The other day, I posted a photo on Facebook of a sage bush that is blooming in my front yard. These shrubs are usually pale green, but when it rains a lot (as it has in Texas this Spring and Summer) they blossom with purple flowers. A friend saw the photo and commented that sages are a true resurrection plant. It made me see them in a new way.

In truth, the sages here don’t ever seem to die. They are hearty and drought-resistant. But when it rains, they take on a whole new look and liveliness. Those purple flowers seem to have been waiting for the right circumstances to bring them out. As Summer progresses, the flowers will drop, but the sage will flower again. That is what they do.

In my faith tradition, resurrection is a central belief, yet even those who don’t believe the dead literally come back to life find hope in the theme of resurrection. It isn’t the passing of one soul through many lives – that is reincarnation – but the renewal of one single life or even of a community. In a way, resurrection can be seen as a person or community becoming most fully themselves. That’s why the symbols of resurrection are things like butterflies and eggs and sage bushes – living beings that undergo a transformation but retain the same essence; they stay what they have always been, only better. For some of us, the theme of resurrection is what gives us hope when we face all kinds of small “deaths,” like church attendance going down or changes in leadership. Or bigger “deaths” like racism or the daily indignities of poverty.

Resurrection is hope, transformation, and renewal.

As I work with patients and families at the hospital this summer, the image of my “resurrection” sage is a helpful one. People, too, blossom when the circumstances allow. Many times, those circumstances might be a death or a difficult transition. Sometimes, as I sit with people experiencing grief and pain, they begin to flower with stories, memories, plans, and gratitude. I’ve experienced it at similar times in my own family. In the midst of grief, we’ve recalled old family jokes, planned favorite meals, reached out to disconnected loved ones. And so it is with the families I companion this summer. Thanks to my friend’s comment, I’ll be looking for these resurrection moments every chance I get.

Learning to be and be with

Sometimes you hope for a quiet Sunday and…nope. I suppose that is to be expected. At the hospital, things are changing for people all the time. When I arrived this morning, there were messages of impending demise and patient angst. The operative words have been comfort care and “we just want what’s best for her/him.” Even when those are the sentiments, it can be hard to know exactly what is comforting and what is best.

This summer, I am learning to sit with people through the anxiety, the unknowing, and the pain. Compassion literally means to suffer with – and that is what I am doing much of the time, sitting with patients and their families as they consider hard choices and try to make meaning from what is happening to them and around them. (It is, in fact what the families are doing together for each other – being compassionate.) What we learn in chaplaincy is that we can’t make people’s problems go away, but we can be with them. And sometimes presence is not only enough, it is best.

It is hard when things don’t go as planned. When a father takes a turn for the worse, when a sibling takes her own health for granted, when a neighbor has a terrible accident. You can see it in the eyes sometimes, this feeling that life is changing course but no one has been given the new map yet.

For me, it is a job. I get to go home at the end of the day. (Or in this case, tomorrow morning). But these patients and families are teaching me patience. They are teaching me how to wait and and be present. (Didn’t I recently say I was impatient with my patients? Shame on me!) It is inspiring to see people stop their busy-ness and just BE with each other – a light in the darkness, as it were. They are anxious, they crave information, they want to know what to do. But what they do is wait with their loved one. Being there for one another in the waiting is the one thing no one else can give them.


Tiny Hands

Every day, I watch the strong, gentle hands of nurses adjusting wires, checking vitals. They help the nervous hands of parents hold and feed tiny new ones, becoming more confident as the days pass.

But always, it is the tiniest hands that amaze me. Wiggling in the air, tucked under cheeks, moving in what would have been an in-utero flutter. Their bodies are not developed enough to leave the hospital, but their hands can already get them into trouble as they pull at feeding tubes or try to “help” change a diaper.

Premature babies look fragile and sometimes their hands are covered with IV tubes. I once asked my father, a pediatrician, if it was depressing to work with these smallest of patients who are connected to wires and tubes to help them reach developmental benchmarks that will allow them to thrive. He told me what every nurse and doctor has repeated to me since: No! Babies are stronger than you think, even (maybe especially) premature babies. They don’t know how to do anything but grow and live, so that is what they try to do. Watching their hands, you know it is true. These hands are forever reaching out to grasp childhood.

Light and Love

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every Sunday, I light two candles: one for people on my prayer list and one for peace. The prayers are always specific, but some days they are lifted up from more places than just my heart. This was one of those days – the events of this week seemed to rise up before many of us at once, begging for light.

Like most people I know, this week has been one of grief and anger as we learned about the murder of nine African American women and men in their church. As we learned that they were murdered in an act of racist domestic terrorism. As we realized that, although this slaughter was unimaginably horrible, it was not surprising. Because we’ve seen so much of it lately – literally seen it captured on video and widely broadcast.

There is a lot I could say about what happened in Charleston – but there are other people saying it so well whose words I’ve been sharing on social media. (And I highly recommend you check them out.) What I can add is how this event was framed for me this morning. Because after I lit my candles and hoped those flames were bringing a tiny bit of light to the darkness in the world, we had a baptism in my congregation. After reflecting on the hatred we confront in the world and how faith calls us to respond, a joyful, dancing girl took vows to join in the work of helping light overcome darkness and love overcome hate. Together, a community  vowed with her to resist evil, love our neighbors as ourselves, strive for justice and peace, respect the dignity of every human being.

As dismal as this week (and this year and this decade) has been, it is nice to be reminded that we have reason for hope. Dismantling racism – or any kind of evil – takes a team and today a very young girl joined that team. I am betting she was joined by many others as people gathered in congregations around the country to remember the victims in Charleston. In fact, I am betting the team to confront evil got bigger where people gathered in homes and community centers and on street corners to find their roles in peace and justice-making.

On days when hope seems distant and optimism feels false, it might be a candle or a splash of water or a young child reminding us that evil has not won. It might be an unexpected ally, shared bread, or the words of a song. Look for them, these reminders of hope all around us. Darkness cannot drive out darkness and hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only light and love can do that.  


Doodlebugs, roly polies, pill bugs, armadillo bugs…

They have many names, but the doodlebug is known for one amazing trait: it can curl into a perfect sphere of protection when threatened. And by threatened, I mean any vibration or even the slightest touch. The doodlebugs that live in my front yard have a constant lifecycle of crawling-curling-crawling-curling as my daughter makes them houses and villages. At first, their reflex seems hypersensitive – come on! Do you have to close yourself off for every little stimulus during the day? But you know, they uncurl and crawl on within seconds. Doodlebugs protect themselves, but they never lose sight of the world outside their self-made safe place. That instinct to protect yourself and also remember the world outside yourself is a good balance. It is also a pretty good definition of hope.


My friend Irit just returned from her annual trip to visit family in Israel. The first indication for her that this visit would be different (other than hourly updates of missile strikes and counter-strikes) was having three seats to herself on the flight over. The day after she arrived, US airlines stopped flying to Tel Aviv altogether.

It was a three-week visit that was terrifying, disheartening, stressful, frustrating, and also illuminating in the way that going home can be when you have been away for a long time. Hearing her talk about the experience has been both mystifying for me (never been near war or real danger of any kind) and enthralling (how do people adjust to that life? or do they?) I’ve come away with some (probably naive) insights that she’s been gracious enough to let me share. (Note: All these thoughts are mine, and so are all the errors contained herein.)

Irit was born and grew up in Israel. She served in the army, as all Israelis do, and lived through the conflicts in 1956, 1967, 1969, 1973…up to the first Gulf War in 1991. About 12 years ago, she moved to the US for good. Even though she was apprehensive about going to Israel this summer, her daughter assured her, “Mom, don’t worry. We are going about our everyday life. It’ll be fine.” But, it turns out if you have not been living in a war zone for over a decade, you start to notice things that used to be taken for granted. Things like, every residence is required by law to have a safe room. Like shrill warning sirens. Like having to make safety plans as you walk your granddaughter to the playground or run errands. Like having your Shabbat dinner interrupted by a bomb threat and then watching your family go right back to eating as if nothing unusual had happened.

My friend has plenty of insights about the violence. In addition to talking about the stresses for her family and those on the Israeli side, she has great compassion for Palestinians crowded into the 141 square miles of Gaza with virtually no safe rooms and even less hope. How can you make peace, she observed, with people who have no hope? And there was plenty of disdain for political leaders on all sides (because there are more than two).

But what made the biggest impression on me, the outsider, was this: my friend who grew up in war has now become accustomed to peace. Yes, she is frustrated that we in the US don’t feel the impact of the wars to which we contribute. (Seriously, how long can we keep sending dollars and weapons and expect to keep shopping away as if nothing is wrong in the world?) But it really struck me how shocking it was for her to return to a way of life that used to be normal for her. From my easy chair, I see too many stories on the news about people who can never leave war – the battles themselves won’t stop or the governments that follow are corrupt or a different enemy appears. But…

It is possible to get used to peace.

Shortly after Irit returned I was working on a sermon and saw that Psalm 133 was in the lectionary for that week. It is the Psalm for my alma mater – Yea Sewanee! – and I’ve said and sung it many times. The words struck me in a new way, especially when Irit noted that the conflict in the Middle East is between cousins. The cultures, languages, and people of that region are related.

 Oh how good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.

Living together in unity is good. Not winning. Not power. Living together. In unity. Is good.

There are so many aspects of Irit’s experience that deserve reflection; it is a very complex situation. But just for now, I am focusing on this: it is possible to get used to peace. And the second related idea: getting used to peace is good. There are people trying hard to do this every day. What would make it possible for more to do it in their homes, neighborhoods, cities, and nations?

What do you think?

A lesson in hope and gratitude

On a pretty regular basis, I help out at a center that serves men and women in our community who are homeless. It is a worship service and meal. Simple and incredibly moving. The reasons people come are diverse. Some are chronically homeless, others recently lost jobs or had a major illness. For women, domestic and sexual violence are a pretty common reason for ending up on the streets. There are people there who volunteer and they have their own diverse reasons for being there. I am no longer surprised, but always brightened that folks at that service pray for me as we work together setting up, singing, and cleaning.

This week there was a different vibe and I am not sure why, probably just the coincidental convergence of the people there that day. That, and all the various struggles they had. In any case, when it came time to ask for prayers, nearly all of them were about mental illness.

“God, I hope my family will talk to me more often and I hope for bi-polar to be gone from the earth.”
“I pray for the man I saw yelling at no one and everyone on the street today.”
“Thank you for a church that is honest. I will not be as sick as my secrets.”

There has been a lot of public discussion lately about mental illness and how we can better “handle it” as a society. Mostly those who have mental illness are seen as the perpetrators of violent and scary behavior, so “handling” them is supposed to make us all feel safer and correct a lot of social ills. But in my experience–in my family, through the center where I volunteer, through friends–I know that people who struggle with mental illness are more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators. So I am pretty sure that what most people mean by “handling” mental illness won’t fix the problems they expect.

Despite their struggles, the men and women I see in this small worshiping community do some pretty healthy things from a spiritual perspective. They seek out the company of friends and helpers, they look for ways to help others, they are grateful for all that they have. One man approached me after the meal to ask if I knew of a shelter for him that night. He had been kicked out of one the previous day, but was suffering from flu and needed to be inside during what was expected to be a very cold night. “I broke one of the rules,” he said, “Mea culpa, it was all my fault.” I wondered how many of my friends would face such immediate and harsh accountability for our behavior? I surely would not.

While not everyone who is homeless is mentally ill, their challenges often hold up a mirror to struggles we all face–a magnifying mirror. Health and illness, inclusion and exclusion, love and indifference. I face all of those, but the impact on my life is usually not as harsh as it is for my neighbors who live on the streets. The judgements and barriers they face every day magnify the violence and injustice woven through our whole society.

And still they pray. And sing. And hope.

The woman who prayed for bi-polar to be gone from the earth later closed our intersessions that day. “Lord,” she asked, “I wish for a car so that I could drive old people to get to the doctor.” I’m going to hold her up as my role model for hope and gratitude this week.