaying it to write this instead.  My life unfolded this past week in a way that made me catch my breath and so I am compelled to share.

On Monday I had an appointment and so I called a driver I am friends with to transport me.  He asked me if I would ride somewhere with him first.  I was not really sure what to think, for he had never asked me something like this before.  He took me to a road that he had been driving on a couple of days before where he had witnessed a little girl killed.  He said he saw the whole thing moving before him like a train.  He could see the Mercedes speeding down the road and see the girl and he knew she would not make it across.  He shared with me how he saw her body crushed and her blood in the air and it is what haunts him now in the day and in the night.

He told the story so carefully that I could see it in my own mind.  Because I didn’t know the girl and what she looked like, I found myself replacing her with little girls I did know, recognising how easily this very thing could happen to any one of them.  I asked him if we could breathe deep breaths in and deep breaths out, remembering the gift of life, and then the two of us sat quietly for a moment.  I prayed words over the life of a little girl I never knew, the driver of the Mercedes who killed her, and my friend whose mind was held captive by the witnessing of this tragedy.  People are killed every day in South Africa, people are killed every day all over this beautiful world, so often in incredibly tragic ways.  Yet, there was something about this story of a little girl killed on a main road that has worked in me, reminding me how important it is for us to remember that speed kills.

There is a speed to which we address life in this day and age that leads to a sickness in our spirits.  Speed inhibits our ability to see the beautiful right in front of us and we move right along wholly unaware of the precious opportunities that exist for us to absorb. Untouched layers of life that are the joy and the mystery we seek go unearthed for the speed at which we pass them by.  There is a much that is too much that we are moving towards and in our race–the magnificent comes to an invisible demise without us ever knowing it.

There is a beautiful word here in South Africa, found in the Zulu language, “Sawubona.”  It means, “I see you.”  In response, one would say, “Ngikhona” which means I am.  As one is seen, they are.  The languages of the world teach us about the people and what is important to them.  It is important to see and be seen.  As our eyes touch each other our lives touch.  It is important for us to see and be seen, to have our lives touch the lives of others, and to allow  the change that is born through these interactions that are our God given dance of reality.

This morning I walked much slower on my way to work and I looked directly into the eyes of the people I came across.  A man this morning told me my eyes were smiling and I told him that my grandfather always told me that I was the only angel he knew who had the devil dancing in her eyes and he laughed hard and said, “yes, yes…your eyes they have the dance of mischief in them.”  It was a good way to start the morning, laughing.  It was also good to see and be seen on my way to work by a human being whose eyes danced with mischief just as he described mine to.  I found myself thinking of him through out the day.

Soon, I know I will slip into a quicker rhythm.  It will happen without me thinking about it, but I am working on remembering that life is but breaths one woven into the next.  I was fifteen minutes late for my appointment yesterday, for sitting with a beautiful person who was broken over the loss of a little girl’s life.  The world did not end for my fifteen minutes late to take those breaths with him.  Yet, there is a speed out there we are being tempted toward and in the spiral onward we become a part of a machine that has no space for breaths that we must take in order to live the beautiful in our life.  The machine we become a part of with our speed is the machine that kills breath.

I hope that those who take the time to read this will entertain a moment today to breathe in deeply and breathe out and remember what a beautiful precious gift we are afforded with our one wonderful life.  Don’t waste it friends, live your life seeing and being seen.  I am so very thankful for all of you in my world.  I am overwhelmed when I realize the love that surrounds me in all of you.  Thank you for staying with me on the journey.

With love from South Africa,

Michelle

***To help support my ongoing ministry in South Africa, donations can be made on the giving link on my blog.

The Flight of the South African Blue Swallow…

 

Postage stamp South Africa 1998 Blue Swallow, Bird

SOUTH AFRICA – CIRCA 1998: a stamp printed in South Africa shows Blue Swallow, Hirundo Atrocaerulea, Bird, circa 1998

During my first visit to South Africa, I fell in love with one of the most beautiful birds, the South African Blue Swallow. Sadly, the Blue Swallow, so full of grace and beauty is also the bird on the top of the endangered bird species list in South Africa. There are many factors for their fragile state of existence, but the experts say the greatest factor is that the grasslands and wetlands that are their natural habitat are under threat. The Blue Swallow resides in the Kwa-Zulu Natal area, but can be spotted in various parts of the country. There is believed to be less than 100 of this species left in South Africa. Every time I see a Blue Swallow I am reminded of the fragility of habitats and I am reminded of the interconnected nature of us all.

The way we live on this earth impacts the life span of other species that God called us to share this space with and our lifestyle also impacts the quality of life for the future generations of our children. How much water we utilize, the way we eat, the resources like paper that we consume, all have a marked impact on the earth’s ability to sustain itself. As the South African Blue Swallow flies gracefully into its unknown reality, the beauty of the bird challenges me to take flight in my own life recognizing the ways in which I am a part of the eradication of habitats around the world.

On my left shoulder, I have flying in tattoo form, the South African Blue Swallow. My journey with them helped me to recognize the importance of protecting not just the habitats of creatures, but also our own. The spiritual habitat that is our center can so easily be thrown off course leaving us under threat. Busy-ness, lists of great opportunities that seem the thing to do, distractions of every kind are before us. Yet, we are called to be still and know God. In prayer, meditation, moments of solitude, and fascination with God’s word we are reborn again and again into creatures that in our lives might take beautiful graceful flight, much like my friend the Blue Swallow.

swallows in flight

Our flight can take us wherever we want to go. God allows such freedom in our lives.   Yet, the hope is that in our flight we will move in response to a sense of God’s guidance drawing others to the interconnected nature of us all. The way I live my life directly impacts the experience of others. What I choose to see and not see colors the ways in which I chart my course. My hope is that through out the living of my days my eyes will be open for what God needs me to learn and that the choices I make will lead to better life for all God’s children and the creatures upon this earth, whose beauty dazzles my gaze.

Sometimes when I see the Swallow impressed on storefront windows, I can hear the message I know is their song, “Please listen.  Please hear me.  I am trying to sing to you with my song that I am under threat, I am under threat, I am under threat.”  “I hear you sweet Blue Swallow. I hear you,” I find myself saying through tears watering my eyes.  Please listen to the cries of God’s creatures who because of our lifestyles live under threat and work this Lenten season to make small changes in your life.

To learn more about the swallow, and ways you can support conservation of their fragile habitat, follow this link: http://www.ewt.org.za/species%20factsheets/Blue%20swallow.pdf

To view a list of 100 ways to conserve water: http://wateruseitwisely.com/100-ways-to-conserve/

For ways to work to make your church in South Africa more environmentally friendly:  www.safcei.org

With you on the journey,

Michelle Shrader

*Support for my salary can be received  through the donation button on this blog site.  It will lead you to the United Methodist Advance website which is an online giving resource facilitating the support of mission work all around the world.  Check it out!

 

Our Dislocated Body

south-tampa-mapIt is important in life to know where you are from. I spent most of my childhood years in a beautiful city named Tampa, Florida. Tampa is home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the best café con leche in the world, and four roads that remind me of my privilege in life. The area I lived in was called South Tampa. The northern boundary of South Tampa is Kennedy Boulevard, Gandy is to the South, Westshore to the–west, and Bayshore to the east. If you go too far east or west, you will find yourself swimming in water. Most people who have lived in South Tampa for a significant period of time were told at one point in their lives to never go past Kennedy or Gandy, for nothing of need is beyond those borders.  I found over the years that this was not true.

South Tampa Simba

Prior to my life as a Pastor, I served in the public school systems as a Speech & Language Pathologist. The first position I held was across the Northern boundary of South Tampa. Many of the children were the children of migrant farm workers. I remember doing language evaluations and being shocked how many of the children were missing the same word—bathtub. After several home visits, I realized the reason for this. Most of the families lived in make shift houses that did not have bathtubs. Some lived in homes with no floors. The children were allowed to wash themselves in the water fountains at the school for the administration knew they had nowhere to bathe. I could not imagine there were children in my own country living in these conditions. This would not be allowed where I was from.

After returning from graduate school, I took my second position in Tampa and it was in a school across the Southern boundary Gandy. This school was home to children primarily from low-income African American families. I remember being surprised over and over again by how many parents were working 2-3 jobs to support their families.   I also remember the school breaking ground on its new library and the shelves sitting empty for the longest time. I really wrestled with this because I just couldn’t understand how these vast divides in my community existed.  A library would not have stood empty in a school where I was from.

I am who I am today because of the way these opportunities to serve shaped me. I did not have everything I needed on the inside of the South Tampa boundaries for real community happens when we cross the lines that divide us, however those lines begin to form.dislocated potatohead  So often, the human body is dislocated from one another. We are separated by boundaries, we live at a distance from one another, and our sense of community lacks because of this. We understand who we really are when we see life in relationship with neighbors we live distanced from. Race divides us, economics divide us, sexuality divides us, language divides us, faith tradition divides us, experience and education divide us, and privilege or lack of privilege divides us as a people.

Honestly, I have to share that it is much easier to cross streets that divide us, then to recognise that there is no journey that I can go on that will erase the privilege that lives in me.  The only thing I can do is to continue to learn about these divides and fight for others to have the same privileges as me.

What might it look like for us to study the maps that contain the dividing lines and begin to work more intentionally to break them down?

With you on the journey,

Michelle Shrader

***Salary Support for my Individual Volunteer in Mission work can be received through this blog.  The donation button will lead you to the United Methodist Advance–an online giving mechanism that allows you to donate tax deductible monies towards mission engagements all around the world.  Check it out!

 

 

My Black Baby Doll…

My black baby dollWhen I was three years old, my Mother took my brother and I to a toy store to pick out any toy we wanted. I picked out a black baby doll and I didn’t want any other doll for years.  For the longest time in my adult years, I believed that this choice was demonstrative of my innate wiring as a reconciler, but something brought me to ask my mother if she had any idea why I would have made that choice. Her response blew my theory about myself out of the water. She alerted me to the fact that I was taught to love black people, by my exposure as a child.

My parents left my brother and I in the care of my Native American uncle and his African American wife when I was two years old. I have no memory of this time, but according to my mother, I didn’t want to come home when they came to pick me up. My uncle was ostracized from the family for marrying across the racial lines and I have only seen him one other time since. My mother believes that when I saw the baby doll in the store, it reminded me of the other part of my family tree.  Oppression of black people by Native Americans did not make sense to me, but others have helped me to understand that we pass on our own pain even when it doesn’t make sense.

I was asked once what my first memory of race was. My answer is hard. My first memory of race is when I arrived to my grandparent’s house on the other side of the family with that baby doll. I remember not fully understanding what was going on, but feeling protective of that doll, for it seemed like my grandfather was mad at her or me? He asked what I was doing with a black baby doll and I drew her closer. Before I knew it, the tension was gone, but I remember that moment more than I even remember the doll, for my grandfather had a way of making me feel like I was the reason the stars hung in the sky and that day I felt like he was disappointed in me.

“Did you swallow a dollar and break out in pennies?” he would say when I got freckles in the summer. “You are the only angel I know who has the devil living in her eyes…” was something I heard frequently and so often I would arrive to their home with old underwear for I was quite independent and wanted to pack for myself and he would say, “Well aren’t you holy?” That was my grandfather. I loved him so much. Yet, I am no different than most, I learned about race and how to distinguish myself from others by people I love.

Over the years I have learned that many people are fine with those who are another race as long as they stay in what is believed to be their place. I think that was the issue years ago. I don’t worry much about my grandfather today; today I worry more about me. The place thing is still an issue. We allow ourselves to be divided by place. We allow ourselves to believe there are people who hold characteristics that make them better than others and others who because of color, class, or whatever we decide are not good enough, beautiful enough, whatever enough.  If we only could learn that the DNA of who we are as people translates to nothing more than children of God.  Love for ourselves, God, and others requires an understanding of place.  Our place is struggling to live together within our family, the entire human race.

with you on the journey,

Michelle

*Salary support can be received through the donation button on this blog.

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