Monday, March 31, 2014

Accepting the Award for Vision/ Women of Achievement 2014

This is what I know… To be a person with vision, to be able to see what could be, out there, we have to first be able to see what is, right here within us. We have to discover the beauty in our own story. Seeing that, we come to see what the world needs and what we have to give it. 

I came to Memphis in June of 1994, broken and looking for healing. Lost and longing for a place to belong. My daughter, Jennifer, was with me. And I didn’t want her to get the idea that life is just hard and bitter. I wanted her to know joy as well as challenge.

I found a community of smart, creative and faithful people at First Congregational Church. They noticed me. What a gift to be noticed. Cheryl Cornish invited me to do the Children’s Time in worship, to tell stories. People listened to my stories. And I discovered the beauty of my imagination, the power of my own voice, the absolute joy of creating and telling stories.

Storytelling led me to my theater family, Voices of the South. I wanted to tell more and longer stories on stage. My Voices family has supported me and given me the resources, space and talent I need to do effective performance art.

And my wonderful partner, Anna, sets the stage of my life by always believing that I am capable and then stepping up to help me be capable doing all the things I imagine myself doing. If I am a woman of vision, it’s because Anna made it possible. 

Don’t let anybody talk badly about Memphis around me. I came here and love noticed me, healed me and gave me a place to belong, a way to thrive and shine. 

You’ve heard it said: “Hurt people hurt people,” meaning those people who are hurt turn around and hurt others. But I want to point out to you that healed people heal people. We look back and see that the hurting and the healing have made us who we are today, people who are able to see what the needs are and how to meet them.

I urge you to leave this place and continue doing what you do best: Be good to your neighbors. Look at each other, lean in and listen to each other. Let folks know they are noticed; their story matters. Healing will occur. Everybody’s child will learn that life can be challenging but it can also be full of joy. Memphis can become a safe place for all of us to call home.  

Thank you!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Belonging to Love

Psalm 121
John 3:1-17
Buntyn Presbyterian Church
March 16, 2014

We belong to love. Love created us, set us on the face of the earth to breathe, to move and to become the people we are called to be. Love knows us and love claims us. Love sets us free to question, explore, grow and learn how to love and to be loved. Love allows us to be the light of the world.

Early on in my life I got the idea that love has to be earned. I understood love as something that could easily be broken into bits, lost forever. It was something fragile. At a very young age I was sexually abused and my abuser said, “If you tell your mama and daddy, they won’t love you anymore.”

I remember one day after that when I was maybe five years old and exercising my creative urges. I took a box of crayons and decorated the front steps. Big sweeps of color, circles and figure eights. Dark clouds, storms of color. 

My mother was not impressed and she was not happy at all. She told me to get a bucket of water, detergent and a sponge. “You clean this off before your father comes home!” I scrubbed. She came to check on me several times, huffing with her hands on her hips.

My father came home and the colors, though smeared, were not gone. I was spanked and sent to my room. I remember my mother leaving my bedroom, “Now you stay in here and think about what you’ve done!” I wasn’t thinking about what I had done. I was thinking about holding on to love. “Mama, do you still love me?”

She leaned her head to one side, hesitating. “I’m not sure. Right now, I’m just furious with you.” With that she closed the door and walked away. I learned that love is fragile and mistakes, messes, could cost everything! I grew anxious about that, desperate to stay in the light of love.

Maybe somewhere along the way you were taught that love is not permanent. Love is not for everybody all the time. Love only belongs to the popular, the pretty, the wealthy, people over there. Love belongs to those who do not have accidents or make mistakes. Love is rare and hard to find, harder still to keep.

What do we know about love? Really?  Even those of us who are raised in pleasant and protected homes are hungry to be fed, anxious to find meaning for the living of our lives and dodging pain as often as possible. What could we possibly know about perfect love in our limited understanding?

We spend our lives trying to outgrow the notions about love we absorbed when we were too young and too vulnerable to ask many questions. And all too often our religious training confirms our worst fears for us-- that some among us are loved and others among us are not. 

I visit a friend at Jail East. I’m going to call her Crystal although that is not her real name. She’s been in jail since June and her case remains pending. I was asked to visit Crystal by somebody who knew she needed a friend. I never met Crystal in the free world. Our conversations have all taken place with a plate of glass between us, our voices transmitted by a telephone line. 

Crystal was born and raised in Arkansas. She was raised in poverty, surrounded by addiction and violence. Her mother died when Crystal was only thirteen. Her grandmother died when she was fourteen. Once the older women in her home were gone, Crystal was abused by the men, uncles and cousins, in her family.  She dropped out of school in the eighth grade. I asked what made her quit school and she said, “Too much moving around. We didn’t stay anywhere long enough for me to stay in school.” Crystal has five children of her own. The oldest one is thirteen, and they are waiting for their mom to get out of jail.  

I was thinking about this scripture text as I visited Crystal this week. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  I was thinking about Crystal and wondering what she might think about love. I wondered how she keeps her spirit from perishing with all the darkness she has known. 

“How would you describe love?” I asked her.

“It’s something you can’t really describe,” she said. “It’s a feeling.”

“And what does it feel like? How do you recognize love when you feel it?”

“It feels good, warm, close…”

“Who shares that feeling with you, Crystal?”

And she immediately lifted her chin, her face bright. “My children. Yep. My children.” She nodded happily, clearly seeing their faces in her mind’s eye as she smiled. There it was: the light of love. In spite of all the darkness in her life, Crystal harbors and cherishes love’s light. It comes to her through her relationship with her children.

Every person needs to know and cherish love, love that lasts forever. We come to church because we long to be reminded that we are loved. We want our church to be a place where that love is secure, unshakeable. We worship together regularly to have the light of God’s eternal love rekindled in our souls and in our community of faith.

Nicodemus went to Jesus at night. It was dark and the Pharisee hoped he wouldn’t be seen approaching Jesus with questions. He was a Pharisee, a leader in his community, and yet he needed something more, some answers, some reassurance, some love.

He came to Jesus in the darkness of night, asking questions and hoping that Jesus would shed light on matters of life and death. Nicodemus hoped that Jesus would give him something more than what his education, his training and his leadership position had given him. 

“Mama, do you still love me?”

We want a love that does not hesitate. We need love we can depend upon when we make a mess of the front steps, when we make a mess of our lives. Because life is so uncertain, we require a love that stays warm and close when we know very well we don’t deserve it.

That is why God gave Jesus to us, so we could see what love looks like when love walks here on earth. So we could see that even this imperfect place can be a home for perfect love among us.

“It’s something you can’t really describe,” Crystal said. “It’s a feeling.”

“And what does it feel like? How do you recognize love when you feel it?”

“It feels good, warm, close…”

“Who shares that feeling with you, Crystal?”

“My children. Yep. My children.”

Out of the darkness comes light. 

God created us like children for the family of God. There are so many of us and yet every single one of us has been given the gift of love. God gave us love and God planted within us the capacity to turn around and love God in response to all the love and light we’re given.

Eternal love is not something we experience after death. It’s what God gave us when Jesus was born, a light that keeps away the darkness. A light that reassures us here and now—we are loved, just as we are. 

God gave…we receive. And that’s the challenge for us. It was the challenge for Nicodemus too. Simply receive what has been offered to you.  Believe that love belongs to you and you belong to love. It's a healing experience. It saves us.