On the walk to barnehage this morning, I met a fellow mom in drop-off mode. Like many of my neighbors, she wears her headscarf under her parka; her daughters toddle beside her in matching pink snowsuits. I've seen this mom many times before and, because I'm me, I always smile and say God morgen. This usually elicits the standard, solemn Norwegian nod. Today, though, she surprised me by responding.

We spoke in Norwegian for a minute or two about our kids and the school. Then I had to stop and apologize because I couldn't come up with a word. She smiled and told me, in English, that her Norwegian isn't perfect either. She learned English and Norwegian at the same time after moving here ten years ago as a refugee from Somalia. When she heard I'm from California, she said she has always wanted to visit the states.

"My best friend lives in Indiana now," she said. 

"Indiana is nice, too," I told her. "But not as nice as California."

We laughed. As we pulled up to the barnehage, she became serious.

"I want to visit her, but now... I don't when I'll see her again."

Somalia is on the President's list of banned Muslim-majority nations. 

I know as well as anyone that the plural of anecdote is not data. My conversation with a sweet lady from Somalia (who is, in some ways, better integrated to our host country than I am) doesn't prove that there aren't anti-American terrorists in her country. But President Trump's ban doesn't appear to be based on data or anecdote. 

The list of seven nations is conspicuously partial, excluding countries where Trump has business interests. It also doesn't include any of the countries that have actually been home to terrorists who have attacked the United States. As it stands, this ban is a careless, heartless move that serves to placate the President's most fearful constituents, and, possibly, to anger and distract the energies of his most ardent opponents.

Activists protest at the airports. The ACLU attempts to defend people whose rights are at risk. My Farsi- and Arabic-speaking friends volunteer as translators. My traveling husband decides exactly how much information he believes is pertinent to provide at passport control. (What will we say one day when asked about our religion at the American border?) Fighting ticks up in Ukraine. The EU takes a defensive stance against the American President. The world rages.

But here in Oslo today, I exchanged names and sincerity with a woman who was a stranger. We talked about helping one another with language. Because we're alike: immigrants, moms, kind people. This is one example of what writer and philosopher Rebecca Solnit describes as the "politics of prefiguration":

"[T]he idea that if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded. That is to say, if your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative, then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed. Activism, in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it's a temporary and local place, this paradise of participating, this vale where souls get made." -- Rebecca Solnit, "Getting the Hell Out of Paradise"

I know so many fellow liberals are feeling exhausted these days. Particularly white, straight, middle class liberals who aren't used to feeling required to play constant defense, for ourselves and for others. We're out of practice after eight years of nodding along to the progressive agenda of a President who had our respect. If any part of that describes you, I encourage you not to become fatigued. Live your activism; make it your home. Smile at strangers and be open-hearted. These little things will renew us, remind us why we're fighting.

If I've taken one positive thing from my conservative, religious upbringing it's the knowledge that a living witness is the most dynamic kind. Move through the world the way you want the world to be, and when you're reinvigorated or spurred to jump back in, pick up those signs and call those senators. It's your soul. Take care of it. It's your world. Change it.
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Cancer stole a friend yesterday. She was a bright light; a testament to resilience and strength; a writer; a ballerina; a lawyer; an optimist; a traveler; a champion. But most of all, she was a mom. She LOVED being a mom.

I was four months pregnant when we met at a writing conference in California, and I was clueless about how my life was about to shake and shatter and need to be pieced back together. Mimi opened her heart and poured the precise encouragement I needed into mine. She gave me precious advice. Something that I think about over and over.

No matter what happens, you are still you.
Above all, you are you.  In the darkest, crying night. In the longest, restless day.
And you are the person your kids watch and depend upon.
When they are scared or confused, when they need to explore and celebrate.
You are the person they need.
Even when you don't feel like what you have and are is enough.
It is.
You are.

I don't believe in coincidences. We met then because she was who I needed to meet then. Perhaps I was who she needed, too. She went now because now was her time to go, but it feels tragic. Like I didn't clap hard enough.

Here's the brilliant thing: Her words and positive energy remain in the lives of everyone who still stands in the world. That's immortality. And so, dear friends, I implore you to speak now, hug now, get together now, take pictures now, ask questions now, tell stories now, listen to one another now.

Love now.

Offered in memory of Mimi Chiang

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The husband and wife who stormed a work party and murdered 14 people in San Bernadino yesterday left behind 6,100 rounds of ammunition, dozens of unexploded bombs, and a six-month-old daughter. A six-month-old daughter. A six-month-old daughter.

Just when I didn't think these acts of terror could be any less explicable, a mother leaves her six-month-old daughter to follow her husband on an errand of murder and suicide. 

A six-month-old daughter. A six-month-old daughter.

***

My daughter just turned seven months. She is a delight. Her eyes are incredibly blue. Her cheeks are as soft as whipped cream. She is strong, dexterous, curious, patient, determined. Her innocence abounds. The only way I could abandon her on the way to commit an act of violence would be to do it on her behalf. To throw myself in front of her. A mama bear. Walking through fire because it's the only way to secure her safety. 

Maybe that's what this woman believed she was doing as she worked in her garage, fitting together the parts of a makeshift bomb. Or as she knelt to pray. Over and over again. 

I feel ill at the thought of this woman, because new motherhood binds us. I don't want to be anything like her, but we are alike, simply because having a new baby requires a level of base, primal, survivalist thinking that is unique. I know how many diapers this woman has changed. I know how long she has stood on aching feet, holding a warm, wiggling, wailing bundle. I know she has sung lullabies and blown tummy raspberries and counted piggy toes and played peek-a-boo endlessly. And I can't sync any of those rituals--rooted as they are in tending to the future--with someone who sought violence on any level.

Then again, mothers are sometimes soldiers.

***

"Tell me this isn't the worst the world has ever been." 

Yesterday, after the Hazelnut had been tucked into bed, I sat beside Jonathan and pleaded with him to help me sort these things through. The honey-sweet smell of our baby girl's freshly shampooed hair still clung to my nightshirt. "Tell me that we haven't brought her into the scariest time in history."

It took a few minutes of discussion before we agreed. 

No. The world has always appeared to be on the verge of absolute disintegration. World Wars and Cold Wars. Epidemics and pandemics and plagues. Holocaust and genocide. Religious fanatics and witch burnings. Mankind has been attempting to annihilate itself for centuries. The rise of mass shootings in the United States and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East are only the latest in a long, sad, predictable string of avoidable catastrophes, and have replaced things beaten back by the better elements of our society (e.g. HIV/AIDS and other diseases, destruction of the world's rainforests). 

This didn't cheer me up.

***

Since the November attacks in Paris, I've been sitting under an especially dark cloud. I still go out almost every day. I dutifully dress my baby girl in layers of wool and fleece, buckle her into her pram, pull a beanie low about my ears, and walk out the door. I remember where I was on 9/11, and I know that hiding at home and changing my personal prerogatives means the terrorists win. So, we go out.

Sleet melts in the gutters, and I move the way the Norwegians do on the colder days, leaned forward to avoid slipping on black ice between the painted white stripes in the crosswalk. The tree branches are bare and dripping with moisture in the perpetual shade of late-autumn this far north. Until recently, I have always felt safe in Oslo. Even after a Norwegian Christian man set off a bomb in front of the Labor Party's buildings downtown, then massacred almost 70 children on an island in the fjord, I have felt safe. But I'm losing my grip on that feeling.

A pair of cafés. A concert hall. A soccer stadium.

A work party.

A Planned Parenthood office.

A campground.

A shopping mall. A movie theater. An elementary school.

***

Today, Oslo's police force is armed. When we moved here, beat cops didn't carry guns, but that changed as terror threats against European cities began to rise. The government almost disarmed the police again recently, just days before Paris. Now I doubt my daughter will ever see the peaceful, optimistic city we once moved to. Rather, she'll grow up believing that all law enforcement officers must carry weapons because criminals are likewise armed, and she requires that level of protection.  

Perhaps she'll be right, too, which is more depressing.

Good god, what do I tell her. 

And who am I addressing when I say things like Good god

Every time I see a news story like this one, I hear Lieutenant Dan's voice in my head. Where the hell is this God of yours? he asks Forrest, a man of childlike faith. Indeed. Where the hell is this god of mine?

Politicians slink around and pay lip service and cower before the dismal and confounding fact of the NRA's power. Some of these politicians even claim to pray for an answer to tens of thousands of gun deaths. More than 330 mass shootings in 2015 alone. The Daily News ruffled some feathers today by declaring on its front page that God Isn't Fixing This. Which is true. It's not fixed. Some people think He can't, because He doesn't exist. Some think He won't, because He does exist, but He isn't involved in our everyday lives. Some think He can and will, and so they keep on praying. And some don't think about it at all, but toss out the sinfully easy hashtag with their morning coffee-and-status-update, as though that counts for something.

I did that after Paris, too. 

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Especially as I watch events unfold like the university massacre in Kenya--where 150 Christian students were executed for their beliefs by members of a terrorist group pretending to be acting in line with Islam--I begin to think religion is the bane of our world. When a father tosses his child into cold bay waters from high atop a freeway bridge, I doubt there is a god. When thousands of women and children in Nigeria remain missing after being kidnapped by terrorist groups like Boko Haram, I definitely doubt that the god up in his heaven is the one I've long believed I know. Still, my faith remains. Like lint on a black shirt. Like a cat hair interrupting the surface of a fresh cup of coffee. Like a plastic bag tangled in the branches of a tree. Inexplicable. Unexcisable. Inconvenient. 

I'm in the midst of a thoughtful and provocative anthology titled Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics & Atheists. Little interests me more than philosophical writing by poetic people on their personal systems of belief. Every one feels like a touchstone for me. They remind me to live an examined life. They remind me of all I have in common with the majority of mankind. It is a peaceful, hopeful, thoughtful, reasonable majority, and one I'm happy to point out does exist.

In Anne Perry's essay What Do I Believe?, I came across this gem:

That brings me face to face with my black dog of a word: obedience. I have no respect for disobedience nor for an instant do I advocate it. As children, we must begin by obeying. We are not safe to do anything else. But I want to move as fast as possible to the concept of learning, discovering, eventually doing the right thing because I understand it, and it is who I wish to be! To do something because I am told to and will be rewarded for it--or punished if I don't, or even to please God--is not a worthy purpose. It may have to be part of the process, but my goal is to become the person who does the brave, honest, or kind thing because it is my nature. It is not what I do; rather, it is who I am.

I want to be brave, not just look like it; be honest because I have no wish to lie, above all to myself. I want to help others because I see my own pain in theirs, and I want to ease it--for them, not for me. It may be a long journey!

Here in my safe, happy corner of Oslo, there is little I can do to stop angry, violent people from doing angry, violent things to those who are helplessly located in the path of destruction. All I have are my prayers and my vote to affect the big picture, and often both of these things seem laughably inadequate. But I can work on myself toward a definable end, namely the one Anne Perry so eloquently outlines here. I can examine my own life and actions and affect the people in my path, encouraging them to do the same. Who knows? Perhaps this butterfly effect will reach someone who has known real peril. Perhaps the good can still own the day.

As I close in on the birth date of my daughter, I'm also reassured by quotes like the one above. Life is a long journey, and hers is just beginning. Obedience will be one of her first, cognizant stages in life. She will be looking to Jonathan and me to guide her choices. But I will want her to know that we'll still be learning, too. That all of us are lumps of clay. 

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Where previously there was none, a flower blooms, a fruit suspends itself from the branch of a tree, and this is what we see: round, starburst thing. Velvet petals and smooth, rosy skin. Shape and matter, weight when we lift it between our own curious palms. Where did it come from? 

That might well have been Joseph's question as Mary swelled in front of him, soft and glowing with a future for which she'd never asked, and in which, Joseph held no physical stake. 

We now know all about fertilization: pollen grips stigma, sperm penetrates egg. Though it happens in the red-shadowed darkness, conception is not magic, either in flora or fauna. Unlikely to the point of miraculousness in its overwhelming repetition the world over, certainly, but not magic.

Yet, in those early days of prophets and shepherds, the spontaneous fire of life in the womb of his betrothed must have stymied Joseph. 

And what of Mary? A child herself in both age and stature, limited by social constructs and by her religion to a small geography and an abbreviated list of choices, most of life's mysteries likely seemed magical to Mary. 

Were the conception of her child not, in fact, immaculate, it is equally doubtful either that she consented to a lying down in the dark with a man not her betrothed, or that she understood the consequences of such actions.

Whatever the case, a blastocyst implanted itself in the ripened lining of Mary's uterus early in the spring of a year that would be zero. Was it the product of egg-meeting-sperm? Or egg-alone plus a tadpole-sized dose of the Holy Spirit? And does this matter?

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Holidays are here again. Jonathan and I just spent four days in Malmö, Sweden celebrating an expat Thanksgiving with friends. We hopped the DFDS overnight ferry home yesterday and enjoyed a buffet dinner full of Scandinavian holiday classics (ribbe, meatballs, potatoes, gravy, etc.). Pulling into Oslo this morning, we found Christmas in full swing. The Karl Johans gate julemarked is up and running; white lights are tangled in the trees; the large Christmas tree is up in the square in front of the university; and as we climbed the stairs to our apartment, we noticed that a tree full of lights had appeared in our building's backyard, too.

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Thankfully, I'd managed to be enough on the ball before we left last week to pull together our advent calendar. Since we married, I've made an advent calendar for Jonathan every year. Past models have included Christmas jokes, Christmas memories, quotes from Christmas movies. There are usually presents, too, of course, but I flatter myself that Jonathan looks forward to my wordplay more than he does to the goofy gifts I wrangle together.

This year, daily slips of paper suspended from a red velvet ribbon will be opened to reveal my own written version of The Nativity Story. The opening lines:

Where previously there was none, a flower blooms, a fruit suspends itself from the branch of a tree, and this is what we see: round, starburst thing. Velvet petals and smooth, rosy skin. Shape and matter, weight when we lift it between our own curious palms. Where did it come from?

Happy December, everyone! 

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Silence warmed the room. I considered my hands, my boots, the fibers of my jeans, the stacks of paper on shelves in the anteroom across from me. I counted books and meditated on paintings and faded photographs in frames on the walls. Without a clock in sight, I willingly lost track of time. People continued to enter the room. 

By and by, I found myself talking with God.

Though to put it that way makes it sound as if I received some answer, which I did not. But the silence flushed my mind clean of all distractions and opened up my channel of communication with the divine, which has existed since I was a small child. I have always spoken to God. Gently. Questioningly. The way I would address a dependable friend. This isn't something I've even considered prayer. It's a reflex. My thoughts are simply open, and sometimes directed skyward. But it's been a while since I've spent any time in this vein intentionally. 

Part of that has to do with the noise of my life. When I have downtime, even to cook or clean, the television is on to keep me company. When I walk somewhere in the city, I listen to podcasts. I begin and end my days at my computer or fingering the screen of my smart phone. That bright light--all those digital images and instantaneous updates from friends--is noise, too. It isn't that I can't tune it out; it's that I don't even try. I am complicit in a life lived noisily. 

There have been times in my life when I have dutifully given myself over to silence. Daily devotionals in high school. Writing sessions with friends. One weekend away at a remote hytte in Northern Norway. It is no surprise to me that these respites end with better writing from my pen or with a deep sense of personal peace.

For many years, my brother the Marine could only fall asleep at my parents' house with his stereo blaring or the TV on. I could not understand this. Or I could, but I didn't want to dwell on it. Silence did not comfort him. Even as he drifted off to sleep, he needed the backdrop of screaming, angry music.

I must admit that I cannot easily fall asleep in total silence either. We grew up with white noise at bedtime: a fan whirring in the hallway between our bedrooms. Today, my fan whirs atop my dresser, and Jonathan has gotten used to it. It's almost an addiction, me and this fan. But I don't really hear it. That's the way white noise works, as a regulator, a canvas against which I can experience the world with more control. I can fit my mind into a specific slot for that hour or two, let my hands and feet move as needed separately from it, and emerge sometime later, productive, though perhaps not in mind.

It's like hypnosis. The worlds of others--real and fictional--unfold as I fold laundry. My brain pulses with this information, none of it necessary, none of it satiating, all of it pleasurable. A low hum of mildly stimulating data, which I can release as quickly and as soon as I can see it. No one expects recall.

But what is sacrificed in this practice? Maybe I avoid admitting all this--avoid even acknowledging the problem--because to sit in silence and allow my thoughts, varied as they are, to find one another on the downhill, to trickle together until they become rivers, would be to stop denying the constant pain of the real world outside my carefully constructed bubble. 

Everywhere there is war, violence, mayhem. Everywhere disease, famine, abandonment. Everywhere hopelessness. It crushes me to read the news every day, which is something I do because I hate willful ignorance more than almost any other human tendency in this world.

There is so little I can do in the face of these large scale tragedies in the world that long ago I began to allow myself denial. A sweet balm. A heady temptation. To live here and now, to do right by my fellow man insofar as I interact with him daily. And to do nothing else. To pretend everything else happening to everyone else out of arm's reach isn't real. To shrug off the existence of these graver issues because I can string together 10,000 unaffected days, personally. 

I hate a hypocrite, especially when it's me. So, I give money to reputable organizations and inform myself about issues so that I may assuage the fear perpetuated by the media machine, both in myself and in others. And I live with white noise in the background.

This way, it remains easy to laugh at my husband's jokes or wipe my leftover dinner into the trashcan or spend two hours at a movie theater watching superheroes save the world from aliens. (Because invented superheroes require worthy foils. Because starving children and racial hatred and genocide as they exist today aren't flashy enough for the likes of Thor or Captain America.) With the white noise, I remain in control. 

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At a supermarket bakery in Bardufoss, Norway, Jonathan and I shared a baguette and waited for the pizza joint across the street to open at noon. The eating area at the Coop had quite a few tables inside. Older men chuckled and chatted in one corner, at a table which, I imagined, they've staked out for decades. I selected a table near the windows where we could people-watch.

A middle-aged man with shaggy blonde hair and glasses crossed the street toward the Coop. He wore a garish, oversized, Pac-Man sweater.

"Look," I said. "Inky, Pinky, Stinky, and Bob."

"Close," said Jonathan. "Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde."

On the black, metal lip of the window before us, a moth the size of my thumbnail flapped in vain against the glass. His antennae tested the air, full of fresh bakery smells--yeast, butter, cardamom--and the damp closeness of strangers escaping a light rain. 

As we ate and triple-checked the bus schedule, the moth struggled and fell. Struggled and fell. Over and over again he was defeated by the window. A hanging basket of pink flowers suspended from an exterior hook beside the market's sliding double doors seemed to be his objective.

Jonathan offered me the last bite.

The moth slumped over--like a sailboat taking on too much water--and lay on its side. Still, the antennae twitched, if half-heartedly.

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Not long ago, I read an article on BuzzFeed which caught the attention, once shared, of a large subset of my friends. Titled Why I Miss Being a Born-Again Christian, the op-ed related the Jessica Misener's journey from accepting Christ as her personal Lord and Savior at the age of 16, through high school youth group events, into college and its influx of both knowledge and doubt, etc. For some, the idea of reading about such a predictable "Jesus phase" might sound boring and tedious. For the rest of us, the article was like a walk down memory lane. Ms. Misener is also a gifted writer. A couple of my favorite lines:

To use the jargon of my former life, I became a "believer" in Christ shortly after my mom "got saved" -- the term evangelicals use to mean a conversion to a very specific kind of Christianity, the Billy Graham and gay Teletubbies kind that preaches Jesus as the only path to salvation.

and

Once at a college party, I tried to convince people not to drink by asking them to think deep existential thoughts about why they drank. (A beneficial thing to ponder, probably, but not one undergrads are dying to muse on between keg stands.) 

Yeah. it's familiar. Which, after a chuckle or two could have been the end of it. But a friend of mine from high school sent me an email in response:

That Buzzfeed article you posted a few days ago about the girl who misses being an evangelical got me thinking. I also identified with much of her story, and lately I've been debating whether or not I still want to claim the "Christian" label. I've definitely distanced myself from evangelical culture and flat out reject a lot of the views typically associated with evangelical Christianity (inerrancy and divinity of all scripture, beliefs about gender and sex, etc), but since that's the brand of Christian I've grown up in, I'm not quite sure how to be a Christian without being an evangelical one. I know a lot of things I don't believe anymore; I'm not sure what exactly I do believe. I do know that I miss feeling connected to a church community, and the sense of purpose and belonging and connection to divine that comes with it.

So I'm curious: you said you would still call yourself a Christian, and I'm wondering what that means for you, or how that plays out.

A perfect set of questions. Stuff Christians should, in my opinion, always be asking themselves and each other. The following is my reply:

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Easter is weird*. 

We Christians celebrate Easter as the day Jesus Christ raised himself from the dead, tossed off his shroud, rolled back his own tombstone and walked out into the world after three days of, well, death.

He spent the next forty days catching up with his followers, inviting them to touch his still-apparent wounds, and promising eternal life. Promises which came with a little more oomph now because he'd bounced back impressively from that brutal crucifixion.

To atheists, this celebration is ignorant and wrong. To Jews and Muslims, it's not wrong, just misplaced. And to agnostics... well, any excuse for a big lunch and bargain bags of Jelly Beans, am I right?

Which brings us to the other Easter. The one we do for the kids in America. Comedian Jim Gaffigan sums this up in 30 seconds. Obvious choices for a holiday rooted in resurrection: hardboiled eggs dyed bright colors and then hidden around a garden. Easter baskets filled with plastic grass. Chocolate kisses wrapped in pastel-colored foil, Jelly Beans, and Cadbury eggs. And all of it delivered overnight by Santa's bizarre, big-eared counterpart, the Easter Bunny.

But if you'd believe it, Easter in Norway is even weirder!

In the first place, Norway, a famously secular (or, at least, religiously skeptical) nation celebrates the heck out of Påske (Easter). Families fill their homes with the color yellow: yellow candles, yellow table cloths, wooden eggs painted yellow and suspended from doorframes with yellow ribbons. Then begins a season of holidays, the first being a five day weekend, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Monday. This Påskeferie (Easter holiday) finds every true Norwegian out of town, usually up in the mountains at a family cabin for some last-of-the-season skiing. Oslo and the other big cities empty and shut down. It's possible that some of these people begin their Easter Sunday reading the resurrection story from their KJV Bibles. Some probably gather in country churches to participate in Lutheran liturgies. He is Risen indeed. But mostly they're skiing, eating Kvikk Lunsj bars and oranges, and reading crime novels.

That's right. Crime novels. Påskekrim (Easter Crime) is possibly the weirdest part of Easter season in Norway. Every bookstore puts up huge displays of thrillers and crime stories. Special crime series are produced for TV and radio. And, the weird-beyond-weird part, is the peculiar change made to the dairy section of your local grocer in the interests of Påskekrim.

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Do you wake up, gaze out your window into the cold pre-dawn, and think, Bummer. Not Christmas yet. Just another ho-hum December day? If so, I've got a remedy! 

Observe the season of Advent with a calendar crafted to help you count down the mundane days of this long, dark month until you reach Christmas! What better way to celebrate Advent--to build up the anticipation of Christ's humble birth in a manger--than with twenty-four mornings of candy, gifts, and other commercialized paraphernalia?

No, really. It works great. I create an Advent Calendar for Jonathan each year. Always with a theme. In the past, I've opened his days with 24 Things I Love About You, 24 Disneyland Memories, 24 Photos of Us Around the World. That kind of thing. This year, I decided to do 24 Christmas Jokes! And the jokes I found were so funny, I just had to share them here for you, too. (And by "so funny", I mean that every one of these jokes must be followed by a nudge-nudge... do ya get it? Do ya?


#1 What is red, white and blue at Christmas time?

A sad candy cane.

#2 What do you get when you cross a snowman and a vampire?

Frostbite.

#3 Why did Santa call in a workplace psychologist?

Because his workers were suffering from low elf-esteem.

#4 What did the gingerbread man put on his bed?

Cookie sheets.

#5 What does Santa say when he walks backward?

Oh, oh, oh...

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My brother, Curtis, has a new blog, which I just discovered this week. Those of you who know Curtis won't be surprised that he has a lot to say about certain things, mostly regarding topics philosophical and/or political. I love that he's begun writing these things down and putting them out there for quasi-public consumption. He and I differ on a lot of things, but that's what discourse is all about. Intelligent debate. Not these vitriolic spit-fests leading up to political primaries, or the partisan finger-pointing and name-calling which inevitably arise once the elections are over. I'm talking about thoughtful, reasoned discussion.

Today, I commented on Curtis's blog for the first time. It's really a response to several of his posts thus far, but I enjoyed writing it out, so I thought I would share it here for fun. (Also to encourage anyone who likes to read Libertarian treatises on modern society to visit pCoast Compelled.)

In Curtis's most recent post--Thanksgiving. To who?--he makes the case for personal responsibility and congratulation. An excerpt:

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and as usual we all have many things to be thankful for.  After all that's what the coming holiday is all about.  But, in light of the current legislative terrors plaguing our society... I have a suggestion.  I think people ought to think carefully about what they're thankful for, but most importantly - who provided those things for them.

We did, as individuals, provide for ourselves our current circumstances... So thank yourself. If you did well in school, be grateful for having the courage to persevere.  If you landed a good job or kept one, be deeply appreciative of your own hard work and level headed decision making skills that made that possible.  If you bought a new car or made any life-changing purchase, be grateful for saving enough of your hard earned money to do so, or for having the backbone to set priorities and goals and follow them through while navigating the financial and legal processes.  If you have a wonderful spouse, be thankful that you have chosen to be attractive to that person (of course you'll want to keep this thought on the DL).

My comment is as follows:

Wow. Well, first, thank you for spilling your optimism about the average individual human all over the interwebs.

As I read through these initial posts, I found an interesting pattern. You're writing to a certain subset of people, and that subset holds close to a rubric set by your own life experience and personality. On Thanksgiving morning, you'll be patting yourself on the back for choosing a job which pays you enough money to be able to buy a new home. And you'll be praising yourself in the mirror for taking care of your own health. And you'll be looking at your brainy, beautiful wife and thinking, "It's a good thing I've actively made myself funny and handsome and successful enough that she wants to be with me." All across America, there may well be similar people giving themselves similar affirmations, but the grave weakness of this fallacy is in its incompleteness.

Allow me to apply what I'm talking about to my own life first. There are plenty of good things in my life which are here in spite of me or my choices. For example:

It will never cease to amaze me that I have the choice not to have children. Until the 1960s, married women either had kids until their bodies gave out, or they stonewalled their own husbands to reduce the odds of conception. Worldwide, women had only one dependable option to limit their family size: abstinence. A close second was abortion, which was illegal and, therefore, not widely available or safe when it could be obtained. The invention of the birth control pill and the legislative victories which made it legal are two things I can take ZERO credit for, but which affect me every day of my privileged life.

I am also thankful for the existence of extraordinary people who do good things for the world and spend their lives selflessly in service to their fellow man. Malala Yousafzai is one. Nelson Mandela is another. I am thankful for public defenders, inner-city teachers, first responders. I am thankful for my friend Jeremy, who pulled an unconscious woman from her burning vehicle and dragged her to safety. And for victims' rights advocates. And for people who pay for the coffee of the person behind them in line at Starbucks. And for whoever gave the homeless man on my street a new blanket and shoes last week. These people are empowered and making their own choices, and what they do has no direct effect on me whatsoever, but I am grateful to them. Humbled by them. Hopeful that there will always be people like that, because--on my worst days--I might need one of them, and--on my best days--I might be one of them.

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Someone must be last. That's the rule. And in my kingdom, this works out fine, because the last shall be first. Yet, this little leaf, now brown and curled around the edges, dampens even my spirits today. Perhaps it is the way it clings so hopefully to the branch. Well, last week, still surrounded on all sides by his family, his clinging might have been hopeful. Not so much now. Unflanked and exposed. His determination, then, brings me down a fraction of an inch. He won't give in to the turning of seasons--a process which has undergone more revolutions than anyone can count. Except me, of course.

Revolution: The act of rising up in defiance.

Each spring is something of a revolution, and even this last leaf has had his spring. That's the rule, too. I don't demand that the trees give up their leaves, all of them, at the close of the year. It's merely the way I built the machine. And the circumstances of spring--all noisy green, pushing up through the snow to hail the sun--seem like a victory. A resurrection. A thrilling surprise, at least for the new buds, the newly unscrolling leaves, green and emphatic. We live in spite of the death that came before!

But resurrections in my universe are also part of the plan. People were surprised by mine, you know. but make no mistake. What appeared a revolution embodied in a revived heart behind a stone was really ordained long ago. Back before there were springs at all, which is to say, back before there were winters. 

And so, even this last leaf must fall.

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Never kiss your sweetheart on a drawbridge. If the two sides can pull apart, so can the two of you. On the other hand, sharing a kiss on a solid cast bridge will give you an extra dose of luck and longevity. 

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The Potseluev Bridge in St. Petersburg spans the Moyka River. Every bar on the bridge is covered with shiny padlocks. Like diamonds or fish scales, they catch the light when the sun pushes between the clouds. Inscribed on the locks are the names of lovebirds, the dates of their unions. Declarations of everlasting love in a variety of languages.

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Driving along California's endless freeways you're bound to see a memorial. Heaps of fabric flowers, ragged under the hot sun, ragged in the windy backwash of speeding cars, clinging to chain link fences and sign posts. A simple cross. Faded plastic icons. Candles that can't hold a flame.

How long has it been there? This outpouring of love and grief.

In a moment, you're past it. Vaguely, you might think of the life or lives lost on that dusty spot, but there is no sense of eternal pain. No names. Though blood was spilled, the heat and wind make light of these things. 

Should that be?

Last month, I turned one of the ten thousand gray corners in St. Petersburg and came upon The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. A bizarre beauty, the cathedral was erected to commemorate the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. 

Under the rule of Alexander II, Russian serfdom was dissolved entirely, a progressive move that earned him the title Alexander the Liberator. But at the same time, his crackdown on the people of Poland was brutal. He began his reign with a speech in which he told Polish people across the Russian empire not to expect any freedom or equality in his eyes. This so-called "No Hope" speech fueled the fire leading to the January Uprising in 1863, ultimately suppressed by the Russian military after 18 months of fighting. The result? Hundreds of Poles were executed; thousands were exiled to Siberia. 

Yet, everything in history depends upon one's point of view. In Finland, Alexander II is still regarded as "The Good Tsar." 

On 1 March 1881, he stepped into his bullet-proof carriage, a gift from Napoleon, accompanied by an armed guard. Members of the Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will") movement waited in the crowds that lined the streets. The first bomb was tossed beneath the horses pulling the emperor's carriage. When Alexander emerged unhurt, a second bomber stepped forward and threw his package at the emperor's feet, crying out, "It is too early to thank God!"

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I've been accused of cowardice. 

Yesterday, I reached out and told someone that I didn't agree with him. Not a shocker. We don't agree on much. But I also told him, via a Private Message (PM), that he ought to be more careful of the kinds of things he posts on Facebook.

This particular young man has a habit of libeling our President, of posting items about the gun control debate that can only be described as antagonistic, and of bullying people who don't agree with him. I've seen him attack the character and convictions of individuals and groups. These social media choices mirror his real life actions: he lives unapologetically. Which is to say, he steamrolls through his conversations with deaf ears and blind eyes... self-righteous to the point of recklessness... and it pisses off a lot of people.

In this case, he shared a Reuters article about the defeat of gun control legislation in the senate with just one comment: "WOOHOO!!!!!" Unfortunately, the thumbnail that accompanied this article was a portrait of distraught parents in the wake of the Newtown school massacre. I doubt he selected this photo intentionally, but it was still insensitive. At best. In fact, after the correspondence that ensued in the wake of that post, I wouldn't put it past the guy to choose precisely that photo. You'll see what I mean in a minute.

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Which black hole has Audrey fallen down today, you ask? Well, I'll be happy to share. 

This video clip is one of dozens which has been posted by a Baptist preacher out of Tempe, Arizona in the last few years. This guy is a NUT JOB. Unfortunately, he's handsome (Jack from Lost, anyone?), affable, articulate, has ample proof of his personal virility (seven kids), and enjoys wearing a suit and tie. I say unfortunately because all of these things make him prime preacher material, whether or not he has any real handle on the Truth. 

Today alone, I've watched him preach on the role of women (surprise, he doesn't like Feminists), gender (he thinks women shouldn't wear pants), and our President (Barack Obama is the devil... "and get the hell out of my church if you don't want to hear it!"). 

In the clip I've posted, Pastor Steve Anderson holds forth on the "righteous government" which at least one of the original thirteen colonies had in place back in 1639. This government did away with jolly old religiously-persecutorial England's rule of law which included a whopping 150 crimes which were punishable by death. Whew. Because killing someone who forged a check is just dotty! And then the New Haveners in the Connecticut colony instated the Hebrew rule of law which had a much more reasonable list of 11 crimes punishable by death. 

You're wondering how this is better than the old British standard the colonists escaped, aren't you? Good news for check forgers: they just get time in the stocks. But the new and improved list includes the following crimes: 

  1. Murder
  2. Treason
  3. Perjury against the life of another
  4. Kidnapping
  5. Beastiality
  6. Sodomy ("Which is homosexuality... being GAY!" Wait for the jazz hands. Seriously excellent.)
  7. Adultery
  8. Blasphemy in the highest degree
  9. Idolatry
  10. Witchcraft
  11. Rebellion against parents

Now, I'm not going to get into a debate with anyone about capital punishment. At least not here. So, why post this? 

Because it frightens me and I want to call it out of the darkness by name.

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Are you Pro-Life or Pro-Choice? 

It's a stand which American society demands its participants take. This could have something to do with the rampant rise of ferociously conservative Christians in the Tea Party. Or it could be the natural aftermath of a still-raw wound since the strident political progress Feminists made in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Probably both. But the result is that everyone, even those technically untouched by the debate, must pick a side, and there is no secret option C.

As a Christian, I am familiar with this fight. There was a time when I gave Pro-Life speeches, debated Roe vs. Wade on the side of Wade. I manipulated statistics so they sounded as bad as possible. I played on sympathy and guilt. I used the famous photo of a doctor's finger being grabbed by the infinitesimal hand of a 21-week-old baby still in utero. Yes, I knew all the tactics cold. 

I was sixteen. As far as I knew, none of my friends or acquaintances had had an abortion. The three girls I knew who got pregnant in high school all opted to have and keep their children. More than that, I knew it was a choice I'd never have to make myself. I was committed to remaining sexually abstinent until marriage. This was a decision I made before converting to Christianity. I was influenced by my parents, who instilled in me a huge amount of self-respect when I was very young. Later, when the Church was vying for its young people to make purity promises to the Lord, I was a prime candidate to preach that one from the rooftops.

It was easy to be Pro-Life. 

Then life happened.

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In this 2011 documentary, four American Christian dudes travel all over Europe asking (pretty self-indulgent) questions about (high school level) theology and what it means to really (no, really dude) follow Jesus.

Now, these are four quintessential American-Christian-college guys. I feel like I know them, like I've talked to all of them... in youth groups, church lobbies, Campus Crusade gatherings, youth conferences, Christian concerts. Oh man. It's actually weirder than that. I feel like I was programmed to be able to find these guys in a crowd, to separate them from the herd, to stamp them with the possible-future-mate stamp that all Christian girls are given at birth. Clean cut, hyper masculine, endearingly naive (shallow), bashfully sensitive. Cracking jokes and dealing cliches like cards on the table.

But I'd love to know who said, "Finally, a Christian film that doesn't hold back." Because if these guys aren't holding back, then they've honest-to-God got NOTHING going on behind those beautiful, smiling faces.  

Winding their way from London to Barcelona to Rome (by accidental way of Geneva) to Budapest--you get the idea--the guys prompt themselves with the staple topics of any college small group: sex, alcohol, identity, fasting, giving to people in need. At the high point, they actually do GIVE to people in need. At the low point, they happen upon a nude beach (with actual hot people on it!) and decide this is the way God is telling them what to discuss that week. 

It's like God punched us in the face...

They can't read maps. They don't know how to ask a question that isn't loaded to the max. Yet I was mildly entertained. I'd guess that most people who spent their high school years grounded in church would find it nostalgic. Even the boys' personal moments, full of revelations about hypocricy and stumbling blocks, are sort of precious. 

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I am free! I am free!

These cries bring me to the window of my rooftop flat. The first English words I have understood within a burbling stream of mournful chanting. I learn toward the opening of the window, four inches, no more. The morning air meets my face, cool. The sky is blue and streaked with breezy, insubstantial clouds. It is early on Saturday, and I've been awake for less than fifteen minutes. The street far below me is empty, but I am not alone.

I am free! I am free!

It's uncanny how my mind separates the parts of this moment into pieces and analyzes them for me. The voice is a man's. A young man's. He is crying. I've been listening to him slyly, almost ashamed to be a part of something so private for a person I cannot know and do not, in fact, even see. This young man lives in one of the apartments across the street. He is exhausted. I can tell by the warbling crack in his voice. I am free! He stresses the word 'am,' and thus, he is less stating fact than he is pleading for it to be true.

Oh god! You are righteous and mighty! I believe! I believe!

The words come like a torrent. They are unending and mostly unintelligible to me. Another language, one with a thousand undulating foreign sounds. I scan the windows in the building across from me. A few are flung open; French doors on small balconies. In the floors that are lower than mine I can make out furniture shapes between curtains. A mirror above a fireplace. Coffee cups on kitchen tables. Nothing to signal the presence of a lonely, frightened mourner.

I live a life of value! I do! It is mine! And I am valuable!
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We have a green checked rug in our living room. Last summer we picked it up at IKEA, marked down on sale (a sign!), to fill the blank spot on the floor. It's bright and friendly and fits perfectly in the space. But that's not even the best part.

It doubles as a giant game board!

Checkers? Chess? Go? Not today. In honor of the (extremely cheesy) new Liam Neeson movie in American theaters this weekend, we thought we'd give Battleship a try.

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I made the aircraft carrier, battleship, submarine, destroyer, and patrol boat out of colored paper. Gray, of course, because battleships are gray. (I would've used my cherry-print or pink paisley paper to add a dash of ironic juxtaposition, but I'd already committed a fairly severe Battleship faux pas by referring to the pieces as "boats" rather than "ships," and was afraid of being hanged from the nearest yardarm.) Because the regular Battleship board is only 10 by 10, and our equally divided giant-board is 15 by 30, I was careful to scale the ships accordingly.
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I knew I would never see a woman in the pulpit of the church where I grew up. Knowing this didn't drive me out of that church for good, though it potentially should have. My failure to react definitively to that point did make me feel like a hypocrite for many years. How could I fault Mormons or Muslims or people of any other patriarchal faith and not admit the similar shortcomings of my own cult: non-denominational Christians?

How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:4)

Yet I kept attending occasional sermons, occasional Bible studies, and occasional Sunday school classes. I acted in our church theatrical productions and read verses aloud in front of the Sunday morning crowd. Why? When I was sometimes so vocally against what our church taught, supported, and forbade, and when other young men and women hoisted their principles and walked out the door, why did I stay?

Blogger Rachel Held Evans tackled the opposite question today in her post 15 Reasons I Left Church.  Among my favorites:

1. I left the church because I'm better at planning Bible studies than baby showers...but they only wanted me to plan baby showers.

5. I left the church because I believe the earth is 4.5 billion years old and that humans share a common ancestor with apes, which I was told was incompatible with my faith.

8. I left the church because it was often assumed that everyone in the congregation voted for Republicans.

9. I left the church because I felt like I was the only one troubled by stories of violence and misogyny and genocide found in the Bible, and I was tired of people telling me not to worry about it because "God's ways are higher than our ways."

I'm right there with Rachel on all of these issues, and I respect her right and her decision to leave an institution which made her feel this way. Yet, I know I'll be in the pews of the American Lutheran Congregation here in Oslo on Easter Sunday, and I'll be sharing a hymnal with my salvationally-skeptical husband. Why?
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At first I think it is a plane, the first star in the evening sky. So bright, it seems like the pearled end of a pin stuck through the fabric of the sky to hold it in place. So bright, I can see it even though the sun hasn't entirely set. I am caught by the beam of it, ensnared, drawn in. The sky is banded with the late-afternoon ripeness of the sunset, burnt orange, gray-green, turquoise. But the star shines through, so bright I can see it glitter. I understand why we draw stars the way we do, with flashy points signifying the burst of light in the night. 

This is the shortest day of the year. The first day of winter. As I walked home from the grocery store after lunch, the cold numbed my fingers, bare and hooked through the handles of my shopping bags. I hauled home my groceries: milk, juice, soda, a whole chicken for roasting on Christmas Day. I passed dogs wearing bright red sweaters and women in full-length fur coats. And now my neighborhood streets are almost empty, long before dinner time. The darkness has pressed us all indoors.

And perhaps because today has been so short, it has felt like one of the busiest days of all. I have run from one end of my flat to the other putting things away, hanging Christmas decorations, reorganizing cupboards. I have been writing and editing and revising. All the things I writer is supposed to do. My checklist for the day has been looking pretty good.

Then the star caught my eye.
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sponge.jpgThe sponge streaked over my kitchen counter removing all loose residue, but failed to budge a droplet of what looked like concrete which had adhered itself to the tiles. I flipped the sponge to its rougher side and took a few more passes over the splotch.  No effect.  It remained like an ancient ruin. I could tell it planned to outlast the ages, come rain or snow or sleet or me.

But I'm no quitter. So, I found a scraping tool and braced myself, taking a wide stance and flexing my triceps. The thing gave me naught but a stony glare.  I scraped and scraped and scraped, but it was useless.  I was attacking an ocean with a teaspoon.

This ridiculous battle should have been funny, but suddenly I found myself in tears. 

I was frustrated, but what's worse, I was defeated.  Not by the spot on my counter, but by a calendar, commitments and deadlines.  Everywhere I turn there seems to be something which I've promised, someone I've committed to meet, a homework assignment due, a departure time for a trip.  It's endless and it's all my fault.

You see, I like my life full.  Living is fun and beautiful and full of emotion.  I wake up every day happy to see the dawn, my husband, and a set of tasks which I'm entirely capable of doing.  However, on some days, the worst days, it is daunting.

Losing my grip in my empty kitchen was not the plan last night. I should have been sitting at a long table in a library classroom at the local community college conjugating verbs and answering questions about a little boy named Marcel... all in French, of course. But I'd discovered earlier in the day that I'd racked up too many absences via travels and long work days, etc., to maintain a good grade.  

Faced with the prospect of a shabby report card versus a lightening of my overall load for the rest of the year, I swallowed the horrible lump in my throat and opted to drop my French class.

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river3.jpgIn the poem Fire and Ice by Robert Frost, the speaker presents two schools of thought regarding the end of the world:

SOME say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate 
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

The point of the poem, however, does not lie in either side of the argument.  The speaker claims to "hold with those who favor fire," but his reasoning is not at issue, is not outlined for the reader to consider. Rather, the point of the poem lies in the irony of the truth behind the topic of discussion... that regardless of who is right about the way the world WILL end, either way WOULD work, and no matter how it is debated beforehand, no matter who believes what, when it happens, the world will be finished.  And the weight of that fact rather than the validity of either theory is what people should consider.

Robert Frost is mocking me. I learned this poem in sixth grade, and never could forget the biting irony behind it. But I love debate. I love a good mental tug-o-war...  

This is why I continue my dialogue about God and His current role in our lives with my dear friend (Meandering - Volume I, Meandering - Volume II).  It is why I look forward to her reactions to my contentions. It's healthy.  In the end, though, what we debate is not foundational, is not revolutionary, is not "salvational."  In the end, we're really on the same team. This is my counterpoint.  (Her points are in bold, and my responses follow.)

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God is love in the Old Testament and the New Testament... The latter half of the Old Testament is all about God's relationship with Israel and how He is dealing with their disobedience. (sidenote: the words "disobedience" and "obedience" imply a choice on the behalf of people. Otherwise it would not be obedience we would be functioning as robots, mindless zombies, etc.)

Your point about the words 'disobedience' and 'obedience' is quite valid.  Both imply choice.  The existence of both in the Bible implies that people chose to follow God's instructions or chose to stray.  Here's my issue with your reading of obedience in Biblical context.... You're applying a human take on the definition of 'obedience' and its antithesis to something Biblical. 

Remember that none of us has the capacity to achieve righteousness through our behavior, our actions, or our obedience.  Even when we "obey," we're still sinful and deserve death and nothing more.  So, Biblical definitions of obedience, in my opinion, do not necessarily tie-in with free will.  We live in a context which, for all intents and purposes, allows us to believe we have free will, but when we "obey" God, we're really only furthering His purpose, whether that means fulfilling the Great Commission, or barricading our hearts against the "present evil age" (Galatians), or merely providing Him with increased pleasure.  And no matter what is accomplished by our obedience, it works for the good He set forth long ago. 

No, I don't equate us to robots or zombies.  Rather, I think we may be more like chess pieces, but chess pieces who live lives which can appear to be personally fulfilling and inside our control even as we're furthering the playing out of His overarching game.

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IMG_0332.JPGCedar Grove Community Church is hosting a new Worship Bible Study at 6pm on Sunday nights. One of the discussions trailed over onto Facebook. The prompt was as follows:

I'd like to continue a discussion that we started at our Bible Study on Sunday night... here's the question: describe what you think about the Church (the global church, not any one particular one)... free association time.

Being given to diatribes, I thought I'd refrain this time, try to salvage what's left of the ever shrinking group of people who consider me "quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry." Everyone else knows me too well. But Pastor Tom nudged me, so... 

@TB: Here's my shot...
 

 

First, the global Christian church exists only insofar as we agree on the following: Jesus Christ was the one and only son of God, He died and rose again, and in doing so, He bridged the gap between sinners and their Creator.
 
But that's it. Beyond that sliver of dogma remain as many divisions and derisions about faith and salvation as there are human beings on the planet. And that's only when considering the global Christian church. Look outside those broad borders and the world according to its different beliefs is a jungle, savage and fascinating and desperate in its plight, and as worthy of our time and love as we were worthy of the time and love of Christ.
 
What do I think of the global church? Not much.

Let us not forget that the worst moments (and eras) of history have always come at those junctures when "righteous" men (and women) have sought the power to take over the world for God or god. Such misguided focus and greed has toppled empires.

Thus, I've often wondered whether the Christian community realizes that fighting against the separation of Church and State may not be in our own best interest. 

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river2.jpgTuesday nights, several young women and I get together at a local coffee shop for fellowship and coffee and a chance to vent and lean on one another.  It's a group which is ever evolving, changing locations, changing members.  We've discussed books by C.S. Lewis and Lauren Winner, chapters from the Bible, watched one another grow... and we've debated some of the big theological questions.  The biggest among them seems to boil down to the idea of predestination.

Time after time, we arrive at the doorstep of this idea.  I am on one side; the rest are on the other.  I am alone in my current belief that God knows and knew and designed it all and will not be thwarted by our own selfish plans.  I am alone in believing that reason and time do not apply to God at all, that He exists above and beyond and outside and in every other way as an exception to the rules by which we mortals, His creation, are bound.

Anyway, we debate this.  In particular my dear friend, who doesn't mind meandering with me through these discussions, debates this with me.  I posted the first installment of our written dialog about the concept earlier this month (Meandering - Volume I).  This is her rebuttal.  (My points are in bold, and her responses follow.)

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The grandest change of all was, of course, the new covenant of Jesus' blood...

We need to look at the idea of the "old covenant." I'm assuming you mean the implementation of the Ten Commandments and Levitical Law? But you could also mean the covenant God made with Abraham, or Noah for that matter. Regardless of which Old Testament covenant you look at, I'm not sure how I see how the old changed in relation to the new. Blood atonement was always needed in regards to sin. That did not change because Jesus came. What the covenant with Jesus did was simply to make the continual sacrifices unnecessary. He paid the price. He fulfilled the prophecies harkening all the way back to Abraham and Isaac on the mountain. I don't think the God of the Old Testament looks different than the God of the New Testament.

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meander.jpgI have a dear friend with deep convictions. When she curls up at the other end of my couch and wages theological battle against me, no matter how minor our topic might actually be, it makes me happy.  Talking with her like this, my twenty-one-year-old friend who is the essence of earnestness, gives me the oddly unsettling feeling that I'm actually sitting across from a version of my past self. 

Her volume, her animated hand gestures, her ferocious drive for truth, all of these things are familiar to me. Even when she is at her most combative, even when her voice reaches a decibel which is hard to hear, even when she uses expressions and phrases which could alienate her audience, I am rapt. You see, I know that her opinions are still evolving, something she alludes to though I don't think she grasps how hard evolution can be on one so vehement.  I have barely acknowledged that truth myself, but I'm learning. 

We aren't identical in all respects, though.  Not by a long shot.  Our biggest disagreement is rooted in the idea of Predestination.  Over time, I've come to align myself with this idea... that all which will be and all which has been is and was destined to be so, conceived and laid out and known by God.  My beloved friend "chooses" not to believe this way, and she defends her choice adeptly. 

Good news... sometimes our debates sometimes move from voice to paper.  (Her points are in bold. My responses to each point follow.)

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Why do we insist that God remain unchanging?
 
The very reason I have struggled with the Old Testament and its relevance is that it appears God "changed" multiple times. First Eden.  Then Noah's flood.  The appointment and removal of a series of kings.  The grandest change of all was, of course, the new covenant of Jesus' blood.  In this basic reading of the facts of Biblical history, it's not negotiable that God appears to change course frequently.  That's when it's most important to remember that our definitions are not God's own.  What I see as a 'change' is not/may not be that at all.  None of us are privy to His overarching plan.  We have His word, and that's all we have beyond our own, flawed intellects.
 
Being fortunate enough to exist after the sacrifice of Jesus, I have the luxury of surveying history in this broad sense and drawing conclusions based on Biblical principle.  My conclusion is this: God WAS, IS, WILL BE.  Never was the state of the world outside of his control.  Never is the condition of humanity a surprise to him.  In His perfection, change is unnecessary.
 
God is omnipotent.  If He wants to change, He can change.  But our God is also Perfect, All Sufficient, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Alpha and Omega, Everything.  It is not that I believe He cannot; it is not that I insist He must not.  There is simply no reason for Him to change.  And I'm not even talking about of mere human interpretation of reason.  I'm talking about infinite, supernatural reasoning.  Perfect is perfect, however you slice it.  God does not change because there is nothing for Him to change to that isn't in contradiction to Himself.

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Drops of perspiration trembled along my jawline, clustering defensively in the face of gravity, and then splashed onto my bare, pumping thighs. We have a 'new' exercise bike, gifted to us by a friend who has acquired truly new exercise equipment and needed the space. The bike sits in our loft, three feet from our giant television. From the seat, I can watch a full version of Friends while "biking" eight miles. It's new. It's not something I ever pictured myself doing in this house. But little in my life looks the way I once thought it would.

I'm married. That happened much sooner than I'd ever considered. I'm a cat owner, even while everyone knows that I am a big dog person... both in the sense that I love all dogs all the time, and that I especially love BIG dogs. I work as an Account Manager for a large commercial insurance firm. I work for my mom. I do not have an advanced degree. I have not moved away from Livermore. I have watched more X-Files episodes than I care to admit.

These are the facts. I lead a charmed life, an adventurous life, a life of love and activity and purpose. It's coming to terms with the truth that the purpose is so different than what I'd once believed that can sometimes trouble me. Only for a moment, though, and then I'm holding my husband's hand and we're off to have Chinese food before it's time to hit the gym.

Recently, Jon and I were asked about our "two-year plan."  Jon looked at me, and I nodded in agreement as I watched a wan, tepid smile appear on his handsome, thirty-year-old face.  Two-year plan? 

If we'd been asked that question two years ago, our Plan would have included home ownership.  That's why, last year at this time, we were in the throes of purchasing what we were thrilled to think of as our first home. That was shortly before the housing market collapsed around us. We'd imagined that town home as a buried treasure, a place meant just for us to find, within walking distance of all our favorite downtown spots, a sweetly priced deal for the size, a fun floor plan just begging for paint and artwork and furniture all our own.

But lenders ceased lending and, though we had our down payment prepared, though we'd signed all the papers, though the bank had 'okayed' the deal, our mortgage wouldn't come through.

We lost money on that process.  What's worse, we lost time, four summer months spent entirely focused on that purchase.  What's worst of all is that we lost our enthusiasm.

Today, neither of us is intrigued by the idea of home ownership. What ought to have been the next exciting adult step in our combined life has become a dreaded secondary path, something which we simply know will give us ulcers and bleed our savings dry.

And so, our response to the concept of any plan beyond the next month or so is sardonic.

To get around this, we deal in dreams rather than plans, and our biggest dream for the future includes living abroad for a couple of years.

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overlook.jpgYesterday, I listened to an interview with Erik Reece, an author and English professor at the University of Kentucky.  When he was young, he lost his preacher father to suicide.  Understandably, Reece grew up at odds with a church which pounded fear and guilt into (and, perhaps arguably, out of) the hearts of its parishioners.

Reece's childhood church burned down when he was seventeen years old, and he took this to be an omen that it was time for him to follow his own path into the world, rather than walking in the well trodden footprints of his father and grandfather, a charismatic preacher.  After his father's suicide, Reece's mother gave him the Bible which his father had kept close to him since his time in seminary.  It had been on the table beside the bed where he took his own life, and the page where the bookmark had been tucked opened to Matthew 10.

34 "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law-- 36 a man's enemies will be the members of his own household. 37 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is a passage with which many Christians struggle.  Christ, son of God, sinless lamb, bringer of a covenant founded on unconditional love, here proclaims his purpose to divide families and to bring a sword to the world.  This is not the peaceful, arms-wide-open image modern Christians like to project.  This Christ is, in the words of Erik Reece, an egomaniac.

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clownfish2.jpgHi Tom & Dave,
 
Thank you for the thorough comments on TGBTRD.  I appreciate your time, your words, and your insight.
 
TB: I wonder if the generalizations that you are making here are due to the fact that [CGCC's] main failing as a church has been how we are communicating our successes.  There is a lot more going on than meets the eye, and the leadership (including myself) have renewed our efforts to get the word out more broadly that there are amazing things happening.

My personal policy once I post a blog entry is to leave it exactly as I posted it, even when I later see things that ought to be changed... this keeps me accountable.  I want to acknowledge right now that in my entry entitled Calling for The Symbiotic Life, I was making some very broad generalizations. 
 
Cedar Grove Community Church continues to have active ministries.  In particular, the annual mission trips to Mexico are impactful and inspiring, and when a family in the church experiences the loss of a loved one, I know how quickly the forces mobilize to nurture the family, to provide all kinds of support, to fascilitate details, etc. 
 
When I said, "We are sluggish, we are despondent, and we are needy," I was speaking of a collective group, a majority which I see because I'm a part of it.  People who have stopped being more involved than putting in face time on Sunday mornings... people who haven't been tapped to make a difference in a while. 
 
Or maybe I only hope I'm a part of a group like the one I describe.  If it turns out I'm in the minority in wondering about the level of service at CGCC, on sides both active and passive, it makes me the reject, me the outcast, me the problem.  Now, I don't believe that's the case, but it could be.  Occasionally, I've been known to be wrong.  (Just ask my parents, my best friends, my husband.)
 
Perhaps you're right; perhaps CGCC's tendency towards humility is exactly what is keeping me (and others) from seeing burgeoning success.  Since humility is not something that must be "corrected," I don't know what the answer is to that particular problem.  What I can say is, people will see the fruits of service when they themselves have been served.  Or, and what I'd prefer, people will see the fruits of service when they themselves have taken part in the serving.
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clownfish.jpgPeople often ask me, "Where do you go to church?"

To which I reply, "Cedar Grove Community Church.  It's the one on College Avenue with all the big trees."

In Livermore and Pleasanton, that response is met with nodding and smiling.  People know my church.  It's lovely.  It's been there forever.  It's experienced a lot of very public turmoil with its neighbors due to past desires to expand.  But recently, expansion hasn't been at the forefront of CGCC's agenda.

Years ago, our church was thriving.  It housed a church body of believers who happily attended services on Sunday mornings for interesting, low-key sermons and the opportunity for fellowship, but who were also fed spiritually by a set of small groups which met all over the community. 

Our youth group was a place where teenagers felt safe, had fun, and wanted to bring their friends.  Those of us in the youth group who didn't feel spiritually challenged on Sunday mornings were met with productive solutions... separate Bible studies and the creation of a youth missions board.

Bolstered by a calendar jammed with activities, a vibrant, well organized program for children, and an overtly welcoming atmosphere, CGCC's church family was growing rapidly, and a plan to move to a new location was born from that optimistic, joyful foundation soil. 

A plot of land was purchased.  Architectural drawings of the new building were placed in the lobby.  Each elevation was crisp and sleek and bright, banked by panoramic views of purple vineyards and golden foothills, exactly the way a House of God should be.

Many of us can pinpoint the day all of those effectively-laid plans evaporated.  It had to do with CGCC jumping on a bandwagon. 

I've read parts of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, and it's an interesting and inspirational consideration of the purpose of human beings.  Congregations across America adopted the structure of the book in a movement focused on the Forty Days of Purpose and discovering church-level fulfillment, something that would, ideally, translate to discovery of personal fulfillment on the part of individual parishioners.

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manyclocks.jpg10:45 am

I am at work, seated in my gray chair at my gray desk, and pulling apart a 152-page insurance policy.  It's dry work, as much archeology as insurance.  Terms like "appurtenant buildings" and "business income and extra expense" are trapped within an ocean of doublespeak and redundancy, or so it appears.  Actually, when I read through the policy, I see that the puzzle of provisions and exclusions and give-backs does result in an accurate amount of coverage, that what I first perceived as repetitive is actually necessary.  Though dull and thick as lead, the policy language is not vague.
 
As I dissect the stack of papers, stapling and highlighting as I go, my brain dances along with the strains of music which flow through the ear bud placed delicately in my left ear.  Bluegrass makes the time fly.  The bounce of the banjos keeps me awake as I stumble through the eighteen pages of glossary terms.

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5:25 pm

It is the end of a workday and I'm driving home.  Around me, the river of cars is rushing eastbound in a race with the setting sun.  I am thinking of home.  My new writing studio is in working order.  Goldenrod curtains flutter at the open window.  A yellowed globe gives me a view of the world.  A framed photo of a turquoise door in Prague reminds me of all the potential which lies in an idea unopened, makes me want to fling open all of those ideas and get them down in print.  I want to be home and in my chair at my dark wood desk and tapping out my thoughts through the keys.

But traffic isn't helping me meet my desires.  We are slow.  Anxious drivers are flooring their gas pedals and speeding around slower cars as though they are the rocks in the stream.  I am prepared to hear horns and the crunching of metal and glass at any moment.  Driving in traffic is rarely peaceful, but I've noticed that tempers have been more accessible in recent months.

At least twice as week I see a truck cab of haggard men "keeping up foreign relations" with oblivious soccer moms who forget to check the blind spots of their buzzing, swinging SUVs.

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jesus_camp.jpgAlong with a group of Christian friends, I just sat through the controversial documentary Jesus Camp.  The movie profiles a fundamentalist group of Pentecostal Christians on their quest to "teach" the next generation what it means to follow Christ into "battle."  The children in this film, all appearing to be under the age of twelve, are ushered from their kitchen table home schools and their charismatic Sunday school classrooms to a summer camp in North Dakota. 

There they learn about Jesus as Lord, His death and resurrection, the salvation of mankind... all things I believe, too.  But the intense speakers, the comparison to preparation for war, the graphic visual aides... all of these smack of something different, something cult-like. 

The tear streaked faces of guilt-ridden seven-year-olds filled the screen as each of the children dropped to his or her knees and asked for forgiveness, accepted the cleansing of water splashed upon them from a Nestle water bottle brandished by the "minister." 

When this movie was released in 2006, the trailer was all I needed to remind me (and, I hoped, my fellow Christians) about the power of negative imagery involving the church and about our responsibility as Christians to portray the positive, loving side of our faith all the more to counteract such obvious exceptions to the rule.  But now having viewed the movie in it's entirety, I am struck by something else. 
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Often I find myself in concert in my car.  Air microphone.  Head dance choreography.  I do it all.  On the freeway.  In the parking lot.  Pulling into my garage.  I do it everywhere.

abbey.jpgFor Christmas, my friend Amy gave me two gifts.  One was a charitable donation in my name, a contribution to further the cause of providing clean water to the world.  The other gift was a CD.  You see, Amy works as a teacher in Capitola, but she also holds a part time job at a groovy little coffee shop in Santa Cruz called The Abbey.  The CD I unwrapped at Ya-Ya Christmas this year is a mix of songs by artists who have performed at The Abbey in the past.

As I thanked my best friend for her thoughtful gifts, I was already excited about the prospect of having a new soundtrack for my driving life.  The old Jessica/Fergie/Rhianna/Killers mixes were stale and had long since been thrust beneath the seats of Bronwyn (my Jeep) in disgust.  And while I remain loyal to KKIQ (FM 101.7 in the Tri-Valley), there's only so much of John Mayer that I can take without switching to talk radio for relief!
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21gs.jpgToday we honor our veterans, both dead and living, who have served in every war or conflict in which the United States has held a stake.  Both of my grandfathers and both of my grandfathers-in-law served in WWII.  My brothers, Ted and Curtis, are each in service to our military today, along with several of Jonathan's cousins.  I dedicate this entry to them.

I wake up in the morning and shower and drive to work.  I sell insurance.  I partake in hobbies and leisure activities.  Then I come home to share a hearth and a table and a bed with my husband, a man who also works on behalf of our nation's security.  I am like so many blessed people.  Freedom laces each of my personal moments.

I choose to drink a Diet Coke before 9:00 am.  I choose to take riding lessons at a local equestrian center.  I choose to attend a movie with my best friend on a Monday night.  I choose to worship God, travel the world, drive a car.  Every one of these choices is sacred in a sense, especially considering that there are those in the world today who are denied any and all of these things, and especially considering that there are thousands who have died in the pursuit of the preservation of these freedoms, petty or important as the case may be.

To me, Veteran's Day is the perfect time to begin an entire season of acknowledgment and charity.  We are fast approaching Thanksgiving, an American holiday initiated as a celebration of gratitude.  When newcomers to America were starving, those who had occupied this land for centuries, and who had every right to stave them off, chose instead to share a harvest, a bounty, an excess.  That day, that joint feast between Native Americans and Pilgrims (though most likely gilded by history), had nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with mercy and humility.

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hands.jpgA couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog entry entitled Prop 8 v. People in the Glass Houses. This entry quickly became the most viewed post on my blog in its nearly four-year history.  The topic of Gay Marriage is a hot button issue in our fair country, but especially in California, where voters passed Prop 8 and effectively amended our state constitution to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman.

The responses I received to my post were indicative of the rift between people on both sides of the issue.  Not only did I receive comments on the blog itself (which are included at the end of that entry), but people emailed me, called me, stopped me on the street.  For having such a small audience, my little blog suddenly became the crux of something very important.

Today, I received another comment on the post... this time from the instructor who led the Sunday school lesson which acted as the catalyst for my diatribe in the first place.  And here, I would like to take the opportunity to thank him for taking responsibility for the bad stuff, for explaining his original intentions that Sunday morning, and for setting an example of leadership and humility by doing so publicly (albeit on my little-known blog).
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8ball_0.jpgLast Sunday, my friends, my husband, and I attended our home church. We arrived in time for the lesson being taught in our Sunday School class about Old Testament prophesy. Questions arose, but went unanswered. Problems were acknowledged, but went unresolved. Then, out of nowhere, the topic of gay marriage was introduced to the room of college-age students. This could have been an uncomfortable moment for some folks anyway, but the instructor then proceeded to call for a vote... "This is a safe place to give your opinion. How many of you do not consider homosexuality to be a sin?"
 
I found the teacher's lack of foresight in initiating that conversation to be appalling.  You don't just jump into a debate on gay marriage in a room where the average age is 19, and all are assumed to be Christians, without some preparation.  And you definitely don't put people on the spot the way the teacher did to my friend, Eric and, in a secondary capacity, to my husband, Jonathan.  Jon was outraged by the whole thing and raised his hand to support Eric on that issue. Whether Jon has his own doubts about the sinfulness of homosexuality is beside the point; he would have raised his hand at that moment in support of our friend, one who had just been publically isolated, regardless.  I was proud of both of them for sticking their necks out.
 
From there, the best case scenario would have been to launch an even-handed debate on the topic, complete with prepared remarks from Eric and Jonathan and their opponents, and rounded out by the instructor's Biblical insights on the topic. Unfortunately, no one was prepared for that scenario, and so the matter was tossed haphazard into the Sunday School ring to be kicked around by the students. Those who were brave enough to state their opinions did so half-heartedly. Nothing was resolved.  What's worse, the instructor continuously referred to homosexual persons as "them," including the air quotes. He may have been kidding, but that doesn't matter. More than 20 young people left the room after that lesson confused and irritated.
 
So, I'd like to take this chance to postulate on the sensitive issue of gay marriage. If I'd had any clue that the Sunday School instructor was planning to light this match last weekend, I would have come with all of this prepared.

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woven.jpgWhen the World was less than nothing, God was sovereign.  He set Time in its track and knows the length of its course.  Creation of the living and the non-living, emotions and intentions, all of these He conceived first.  Nothing, no one, is outside of His absolute domain. 

Do I allow this consideration to affect my forethought regarding my government, my finances, my marriage, my potential children, my job...?

Ideally, I suppose I should spend more time considering the overall advancement of God's will when it comes to each of these important aspects of my life.  But I also believe that His case will be advanced even if I choose merely to take an active stance in these areas according to my own basic needs.

That may sound selfish or even lazy, but God is the Master Chess Player here.  He would sacrifice a Pawn for a Bishop in order to maintain His purpose, but this has nothing to do with the ranking of the pieces.  Rather, I know He would likewise sacrifice a Bishop for a Pawn if the greater plan for both was still to be achieved.

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This return to purity
--a slow, redundant walk
through mud I will always
know--
is cherished by the
most masochistic part
of my spotted heart.

The hot water bubbles
and makes me think
of gluttony
--the starving man's
delight.

But rising again
from the steaming bath
my shoulders burn
with the scalding necessity
of spotlessness
--before You.

And I step out to make
the loop of life
again.

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puzzlepiece.jpgNobody is perfect.  Each man and woman on this planet is different.  Fingerprints.  DNA.  The non-negotiables are all unique.  Is this chaos?

No.  Not in my mind.  What I perceive as chaotic is just the random, splotchy corner piece to a puzzle for which I have no guide to build.  The good news is that I am not meant to build this puzzle.  I serve a much simpler need, something not beyond my capacity as a mortal. 

If I step onto a bus and take a seat, there is a chance that my piece to the puzzle will lock perfectly with the person across the aisle from me.

A kiss on the forehead, my lips to a stranger's brow, might lock us together for an instant and set the puzzle on course to be built.  It was intended.  And I didn't need to see the beginning of her story or the outcome, because, after all, my life was impacted, too.

So, by some great rubric, I am perfect, but no mortal man represents the standard for perfection.  And yet, we ought not sell ourselves (or anyone else) short of this ultimate goal.

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swings.jpgMy be-denimed legs pumped, pushing the fragile night air out and away, back to the sky from whence God breathed.  I hung back in the swing, considering the coldness of the chain links beneath my clenched fingers.  It was Sunday night, and I was spending a few moments in prayer on a playground.

Jonathan and I had walked from our house to the little park around the corner.  It is a small park which includes the round-edged, plastic equipment which now dominates the majority of playgrounds in America (since someone somewhere decided metal slides and tire swings were dangerous).

I slid down the fireman's pole like a pro.  At one point in my life, I was a "pole-topper."  Not only were we required to drag our lithe, boney bodies up twenty-foot poles in P.E. class, but my dad required the same feat (faster) from my brothers and me on a weekly basis.  I loved locking my ankles around the pole and feeling the twinge of nerve pressed against my shin bone as I propelled myself up.  With each tug I became stronger.  It gave me strength.  It gave me pride.

Those poles can no longer be found on elementary school campuses.  Children today, battling obesity and, what I believe to be worse and perhaps the origin of the former, a pandemic of lethargy, are the poorer for it.

But the swings remain.

Swinging is an extraordinary pastime.  As a child, I used it as a way to burn excess energy before the end of recess, or to compete with my peers to discover who could fly highest.  But as an adult, I find that five minutes on the swings is simply soothing.  It encourages meditation with each pendulumic movement.  I ask a question on my way up and find my answer on the way down.  It is the rhythm of my heart, my mind.  A pulse.

My prayers take on the form a chant in my head.  Thankfulness.  Confession.  Thoughtfulness.  Requests.  Amen. 

I have many dreams.  Some I have related here in past posts.  Some I keep locked away in a secret spot in my brain.  Some I am still deciphering, trying to make sense of thoughts that seem to be way beyond my talents, way beyond my maturity level.  But even as I rise to the daily challenges of adult life, climbing the poles set before me in my career, my marriage, my walk with God, I discover that the most peaceful times are those spent like a child.  It is why I still watch old, innocent, black & white films.  Why Jon and I run off to Disneyland whenever possible.  Why I drink Capri Sun.  Why I don't mind when my brothers (and no one else) call me "Aud."

It is why I occasionally visit the local park at twilight and run headlong for the swings. 

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lunar_eclipse03-a.jpgA friend of mine, intrigued by a minor glimpse into my complicated system of religious beliefs, recently posed some questions for me via email.  He called his questions both "quick" and "rhetorical."  They turned out to be neither.

So, I thought it would be more efficient to post my response here (rather than sending my friend a perilously long response via email and potentially having to explain all of this again someday to other interested parties).

Context:

Last night, I mentioned that I had all but blasphemed at a recent meeting of my bible study group, by saying I choose to read the Old Testament (OT) of the Christian Bible as a metaphor.  I also cited a few of my specific issues with the OT.  My friend challenged my statements in a variety of ways... and this is the response I came up with:

I do not doubt history insofar as I recognize that it has long been transcribed by the winners. The underbelly of past politics, past wars, past revolutions, ugly or not, is often exposed despite historical accounts once taken as absolute truth. That being said, I do not doubt the historical context of the Bible. Slavery, oppression, famine, and ethnic cleansing... it all happened. And it continues to happen.

What is important to remember is that the Bible is not a complete history. The focus of its content is centered on a very narrow portion of the world. While we have archeological evidence that human beings existed all over the globe during Biblical times, there are no stories outside of the Middle Eastern zone. Our culture today is global, and the well educated have no choice but to view Life through a much wider lens.

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ladders.jpgI was recently asked if I considered myself to be a "good Christian."

My answer was, "Well, I'm a good person."

A good person obeys the law, loves her husband, encourages her friends, pays taxes and showers regularly.  And yes, with the exception of the occasional (unreasonable) speed limit, I fit this mold.

Not that I deserve accolades for it, or anything.  Being a good person is easy.

Stand up to give your seat to an elderly person on BART.  Drop your change in the tip cup at Starbucks.  Pay your late fees at the library.  Tell your coworker how much you love her new scarf.  It's easy.

 

And it has very little to do with being a Christian.

My Sunday school class recently spent the better part of an hour debating whether we could convey God's love to strangers by allowing extra cars to merge on 580 East during rush hour.  Leaving the room, Jonathan rolled his eyes.  Christianity as a lifestyle does, or should, trickle down into our everyday lives.  Our mundane activities should marinate in Christian values and virtues before we go about doing them.  But what does it really mean to be a "good Christian"? 

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There is a little girl in Georgia, Ashley, who has recently received the worst kind of news. She is not healthy. She is in dire need of all sorts of medical resources, the intelligence of doctors, the expertise of surgeons, the wisdom of counselors. She needs her parents' unfailing love, unflagging support. She needs hope.

I have long feared that prayer, the way I knew it when I was younger, does not actually work. There was a time when I absolutely believed that God listened when I spoke, stroked my hair when I needed Him, and, on very specific and memorable occasion, shut the power off at summer camp when I yelled at Him. We had a dialogue going every day.  I believed in the power of prayer to soften hearts, to make the meek strong, even to heal.

For several years now, though, I've fallen into a simple chatting-style conversation with God. When moments are dark, as they were with Mom's illness in January, I'll ask for help. But it doesn't always come. And when help does come, it often manifests itself in ways that are not of my understanding, or even to my liking.

Where will the help blossom in Ashley's life?

Her parents have been so optimistic, the picture of patience and faith, trusting God to guide them through this time, to touch the hearts and hands of the doctors involved in their child's life-or-death case.

Some people will pray for miracles, for the cancer to vanish overnight.

Some people will pray that God's will be done, even if it means the death of a little girl named Ashley and the breaking of her parents' hearts.

I cannot do that. God will do what he needs to do regardless. Or rather, if you don't believe in that sort of thing (as I sometimes don't), He'll allow to happen what he put into play, long before the world was set spinning in the universe.

I call myself a Christian. I call my happy life a blessing. When children become sick, my heart hurts, and I wonder about God's plan along with the rest of the world. I'll pray for what I needed when my mother was sick. Hope. I pray that the light of hope doesn't go out while this family is searching for it. A lighthouse. A nightlight. A hearth fire. A beacon.  Anything that will defend against despair.  God promises us eternal hope, anyway.  So, perhaps my time would be better served praying that Ashley and her family don't forget to look for hope, even when it doesn't fall immediately into their empty, waiting laps.

In fact, that's an awfully good prayer for the world in general. 

TGBTRD Entry No. 200 is dedicated to Mom, Mike, Ann & Ashley

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bart.jpgHooray! My broker's license class is over. *sigh* Now only a review session (Monday) and the 3-hour test (Thursday) stand in my way. Tomorrow it's back to work with Mom. And thank goodness. I learned to love San Francisco during this last week, the longest of my life. But I will NOT miss BART. Nope. BART may have zipped me to class each day, but there were so many weird people on that one train. And they all found a way to take my train, too. Let's list a few of my (least) favorites:

-Likes-To-Hear-Herself-Talk-Chick... the woman stood loudly joking to her friends about how she heard that, "George W. Bush can't even pro-NOUNCE Katrina! No, HA HA HA, SER-iously!" I wasn't the only one rolling my eyes and wishing that she'd lower her viewpoint by at least a decible.

-No-Sense-Of-Personal-Space-Guy... he found his way onto the train, cramming in just as the doors sucked shut and locked us all closely together. Very closely. At least you would have thought so. He was grabbing the ceiling rail right next to me, shoulder to my shoulder. I could feel his breath on me. And the best part was lurching to a stop and clunking knees with him. No, wait, the actual best part was looking around the car and noting all the space that was available for standing, but wasn't being used.

-Unnecessarily-Loud-Walkman-Dude... he pushed through the doors of the train, bringing with him the joyful beat of "Cellllabrate good times, Come on!" Technically the bass-less tune was pumping from the walkman he held in his hands. And why, you ask, could everyone else in the car hear the song, too? Well, the man had accidentally pulled the headphones from the walkman, letting the music play through the speakers alone. Wonderful! In fact, it made me want to celebrate.

-Woman-With-Excrutiatingly-Abnoxious-Children... I think her title speaks for itself. How sweet. Little Johnnie and Janie Junior were jumping back and forth over the seat in front of them, shrieking loudly all the way. Two! Four! Six! Eight! What don't we appreciate?! Children! Children! Ill-mannered Children!

-Self-Absorbed-Swearing-Guy-With-A-Phone... "Hello, Mike? Mike? This is Jeff. Yeah, I need you to fax those Z29 Forms over to the New York office right away. No, the guy in accounting over there is such a @(*)#! Listen, the Limited Real Estate Clause has to be revised. Do that. Give me a #)(*@&# break! I worked fourteen hours yesterday to keep the LA office off your @#)&. Yeah. Right." Click. Let's all hope those Z29s go through ASAP (Which he pronounced as if it were a word rather than an acronym. I hate that.).

-The-Ethnic-Food-Eater... Nothing against good food from any other country, but it smells. Whatever this woman was eating, at 6:45am, was barely contained in its little white styrofoam leftover box, and it was gross! Think seafood, curry, stinky cheese. Anything smelly. She ate it while we were all stuck together in that teensy, air-tight train car.

-Obscene-Lip-Licker-Guy... he got on the train at West Oakland station and, as we took off eastward, he looked directly at me and slowly, diliberately licked his lips. Ugh! I mean, I knew that kind of thing happened to people (unfortunately), but I really had hoped it wouldn't happen to me. At Lake Merritt station he detrained... one stop after he boarded... which made me wonder if he simply rode BART to lick his lips at poor, unsuspecting women. Gross.

-Wannabe-Thugs... two of them, sagging jeans, dirty tank tops, yelling obscenities at each other, shoving each other, laughing raucously at each other. Not a second thought about their inappropriate behavior. A whole trip home was disrupted as they swung on the ceiling bars like apes and disturbed little elderly ladies.

I'm sure there were more, but I'm blocking them from my memory. However, to be fair to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and the convenience it brings to our lives, there were a few nice people on the train. For instance:

-Mr. Chivalrous... a young man with a backpack and an Ipod who made sure to give up his seat for an elderly lady who boarded the train. He also made sure to let myself and another girl exit the train before the throng of crazed homegoers could trample us to the ground. A nice guy.

-The-Door-Catcher... who heard a frazzled cry to "Wait!" and stopped the doors from closing long enough for a young woman in a suit to slip onto the train at the last second. "Oh, thanks! I have a big meeting at 8:00!"

-All-People-Who-Put-Their-Phones-On-Vibrate... nothing pierces the early morning air and shatters the just-waking eardrums like a whining, polyphonic rendition of "Hit Me Baby, One More Time". Thank goodness for the considerate people who silenced their cells.

It balances out, I suppose. And it was so convenient to rise from the underground station via escalator, into the crisp city breeze and the bustle of the city morning. The city remains to be something of an anomaly to me, of course. But eventually the constant movement of all people and things became less incessant and more inspiring. These folks were busy and off to work. Dead leaves whisked along in the gutters with the wind. There is always someplace to go, something to do, someone to talk to.

sf_fog.jpgAnd there are always people who are stopped, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street, in the middle of their lives. These people, nameless, jobless, homeless, shameless people, hunker down at odd corners holding out their hands. It has always been hard for me to simply walk on by. But once, when my mom was driving through the city, a man walked up without warning and spit on her car window. Another time a friend of mine and his wife were mugged by such a man. I hate those stories.

Collectively these people scare us because they are the opposite of us and we don't understand such a drastic, even violent difference. I'm afraid, too. Still, while these people, usually men, lack so much, I have a hard time believing that they are all simply heartless, too. At some point they were all little boys who walked to school or threw paper airplanes or traded baseball cards. They have mothers and fathers, maybe siblings. Once they may even have had hope.

I walked up to one such man and dropped thirty-five cents, the change from my early morning diet Coke purchase, into his dirty, outstretched hands.

A friend of mine scoffed, "Audrey, don't to that. Some of these guys even have jobs, and just do this for the money." That could be true. I read somewhere about a CEO who was arrested for posing as a homeless man on his lunch breaks to bring in tax-free money. Something makes me think, though, that people like that are in the minority.

In New Orleans, people say, the majority of those who died or were stranded were poor, even homeless, and black. People accuse our president of using those statistics as a reason to delay recovery and relief. (I think this is terrible and absurd.)

Well, the man I gave change to for the last week is also poor, homeless and black. Maybe he's planning to pool the pitiful offerings of suckers like me and go out and buy liquor, and he'll wake up in that same stairwell every day, never shower, scare people with his degeneration. Or maybe he has a soul that is in need of just as much kindness as the people whom I look upon as my friends. Most likely both ideas are true.

I believe that we who are able to do for those less fortunate, "the least of these", are helping to continue an age-old tradition of charity and brotherly love. If the man sitting on the sidewalk claiming to be a "disabled veteran" and/or willing to "work for food" is already damned, nothing I can do will save him, and nothing I can do will hurt him any more than he is hurting already. This particular man smiled and blessed me. And I don't just push that aside. This is the very least I can do.

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jon_juggling.jpgThe fresh spring wind tosses the tree branches playfully at the corner of College and Arroyo. There, barricaded behind rows of palm and cedar trees, is my church, the place where my faith was forged by God.

I am chilled by the breeze as I sit in the crooked arm of a low hanging branch. This is a wonderful place to think. Many great decisions have been made after an hour in this tree. I pondered the meaning of life, the importance of friends, the inevitability of death, where to have lunch...

Every Fourth of July my church holds a picnic for everyone under these trees. (The picture is of Jon on July 4, 2003. He IS juggling flamingos; your eyes are not playing tricks on you.) The cedars shelter us from the blistering Livermore heat while we enjoy our fair country and her birth. We shower the ground with countless watermelon seeds and scraps of busted water balloons, all beneath the natural canopy of green.

One summer a boy from our church was killed in a car accident. A man and his liquor were the perpetrators. The boy's memorial service was held at the church, and we welcomed hundreds through the doors to sit, think and remember. To grieve. When the air inside became too thick with loss for me to stand, I escaped back outside to the tree, seeking again answers I already knew. I sat in this tree next to a friend whose faith was stronger than mine. He comforted me.

Growing up brings revelations, but it remains full of questions that cannot be answered. A man I knew for years as a strong, good, honest man, committed suicide. I'll never know why, and neither will his wife. And that man's best friend, another whom I considered to be the best, most faithful Christian and husband, left his own wife and child for a reason I simply cannot find. Not even with the help of the tree.

Why does God allow us the choice to leave life behind? I've known a few who have taken advantage of that choice, leaving grief and confusion behind for their families and friends. Maybe that was their point? Oh, I wish I knew.

In the shade of this tree I stood in my senior ball gown, linking arms with my closest friends, as we celebrated our graduation. We smiled so brightly! Let's make this a memory, we all thought, not knowing that later on the quickness with which we left behind our own youth would be painful to recall. Not knowing we'd want our childhoods back.

At this church I was married. On my way through the doors before the ceremony, with my dress and veil streaming behind me, I tossed a glance over my shoulder towards the tree. It was there, sturdy and still on the lawn. For a moment I really wanted to stop, blink and pause the swirling world around me, walk between the people frozen in time on that happiest of days, and walk humbly to the tree. I longed for it all to be that simple. But in mere seconds I was up the aisle and handed over and vowing and married and kissed and gone. Done! No time for the tree that day.

Once I was kissed here. A nice boy who is now a good man got up the courage to take a kiss from me. Or perhaps he gave it to me, his first kiss. Either way, the memory is pleasant. My, I was young. My youth group played games here, frisbee and capture the flag in careless loops in the dark amongst the grove we took for granted. When our church raises its new building on a plot of ground not far from this place, leaving this property forever, these trees, this particular tree, will be what is missing even in the midst of all the modernity and hope for perfection.

I believe this tree is where God sits each day, watching the people drive right by and into their own lives. He waits for me and you and everyone. The children climb on him, shimmying up the trunk, bare up to twelve feet from the ground except for that one swooping branch, and they drop to the ground in gales of laughter during a game of tag. God loves to let them play. He loves to let us think and pray.

When I do stop to allow the tree to work its magic, my faith is energized. I am pushed to remember all my blessings, to count them and care about them. I sit and think about the questions, big and small, answered and unanswered, important and impossible. And then I walk back to my life and spend my soul dry with worry and anxiety in the same old groove. But the tree will always be there, beckoning to me from the corner of College and Arroyo. There it will be in front of the church where God pulled me through everything that has happened in my short lifetime; and there He'll wait for me to return and remember it with Him.

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