heart rocks

A little preface: From time to time, I deliver the children's sermon at our church - no big deal, other people do as well but I think it is a nice thing to recognize that the Spirit doesn't speak only through one designated person. I'm not the greatest at public speaking so while I appreciate the chance to share my thoughts, there's always the racing heartbeat and the fumbling with the sound system to contend with. There's also those days leading up to Sunday, the trying to shoehorn my thoughts into the planned service or make my words match the liturgy. I do like matching, and I do like things well-planned out but the best sermons are usually those that leave some room for serendipity. Whether I stop trying so hard to match the theme of the week or when I don't cling so hard to whatever plan is rolling around in my brain, usually that's when something magic happens.

For this week, the theme of the service was planet earth and interconnectedness, but I went off on my tangent of rocks and geologic time. I've been thinking about it all week - first marbled some paper to make paper rocks, but then dumped out some bowls of rocks to find some to bring to the service. It was only on Friday night that I decided on not just any rocks but on heart-shaped rocks. So I go merrily along my way, only to find out after the fact that one of the matriarchs of the congregation, who died on July 22, collected... wait for it.... heart-shaped rocks. For real?! I love it.

Well, anyway, here's this morning's sermon:

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I couldn’t believe my luck when Pastor Sonja told me that the focus of our Creation Liturgy this week is Planet Earth. Because you know what I studied in college? EARTH Science. And I know that a lot of times we talk about Planet Earth and we think about the plants and flowers and trees, the wind, the air, the oceans, the birds and bugs and cats and dogs and all the living creatures. But honestly, when I think about the earth, I think about the rocks.

It’s a funny thing, I suppose, because rocks can bring a lot of difficulty into our lives. Like, have you ever been walking along and you get a little pebble stuck in your shoe? and you don’t really want to stop and take it out so you just try to shake your foot around to get it out but it is stuck there and you are trying to walk but it keeps poking your foot? 

Rocks are hard. cold. sharp. uncomfortable. unyielding.

People throw stones and it is not a nice thing.

But have you ever been walking along looking at rocks and found a rock like this? It really looks a lot like a heart to me. And it feels like a message of love that’s coming to me across time. Imagine all that had to take place or not take place in order to come to standing on a path with a heart-shaped rock at my feet.

Because when I pick up a rock, there’s so much that I think about. 

about little particles that coalesce into big solid rocks, 

and big solid rocks that tumble and rumble and turn into little particles, 

about hard edges that turn into round pebbles

about the way that little drops of water can wear away even the hardest stone

about the immensity of time that passes as lava cools underground, is lifted to the surface, and then breaks it down into just the right size of a stone to fit in the palm of your hand.

So much time. More than anything, rocks give me perspective on time. Rocks make me feel both really small and really special. When you go about your regular day, sometimes it can seem like time is going quickly and sometimes it seems like time is going slowly. But that is NOTHING compared to the amount of time that a rock sees. That is NOTHING compared to God’s time. In God’s time, we talk about the first day, the second day. But all that happens in one of God’s days? It clearly can’t be just 24 hours long.

This moment that we are in is just the tiniest smidgen of a moment in all of time, it’s really nothing to a rock or to God, and yet somehow this moment is ours. Here we are, out of all the possible paths and twists and turns, out of all the time that has passed since a rock first started out as molten lava or particles condensing in the ocean, out of all the time that has passed since the first day.

We are. You are. I am. What will we choose to do with our moment? 

So why don’t you join me in a prayer:

Dear God, as we walk along our path

help us watch for the rocks that are hard, sharp, smooth, sparkly

help our hard edges be worn down by water and time

help us to see the hearts that lie open at our feet

help us open our eyes to see the world in a grain of sand

help us remember the smallness of this moment in all of time

help us remember the preciousness of this moment in all of possibility

 

Amen.


Jesus' trick coin

I know I talked about this a month ago during the time for children and I promise I won’t only repeat myself, but I want to delve deeper into the idea that Jesus has a trick coin. I think we are all familiar with the idea of flipping a coin to answer a question. The question has to be kind of simple though, right? The answer is only going to be “heads” or “tails.” I think this appeals to many of us because it presents a simplified view of the world, that things can be broken down into only “yes” or “no”. No maybe or grey or sometimes or perhaps or if only.

Just one side. Or the other. 

I’ve created my own coin, we’ll call it the surprise coin. One side of the coin has an open eye, the other side has a closed eye. Only two possible answers.

Eyes closed: Surprise! You weren’t paying attention to what was around you, were you? You might as well have been asleep. Whatever comes along is unexpected, and there’s no way that you could have planned for it. It is probably so far out of the realm of possibility that you can’t even conceive of it.

Eyes open: you see what’s coming. You are not surprised, are you? Based on previous experience, you can make assumptions about what is going to happen next. You packed the sweater and the sandals. Your eyes take in all of your surroundings and learn from them. You are Ready.

And I have to admit, this is how I usually think of myself. Growing up, our mom planned out the meals for the whole week, so I know I come by it honestly. I spend a lot of time looking ahead, thinking about possible outcomes, watching and listening for cues that tell me what to say or do. I feel pleased with myself because I accomplish what I planned to do. It is common for Tuesday dinner conversations to center around what to eat on Thursday and Friday. 

I am Ready.

In fact, I am so ready, that I wouldn’t mind if this was my trick coin. There’s an open eye on both sides. Every time, no matter how it lands, the answer is eyes open. You see things clearly, you KNOW things. You are ready.

But this was the trick coin that Jesus was constantly pushing against. It is true of his time, it is certainly true of ours. We walk around knowing and we forget how much we don’t know. We walk around planning and thinking for the future, and we forget to be in the moment. We walk around with our eyes open, but our eyes are only open to that which we know and have experienced already. Sometimes with our eyes open this way, they can be shut to so much else. Sometimes when we are focused on what our eyes see, we forgot what our other senses are telling us.

Time and again, Jesus comes across people who are operating with this trick coin. Every time they flip it, they KNOW what the answer is going to be. Who knows the most, is it the grown-ups or the kids? Who has the best ideas? is it the men or the women?

Who can be most helpful? Someone we know who is a neighbor to us? or someone we don’t know who came from far away and we’re not really sure we ever liked them? Who is best? the people who have money and power? or the people who have nothing?

In a lot of cases, the answers were always the same: the men, the leaders, the people with power, the people we know, the people who look the way we look, the grown-ups.


Sound familiar? Painfully so, to my ear, but that just gives credence to the timelessness of Jesus’ message.

Because Jesus challenges us with a new trick coin. Jesus’ trick coin has eyes closed on both sides. I would argue that this new trick coin is at the core of the reason for Jesus here on this earth.

Jesus says: your eyes are closed to the possibility of everyone around you. Every single time I ask the question, you give me an answer that shows me that your eyes are closed to surprise. 

Flip this coin, Jesus invites, and no matter how many times you do, my answer is the same. 

Flip this coin, Jesus challenges, and you will think about answers in ways you never thought of before. 

Flip this coin, Jesus entreats, and I will show you all the ways that your eyes are closed to surprise.

Flip this coin, Jesus dares you , and you will not be satisfied with the answers that were simply visible.

Every single time. Every single question. Your eyes are closed. You cannot see everything.

What if you see the poor? the people you don’t know? the powerless? the women? the children? What if you saw the grace that is in sorrow and in pain?

Why do you close your eyes against these sights?

The disciples argue amongst themselves. Who is the best? It must be the one who knows the most or talks the most, right? Jesus calls over a little child.

Jesus flips the coin and the answer is Surprise.

A large crowd of people gathers, and you know some of them were wondering what they were going to eat for lunch, how impossible it would be for so many people to walk away fed. But there were loaves and fishes, there was abundance and generosity. There was the easing of hunger.

Jesus flips the coin and the answer is Surprise.

A man was traveling to Jericho when he was set upon by robbers. Who would help him? Would we extend our hands to help those we do not know, to those who might generally despise us?

Jesus flips the coin and the answer is Surprise.

And then of course there is Easter morning. The women go to Jesus' tomb. They already know what to expect. But our eyes may as well be closed because what we see we cannot believe. 

Jesus flips the coin and the answer is Surprise.

Now, honestly? I don’t like surprises. Or, I don’t think I like them. Who wants to walk around with their eyes closed? I like to think that I am prepared, that my eyes are open. I like to think that I’ve taken everything into careful consideration and thought of all the possibilities and all the responses to those possibilities.

I am as likely as anyone to look back 2 years, 10 years, or more, to ask myself how that history shows me what works best, what brought success.

I am just as likely to see a person through the lens of people who came before them, who maybe looked or acted similarly, to base my interaction on history rather than on present. It’s not laziness, really, but there is carelessness in the simplicity and ease of following established patterns.

And yet, my work as small business owner has shown me that there is grace in surprise and that even unpleasant surprise can have deep and heartfelt reverberations.

Honestly, one of the biggest challenges of being an introvert with my job is being on the sales floor 6 days a week, not knowing the people who come to me, what pain or sorrow they carry with them. Time and time again, I find out that where I thought my eyes were open, they were actually closed. 


One example can be found in our table filled with political buttons, a feature since the Governor first took office. The importance, to my mind, is the way it prods us to invite an opening of eyes and hearts, just as Jesus reminds us of the ways our eyes are closed and all things are unknown. The button table is our connection to connect with each other.

I am well aware of at least some of the people who are displeased by our politics. They don’t usually yell at me or storm out, but there’s a certain undertone of distaste that I can often pick up on, a glare shot my way, an under-the-breath comment about the lack of All Lives Matter buttons. So, it is tempting to divide the world into people with buttons and people without. To declare that my eyes are open to people’s motivations and lives, that I see them, and know them, based simply on the presence or purchase of buttons. Hmm. that sounds dangerously close to the Star-Bellied Sneetches, doesn’t it? That story from Dr. Seuss which ended up with those poor Sneetches being completely fleeced by the con artist who persuaded them there was value in separating themselves by stars-on and stars-off.

It is true that when someone walks through the door wearing some of our buttons I do relax my guard a bit. Rarely are we in 100% agreement with each other though - like the people who buy buttons but drip coffee on paper goods. Or the people who agree with me about civil rights but unfold all the t-shirts. And then there are people who might not agree with me about the Governor but we find common ground in our love of this state, or maybe it is just that we both like stickers of cats dressed up as food. Sometimes the surprises and the connections are the smallest of things, but isn’t Jesus prodding us to explore that which our eyes were previously closed to?

What if where we think we see anger, we open our eyes to sorrow and pain? What if where we think we see bad manners, we open our eyes to the multitude of demands on our attention and  the ways we can’t always keep up? What if realizing the ways our eyes are closed helps us to open them?

Jesus flips the coin and the answer is Surprise.

Our store recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and I have spent a lot of time looking back to 2008. I had a customer come up to me once and tell me: I can’t believe I am wishing for Tommy Thompson days. Whoever saw that coming?

I can honestly say that I couldn’t have predicted that I would be at this exact place in my life. My path has had some unexpected twists. The world has taken some unexpected twists. It’s inevitable, right? Don’t we all have Tommy Thompson days that have some element we find ourselves wishing for? Think back to who and where you were 10 years ago. Is everything exactly the same? Have there been any surprises? Of course there have been. Some of the surprises have been bad, heartbreaking, yet even those have brought unexpected moments of grace to life. Joy AND sorrow have opened your eyes in ways you couldn’t expect.

Even if you could, would you give away surprise and unexpected connections in exchange for certainty? Would it have been somehow better if you had known all the events in advance, prepared for every one? Is there nothing that would have been lost in the absence of surprise, if your eyes had been open to everything? It turns out, I am not so averse to surprise as I thought.

Jesus invites us to the awareness that we cannot know all the answers, conquer all the surprises. He scolds us with our preoccupation with power and wealth and shows us that these measurements are meaningless in the realm of God, that it is the least among us who have the most. He reminds us that our eyes are closed in so many ways but invites us to open them to the magic and mystery of the world. 

Jesus flips the coin, and the answer is surprise. Amen.


a shopgirl stuck in Genesis

Last night I was at our church, the Madison Christian Community, to present a talk for the Women's Salad Supper (which, by the way, was delicious). This is an annual event that showcases the amazing women of the congregations, and that's just the audience. This year, the focus was on women entrepreneurs and I was asked to give a presentation. As per tradition, the speaker gets to choose the recipients of the free will offering and (as per Anthology tradition), I selected two local non profits focusing on youth arts in our community: the Teen Bubbler program at the Madison Public Library and the Clare Aubrey Roberts Scholarship Fund at the Monroe Street Fine Arts Center.

Anyway, here it is:

Everything starts with Genesis. And, to be honest, it doesn’t go much further than that, despite the best efforts of Dan Schmiechen and Andrew Rogness and countless Sunday School teachers here at MCC. The idea of people created in the image of a creating God is central to my idea of why we are here and what we are called to do. We are called to be creators.

Creativity is so fundamental to my sense of self that I honestly hadn’t given it much thought until my late 20s. It is just something you do (or, rather, something you make). It isn’t necessarily a job. Running next to, and not especially overlapping, was my career in retail.

My work in retail began right out of college in the handbag department at Boston Store. Later there was Itchin’ to Stitch, a quilt store in Sun Prairie. But the biggest step on this journey came when I saw an ad for an assistant manager job at Little Luxuries, just as I was finishing my master’s thesis. It had always been one of our favorite shops and I decided to apply. I honestly think that working in retail, owning your own store, is an easily-visualized career. I’m pretty sure that my sister and I weren’t the only little kids who had that little cardboard cut-out grocery store that we often played with. So in some ways, I was just returning to a career we had been practicing since childhood. 

What started as working for a small independent business quickly turned into a desire to own it. My sister joined me as co-manager, and I began to envision our career as store owners. I was 32. At the time, I imagined our boss close to retirement, choosing to pass the mantle of gift shop ownership on to us. It was presumptuous, certainly, but that was the path I thought I was on.

Through this time, however, there was building in me a desire to incorporate more of my own creative work into my career, but also a sense that too many people were dismissing the creative aspects of their own life. “Oh, I’m not creative,” is something I hear all the time. Stuck in Genesis as I am, you can see why it might drive one crazy to hear that from children made in the image of a creating God. To have time to create is a critical part of my well-being. 

I imagine likewise for all people, as children of a Creator God. Whether we garden, paint, sing, connect people, build places, we are acting in God’s likeness. In our own little ways, we create the stars and the seas, we create light where once there was nothing.

Little Luxuries already had its vision, created by the owner. Our specific areas of interest and expertise didn’t particularly mesh with that vision. My creative life was still mostly separate from my professional life. Then came 2007. Our boss started talking about restructuring the business and our jobs, in no way towards the creative element that I so wanted. I started to feel like the goal of owning the shop was getting further out of reach, started questioning all the time I had spent on the path, even questioning my own worth and ability. I started to feel that there was no place for me in this place that I considered mine. I was stuck for a long time in my expectation that I would be store owner of that place. Since the option seemed to be closing to me, I felt closed off from my own possibility.  

A friend later shared with me a cartoon that she shares with her business classes. In the first frame, a terrified skier is looking down a steep hill. But then the picture pans out and there is a bear charging from behind. She tells her students: this is what becoming a business owner is like, at some point, it is more terrifying to stay in place than it is to go forward.

Well, I spent most of 2007 stuck on the top of a hill with a terrified face. I can see why having faith is such a big test. During that time, I can’t really say that I had faith in the process. I am thankful that I had people around me who had faith in ME, who saw value in me even when I felt devalued.  It is only in hindsight that I can say those difficulties were setting the stage; that I had to go through that time in order for any other risk to seem small compared to the risk of staying where I was. But in the middle of that, there was a lot of crying and a lot of second-guessing, wondering if years had been wasted and what I was actually going to do with the rest of my life.

And then there was light. Specifically, around 6 am the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 2007. I woke up with such a clear vision: My sister and I would open a store! It sounds like should have been a foregone conclusion given how much I had talked about owning our own store. 

Perhaps there is no way for me to adequately convey how deeply I had connected being a shop owner to being at that specific shop, and how I had almost given up on being a shop owner simply because that particular path was closing to me. At that time, I found the passage from one of my favorite authors, Brian Andreas:

"I don't know how long I can do this, he said. I think the universe has different plans for me & we sat there in silence & I thought to myself that this is the thing we all come to & this is the thing we all fight & if we are lucky enough to lose, our lives become beautiful with mystery again & I sat there silent because that is not something that can be said.”

This passage resonated with me because I felt like most of the year had been a battle with trying to keep myself at my job and when I gave up on that idea, suddenly a whole new path opened up to me. It was suddenly less terrifying to ski down the hill than to stay in place. 

And that’s just the beginning. We opened Anthology in March of 2008.

Life might have been beautiful with mystery but it was also really stressful and filled with long hours, hard work, low pay and a tremendous sense of risk.  Both of our parents worked for the UW and we didn’t have a lot of experience with small business ownership. I remember a friend of mine told me that it was going to be a LOT of work and in my mind I kind of blew him off: “maybe it is for some people….” But, yes, it is a LOT of work. We wondered if we would be able to even reach minimum wage for the hours we were working. I cried over the phone to the IRS, and I cried in the car when I had an unexpected $25 co-pay for a doctor’s visit. I contemplated getting a second job stocking shelves at the grocery store at night. Yet I also felt that I had no time or energy to spare since it was all dedicated to Anthology.

However I came to see that the flip side of that risk is tremendous reward. I felt everything so much more deeply - the risk and failure, but also the success. Even though there was stress and worry, there was a feeling of giddiness, of joy, that our time and energy was being welcomed by other people. Every single day, someone comes into the store, compliments us and thanks us for our work, whether by their words or their deeds. Something even as simple as buying a postcard is fraught with gratitude. Yes, it was scary, and not just because of the money. So much time and energy was going into it, it was hard not to take rejection of the store and its goods as rejection of myself.

I am thankful for the advice of a college professor. His advice was geared towards us as women in the male-dominated field of geology, but it holds across fields. He told us to start a "warm fuzzy file," into which we would put letters of recommendation, awards, other compliments. Then, when we were doubting our ability or our direction, as would inevitably happen, we could open the file and affirm our path and our selves. At Anthology, this takes the form of a little notebook into which I record overheard and compliments about the store. Whenever I'm feeling unappreciated or that my effort is coming to naught, I only have to open this little book and I can see all the ways that I have had effect in the world. I cannot recommend this approach enough.

Of course, I know that I won’t please everyone; I don’t expect everyone to buy something or even “get” what it is our store is about.  At the same time, by putting so much of myself into our shop, when people DO respond positively, it acts as an affirmation of my work and of my very self. This acceptance of self brings a deep sense of satisfaction and joy, and it comes only by taking the risk of sharing my true self with others.

On a side note, I don’t know how familiar you are with the Myers-Briggs tests, but one of the qualities is a scale from extrovert to introvert. I am about as far over into introvert as one can possibly be. So, yes, there is something in me that would be very happy to just sit at home in my cozy little studio in my flannel pajamas. It takes a lot of energy for me to be on the sales floor six days a week, to be nice to so many people I don’t know. Yet I am fueled by the overwhelmingly positive reaction, to the business, and, by extension, to ourselves.

And so the first few years of store ownership passed. My sister and I settled into our strengths, which truly complement each other. People often tell me that there’s no way they could ever work with their sister and I won’t claim to have the secret to eternal sisterly bliss - we definitely have our old baggage that might not make the best partnership. Perhaps this is just my bias as the bossy older sister, but I think that our strengths fill in really well for the other’s weaknesses. When one of us is feeling nervous about finances, the other is usually feeling confident. My sister delivers excellent customer service; my excellence lies more in accounting software. She does the hiring and training; I do scheduling and payroll; we split the ordering pretty evenly, though I do all the budgeting. I think that stores can distinguish themselves most readily if customers are allowed to hear the creating voice of the owner, and I think it is to our advantage that we have two voices setting the tone.

We certainly weren’t done learning and growing. There was a lot of work to be done in terms of balancing work with the rest of life, but I had strengthened my faith and trust in process and in the rewards that accompany risk. I am so grateful for the tremendous support of our customers and the Madison community. Our business was continuing to grow and I could see the path ahead for us, selling note cards and wrapping paper and locally made crafts. We made buttons for Obama’s first campaign but mostly considered ourselves an apolitical paper and craft shop.

Which brings me to 2011. mid February to be precise. 

It’s a funny thing - the world of the small business owner seems so independent, almost American cowboy-ish in its mythology. There’s that notion that you are taking tremendous risks and going out on your own, making your own way without the support of a larger system of a corporation or a department. Yet one of the biggest things that being a small business owner has taught me is our utter dependence upon each other. I could work every hour of every day, and that work will come to nothing if not for the work of my sister beside me, if not for the many artists, if not for our customers. That starts a cascade of dependence, upon employers, employees, family, students, delivery guys, artists, taxpayers. There’s no end to it, of course. That’s the point.

So when the Governor first introduced his budget, my objections were on behalf of those we depend upon. The budget went against what I see as the role of government, it went against how I think Jesus wants us to be at work in the world. Before we owned our own business, I took politicians at their word when they told me what small businesses wanted. Yet this obsession with taxes is completely at odds with my own experience. I don’t want lower taxes - I want all the things that taxes pay for. Our well being depends completely on that of our customers, and this budget didn’t seem helpful at all. So, yes, we were feeling mad and scared, unheard and upset.

It’s weird though, because there’s this idea of neutrality in the business world. That because you would take money from everyone, you have to represent everyone’s views, or at least stay neutral to them. I find that disingenuous. We only have to dig a little bit into trade organization lobbying and super PAC donations to see that business is far from neutral. Certainly the way politicians portray business needs is not neutral. I was disinclined to let others speak on our behalf. Add to that the existing lessons about risk and reward, and we were not poised to stay silent.

It did feel like we were breaking some unwritten business rule, but it also felt that there was no other option than to stand in solidarity with teachers, with public schools, with state workers, with state parks and public resources. First the UW Students marched to the Governor’s office to deliver love letters in support of programs he would underfund. Then the rest of the protestors arrived. So we wrote on our sandwich board and hung signs in our windows, we went to the protests, we watched as people streamed by our shop on their way to the Capitol. We felt that it was important for us to participate and to be witness, but we didn’t really expect this to be a money-making moment. 

On Thursday of the budget week, a regular customer came in and said: “where are your buttons?” On Friday, an old school friend and union member commented: “You must be selling buttons like crazy! Union people love buttons!” I told her that we were still on the fence because even though we felt strongly about the issues, we weren’t sure if it was opportunistic to make buttons. She said: “Make those buttons, girl!” Since that week in February, we have sold over 60,000 buttons. Our Dad regularly tells us that we should send a thank-you note to the Governor. Instead we send proceeds from our button sales to the public school foundation and the many other programs who funding he has diminished.

There were plenty of times that I felt overwhelmed with anger and frustration, times when I worried about how our shop would grow when paychecks were shrinking, times when I feared for our state. It did feel like we were taking a huge risk to speak out as business owners. Many other businesses were quiet. It is to the credit of our upbringing in the Madison Christian Community that we were not. In hindsight, taking such a stand in the liberal hotbed of Madison wasn’t that much of a risk but it felt like it at the time. 

I remember once there was a man lingering outside our store for a really long time. I started to wonder and worry, was he going to get a bunch of friends to block the door because he disagreed with us, would he try to smash the window or come in and yell at me? I am not immune to flights of fancy that take up way too much energy preparing for things that never materialize. But I try to refocus my mind. There are buttons to be made, after all. There is comfort and action to be found in the work of creation. Ultimately what I object to in others was the way they allow fear and anger and pain to set the tone for their lives. That is not the life I want to live. These are not the offerings that God asks of us.

There is a wonderful piece of text from Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves. I recommend looking up the whole thing, but in one part, she writes:

"There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate."

Yes, it is a constant challenge not to pull out a chair for sorrow and anger, to instead embrace the fear that comes from risk, knowing that it will be overcome by reward, that there is connection that I cannot allow anger to sever. I believe God wants us to take risks, to be daring in our expressions of love and creation. And if you are stuck like I am in Genesis, you know that there’s only one way through anything, and that is creation. Can you find a way to make an offering of your joy and love and creativity? Can you turn your anger and pain and fear and sorrow to creation? Oddly enough, making buttons began a new phase of my offering.

I am filled with gratitude that we took that risk, that we participated in that moment. The button table was often surrounded by people – they were laughing, they were sharing their stories and pains, they were chatting about clever signs they saw. So many people came to us who had never stepped in our store before. There was a strong sense that we were all overcoming feelings of being alone and being powerless. I grew and so did the store. 

We forged new connections to people and businesses; there was a lasting sense of togetherness and power. To my great joy, I was reminded that Creation prevails. The turmoil and anger was met with such creativity –  screenprinting, hilarious signs, chalk writing, decorated cars, t-shirt making, singing and songwriting... and yes, buttons. It made me proud to be a Wisconsinite, to be among Creators, and to be a child of a creating God. It has given me a lasting sense of solidarity, a keen awareness that the worst of the troubles usually start the second you start thinking that you are alone.

And yes, I will confess to a sense of deja vu and tiredness as we see this all repeated on the national scale. My objection remains the same, to those who would cede life to fear and anger, view the world with rigidity and an idealized past, to those who are unwilling to face pain and sorrow but instead distract themselves with rage, closing their minds and hearts to other ways of being and doing and connecting in the world. 

That is not the life that I want for myself. That is not the life that God calls me to. That is not the life of a Creator child. 

I draw my comfort and strength from the risks that I take and the rewards I am met with, the way that being a store owner allows me to constantly connect with other people, and to meet the world with love, acceptance, fluidity, and with courage to face pain and sorrow with a heart and mind that are open. 

I draw my strength from the way I enable myself and others to fully meet our potential as creators living the Creator’s likeness. I'm sticking with Genesis.

 

 


flipping the surprise coin

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Easter Sunday and April Fool's Day, and my morning to deliver the children's sermon at church. I hand-painted these wooden tokens with an eye open on one side and an eye closed on the other side. I also painted one token with an open eye on both sides and another token with a closed eye on both sides. I just wish I was better at flipping coins and rolling them around in my fingers. It would have been pretty awesome if I could do a coin trick. Well, anyway, here's my text:

Today I brought in these special coins, they are my surprise coins. The choice is either eyes open or eyes closed. Have you ever had a surprise that wasn't that surprising? Sometimes you can think you are ready for surprise. Your eyes are open and you are expecting it. Maybe you have thought through a lot of possibilities and feel that you are prepared for all of them. But sometimes, something completely different happens. Something you weren't at all prepared for. In those times, it is as if your eyes are closed to surprise.

BUT, have you ever run into those trick coins? Where you ask a question and the answer is always heads? And it turns out there that both sides of the coins have the same answer? A lot of what Jesus was responding to in his time was that the people asking the questions kind of seemed like they had trick coins.  

People would ask: who knows the most? is the grown-ups? or is it the kids?

Who has the best ideas? is it the men? or the women?

Who can be most helpful? Someone we know who is a neighbor to us? or someone we don’t know who came from far away and never really liked?

Who is best? the people who have money and power? or the people who have nothing?

In a lot of cases, the answers were always the same: the men, the leaders, the people with power, the people we know, the people who look the way we look, the grown-ups. That was true in Jesus’ time. It is still true today.

But Jesus challenged these answers. Jesus says: your eyes are closed to the possibility of everyone around you. Your eyes are closed to surprise. What if you listen to the poor? the people you don’t know? the powerless? the women? the children? Why do you close your eyes against them?

It was kind of like Jesus’ coin had a closed eye on each side. And he challenged us to think about answers to questions in ways that we never thought of before.  He challenged us to think about the ways that our eyes were closed to surprise. He challenged us not to be satisfied with the answers that were always visible. Every single time. Every single question. Your eyes are closed. You cannot see everything.

Which brings us to Easter morning. The biggest surprise of all. The women go to Jesus' tomb. They already know what to expect. Their eyes are filled with tears but they are open. But the stone is rolled away - it is like the eye of the tomb has been opened but the surprise is more than our eyes could ever expect. Our eyes may as well be closed because what we see we cannot believe. Jesus once again flips the coin that has closed eyes on both sides, he invites us to the awareness that we cannot know all the answers, conquer all the surprises.

That is the gift of Jesus. That is the gift of Easter morning.

 

Please join me in a prayer:

God of surprises

We go out into the world with eyes open, and shut.

Help us to be present to the surprises that we cannot possibly envision

Open our eyes to the possibilities of all people

 

When we congratulate ourselves on our wide open eyes

Remind us of the ways our eyes are still shut

 

When our eyes are shut

Help us with all the other ways of knowing the world

 

Lead us not into the temptation of thinking we can see all

and deliver us from blindness to love.

Amen.

 

 


well, darn

So that was a really discouraging night last night. Election results called Scott Walker the winner really early on (illogically so in my opinion) and even though we held out hope for some late reportings, the best we could end up with was his lead narrowed down to 4% of registered voters. When I first tuned in (around 9 pm) and he had over 62% of the vote, I will tell you, quite honestly, I WAS ready to wash my hands of this state.  Of course, whatever reasons propel me to leave Wisconsin would also propel me to leave this country. Am I really ready to live in Toronto?

I still feel like I am on the verge of tears, as I felt when I cast my vote, when we ate dinner and toasted the state we love, as I probably will be throughout the next day/week/months when I have to be a cheerful and brave shopgirl. My heart hurts for the state, and I don't see Walker doing a lot to alleviate that. In my dream last night I went on an angry tirade at an old school friend so, yes, I am feeling mad as well. I am frustrated on both the state and the national level that people seem to be making choices based on fear and anger that only reinforce their situation. You want a better life for your children so you vote Republican? I just don't get it.

But here's what I am coming back to. And, yes, some of these are cheesy, we take our comfort where we can.

1. Do you ever remember the movie "Strictly Ballroom"? It was a cheesy movie back from the 90s, from my days of ballroom dance obsession. Anyway, there's some line in there about a life lived in fear is a life half lived. This is my underlying problem with the Tea Party and with much of what is going on around our country: it seems like people are living in fear and anger, that comes with a deep pain of dissatisfaction and frustration in their own lives. In my own opinion, they are directing that fear and anger at the wrong source (and purposefully being led by the actual sources of their pain and poverty to said misdirection). And, of course, we all have fear and pain and disappointment and sorrow. I do not at all mean to dismiss those feelings. I have very real concerns for this state with another four years of Walker (not to mention Vos and Fitzgerald et al). I'm worried about the environment, I'm worried about my customers' take-home pay, I'm worried about school children, I'm worried about the level of vitriol that Walker seems to encourage. I'm worried that all those years of thinking we're so much better than Alabama/Mississippi/Florida is now being paid back in spades as the rest of the country says "what is going on with Wisconsin?! It used to be so great!" Oh, the list goes on. It is so easy to give in to those fears and angers, isn't it? But I'm going to be like that little grandma in "Strictly Ballroom" who says, "you just got to not be scared." I am going to try and take a deep breath and live my loves and my hopes.

This is one of my favorite pieces of text. I find I'm returning to it a lot these days and can tell I will continue to do so:

An old man is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too." The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old man simply replied, "The one you feed."

(I just found out I've been misattributing this to an old Cherokee legend and it turns out it is an old white man (Billy Graham) who originated it. The most irksome thing to me is there are people who call themselves Christian, who probably consider Billy Graham a revered elder, and yet are one of the biggest sources of the hate and fear that I see in this country. But I still think the words are valuable.)

2. Viggo Mortensen, Lord of the Rings. "There's always hope." Hey, whoever your Viggo is, spend some time with him/her. It helps.

3. Back during the protests, customers came from all over the country. A memorable pair came from Illinois and one of them said to me: "I hope your Governor gets what our Governor got: an orange suit." So, yes, there's always that. I expect that Walker will run for President, I don't really expect that he's going to make it through the national spotlight but, golly, let's just savor the thought of something really unsavory and totally illegal coming to light that lands him some prison time, shall we? We take our comforts where we can.

Is it wrong that some of my comforts are fictional? All right, I'll throw some math in.

4. Scott Walker won because of 4% of registered voters. This was not "sweeping" or "decisive" no matter what any pundit says. In the world of math, 4% is usually margin of error. It is not enough to write off an entire state. 30% of registered voters did not vote. That is maddening. I read recently that non-voters tend not to be a representative sample of the population and that they skew Democratic so it is entirely possible that if 10% more had voted, the election could have gone the way I wanted it to. Was this supposed to be comforting? The comfort is that unlike last time, Scott Walker did get 37% of registered voters to vote for him. Last time, fewer people voted for Scott Walker than declined to vote. As a friend said, she can hear the rest of the state saying: "yes, Madison, we really DO want him for Governor." Well, I can hear 37% of the state saying that, and I guess that's not enough to make me leave.

In fact, the more that I think about that, the more comforting it is. 37%? Does that really seem like much? Would I be content if 37% of my customers liked me? I think I'd want more. Granted, I'm pretty sure that Scott Walker translates the math differently and will look upon this election as his "mandate" to go forth and do evil, but, really, 37%.

5. The pendulum. It exists, right? At some point things have to start swinging in the other direction? Wisconsin had McCarthy, we had LaFollette. We have Walker, Johnson, Ryan and Grothman - surely we must be reaching the lowest we can possibly go? The robber barons of the 19th century aren't on a continual line to the present, right? We had a time of expanding social protections, a contract as it was, and people understood that their wealth and prosperity depended on others. We will get that back, right? Just say yes.

6. When all is said and done, there are only about 5 counties in the whole state with such a high percentage of votes for Scott Walker that I would feel really nervous about visiting with my "blue punch" bumper sticker. I already wait to buy gas 'til I'm in Milwaukee county. I think it is easy in this age of polarization to feel like the enemy is everywhere, but so are friends.

7. Conversely, good job, Dane County! Great turnout, and almost 70% of you voted the way I wanted you to vote. I love this little bubble that I live in and I might never leave it.

8. Strong women at work for this state. In the Capitols: Gwen Moore, Terese Berceau, Chris Taylor and more. In our communities. The Wisconsin Alliance for Women's Health. Planned Parenthood. Our Mom and oh so many other women in our life who show us how to be strong and caring and how to work for a better world for all of our children.

9. When I first awoke and thought, "do I have to move now?" I started thinking about all the things and people I will have to move with me: my parents, my sister and her family, my studio/home, my store, my friends, my church, all the people who have known me since I was a child, all of my history. Seriously, packing up all my art supplies to move is a big enough hurdle as it is. I think I'm staying.

10. You. My customers, this store. Being a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond. Having people come up to me in the grocery store and saying: "Hi, Anthology! I love your store!" In this day and age, of course it is possible to keep in touch across geographical distance and it would be possible to move if I had to. But that would mean taking a few steps back from as far as we have come. And, actually, in spite of Scott Walker, business is going well. (No, I will not give him credit. Well, if he gets credit for that, then he has to take responsibility for our higher property tax bill, the payments we have to make because of the money the state borrowed from the feds to pay unemployment, the customers who come and and tell me they wish they could spend more but their paycheck isn't going as far as it used to). Sachi reminds me that we will outlast Walker. He will extract what he can from this state and then he will move on. The shop has grown each year that we've been in business and we are having a particularly strong year this year. Strong enough that the Capitalist in me has only been crabby a few times early in a month before she remembers to check the year to date sales. Strong because of our customers making the choice to support their local businesses, strong because of the amazing creative production of artists and crafters in the Midwest and beyond, strong because of people coming back to visit Wisconsin because they love this place. Strong not because of tax breaks (our taxes went up) or whatever else Scott Walker is doing but strong because of the work and passion of my sister and me, because of love and promise, not because of fear and hate.

So, there you go. I hope you will join me in your gratitudes and loves. Since Walker has been in office, we have sold almost 36,000 buttons. Sachi has said we would gladly give back those sales if it meant having someone in office we didn't have to protest but at the rate things are going, it seems like there would have been things to protest no matter what. Just as the morning after the recall election, when I came to work thinking I would have to clear away the buttons, it turns out there's only a small handful that no longer apply. Most still work, unfortunately, and in spades. Thank goodness for button therapy - idle hands are the devil's playground is no more true than in this situation. Plus, I have a proper selection of cards to suit the occasion.

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why yes, we're voting for Mary

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I know, I've been a bit of a slacker lately. I'll admit that we were a little tired from all the button-making and protest activity around the time of the recall. But please don't think we've changed our minds or our commitment to making this state the kind of place that is true to its citizens. Nor have we changed our mind about how poorly we think of Scott Walker as Wisconsin's Governor. So, yes, we ARE voting for Mary Burke! It's a no-brainer as far as we're concerned.

We had a slightly bizarre experience this week as we received an anonymous letter complaining about our hypocrisy of supporting Mary Burke while supporting the buy local movement at the same time. It included a tirade of (now shown to be false) talking points put forth by Walker about Trek's outsourcing and wages. Essentially, the writer granted that we could sell whatever we wanted to sell but that we should not be hypocrites about our buy local principles AND support an outsourcer at the same time. Trust me, I am not losing sleep over this. I mention it mostly because it elicits an interesting reaction in me which I'm quite sure the letter-writer was not intending, namely, we restocked our buttons, I realized I had to write this blog post, and I went and bought a Stand With Wisconsin bumper sticker for my car. I don't actually know what's a good approach for modifying someone's behavior. Because any time someone has criticized me for my politics, I mostly just double-down. Take, for example, the I <3 Wisconsin (except Scott Walker) notecard. I found it this week, removed from its pocket and all remaining stock hidden amongst some journals. This happens every once in a while with some of our political signs or merch - they will be flipped over, shifted to the back, generally removed from view. I imagine a Republican snickering as they walk down the street: 'that'll show them... they won't sell any and then they'll lose money ... and THEN they'll turn into Republicans ..... ?"  Right, as you can imagine, when I find the hidden merchandise, I just move it back into a prominent position, and the notecard-hiding-shenanigans just caused me to tell Sachi to order more of them (they were running low after all). I don't know, maybe no one is going to change anyone's minds we just have to be happy with our little shenanigans and feelings of triumph over little moments? I mean, I DO realize that not all our customers agree with me and I personally feel like I don't make the shop intolerable. I mean, it is clear where we stand but we can all be civil, can't we?

Well, anyway, the letter was civil enough so that's not my complaint in this instance. Mostly it is the anonymity that irks. This applies to internet comments too (as I have observed a huge kerfuffle over Mary Engelbreit's response to Ferguson... I mean, Mary Engelbriet?! Who can be hateful to her? Apparently a lot of people. As a P.S. to that, I will note that whenever I get discouraged with the level of hate generated in the internet comments section, I retreat to the SNL skit with the Devil). How is it that we can be so brave to say things, and yet not brave enough to claim our words? It's an odd incongruity and hypocrisy... which, I believe, trumps the hypocrisy of which I was accused.

I am willing to concede that I have my share of inconsistencies - letting slide behavior in people I like which I would otherwise abhor in people I don't. But the idea that Scott Walker is a more buy-local-friendly candidate than Mary Burke just makes me laugh. I'm sure that all of his WMC campaign donors called him up and said "ixnay" the outsourcing criticism, just as I am sure that he would be the first in line to outsource jobs if it would improve the profits of his CEO pals. I doubt the workers and small businesses of this state matter to him much at all. That is one of many reasons why I believe he is a poor choice for Wisconsin's Governor. And when it comes to creating jobs and improving the lot of the average Wisconsinite, I trust Mary Burke's experience in business at Trek as well as her committment to our local community, much more than his as a politician who believes in small government only as it suits him, but not enough to effect his paycheck or his ability to grant favors to people who have donated to his campaign. Sheesh... there I go again...  it is so easy to run a negative campaign!


But you all knew where I stood anyway, I just felt the need to reply to the anonymous letter-writer and since there wasn't a return address, this is what we ended up with. Not that I imagine I would have any success having a dialogue had there been a return address. Don't worry, I'm not that foolish.

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The real challenge as we approach election day, to my mind, is to resist the temptation to take only cheap shots and run a campaign that is entirely based on all the ways that Scott Walker is bad for the state. On the whole, I think that Mary Burke is doing a good job, but, actually, I don't watch campaign commercials. I change the channel if they come on, but most of the time I'm watching Netflix or running to the sewing machine during commercial breaks. There are many faults of Scott Walker and they are of great concern to me. Sachi has been making buttons that address that, but we have plenty of "Keep Calm and Burke On," "I'm voting for Mary," and so on. I do believe she will be a good leader for this state.

I revised my Keep Calm Wisconsin print and have an updated version for this campaign season.

DSCN3841 (800x600)Sigh.... Russ..... Remember how nice it was when the Senate would vote on things and he'd be the lone Progressive Left voice voting against? How good and principled you felt as one of his consitutents? Instead of embarrassed by those lists that come out with Ron Johnson's name on them - undercutting veteran funding, jobless benefits, affordable care... oh the list goes on. Sigh.

I also ordered the great Stand with Wisconsin graphic sticker for the shop. I really love the graphic - Lily calls it the blue punch. We got it at the shop for the casual shopper, but we'd also encourage you to get them from the AFL-CIO shop for $1 each if you buy ten or more.

 

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And, what else? Just please please vote. Even if you don't live in Wisconsin, vote wherever it is you live. We need MORE people participating in this system, as flawed as it is. I know, I'm an optimist, but I personally think that politics would look a LOT different if all the people who don't show up to the polls would. Even with the manipulation by Wall Street and the writing of laws by ALEC and lobbyists, I believe in the power of people to have an effect but only if we do not cede our power and our votes. I ran the numbers in advance of our primaries earlier this month and if my calculations are correct, Scott Walker and Ron Johnson came to office due to just 3% of eligible voters. And 12 times more voters than that simply declined to vote. Clearly the outcome could have been different. Especially in this "off" year which everyone says always leans Republican because Dems don't come out ( ARGH! come out! come out! Think what the years could have looked like if the Dems came out in 2010! We could have still had Russ! We could have Tom Barrett, who, not incidentally, is doing cool things in Milwaukee). I am glad to see various initiatives, particularly aimed at women (and, I hope also, in African American communities) to get information and tools in the hands of ALL people so that everyone can participate in our democracy (little nod here to Ask. Learn. Vote! which is working to connect women in Wisconsin with the tools to cast their votes).

Learn about your candidiates. Register to Vote. Vote. YOU MATTER. YOUR VOTE MATTERS. The only people who tell you otherwise are the ones who profit from you staying home.

 


Sunday with children

It was my turn for time with children at our church this morning - that precedes the sermon and is a time when a grown-up sits on the floor with all the kids and tries to convey the message of the scripture readings in a more kid-intelligible format.  There are some who missed it... so, here you go:

Children’s Time. February 2, 2014

The first thing that came to my mind when I read today’s scripture was: Opposite Day. Have you ever played that game? Like when someone says they want a piece of cake, and you say, “ok, it’s opposite day, I’ll just give the cake to someone else.” Or when you say, I’m going to do my homework, but since it is Opposite Day, that means I’m actually going to play outside.”

 

In Micah we hear: Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

 

The answer, in short, is no. Will bringing lots of stuff to God bring God lots of happiness? No. Happy Opposite Day!

 

Honestly, I think it is really easy for people to forget about Opposite Day. We get caught up in what other people are doing, what they tell us to do, what we think we should buy, even though a lot of times these actions are the opposite of what will make us happy or bring us closer to God. The scripture readings that we hear today point out the ways that things are turned on their heads – the way we get things backwards, and the way God challenges us to think differently.

 

In Corinthians, we hear:

God chose what is foolish

God chose what is weak

 God chose what is low and despised in the world

 

God chooses, God values, what we so often do NOT choose and do NOT value. Happy Opposite Day!

 

Let me give you two examples.

 

 

First: recently I was driving with my 6 year-old niece and a box of stuff I was recycling. She looked over into the bin and said to me: You’re not going to throw that away, are you Aunt Laura? She ended up picking out three cardboard tubes that used to hold wrapping paper. She was very excited about the tubes and proceeded to tell me about the light sabers she was going to make, and also her plans to make storm trooper and yoda costumes out of colored tissue paper. These three empty cardboard tubes easily brought her more enjoyment than anything I would have purchased from a store. Happy Opposite Day!

 

Second: before my sister and I opened our own store, I worked for almost 10 years at another store. I thought what I always wanted was to become owner of that store. I had a very specific plan and when things stopped going according to plan, it caused me all sorts of anxiety and sorrow. I was so attached to my plan that it took me a really long time to realize that God had something else in mind for me. Now I am so happy that my plan did not work out. Happy Opposite Day!

 

And in Matthew, when Jesus spoke, he did not say, blessed are you who have lots of stuff or get what you want or hang out with the popular people or get to tell people what to do. No, in effect, Jesus said, Happy Opposite Day! Blessed are you who are sad, who are meek, who are merciful, who are persecuted, who work for peace and justice. Be true to God’s message of love, and you can rejoice and be glad. Happy Opposite Day!

 

Let us pray:

Dear God,

Thank you for Opposite Day

Help us to see love where there is hate, power where there is weakness, healing where there is pain, joy where there is sorrow.

 

Happy Opposite Day!

 

Amen.


Sunday Sermon, August 11: Tales from a Shopgirl Life

The scripture readings are: Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20 and Hebrews 11: 1-3,8-16

These are my stories.

First. I use the term “shopgirl” to describe my life somewhat facetiously. It downplays what is my life’s work and what, I believe, is my calling. But to understand that, you should know that most of my Biblical grounding is in the early chapters of Genesis. I’m still stuck on the Creation. To my mind, creating is a fundamental expression of God’s love. Whether we garden, paint, sing, connect people, build places, in our own little ways, we create the stars and the seas, we create light where once there was nothing. I am endlessly grateful for this gift from God. As I see it, our obligation is to express our own creativity and to facilitate it in others; to encourage them to tap into that divine process and experience the satisfaction that comes from being a creator.

This is my offering to God.

Such an offering could be contrasted to the offerings rejected in Isaiah. God asks: “Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me? I have had more than enough of the sheep you burn as sacrifices and of the fat of your fine animals.”

These were not trivial offerings in the material sense and yet they are a far cry from the offerings of one’s time and energy and passion, offerings grounded in the spirit of a Creator God.

I am reminded of the passage from Mark: “Pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God.”

God, in my limited understanding IS creation, so it makes perfect sense that God would reject our limited offerings based on fear and desire to appease, our false sense of property and wealth.

In a more poetic way, Nan Merill rewrites Psalm 50: “Shall I accept your proud and boasting hearts, the oppression, the injustices brought about through your fearful deeds? Never shall I accept such burnt offerings! Rather, offer to the Beloved a gift of thanksgiving with grateful hearts; for what other return can you make for all that Love offers to you?”

And so the idea of our shop was born. But just like the first few verses of Genesis, before the light and creation, there was something formless and desolate, engulfed in total darkness. Ok, I exaggerate, but only a little.

 

Second: In the beginning..... I had been working my way up the retail ladder at Little Luxuries since 1999. I expected to eventually be store owner, a plan reinforced by my boss moving to Minnesota. And then, in 2007, she returned to Madison. “Nothing is going to change, I’m happy with the way you are running the store,” were the first words spoken on the subject. These were followed by: “why are you doing it that way?” That was the month of March.

So began a time of crisis in my life. I questioned the path I had been following, I doubted my worth and ability. I felt there was no place for me in the place that I used to consider my own. I was still stuck on my expectation that I would be store owner of Little Luxuries. Since that option seemed closed off, I felt closed off from my own possibility. So I began updating my resume and planning to find some sort of job, anything, just to get away from the place I was being exiled from. That was the month of October.

Now, honestly, when people talk about faith, I am challenged. There’s that saying – whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger? I hate that saying. Because when you are in the midst of something? sometimes all you feel is that it IS going to kill you. Faith in the process and the pain? I can see why it is such a test. During that time, I can’t really say that I had faith in the process. I am thankful that I had people around me who had faith in ME, who saw value in me even when I felt devalued. It is only in hindsight that I can say those difficulties were setting the stage; that I had to go through that time in order for any other risk to seem small compared to the risk of staying where I was.

Perhaps that’s the biggest challenge when you read passages such as Hebrews. How DO they have such assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things unseen? For me, the evidence for such faith has accumulated in little things that end up being all right despite a multitude of worrisome scenarios, in unexpected gifts in the midst of pain and loss, in ways that sudden beauty and joy make themselves known. Those are the little things that might not make it into Hebrews 11. They are the little things that I tend to forget when I am in the middle of the big things, wondering if THIS will be the one that kills me. Yet remembering those little things brings me to faith, not so much in specific paths, but in ways that things DO work, in ways that beauty and love and God are there, even when there is darkness and pain and sorrow.

 

Third. And then there was light. Specifically, around 6 am the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when I awoke with an illuminated mind: My sister and I would open a store! It was so clear. Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion; perhaps my friends were just humoring me as we debated what skirt to wear for interviews. Perhaps there is no way for me to adequately convey how deeply I had connected being a shop owner to being at Little Luxuries, and how I had almost given up on being a shop owner simply because that particular path was closed to me.

At this time, I found the passage printed on the cover of today’s bulletin. "I don't know how long I can do this, he said. I think the universe has different plans for me & we sat there in silence & I thought to myself that this is the thing we all come to & this is the thing we all fight & if we are lucky enough to lose, our lives become beautiful with mystery again & I sat there silent because that is not something that can be said.”

This passage resonated with me because I felt like most of the year had been a battle with trying to keep myself at Little Luxuries and when I gave up on that idea, suddenly a whole new path opened up to me and my life became beautiful with mystery once again.

And so began the actual work of owning our own business. Life might have been beautiful with mystery but it was also really stressful and filled with long hours, hard work, low pay and a tremendous sense of risk. Yet I came to see that the flip side of that risk is the reward and satisfaction in even the smallest success. It is amazing how selling even just a note card becomes an affirmation of my work and taste. Though my tax bill brought me to tears, I was on a constant high that first year, making sales and overhearing customers’ enjoyment of the shop.Yes, it was scary, and not just because of the money. When so much time and energy goes into something, even the slightest lack of interest can lead to self-doubt; the person who stands in the doorway and then turns away makes me feel like running after them – wait! give me a chance! you might like me!

The reality, of course, is that I don’t expect to please everyone, nor do I expect everyone to buy something or even “get” what it is our store is about. At the same time, by putting so much of myself into our shop, even the slightest positive response acts as an affirmation of my work and of my very self. This acceptance of self brings a deep sense of satisfaction and joy, and it comes only by taking the risk of sharing myself with others.

So like Abraham and Sarah, we venture out into the wilderness that is the world; we leave what is comfortable and familiar and we take risks. But that risk is grounded in the love of God, in the sacred and genuine offering of ourselves.

 

Fourth (and last). The year was 2011. I think it is safe to say that I had learned a big lesson about the rewards that accompany risk, that I had strengthened my faith and trust in process even if the outcome seemed unclear. Our business was continuing to grow and I could see the path ahead for us, selling papergoods and locally made crafts. But faith isn’t just something you earn once; it has to be tested and strengthened, over and over again, apparently.

Now, from the start of our business, our button maker was an unexpected asset even though I had to twist my sister’s arm to spend the $300. It turned out that other people liked making buttons too and making buttons became a feature of our shop. It was not uncommon to hear a kid walking by and saying: “there’s the button store!” “Out of the mouths of babes” is not so out of place in this case.

And so came that week in February. When the Governor first introduced his budget, I had a strong sense that it was wrong – it went against what I see as the role of government, it went against how I think Jesus wants us to be at work in the world. The notion of Wisconsin being “open for business” seemed very limiting and short-sighted. The world of the small business owner is fiercely independent and yet utterly dependent at the same time; I had a keen sense of our dependence on our customers, and the threat this budget presented to their lives. So we stood in solidarity. We went to the protests, we watched as people streamed by our shop on their way to the Capitol, we wrote on our sandwich board and hung signs in our windows, we stood as the firefighters went by with their bagpipes and cheered the “cops for labor” signs.

On Thursday of that week, a regular customer came in and said: “where are your buttons?” Now, honestly, most businesses try to adhere to some notion of impartiality, even if that is betrayed by lobbying, campaign donations and partisan issue ads from their trade organizations. After our customer asked us for buttons, we hesitated. Although I felt strongly that the budget would have reverberations on all of our lives and that it very much concerned our business, we were still unsure. There’s a fine balance to strike between being Capitalistic and being opportunistic. But on Friday, an old school friend and union member commented: “You must be selling buttons like crazy! Union people love buttons!” I told her that we were still on the fence because we didn’t want to seem opportunistic. She said: “Make those buttons, girl!” Since that week in February, we have sold over 30,000 buttons.

There were plenty of times that I felt overwhelmed with anger and frustration, times when I worried about how our shop would grow when paychecks were shrinking, times when I feared for our state. But those are not the offerings that God wants from us. God wants us to take risks, to be daring in our expression of love and creation. Can you find a way to make an offering of your joy and love and creativity? Oddly enough, making buttons became my offering.

Though I was filled with the courage of my convictions, there was the risk that new customers would be offset by angry former customers, and we’ve all witnessed nastiness in the hyper-partisan world of the internet. But ultimately, what I objected to in others was the way they were letting their fear and anger set the tone for their lives. That is not the world I wanted to live.

So, yes, there was risk. But the rewards were great. I am filled with gratitude that we took that risk, that we participated in that moment. The button table was regularly surrounded by people, laughing, sharing their stories and pains; it was like a non-stop dinner party. To give you a taste, I’ve brought my offering of buttons to you today. I hope you’ll gather at the table after worship and pick out one out for yourself.

Big Union Men came in for buttons; sweet teachers near tears thanked us for our presence. So many people came to us who had never stepped in our store before. There was a strong sense that we were all overcoming feelings of being alone and being powerless. I grew and so did the store. We forged new connections to people and businesses; there was a lasting sense of togetherness and power. To my great joy, I witnessed a burst of creativity that jumped up to meet the challenge of the anger and turmoil. There was screenprinting, hilarious signs, chalk writing, decorated cars, t-shirt making, singing and songwriting... and yes, buttons. It made me proud to be a Wisconsinite, to be among Creators, and to be a child of God.

 

So, those are my stories. Like the texts we read today, like your own lives, there is faith and risk, there is doubt and fear, but above all there is love and creation and the offering of the very best I have to give to God.

May YOU find your buttons.

May you take risks and not be content with burnt offerings.

May you listen for God’s call to a more creative life.

And may you find your way to offer yourself to the world and God.

I promise. GOD promises. The risk will be worth it. The rewards will be great. Amen.


election eve, or thereabouts

 

As I was leaving work on Saturday night I was thinking to myself about blog posts that are overdue. To be honest, some part of me feels like whatever I say is a repeat of whatever anyone else says, but perhaps writing these things down is as much for my own sake as for anyone who happens to still be out there.

And then for dinner, Dad and I got take-out from our favorite Chinese restaurant. (It's a little thing, but my Dad is really tickled that the owner, Chinese, comes out from the kitchen and is always so happy to see my dad, Japanese. In some circles, the Japanese are still being held responsible for their war crimes against the Chinese; my dad famously cites the example of a schoolmate of my sister who was not allowed to play with my sister because we were Japanese). After dinner, I opened my fortune cookie.

Sund 003It brought home what I've been thinking about a lot - namely, how do I personally respond and live my own life, regardless of what is going on at the state or national or international level?

Can you believe that election day is nearly upon us? Are you wrestling like I am with anxiety, hope, exhaustion... and any other emotions that run the rollercoaster gamut from high to low? I don't mean to be naive, perhaps this is just a function of the optimist that I am, but I'm feeling pretty calm. Don't get me wrong, I have serious concerns about how the world will be if Mitt Romney becomes President. I truly believe that he will plunder the wealth of this country (our human AND natural resources), that he is both unChristian and unAmerican and totally unfit to be President. I think that the United States, and the entire world, would be much better off with Barack Obama for President and I have no doubt that there will be lasting repercussions from the results of this race.

If Mitt Romeny wins, I will also have serious reservations about whether or not we have a functional democracy or if it has been completely sold off to those with the most money and if voter supression and tampering have managed to win out over my rosy-eyed view of the world.

Sund 005

And I don't at all mean to imply that calmness equals complacency or confidence. At the same time, I have confidence in my own actions, certainty in the path that I have chosen (well aware that I have much to improve in my own life even as I am satisfied in the changes I have made over the course of the last four years).

I think maybe it helped to go see Forward Theater's 44 Plays for 44 Presidents. Perhaps a history lesson would be just as useful. In any event, it gave me a sense of larger history - even as we think that this moment and our lives are critical, so, too, have millions of people across hundreds of years. And somehow, life goes on. Maybe not exactly the way you thought it was going to but it goes on nonetheless. I also like to think of the British Empire, even the Roman one for that matter. There's no doubt those nations have had times of greater.. significance?... but I think that for someone living in any of those places right now, there is no more significant time. "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well," right?  (Julian of Norwich)

Yesterday morning a friend on Facebook posted this little gem, which I have seen before, but which is certainly apt. I have concerns about the sorrows and angers and fears that I see expressed and manifesting around me, and yet I also believe very strongly in creating and reacting to life out of love and hope and faith. I think that both Republicans and Democrats, and various other actors in our system, profit from playing upon our fears, exaccerbating the seriousness of the situation and getting us to respond to threats. I am not trying to diminish the seriousness of the situation, rather how we react to it.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.

“One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

“The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.

”The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Also, I have returned to my own little home after a week of house-sitting. There are always perks to borrowing other peoples' lives, but, like travel, there is the best perk at the end, which is the reminder that you love your little life. And, little, in many senses it is. But I recently learned about this fundraising appeal from Kennedy Prints and am struck by many things - chief among them is my strong sense of optimism in the way that other people are creating their own versions of the American Dream, but doing so in ways that are mindful, connected, communal... and really cool. Ultimately, I think that is what is so threatening to the certain people (GOP politicians among them) - they see the world that they know it, the world they have prospered in, is changing, perhaps they view it as under attack. But however hard they try to fight it, I have every confidence that the change in inevitable. This is a difficult time of transition, but I have confidence in our spirits, our strengths and our creativity. As a person who often bemoans the lack of creativity in the world, and the way the corporate world seems to stifle the individual, new movement in individual- and business- and community-building is imminently cheering. But what has stuck with me the most this week is the words that were shared on the fundraising page: It's not about being so big that you have to maintain your bigness, it's about being just big enough that your craft can maintain you.

Wow. Just sit with that a little while. As much as I complain about square footage at the shop, I do also feel like there has been a very American drive to get big, bigger, bigger... and to do so without much thought as to why. We are paying a price for that unrelenting drive, but many of us are starting to look at other measures of success and growth. This quotation, I feel, is perfect, because it implores us to look at our underlying goals - not to mindlessly aquire or grow just for the sake of bigness itself. 


Sund 006So to some extent, I think that I am weathering the campaign storm and the pre-election jitters by thinking small. Thinking of my little world, the things that are within my control, my gratitudes and my own riches.

I have to admit that I've been kind of rationing the number of articles I read and links I click through. It gets a little overwhelming at times, and I do believe there is fear-mongering happening from all sides. But I appreciate the words of other people, especially those who might fit into one category in my head, but whose words cause me to put them into another category. Case in point is Badger Blue, Times Two, "full time detective and SWAT cop": "I will end with this thought: patriotism is more than declaring your love for your country. It means electing leaders whose actions match their words. It means choosing stewards of our society that care for all of its citizens, not a select few. It means valuing the ideals of shared sacrifice and prosperity that made this nation great. It means rejecting those who view the citizens of this nation in terms of profit potential. In this week before the election, my individual sense of patriotism compels me to cast my vote for President Obama. I may not be in the majority among police and military circles, but I certainly have quite a bit more company than I did four years ago." I love that guy! And the works of OccupyMarines, who give me hope in the ways that we as citizens of this nation and of the world can find common ground and work together.

I am grateful that I have my church background, though going to yoga would also be helpful - sitting still, taking deep breaths, stretching, reaching. For me, my church home is a reminder of the way that I am both connected and important, and yet also in a world that is so much bigger and beyond me - it terms of its marvels and its troubles. It is also a reminder of a sense of gratitude, of all that our lives are blessed with and the ways that others are not. And, no, I'm not demanding that you go to church, just that I do believe there is a sense of grounding which I have as a result, which I am especially grateful for during this challenging campaign season.

At work, I have my share of little comforts. I'm easy that way, just show me a few inspiring quotations and I'll be good. And, of course, there are buttons to be made. Sachi has a new series of Bruce & Barack buttons in honor of Monday's visit. I have a little sense of just...waiting...  What kind of buttons will we be making on Wednesday?! The "deep breath on the edge of battle/calm before the storm" kind of feeling.Sund 004

Oh yeah, and I watched The Lord of the Rings last night. That always helps me.


CAN we disagree without being disagreeable?

I read a blog post recently from a marketing/PR specialist: Brands and Politics Don't Mix and I have to confess that I've kind of been stewing about it this week.... while making buttons ;)

Of course, part of our brand has become our protest buttons so that might automatically exclude us from the topic of conversation. And maybe, even though we are brand, we are a brand of just two sisters, unlike, say, something like Chic-Fil-A which is so much more extensive. Maybe it works for us to state our views because it's just the two of us, and what I say does apply, for the most part, to both of us. It is harder to imagine that any statment made by a big corporation actually does speak for every single employee. And yet, we are essentially assuming that the weight of the proclamation comes from the size of the corporation: Chic-Fil-A speaks and it is speaking for all consumers of its product, all its employees, all its shareholders. Ah, yes, I can see how brands and politics become a tricky thing.

Still, there's no doubt that politics were not nearly as much a part of our brand in December of 2010. That we HAVE mixed politics with our brand.

I do realize that I am spoiled to have grown up in Madison, to live in my little island (as some people like to call it). In February last year, it felt like we were taking a tremendous risk to devote our table and our window to protesting the actions of the Governor. In other places, such a risk may well have been punished. The media is filled with tales of boycotts, smashed windows, stalkers and barrages of vitriolic emails... At the same time, we felt very strongly about taking a stand and about supporting our customers, many of whom we expected to feel close-to-immediate and negative results of having Scott Walker for Governor. It was a personal matter (as politics are) but it also felt like a business matter. Ultimately, as a small business owners, we are always thinking about our actions and how they necessarily relate to building our business. For us, it seemed that anything that would have an effect on our customers WOULD have an effect on us and was therefore not something we could be neutral about. I will return to the notion of neutrality later.

Our actions were not without consequences, mostly some under-the-breath mutterings; a few scoldings and some people turning on their heels and walking out the door. I am sure that we lost some sales as a result of our position. Meanwhile, the consequences of an increased connection to many of people, a sense of gratititude and solidarity - these have been very positive results of the risk-taking, not to mention the thousands of buttons we have sold and the many new customers we introduced ourselves to. Since last February, I have had more Union men come through our doors than I ever would have believed possible (there have been many Union women, too, but there's something about this store that seems to present particular hurdles to men - sometimes they stop dead in their tracks in the doorway and refuse to even step inside, and not just the 4 year-olds). So, yes, I am very much aware and grateful of the fact that what seemed like risk actually ended up being a pretty great business move. I am well aware that what seemed like a risk was taken in an environment which really wasn't that risky - like when I deliver the children's message at church when public speaking makes my heart race but I know that I am presenting to a receptive audience, to people who love me even if I do fumble and lose track of what I was saying. For us, Madison is that receptive audience, it is our home, it is our family, it is certainly well within our comfort zone. So perhaps it wasn't such a risk after all.

And as for neutrality, well, there are an assortment of quotations one can find if you search for "silence" and "neutrality." I am quite sure there are those who will say that I am exaggerating the seriousness of the situation if I compare silence and neutrality over who will govern the state of Wisconsin, or even our nation, to the neutrality of Switzerland to the Nazis (though I'm pretty sure that most citizens of Switzerland actually DID have an opinion one way or the other).

"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." Bishop Desmond Tutu

In any event, I'm feeling rather skeptical about neutrality. I have a hard time believing that a person really could be neutral or impartial. I can believe that a person can see valid points in both sides of an argument, might choose not to enter into an argument with certain people, might see shades of grey when others are asking them to speak in black and white, but I'm not really sure there's long-term good in taking a so-called neutral position. Maybe it would be possible if our world was different but for the most part inaction and neutrality do confer a certain judgement upon a situation. Even the newspapers with their so-called neutrality: do they not have employees? customers? are they not then invested in how much they have to pay their employees? how many customers will buy their papers? how many businesses will want to advertise? I doubt their neutrality and, frankly, I'd rather know where someone stands so I can judge for myself what sort of  bias might exist. My old boss used to say: more knowledge is always better. And even though sometimes I like the "ignorance is bliss" approach, I do think that the more we know about each other, the more we find the ways that we are living in common, the more we learn of each others' joys and hardships, the more we know that we're really all the same even as we are each totally different.

I think in the business world it is common to try and maintain neutrality - there is a sense that picking sides will cause you to lose customers from the other side. And yet, there are no end to the instances of businesses sticking their noses (and wallets) into the political world. Just because their silence gives off an air of neutrality doesn't at all mean it is genuine. Have you seen how much money is spent on lobbying these days?! Ultimately, every decision we make involves picking one side or another, involves including some and not others: we are not a hardware store or a sporting goods store and thus have already narrowed our demographic. Even though as a business you might like to think that you appeal to everyone (100% of the world is your demographic and a potential customer), I'm more of the mind that if you try to please everyone all the time, you will fail; and thus you should just do your very best, commit your full heart to your vision and your journey, and the people who appreciate your work will find you.

In any event, I do question that any person or business can be neutral. But, WHAT IF we could learn to work together DESPITE the different sides we are on? I'm just not sure we do a service to ourselves and to others if we are not living our full and genuine selves. If we cannot come to a point where we say, I don't like his politics, but I do like his donuts. Do we really want to be the ones who dismiss the 47%, the 10%, the 88% who don't agree with us in this one particular (though big) respect?

I have had a few people on Facebook inform me that my political views mean they will steer away from our shop. In the small term, that is my loss because I won't get a sale from them. In the larger term, they have just lost the opportunity for both of us to learn that Democrats and Republicans might actually be able to find other things in common - a shared interest in creating things, or in supporting local artists. I am fortunate because I have had the chance to learn that, to experience the wide range that exists between the person who storms up to the counter and scolds me for my politics, and the people who have had tears in their eyes as they tell me how much they appreciate our actions. In that very wide in-between ground there might not be any news stories but I think that is the place where we will find the ability to do more than just yell back and forth at each other, or be like the Zax, remember them?

Honestly, I feel that for much of our country, the dialogue, the media, has been hijacked by extremes on both sides, by people jumping to conclusions and generalizations, and doing so in rather vitriolic ways. It's perhaps a more interesting story to present only conflict and the idea that there are only two sides and n'er the twain shall meet. But I'm not really sure that's useful. Everyone knows Dr. Seuss' story of the Zax: one going North and the other going South, and there they stand in each other's way, to this day, unbudged in their tracks. Is that what we really want for this country?

If we decline to discuss politics because we are afraid of negative repercussions, then it seems less likely that we are the land of the free and home of the brave, and more likely that we have ceded to the terrorists of speech who lurk within our own lands. In another country, if we saw that people were not speaking out because they were afraid of repurcussions, we would pity them and think about sending in our military.

And then there's the matter of silence, which I have been less and less inclined to adhere to. Naturally, when someone has some rigid ideas that are opposite of yours, speaking up is unlikely to change their mind. And there's certainly no need to speak out in ways that are antagonistic or hateful. Yet in many cases, people seem to take silence for agreement. For myself, I find it grating when people presume to speak on my behalf ("small businesses feel x, single women are thinking y, 40somethings must be wanting z"), especially when the statements are exactly opposite of the way that I feel. My resentment is when silence is responded to with assumptions, when mostly (for me) it just means that I couldn't think of the right words fast enough (the bane of an introvert's existence).

I had a short discussion with a long-time customer of ours early on in the protests. Basically, I posed something political on Facebook and she simply replied that she felt different from me. We CAN agree to disagree. I don't at all think that everyone needs to think exactly the same as me. I don't demand that people who disagree with me read all of my opinions and posts. I don't necessarily enjoy hearing dissenting opinions, but I consider that part of living in a democracy. Just as I feel it is important to state my beliefs, I do not begrudge that customer the right to state hers. It is when it gets into hostile, threatening and abusive language that I am troubled. But there is a lot of space between silence and arguing. Additionally, I think if we are silent, there is the risk that a person (myself included) will just proceed on the assumption that everyone thinks the same way. Of course that's oversimplifying, but I think if would be better if we were all not silent, not hostile and concerned about our own egos, but also always open to the differences between us, and learning how to still get along and be a part of a functioning community.

So, I'll just have to agree to disagree with the author. Because I think policis and brand should mix.