I am at work. At church. My list is long. My focus blurry. My heart somehow connected to my throat.

I woke to a message from Katie, a woman from my first congregation with whom I hadn’t spoken in a long while. I should’ve known before I read it, but still, I sat stunned as I read her brief message: Karol Pierce died yesterday.

Karol, a mutual friend, like a father, an uncle, an irreverent brother, a giant of a man who understood the value of being with people.  My goodness how he was loved.

Karol was funny, an adjective I reserve for those who earn it. A fine storyteller, he once convinced me he could peel an apple and keep the peel in tact even though he only had one arm. So convincing was he, I never even made him do it. Eventually he confessed that he might have exaggerated — about the entire thing. And that only added to the joy of the tale.

When I visited him during a particularly rough time, when my youngest son was hospitalized, he cried with me. No apologies.  No cliches or simple there-theres.  Real tears, shared.

I feel more acutely aware of my own right arm today as I try to work, my mind drifting away to the years when I was his pastor and we sat at his kitchen table in the country eating the best homemade vegetable soup on the planet. It was like being in a comfortable cave, set apart from the world, swapping tales and dipping bread into this marvelous soup. He always offered me beer and his eyes twinkled with the offer so that I always accepted.

He loved those cheap pink wafer cookies. He use to say in a conspiratorial voice: I love these damn cookies. I hate that I love them. I tell myself, I don’t need any more. Then I have another.

That’s how it was with Karol. He made you feel like you were in on a secret of great importance. We shared a love of storytelling and we laughed loudly at both our own and one another’s stories. He was the kind of man whose voice remains in your heart — like the refrain of a great song — long after you’ve last heard him speak.

We shared a lot of meals together. His passion for food was second only to his passion for people…and especially for the women who surrounded him: his beautiful wife, Claudette, who followed him from Oklahoma into an adventure that lasted a lifetime. His daughters. His neighbors. Their daughters. He had a way of making you feel beautiful even when your face was blotchy from crying; he had a way of making you feel safe even as his own health faltered.

This morning, my mind keeps drifting to him, to his family, to our mutual friends — to that era of my life. I cry despite my best attempts not to, and then I look at the lists on my desk; the notes trying to pull my attention to the present moment.

But the present moment for me is lost in moments past, with a friend and a family whose welcome to their table had no end.

Stuff-stopping-sorrow. It’s something we never put on our to do list. We do not plan to grieve and yet even the most pressing plans get shoved to the wall when we hear such news.

I need to get ready. People are counting on me. The clock is ticking. Soon a meeting will begin that I am to lead. I hold a baseball in my hand and hear again Karol talking about playing both before…and after…the accident that cost him his arm.

I give in to the fact that the stuff I have to do right now is securely stationed on the edges of this day.

With great love comes great sorrow. The tears we cry as we say goodbye are a tribute to a life well-lived; a soul who loved well. And in my own sentimental heart, I cannot help but imagine that in the next world, where the weak say ‘I am strong’, and the poor say, ‘I am rich’, Karol is winding up to pitch with two strong arms and eyes that twinkle as if he really does have one helluva secret. And it’s a good one. And if you come for supper…he’ll tell you.


Salt Life Day 64

Salt Life, like Surfing, like living at the beach, is a culture unto itself.  It is a way of life, having its own vocabulary and rhythm and etiquette.

It is fascinating. 

Here’s what I’ve learned since I moved my pillows onto my bed at Chateau LaVie, my condo overlooking the sea.

Victory At Sea — is a term that refers to very choppy water;  churning;  lots of white;  chaos in liquid form.  It is one of many ways to describe the ocean and is used by those who have surf apps on their phones to monitor surf conditions at any moment, which then gives some sense of what they will be in a few hours or a few days.  This is useful for planned spontaneity.

My surf app is called Surfline.

The changing tides are linked to the sun and the moon and the earth and time — specific time.  You can read all about the tides online; the explanations are quite scientific and have lots of illustrations.  Those who really understand the tides can tell you exactly when the next high tide will be.  The tides change much more often than I ever knew;  daily in fact.  Twice a day to be specific.   To live by the ocean is to become keenly aware of the tides;  like city dwellers know rush hour, beach-folk know tides.  Some beach folks know way more than others.

Walking on the beach you expect to find sand, water, seashells…but you will also find the unexpected:  Single items that were once part of a pair:  a flip-flop;  a bikini top.  Newborn sea-turtles making a break from the desert to their home.  And patches of beach where the shells are ground up like fine gravel.  This is an area that was once underneath several feet of sand.  Storms and other environmental influences have worn the beach away to reveal this–seashell gravel–a place I’ve been told you might find sea glass.

I now have 9 pieces of sea glass that were collected and given to me by 4 different people, but I have yet to find a single piece.  I wonder if people buy it and give it to me as if they found it;  I wonder if it is a trick those who’ve been living the salt life awhile play on newcomers.

I look for sea glass practically every single day.

Waves are tricksters.  From the shore, on vacation, their soothing percussive tempo can calm even the most vigilantly anxious.  From the place they meet the sand, they envelope ones’ feet as a whirlpool, washing, massaging, inviting one to let go…come on in…the water’s fine.

You are up to your waist before you even realize you were seduced by the water kissing your ankles.

Once past the first set of breaking waves, there is a place in the water that instills a sense of of security.  Weightless there, you are awake, alive, an aquatic creature far from the maddening pings of relentless technology.  You think about Ariel.  You imagine you’re a mermaid.  You remember a print you once had of a mermaid holding a red shoe with the caption:  She never knew quite what to make of the saying, if the shoe fits…

Your mind drifts easily–you let down your guard.

And that’s like an unspoken cue to the waves: they pick up pace, and energy, and power.  You no longer feel one with the water;  the imagined security has completely bailed.

The wise ocean swimmer or surfer wanna-be spends a lot of time learning to time the waves.  You have to decide before each one reaches you if you will go over it or through it or under it;  there is less time to decide than you think.  Experienced surfers tell you:  commit or quit.  It’s something you do over and over and over again.  Once you are out beyond where you can touch the bottom, you have no choice but to play the game.  Unlike many sports that have a bench, or a sideline, a place you can go to for rest, the ocean demands that you keep playing until you find your way back to shore.

It can take a good long while to reach the shore if you do not participate fully in the game of timing the waves and tackling each one before it tackles you.

The salt life doesn’t run by watches or clocks:  there are general times…dawn…mid-morn…afternoon…dusk…night.  If the moon is not out, the beach is darker than any place I’ve ever been in the city.

The salt is as pervasive as the air.  It coats every surface inside and outside.  It changes the feel of your hair and your skin.  It turns shiny things dull.  It corrodes all metal and many non-metal things;  it makes you eternally thirsty.

Beach folks shower 2-3 times a day. 

Sand, too, is everywhere.  I have no idea how it gets where I find it.  I have bit down into sand in my Cheerios and emptied it out of the pocket of my cut-offs.

If someone had told me I would one day take sand in my cereal in stride, I would not have believed them.  Those who know me well know that I take breakfast seriously.

But the good things and the annoying things about the Salt Life are mixed together as completely as the ground shells in the sand.  They cannot be separated.

And the good things make the annoying things so tolerable as to be barely noticed. 

To live on the beach is to have the opportunity to step into a vacation every day that requires no packing and can be as brief as ten minutes and as restorative as a week. 

It makes the presence of God seem more palpable.  It makes those things that once seemed impossible seem within reach. 

It makes one both relaxed beyond measure and compulsive without control:

I can’t stop taking photos of the ocean.

I can’t stop facing the waves and believing that eventually, I’ll be using them as a platform instead of having them use me as a chew toy.

I can’t stop looking for sea glass.




Today I spent hours organizing my words.  In Gmail alone, I created folders and tags and placed nearly 21,000 emails in their respective cyber-spaces. It was daunting.

I need to continue.  I sense a shift taking place within me, within the church I serve, and even, within increasingly larger circles of people with whom I interact or who I observe from a distance.  It is as if we are collectively saying, Enough.  We will figure this out.  We will reach toward each other.  We will find ways to live in peace.

It’s like clouds shifting gently in the sky, giving way to beauty that calls you by name.

This growing sense of community and hope is so strong that I feel called to prepare so that I might use my words to function within it as well as possible;  it is a privilege and a joy to be called to find and proclaim Good News in a time when people seem to especially long for it.  It’s a time in which I’m increasingly aware of the power of words and the ability they have to change the world by the ripples they create.

It was an unexpected reward then today, when I found some of Chase’s writing from his Sophomore year of high school.  As he begins his Sophomore year at Ohio Wesleyan, it seems fitting to invite you into the rewarding experience of reading some of his words in one of his earliest poems.  I just might get it written on one of my walls now that I live by the sea where the clouds change as often as the waves.  I don’t know how he could’ve described them any more completely.  Savor it;  perhaps even read it aloud as I did.  I dare you not to smile.


If I Were A Cloud

I would wander but I already do

I’d have another excuse to gaze at you

I’d spit rain and absorb evaporation

I’d turn into a dragon by means of imagination

I would be mammoth

and I would cast shadows

I would stand still with time and discuss box scores

I would be fluffy and probably pale

and over your beautiful face cast a veil

and amidst all this I think I’d find time

to gaze at the ground and wish it were mine.

to wish, to lust, to want to be free

to swim with the fishes and you in the sea!

–by Chase Montana Smith, 9/6/2010

Robin Williams

I heard the news from Adam, my first-born son, now 25, A text message:  Sad news: Robin Williams died.

Noooooooooooo was my first reply, followed by 3 more:

(Admittedly, it was mild, but it seemed terrilbly appropriate — even righteous — to cuss at the loss of this man).

And then:

Pure Genius. And we witnessed it. Live.
(Because, in fact, we had.)

And finally,
I’m so glad.

Because I so am glad.  Glad for his life.  Glad we saw him live.  Glad for his art that changed me for the better.

My son Adam inherited my father’s dry sense of humor even though he barely knew his grandpa. Adam’s wit is original, and quick, and unique.

You don’t always get it immediately, but as your mind processes what you just heard, you will laugh in a way that locks the moment into your memory so that you can tell the story for years to come.

Adam is extremely funny.  He can do impersonations that make those who witness them want to applaud.
So it seemed appropriate that for his 21st birthday, I took him to see Robin Williams Live.

He had given me a CD of Robin’s live comedy the previous Christmas.  It was, of course, horribly vulgar, and wet-your-pants funny. The afternoon that we watched it, we had to pause the double-CD several times to catch our breath, so that it took 4 hours to watch a 2 hour show.

When it was done, we were wrung out from laughing. And quiet. What can you add after watching such comedic genius? Even to repeat the punch lines like we so often do with comedy, seemed disrespectful of the artist.

To watch him perform was to imagine his mind firing at a maddening pace–his thoughts tumbling down his brain and out his mouth like pinballs in a machine, punctuated by neon lights and ringing  bells.  It had to be an exhausting thing just to live in his skin.

He was absolutely brilliant.

The night we saw him, he had about 18 glasses of water lined up on a table on the stage.   Nothing else.   As he told his epic tales, he could make you see not just the imaginary doorway he was walking through, but the faded red paint peeling off near the doorframe, and the fact that it was loose on the hinges. The door you couldn’t see was as funny as the stories you never wanted to forget.

He was just that good.

There were moments when it was awkward to be seeing his show with my just 21-year-old son. Williams had no boundaries when it came to topics – and one of his favorite topics was sex.

And that’s how I ended up sitting elbow to elbow with my boy, listening to a graphic description of childbirth…from the perspective of the exit door on the mother’s anatomy.  A willing victim, he completely had me.   Adam and I howled with laughter — and never looked at one another until the house lights were up, the 18 water glasses empty, and the standing ovation converted to sighs and shuffling feet.

I was a huge fan of Robin Williams. And not just for his comedy. I was a fan for his drama as well.  His performance in both The Fisher King and Moscow on the Hudson was as beautiful as it was painful. In Fisher King, he plays Parry, a man gone mad after witnessing the brutal and senseless murder of his beloved wife. Jeff Bridges plays the role of his friend who walks alongside him in his insanity. I could never bring myself to watch it again because the story was so raw – but I never forgot the performance. It seared itself into my soul.

In Moscow on the Hudson, he plays a Russian saxophone-player who defects in Bloomingdales in New York City. That single performance increased my compassion for what it must be like to move to another country and try to adapt to the new culture while simultaneously grieving the one you had left behind.  And it increased my sense of gratefulness that I was born in the United States.

Art does that. It touches your soul and changes you. It teaches you things you can’t forget even if you try. It enables us to walk in the shoes of even the most unlikely folks: those who have gone mad with grief and those who are permanently displaced and yet share the universal language of music.  Those rare individuals who can embody characters to create that art surely must be wired in ways we cannot understand, but somehow know– that to be in possession of their minds is to have both a profound blessing — and an unspeakable curse.

I imagine in the days to come we will hear about Williams’ lesser but more widely-known performances including the character of Mork, the alien. Undoubtedly we will hear his signature greeting, Good Morning Vietnam, repeatedly, as his artistry is recounted and our loss is quantified.

We will hear the details of his death, which will likely add up to suicide. And we will have no words to talk about the loss of another rare genius who became so tortured that he felt he had no options to endure life on planet earth even one more day.

But when I think of Robin Williams, I will always remember sitting in a dark theater in Columbus, Ohio, next to my 21-year-old son who was born with Williams’ knack for imitating people so well you want to stand up and applaud.

And I will always be grateful for his artistic genius and the gift he gave the world during his brief time here.

But most of all, I will hope that at last, he is the one now being healed by laughter, and I will imagine him walking through a door we can’t yet see, to a place where his demons will plague him no more.  I hope there’s a star on that door, and that it is bright as the sun.


animated-movies-voices-23.jpg (580×285)


Stained Glass at Advent Grace, Melbourne Beach, FL

Stained Glass at Advent Grace, Melbourne Beach, FL

You should hear our bands at Advent!  Last night, Non-Fiction did a version of Holy, Holy, Holy that was the best I’ve ever heard, with the organ coming in with the band on verse 3.  It made the words we were singing redundant to the moment we were experiencing.

You should hear the choirs, too.  We are beginning practice for our Fall Hymnfest now.  The amount of talent and creativity and dedication that goes into creating these musical events is as inspiring to behold as the event itself.

Heck, you should see the works of art our members design and create.  You should taste the wine with the new bread our bakers have been making.  You should touch the hands of those who stock our food pantry and plan our mission trips and create peace for those who know far too much anxiety.

I know.  I heard it long ago and I do  try to remember:  No one likes to be Should Upon.

But today, as we begin our summer series by contemplating the word, Create, I am wrestling with how to create an invitation for those who have a limited or inaccurate understanding of what it means to be part of a faith community.   And every time I try, my words seem inadequate–so that  all I can think to say is:  You Should come!

Go back! (I say to me.)   Walk in their shoes.  Remember what your life was like before you came to church.

But it’s a dim memory.  What is more vivid is this:   once I came, I couldn’t stay away long.   From the first time I walked in, at age 28, half-way through the service and long-past the sermon, my life began to change in ways I couldn’t anticipate and didn’t even know I wanted or needed.

Being part of the church has given my life more meaning.  My community, more depth.  My existence, purpose.

It has taught me lessons about community that were not always easy, but were most certainly necessary and helpful and good.

Maybe a disclaimer, would help, like on a bottle of medication:

The word Should is prescribed here as an invitation.  It is not for the use of guilt or to measure worth.

Apply Should liberally to the heart to provide relief from the bruises of life.

Repeat as necessary.  

Or maybe, it needs to come with examples for use, kind of like super glue:

Ways to use Should:

You should read City of Thieves-what a book!

You should listen to Delta Rae — what a band!

You should taste the Key Lime Pie in a Coconut at Billie’s at Melbourne Beach — what a creation!

Or…maybe if I keep trying, I could convey my real sense of longing to gather together those who do not know…

…you should’ve been there, when we gathered around her bed to sing as she lay dying, and could palpably sense God’s presence.

Create.  It’s what the Spirit does in us.  It’s what happens in faith communities all the time, and I know for sure  it’s what’s happening at Advent Lutheran Church in Melbourne.

So I’ll keep trying.  Because I know you are out there and I know we need to find one another.

You might not realize all that you’re missing by not coming to church…but we do.

All we are missing, is you.

We should invite you to come.


Pipe Organ and Cross at Advent Suntree, Melbourne FL

Pipe Organ and Cross at Advent Suntree, Melbourne FL



5-Points-DinerThe 5 Point Cafe in Belltown may be the best dive bar I’ve ever visited.

  • It has Steak-Bites, an afternoon snack of marinated grilled sirloin conveniently cut into 5 small cubes and served with a sauce you want to put on everything.
  • It’s open 24 hours.
  • It has a “Happy Hour Breakfast” from 6-9 that includes $ 4 French Toast dipped in Grand Marnier.

And it has a philosophy, printed in their menu, that I think Jesus would appreciate:

“Warning:  The 5 Point is a place open to all types of people, including those in various states of inebriation, and with sometimes extremely different political, religious, and social ideologies.  If you are easily offended, there’s a good chance you will be offended here.  We pour stiff drinks, play loud music, and serve large portions of the best diner food in Seattle, in a very casual atmosphere with a no-nonsense, irreverent attitude.  … Our loyal regulars have always loved our no-nonsense approach to customer service, and that’s why we have the best clientele anywhere in Seattle.  We are sorry if you are offended by the foul-mouthed security guys or rowdy strippers (or nurses, roofers, or off-work restaurant staff, etc.) sitting at the table next to you, or if you think that the music is too loud.  But these are our people, and we love them.  So love them too, or leave.”

It’s hard to miss the irony between how that stated philosophy plays out and the experience that keeps many away from churches today.  I think many people who want no part of organized religion might cite a story of  nonsense in a church community in which a  newcomer was rejected by the regulars because of a behavior, or a personal style choice, or a habit that made the faithful uncomfortable.    I wish I could say such stories did not exist.

Because in truth, there ARE people in the church who accept all people.  There ARE people in the church who are trying hard to love others as God intends.  There are many who take the example of Jesus Christ eating with sinners, forgiving the unforgiveable, and touching the untouchable seriously.  There are faithful people participating in organized religion whose lives demonstrate their connection to the Spirit of God in ways that I find downright humbling.

And, there are many in the church who don’t.  There are many who are well beyond not-accepting and have leapt headlong into rejecting.  There are some who still think that God loves only those who follow all the rules–as if this were even possible.  There are church members who seem to be eagerly anticipating the day when all those they judge unclean will be judged, smited, and condemned without mercy by a God who looks and behaves exactly the way they do.

And it makes me wonder:  how do we reconcile the two?  How do we help those who distrust the church to see the goodness within its walls when they may have experienced first-hand anything but goodness?   How do we help those who claim a status of “spiritual but not religious” understand that the church is a subset of the world and there is no perfect community–opposition exists in every community, including the church.

How do we welcome well while admitting that not all will welcome?

It tempts me to write a disclaimer for our bulletins, inspired by the philosophy of the 5 Points Diner:

“Warning:  The church is a place open to all types of people, including those with extremely different political, religious, and social ideologies.  If you are easily offended, there’s a good chance you will be offended here.  We are sorry if you are offended by the foul-mouthed security guys or rowdy strippers (or nurses, roofers, or off-work restaurant staff, etc.) sitting in the pew next to you.  We are equally sorry if you are offended by the lawyer or teacher or social worker who is here for the same reasons that you are:  to seek shelter from the storms of life that batter our hearts and leave our souls parched.  We believe that beyond what we think, wear, and do, we are all here to seek an encounter with the Holy One who, while beyond our comprehension, is not beyond our reach.  We believe that all people are God’s people and we love them.  Or at least we try.  And we invite you to join us in our effort, as flawed as it might be.  We believe the God who overcame death can make a way for everyone who comes, to stay. And we hope you will too.”

I don’t know.  Maybe if we were just that honest.  Just that clear about who we are–and who we aren’t–maybe the perception of what it means to embrace organized religion and attend church might change.  Or maybe at least, the church might become as genuinely welcoming as the folks on the patio of  the 5 Points Diner, when I was standing alone on the sidewalk nearby reading their irreverent neon signs.  The ones who noticed me, and beckoned from their tables, insisting, “eat here…you’ll love it…there’s plenty of room.”  The ones who pulled up a chair, and said, “C’mon…join us…yes, really!”

Until I did.


Sister Michelle is my colleague and friend here in Melbourne.  She grew up in a family of 8, the daughter of missionaries, in Kenya.  Today, she landed in Nairobi along with Kamy Jesse, who, though not yet 21, is on her second major church mission trip since graduation.  Together, they are going to help establish a school for very young children in Juba, South Sudan.   They will be gone three weeks.

Kamy and Sister Michelle are both tall, with hipster glasses, awesome hair, and dimples when they smile.  If they were planning to travel under the radar, I’m pretty sure they will fail.

Having Sister Michelle in my life is like having access to a culture and country I could otherwise only imagine–on-demand, via an IV drip into my veins.  Whenever I want, I can press the button and she will thrill me with a story of how she broke coconuts on the ground and drank the juice in Kenya, or what it was like to attend boarding school from the 3rd grade until she graduated.

She tells me words in Swahili and she posts photos on Instagram of exotic foods like Chapati that she is making for dinner.

She shows me how, in Africa, it is customary to wave at people with the back of your hands…the same motion we use to shoo people away from our presence, when they are sending greetings.  It is hard to do this without smiling, making a shooing motion at someone vigorously as a means of sending greetings.  She told the children at Advent that when she returns she will do this same motion to them, meaning the folks in Juba send their greetings here.

Sister Michelle is beautiful and eloquent and smart.   She is a dynamic teacher and planner.  We share a wry sense of humor and an interest in dark crime shows;  a country-music interest we try to keep under wraps, and a passion for social justice.  She sends me funny text messages with hashtags intended to offer me reassurance like #protectingyourstreetcred.

Last year at this time, she flew to Columbus to drive the Ryder truck to Florida with me.  I spent our initial time together assuring her that I was impressively organized and poised for this cross-country venture, because that’s how I roll:  in an impressively organized manner.

By now she has figured out that might’ve been a bit of an overstatement.

We lead children’s chapel for 50 preschoolers together on Wednesday mornings.  That is how I learned the hippo song, which, as most songs written for 3 year olds are, has embarrassing full-body motions that go with it and a whimsy that calls all ages to check their inhibition at the door and sing with abandon.  I do this more willingly than I like to admit.

I am proud of the work she and Kamy will do in the weeks ahead; the vision of these two gifted women sharing their love with children so far away, who need exactly the gifts they bring, is the stuff from which Award-winning picture books spring.

I imagine them greeting the children with hands that shoo them.

I imagine the ground in Juba shaking as the children learn the hippo song.

I imagine the lists and plans they will create late into the night when the 102° heat finally breaks and their minds are able to focus on the challenges of the day.

I imagine them collapsing onto minimalist cots, embraced so tightly by sleep they awake too early in the exact same position.

We call Michelle, Sister, because she is a consecrated deaconess, meaning she went through particular training, including seminary studies, and has been called to serve in our church in the areas of Word and Service.  The distinction between a Deaconess and a Pastor is a fine line and has to do with how a person feels led to use their gifts and live out their call in the world.  Sometimes people at our church confuse us, calling me Sister, which is a little funny since she is a good 8″ taller than me, but I don’t mind at all.

If you knew Sister Michelle, you’d know that to be confused with her, is a compliment.

When she reads this she will no doubt be a little embarrassed;  she’s not really one to talk about herself a lot.  Perhaps she will send me a hashtag greeting like #youareanidiot…and then tell me that in Swahili, this mean that she misses me very much.  Or.  That it means the exact same thing in Swahili as it does in English.

I cannot believe I serve a church that is invested enough in the world to willingly send two of our gifted women to Juba for the sake of a community of children we do not know.  I pray their journey is safe;  their mission blessed;  their return without complications.

In the meantime, I think about the fact that I am working under our same sun, while they prepare to sleep under our same moon, and I am honored to say that Advent Lutheran Church in Melbourne, Florida shoos our greetings to the community of Juba, from 7,389 miles away, planet Earth.

Juba sunset













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