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Prayer for Peace, at 30k Feet

July 9, 2016

Astronauts, gazing at the
milky marble Earth,
marvel at the yearning
for peace they feel
high above the stratosphere.

When our smallness,
our unity of home,
is placed in perspective,
our warring seems
both silly and unspeakable.

Though I’ve never seen
the world from those lofty heights,
an airplane-view provides
more than enough expansiveness
to gain clarity of our condition.

High above our compulsion
towards violence,
I see the humbling beauty of Creation:
nations without borders,
a system that lives or dies as one.

This world, our birthright,
is so much Enough…
particularly when we relinquish
scraps and shards of “mine,”
and give way to “ours.”

Let it be, Lord.
Let it be.

(originally written on 6/14/16, while on the way to California)

Standing for Love in #KansasCity

March 13, 2016
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It’s been 24 hours since we made our signs and headed to downtown Kansas City, but the messages, the chants, the facial expressions and gestures, the police, the anger and the fear continue to linger in my mind.  What a day…

We went to the Trump rally for a number of reasons. As DOC pastors, PKs, a church lay worker, and a neighbor, some of those reasons ranged from a desire to stand for our faith to a simple “mom said so” — but we all shared a desire to declare what we are for instead of shouting against Trump. So we made signs urging love of neighbor, and held them proudly.  My sign read, “Love thy refugee neighbor. #kindness”.  Others swapped descriptors, changing refugee to Muslim, black, LGBTQ, Hispanic, immigrant, and even wrong.  A friend’s youngest kids held signs declaring “LOVE” and “Be Nice. Say Kind Things. Be Gentle.” — the deep wisdom of preschool and Kindergarten that we seem to forget as we age. Standing on the same stretch of sidewalk across from the Midland Theater, we created a poster board wall of love for our neighbors.

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Photo credit: Travis Smith McKee, 2016

All told, we spent around two hours in the protest. During that time, we met lots of other protesters with similar signs that spoke of love’s power over hatred, and the inherent value of our neighbors. We also met people whose signs called out the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that have characterized much of Trump’s campaign. And yes, we met people whose signs and words were angry, people who spoke with voices and fists raised high. Though most Trump supporters were inside the Midland, an occasional supporter wandered through the crowd as well. In other words, it was exactly what a public demonstration is supposed to be: a place where perspectives are given voice out in the open, where people express their ideas, values, hopes, fears, and anger in the public square. That’s a part of our political system that I hope we never lose – the right to peacefully gather and protest whenever and wherever we feel we must.

Now, as you’ve surely heard, eventually the protest heated up. Children are excellent  barometers of mood, and our kids grew restless as the air around us began to change. Thanks to their fidgety warning (and hunger), we left the street and stepped into the grocery store that sits across from the Theater. Shortly thereafter, the first blast of pepper spray hit the crowd. A lovely Methodist woman whose sign spoke of love was one of the people who was hit. She and I had stood side by side only minutes before.

It was utterly surreal, watching through the grocery windows as protesters began surging away from the spray.  We were simultaneously grateful and worried. On the one hand, the children in our group were safely oblivious as they munched on their snacks. On the other hand, two in our group were still outside.  And what of the other protesters, rally attendees, and police?  Were they safe?

We left through the parking garage, because store employees would no longer let people in or out through the street entrance. Though it was a safety measure, it also meant that pepper-sprayed protesters couldn’t buy milk — the only thing that would relieve the pain. After exiting the garage, we were reunited with our two friends. They’d found themselves trapped in a group of people preparing to rush across the barricade (an action that apparently prompted the first use of pepper spray). Thankfully, they managed to push through the pressing crowd before the spray was used.

Our ride home was odd. Each person in the vehicle moved in and out of reflection, trying to make sense of what we’d experienced. For me, that reflection focused on the question: “Why did I come here, really?”

Personally, I had a hodgepodge of reasons for standing on the street in the rain with a sign.  Some are obvious, at least to those who know me, and others have been a surprise — in some ways, I didn’t know why I went until after we’d returned home.  While the action certainly doesn’t require defense, I think it is important to share why the day was so important to my life of faith. So, here goes nothing:

  • For observation – In case you haven’t noticed, we receive very different accountings of recent protests depending upon which news station or pundit blares from our screens. Some describe protesters as anarchists and thugs.  Some describe protesters as heroes. Both fail to take into account the diversity of people who show up to these demonstrations, the wide range of folk who are jarred by the rhetoric of this campaign season.  Thankfully there are still others who view protesters as people with real concerns, hopes and dreams, who protest because they want to stand against what they see as a swelling hatred in the United States. Knowing that the people of my congregation would hear widely varying reports of what took place, I wanted to see for myself so that I can help to separate fact from fiction.
  • For justice – The groups of people named on our signs are the very groups that candidates such as Trump speak against. As hateful rhetoric increases and translates into acts of violent aggression, many of our neighbors feel increasingly unsafe. Though we have never met, these people are my brothers and sisters.  They deserve to see people holding signs that name and proclaim their full humanity and dignity, especially in public places where they are rhetorically and/or physically attacked. I was moved by the number of people who stopped and thanked us for carrying signs that named them as neighbor instead of other or enemy.
  • For the little girl in me – I grew up in awe of the social justice activists of the Civil Rights Movement, the suffragists in both Britain and the US, the anti-colonial activists from around the world, the feminist leaders, the activists who protested injustice not despite their faith but because of it.  As a teenager, I regretted being “born in the wrong time” because I naively believed that all the good fights had already been fought and won.  As a college student, I began to see that there was so much left to be done…and with every year that passed, I began to find excuses not to show up.  My own activism slowly morphed into words backed by little action, and that child-who-was looked at me with very little respect.  I want to be someone the younger Lara would be proud of, which means putting myself where my words are, where the need is, where my faith tells me to go.
  • Because I am afraid – I almost didn’t go yesterday. The pull of a lazy Saturday at home was strong, but my fear of what might happen was even stronger.  What if the protests became violent?  What if church folk criticized me for attending?  What if? What if? What if…  At the last minute, I settled down just enough to hear the quiet voice inside me whisper “If you are afraid, then you MUST go.”  She was right.  The things in life that really matter are worth taking thoughtful risks, and I believe all the above reasons really and truly matter.
  • Because it’s not about me – As honest and personally true as my self-reflection may be, this place that we’re in – this hatesplosion – is bigger than me or any other individual. It is about all of us, together.  It hurts all of us, together (though some clearly bear more of that hurt than others). And if we are to find our way out of here, it will require all of us working together. That means showing up and doing the hard work of reconciliation and compassion, even when our hands and voices shake.
  • Because the Bible tells me so – If there is anything I know with utter certainty, it is this: the Bible reveals that God is intimately concerned with the welfare of the other. Widows, orphans, immigrants, strangers…all are named as beloved, and all make it to the list of folk we’re not only called but commanded to love.

That’s where I stand. I don’t expect others to stand there with me, though I’m certainly grateful for the company. Nor do I claim to speak on behalf of my congregation on this one. They get to take their own stands, wherever and however they hear God call them. I’m not telling them who to vote for, because I value the separation of church and state. But I’m also no longer hiding behind that separation, as though being a pastor means I can’t have personal convictions. I can, and I do. I’m standing for love.

 

 

Our Squandered Miracle…

September 10, 2015

He sat up in the bed, hospital gown intertwined with tubes and eyes full of wonder.  The baby in his lap gurgled, hand in mouth, oblivious to her surroundings.  And his wife?  She laughed, lips spread with her first genuine joy in months.  Just as he was amazed by the little one, we were amazed by him.  He was alive.

A couple of weeks earlier, doctors said this wasn’t possible.  He would never talk again, never remember who he was, never stand, or walk, eat or smile.  In short, his persistent vegetative state would not allow him to be him.

But his eyes followed mom every time she moved through his room at the LTAC.  No, they were GLUED to her.  We noticed, and so did the nurses… but the doctors warned against hope.  Hope could be a liar.

—————————–

In contrast to the vibrant hues of burning bush and maple, our hearts were dreary one November morning.  Maybe we were imagining the signs.  Maybe the doctors were right after all.  Pushing down fear with spoonfuls of soup at the deli next door to the LTAC, we steeled ourselves for another visit.  Another letdown.

When I stepped into his room, something felt different.  The air buzzed, expectant.  He turned his head toward us and purposefully whispered, “Hi.”  Then he smiled with what looked like pride and, in an instant, everything changed.

Later that day, one of his nurses told us that he had started speaking the night before.  He’d been practicing, struggling to break out of his bodily freeze so that he could communicate with us.  And now that he was free and we could prove he was “in there,” the doctors stepped up his various therapy sessions.  Day by day, he came back to life.

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IMG_8284That November we received nothing short of a miracle.  And so I keep the picture of them — Dad, Mom, and sweet little Saya — as the background on my computer at work.  It’s not how I want to remember him: my father, who chafed at the idea of doctors and hospitals, tied up in tubes and institutional linens.  But I need to remember him this way.  I need to remember the miracle.

Remembering the miracle every single day is the only way to counter the furious despair that comes from watching a miracle get squandered.  Bent with rage at the systems — health insurance, veterans affairs, nursing home management — that doomed Dad to a slow and torturous death, the only thing that saves my soul is remembering the miracle that was, before it was ruined.

Because It WAS ruined.  Rather than continuing to pay for high-quality LTAC care, Tricare downgraded him and had him placed in a one-star nursing home.  ONE. STAR.  One star out of five.  And in that sub-par facility, where a small staff struggled to make do with long hours and meager resources, Dad went from sitting up, speaking and learning how to walk, to bed sores, sepsis and pneumonia — in the span of a month.

That one decision — a choice made because of an insurance company’s bottom line — was literally the difference between life and death.  Though he died in October of 2014, he was killed in December of 2013 when they moved him out of the LTAC.

Clearly, I’m angry.  I’m mad that they moved him before my sister, who lived out-of-state, could experience November’s miracle — she only got to see the decline that took place in the nursing home. I’m furious that, in retirement, my father was worth so little to the insurance company that serves veterans and active duty military families.  And I’m downright livid about the ordeal we went through and the indignities he suffered.

But I’m not just angry on behalf of my family.  The things we experienced don’t amount to an isolated incident in an otherwise healthy system.  Rather, they are indicative of a healthcare (and, especially, a health insurance) system that is rotten through.  I’m talking about a system in which analysts at a health insurance company get to decide what treatments are necessary, what drugs will be helpful, and, ultimately, whether someone lives or dies… a system in which profits are often more important than people.

And that’s just what happens if you have insurance.  If you don’t have insurance, then the stakes get even higher (and the costs increase exponentially).  Without insurance coverage and the reduced rates that an insurance company negotiates with healthcare providers, Dad’s first two months in the hospital would have cost close to half a million dollars, which means that a family who could not afford insurance would never have had the opportunity to experience a miracle in the first place.

—————————–

Obviously, there is more to the system than this.  The nuances of insurance are manifold and confusing for doctors as well as patients.  There are ethical questions about how much should be done to prolong a life, who should make those decisions, and how families should be involved in the process.  And there are a great many doctors, nurses, chaplains, administrators and other healthcare professionals who care deeply about their fellow human beings and do their best to work for health and wholeness.

But, as is sometimes the case, the larger system takes on a life of its own.  In the process, people are literally dying — especially folks who live in poverty and must rely upon emergency rooms and urgent care centers for all of their healthcare.

In the midst of these realities, when I look at the picture of Dad smiling down at his new relative, I remember that:

  • We can do better.
  • We MUST do better.
  • Miracles are possible.

Because I believe these things are true, I feel compelled to speak out and work for a better system and a better way.  If Dad taught me anything, it was to risk doing/saying the difficult right thing instead of remaining silent.  As a pastor rather than a healthcare professional, I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to help… but since when was that a good reason not to try?

Bad Wine and Grief

June 11, 2015

mg_1665This week I’ve been in Sedona, Arizona on a mini retreat with a group of clergy gals who have become a covenant group of sorts. We get together each month via video chat to check in with one another, and a couple times each year we get together in person at various locations around the country. It’s a life-giving arrangement.

Most all of our in-person gatherings center on locales that, while geographically diverse, share a crucial quality: they have wine. Good wine. By day we visit wineries for tasting flights, and our evenings are spent in conversation on breezy patios and porches with glasses of tasty reds and whites (though never Chardonnay).

For all the good wine and good conversation, there are also the tough spots. Sacred vulnerability opens doorways into painful stories and difficult questions — and sometimes we stumble upon bad wine.

Tuesday was one of those days. One tasting room in particular was filled with bad wines — wines that tasted of prune juice, that clung to the tongue in a thick coating of sickly sweet residue, tainting the next winery’s offerings with lingering aftertaste. And, along with that spectacularly awful wine, there was the grief.

I’d never been to Sedona prior to this trip, but my parents had.  They traveled here with my sister and her boyfriend a few years ago, back before Dad went into the hospital.  Back before everything changed.

Since Dad died, I’ve seen him around from time to time.  He’s shown up on the deck at the house in Neosho, looking out at the yard for a moment before disappearing.  He’s been there on the golf course, shaking his head at someone’s unfortunate slice, and he’s been in the living room at Grandma’s house, hunched over on the couch watching tv while a mess of children blow through the house.

For the most part, seeing him in those places hasn’t fazed me much.  They are places he always was, so it feels almost normal to catch glimpses of him there.  But this week, in Sedona, I’ve seen him everywhere — and it’s been brutal.

Maybe it has something to do with the desert.  The landscape of Arizona feels so much like El Paso, so perhaps I should have expected to be bombarded with memory here.  Maybe it is because of the trip they took here, and all the pictures that came out of that vacation.  Maybe it’s because of the flood of email advertisements in my inbox with subject lines declaring, “Your dad called — here’s what he wants for Father’s Day.” Whatever the reason, on Tuesday he was nearby all day long.  He walked a few tourists ahead as we climbed up to the Chapel on the Rocks, calves and arms as bronze as the surrounding rock formations.  He sat in the restaurant, a few tables over, as we ate dinner.  No matter where I turned, he was there.

Seeing him like that, ever present in a place I’ve never shared with him, ripped the lid off my grief. And so, like that terrible wine, it’s been there at the back of my throat, clinging and cloying.  Unrelenting, it changes the flavor of everything. Perfect sunsets, time spent with soul friends, hours of sleep that should be filled with peace: all carry the flavor of grief.

There’s nothing to be done except to feel it.  Perhaps time, like water or the scent of coffee beans, will cleanse my palate so that one day I can taste something else.  But for now, this is my truth: I miss him, and instead of getting better it has gotten worse.

Good friends won’t make this grief go away, but I know they are here with me in the midst of this, supporting me so I don’t break under the weight of missing him.  And, though they can’t protect me from the pain of loss, they do their best to make sure I don’t drink bad wine.  Sometimes that’s enough.

Soul Friends

May 23, 2015

***This is a throwback, a blog post from 2011 that I rediscovered today.  I (re)share it because the last couple of years have proven it’s truth: friendship is a spiritual discipline with the power to keep us afloat in all times, but especially the tough times.  Thank God for good friends!***

Friendship as Spiritual Discipline (4/8/2011)

Gathering Voices Post by Lara Blackwood Pickrel

As I type these words, I’m sitting in a Catholic retreat center in Saint Louis with two dear friends/colleagues.  The official purpose of this meeting of the minds is a writing retreat (we’re chewing on something that has the potential to be pretty exciting!).  Computers are out, keys clicking a symphony of ideas – and we really are getting some serious work done.

Yet, in many ways, the real work is happening aside from the writing.  We laugh.  We feast. We pad around in bare feet for late-night conversation.  Words ebb and flow, dancing from silly to vulnerable and back again.  We dream out loud.  Exhausted, we sleep hard so we can get up and do it all again.  This is the labor of soul friends.

Friends have always been important to me, and at the same time, friendship has often been difficult.  As an “army brat”, moving from place to place, I learned early on that friendships can swiftly evolve or end and take lots of work to maintain – especially over geographical distance.  Often, it was easier to just move on.

As a minister, I’ve moved with the same sort of frequent irregularity that is becoming more and more characteristic of young adults across the board.  Consequently, I have sometimes found myself living in a new place, isolated except for the rich tapestry of friendships that exist beyond my physical locale.  But I haven’t always reached for the tapestry.  Hiding behind my “introvert badge”, I’ve instead savored my isolation, even wallowed in it – only to discover somewhere down the road that (go figure!) my spirit was literally starving.

I’m beginning to understand that friendships aren’t “just” friendships.  Friendships (and the work of cultivating them) are a form of spiritual discipline, just like prayer or scripture reading or mindful eating.  When I don’t pray, my spirit suffers.  When I don’t spend time reading the Word, my spirit/mind become impoverished.  When I don’t eat mindfully, my spirit/body become stressed and broken.  And when I don’t practice the art of friendship, my spirit begins to turn in on itself.

It turns out that I’m not alone in this.  The friends who journey alongside me need this too.  It is part of the human mold, this yearning to be connected in meaningful relationship.  So now, we carve out time.  One small group of soul friends meets every fall, another meets for both business and relationship twice a year, and this trio will meet each spring.  We stay in conversation via social media throughout the year, but we also need this time set apart to laugh and cry and dream “in the flesh”.

While, to a casual observer, there’s nothing about these gatherings that screams “work”, this is holy work all the same.  It is part of our vocation (not just as ministers, but as Christians) to be the best friends we can be…and that requires practice!

Speaking of which, my friends are waiting and it’s time to get back to work…

  • Who are your soul-friends (friends who walk with you on your journey through life)?  
  • How can the Church help us to cultivate deeper, life-enriching friendships?  
  • What other seemingly-mundane activities could actually be spiritual disciplines?

Just a Symbol? — A Reflection on the Relocation of GA 2017

April 1, 2015

During the lead up to Indiana’s Gov. Pence signing SEA 101 (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — RFRA), some of the national leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) sent a letter to the governor that implored him to veto the bill. (See full text of that letter here – scroll to bottom of page for the original letter) In that letter, Sharon Watkins, Julia Brown Karimu and Ronald Degges expressed their belief that though “religious freedom” is used in the title and language of the bill, the heart of the bill is really about the freedom to discriminate against people who believe, live and love differently than any given business owner in the state of Indiana. They then went on to explain that the potential effects of the bill go against both the values of our democracy and the values of Jesus, who “sat at table with people from all walks of life, and loved them all.” The letter ended with a statement indicating that if RFRA was signed into law, the CC(DOC) might choose to move their 2017 General Assembly (slated for Indianapolis) to a different location.

As we know, the following day Gov. Pence signed SEA 101 into law. A media storm ensued, punctuated by a number of businesses and organizations that began pulling their conferences out of the state or publicly denouncing the RFRA. In the midst of that storm, Disciples leaders began working on how to follow through with the statement they had made. Should they move the General Assembly? If so, then to what new location? Research began in earnest to see which other states have laws similar to Indiana’s RFRA, so as not to jump from the frying pan into the fire (or another frying pan, at the very least). Ultimately, the General Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came together for a special meeting — during Holy Week! — and made the official decision to seek a new location for GA 2017. (You can read the official announcement here)

Already the talk has begun among Disciples on social media. Some see this move as a victory — a moment when our Church has taken a public stand both for people who are routinely forced to the margins of society and for the values we have affirmed and claimed at past General Assemblies. Some don’t think the move goes far enough — how can pulling a small to medium sized conference that won’t happen until 2017 actually affect anything? Others agree with the idea, but believe the method is wrong — wouldn’t it be better to flood the state with events and organizations that welcome all people? Still others see the move as divisive — a moment when “all means all” does not apply to our more theologically conservative brothers and sisters.

For the sake of full disclosure, I land squarely among those who are proud of this decision and I am thankful that our leaders have been bold enough to publicly articulate a lesser-known kind of Christian witness in a time when Christian belief is perceived as tantamount to bigotry. That being said, I’m not surprised that some Disciples are troubled by this action. As a denomination, we’ve frequently struggled with the tension that exists between a desire to be prophetic and a desire to honor and cultivate Christian unity, and this is a moment where we stand in the middle of the weave, wondering whether warp and woof of the fabric will hold.

Here’s what does surprise me. In various comment threads, I’ve heard a sentiment that goes something like this: the decision to pull GA 2017 from Indiana doesn’t mean or accomplish anything — it is only a symbolic gesture.

 

Only symbolic. Only a symbol. Huh.

On the one hand, yes. Moving GA 2017 to a state that does not have such a law in place is a symbolic gesture. It makes a statement, but doesn’t force change in Indiana.

But on the other hand, is it only a symbol? No. Hell no. As Christians, we are a symbol-driven people. Every Sunday when we gather around a table set with bread and cup, every time we gaze at a cross or stained glass window with reverence, every time we look at our gathered congregations and see the body of Christ, we live in the power of symbols.

Symbols are vehicles for truth. They communicate things of value in ways that go deeper than words.

This action made by our General Board communicates a truth — several truths, really:

  • There are Christians who, because of their faith and their study of the bible, believe passionately that because God loves all people we are called to live lives and build societies that reflect that radical love.
  • The people who are most negatively affected by the RFRA are, in fact, people. They are beloved by God and we are called by Christ to treat them as such. That call is non-negotiable.
  • Discrimination couched as religious freedom is still discrimination, and discrimination should never be legal.
  • Using the language of religious freedom to legalize discrimination is an insult to religious groups of all kinds.
  • While we aren’t perfect, and while there is no perfect place to hold GA 2017 (because discrimination, bigotry and hatred take place in every corner of the world), we can still use the power that we have to make a better choice than staying in a place that legally permits discrimination.

Some of these messages are communicated less clearly than others, to be sure. But to say it is only a symbol is to dismiss not just the hard work and prayer of every General Board member, but also to dismiss the power of symbol in our faith and in our life.

The other thing about symbols is this: powerful symbols might not change the circumstances and injustice that we face, but they do change us. An open communion table changes the way we view hospitality and grace, and asks us to offer those gifts differently. The vision of Christian community as the body of Christ changes the way that we see and value the people who sit next to us during worship, and asks us to love and work with those people differently.  Symbols ask us to change in response to the truth(s) they convey.

As a symbol, the decision to move GA 2017 out of Indiana might not change the circumstances on the ground in that state, but it does force us to change. We now have to do the hard work of finding a new place, researching other state laws, and communicating the hows and whys of the decision. We have to talk about how the One we follow and the faith we affirm do or do not (and will or will not) shape the practical decisions of our life together. We’re forced into a new place and a perhaps a new way of being.

So is it a symbolic gesture?  Yes.  But is it “just” a symbol?  No.

 

A symbol is never just a symbol.

Little Things

August 19, 2014

When I reached the bathroom at Target, I was in rush.  Book club was in less than three hours, the dogs needed to be let out, and I still needed to finish the stinkin’ book.  All I could afford was a quick potty break and then a dash towards the baked goods so I could grab dessert for the meeting — in, out, and on the run!  In other words, it was a Sunday afternoon.

But when I walked in, something caught my attention.  Across the mirrors above the sinks was a line of bright neon green post it notes, their color demanding notice.  Written neatly on each note was the same message:  “Has anyone told you today that you are beautiful?”

Before I could think, a sigh escaped my lips, followed by a smile.  No.  No one had told me.

Catching motion to my right, I realized I wasn’t alone.  A young girl, maybe nine or ten years old, stood on tiptoes to see the post it on her mirror.  Slowly, mouthing each word, she read the message and flushed a deep red that matched her hair.  Then she looked at me, smiled broadly, and skipped out of the restroom, nearly knocking over the Target employee who pushed past the door.

The employee, clearly unhappy with bathroom duty, stalked into the restroom, scanning floors for trash.  When she looked up and saw the post its, her eyes widened and then narrowed, and she began to mutter about people messing things up and giving her extra work.  Then she saw the message and stopped in her tracks.

“Wow,” she whispered.  image

“I know, right? It’s really something,” I responded.

She looked in the mirror and straightened up, a smile tugging at her mouth.

“Yes.  It sure is.”

Apparently, no one had told her either.

—-

Some days it’s the little things that make all the difference in the world.

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