Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Christmas Letter, 2009

It's usually about this time when I start thinking about whether or not to send Christmas cards. This year, I posed a question on Facebook to friends and family, inquiring whether or not these holiday greetings are obsolete. With today's technology we can e-mail greetings, which is much more cost effective and saves trees. What about the Christmas letter? I remember growing up they would start rolling in by now, some as long as two single space pages, recounting the year's activities. There was the annual letter from an uncle and aunt, the RV champs from California. Their yearly life summary would be read Christmas Day with dramatic intonation and gestures to liven up a very droll report. Then there was the family friend, a Vietnam Vet who wrote the parody of the Christmas letter. As the years went on, his letters seemed to get more twisted and bizarre, always detailing extreme scenarios and vivid descriptions of personal events one never, ever wanted to know. The tradition, however varied, set the standard by which I would come to write my own.

As a traveling gypsy (now retired,) my family and friends grew to expect that I would invariably report at least one of three events every year: a new address, a new job, and at least one major drama. I doubt anyone has ever kept the complete assortment of these annual accounts, but the collection would be interesting to review, from a historical perspective, of course. Study would show a questionable pattern of living, one that was uncertain, unstable, unpredictable. If anything, these letters revealed that I was most surely coming undone. I imagine most of the recipients of these letters exhaled a deep sigh of concern or consternation upon reading my sordid tales, "Poor child. When will she ever settle down and normalize?" I am happy to report that in September of 2008 I completely unraveled, and have since begun the process of sowing a new pattern, one of deliverance, peace, and glorious moments of pure joy!

I will avoid detailing "my time away" as I've come to call it, but I will say this much: last September I had a transformational experience that shifted my consciousness so dramatically, those who knew me before this time would hardly recognize the new me were we to have an in- depth discussion on just about any subject. I view every aspect of living with different eyes, especially those two topics nobody ever wants to talk about over dinner: politics and religion. Before, I was a radically liberal, pro-choice, pro-whatever works for you, progressive democrat, universally circular on all matters traditionally unilateral, and would twirl and spin in the gray area just for the sake of argument. This consciousness was reflected in my lifestyle, and was as confusing and ambiguous as the former sentence. Now, I see things more clearly, fresh, new. I strip everything down to it's spiritual essence, to the fundamental and, as some may contend, narrow, simple truth. I expect I will lose friends because of this. It is written that those who follow this path with lose their life. Mothers will turn from their daughters, brother will be set against brother, husband against wife. I do not look forward to that time, if it should come, but I would gladly exchange my old life for what I have only begun to experience in this first year of my renewing.

With that said, I want to assure my family and friends, especially those who've know me since childhood that some things haven't changed: my sense of humor, my periodic urges to commit random acts of senseless spontaneity, my emotional sensitivity and deep compassion for those who are suffering. Even better, what was once lost, broken, corrupted, perverted, or hardened from life's trials, has returned. Hope. Great expectations. Belief in promises. I smile more, sometimes for so long my cheeks hurt (the muscles are unfamiliar with such strain, but they are stretching and strengthening with continued exercise.) I watch less drama, and seek out comedies, and yes, even musicals, ("The hills are alive/with the sound of music/aah-aaaaaaa-aah. That's how I feel!) Those desires from childhood that were rich and wonderful have come back to me. I wanna help people. I want to roll down hills and climb trees, and bake cookies. And I'm singing again, even making up my own songs! Though I'd choose the blues song "Good Morning Heartache" by Billie Holiday on karaoke night, I would do so only because I'm still an alto and I know all the words by heart.

Of course, having a four-year-old to play with makes all this change as accommodating as free shipping on Amazon (my shopping habits haven't changed either, I still don't like the mall, though I'll admit, I went twice in the last month and I didn't feel like I was going to hurt anybody.) This year she requested a guitar, a scooter, and a vacuum cleaner (? - yeh, I thought the same thing; my old women's liberation spirit reared her head on that last one.) I found two out of three on Amazon. If anyone knows how to tune a guitar, I'd appreciate a quick lesson. I also got her a full cleaning set, all pink. It comes with a vacuum, duster, broom & dustpan with the cart to hold everything. (It was less than $20, what can I say? At least, I know she's cultivating a clean spirit!) The big ticket item was a digital camera, as bulky as the first cellular phones ever made, one that can be dropped repeatedly without damage. This is in response to her incessant pleading at every photographic moment, "I wanna do it! Please mama, I'll be very careful." She looks at me with her academy award-winning puppy-dog eyes, and reaches for my antique 35 millimeter camera. Yeh, like that's ever gonna happen. "No, it's my camera! Mine!" (That childhood possessiveness has returned as well.) I am excited to give Edojah his gift; it's a classic. He's reading well, so I got him the choose-your-own adventure series that started my childhood love for reading. His birthday falls a few days after Christmas; I'm hoping to win on eBay his birthday gift; another classic, (I'm battling bids for battleship - one of the top three board games of all time, just after monopoly and scrabble.)

This year has been full of all the moments humans come to appreciate, especially during difficult times. Yes, 2009 has been trying, but the trials have exercised my strength and faith, and exorcised the demons of fear and doubt. The slide show below tells our story for the year. We have smiled from cheek to cheek, and leaped in the air for no apparent reason other than for the fun of it. We've also worried about our future, refused to smile, and mourned great loss, (rest in peace Grandpa.) Still, we celebrated birthdays, a new baby, (Rio's cousin) and weddings (brother on father's side, and sister on mother's side.) We played on the beach, went horse back riding, paddled down one river in Florida, and up another in Oregon, and enjoyed a road trip to see family (and father) in North Carolina. We played dress up, gave group hugs, planted seeds, and made peace. We glorified God in our songs of praise (and will again this weekend, pictures will be forthcoming) and showed faces full of love. These words and images are testimony to how good God has been this year, as He always has been, and always will be. I am so thankful that now I see. I mean, really see.

Have my external circumstances changed? No. I'm still underemployed (working part-time waiting tables at a local Mexican restaurant and as a writing lab specialist at Santa Fe College, helping students write their essays.) Karibi and I are divorced, finalized in March, (but if it's God's will, nothing is final.) I'm still uncertain about my direction. Where am I going? and How do I get there? are questions that remain unanswered, but now I am more confident in my guide. There is light above me, and in me, and though it has yet to shine upon the next step, I trust He will, and at just the right time.

I'm looking forward to Brianna's visit. She arrives from Cali on the 26th. I'd like to take a road trip up north to go play in the snow. That's my Christmas wish. In the coming year, I will strive to exercise more, eat breakfast every day, and reduce my just-before-bed munching (I haven't been delivered from that bad habit, but there are some battles I must fight on my own!) I plan to continue writing; I am now a "truthseeker" on www.cultureunplugged.com. As a regular contributor I get paid to write about media, film, culture and consciousness. It's my best (and first) paid writing gig yet! Thanks to those of you who have taken the time to read the articles I submit. Your comments are encouraging and add support to my value as a writer.

To all my friends and family who have not yet done so, (or tried, failed, tried again, fell, gave up and now don't know what to do,) I encourage you to come to the Father. Step out in faith, with a heart like a child. Consider it your second childhood! I pray you experience the hope and joy and peace in Christ; even though December 25th was not his actual birthday, it's as good a day as any to remember the spirit in which He came, as the ultimate Christmas present. His life and sacrifice is a gift "gooder" (as Grandpa Pete would say) than any man, woman or child could ever hope to receive, whether naughty or nice. Praise God that He loves us so much! May you accept His love, dwell in it, and share it with all you meet this season, and in the year to come.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Liberte Dentro: Free Within

The heart of Cuba is in her smile: humbly worn, spilling over boundaries, a welcome warm embrace. The smallest of her fruits color the greatness of her spirit. Laughter is her song. Solo artists and choir sing praises to her Creator. Her beauty lies in recovery, trash turned into treasure. Simplicity softens hard brick walls. Her skeletons frame every cornerstone. Each shelter an entrance to her story that never fades, its fullness rarely known. Her steps, heavy, carry glory. Active service clears the way. Gathered treasures leave bare behind. On the way now, just around the corner. From home, made fresh. Rough shells pared, made ready. Her strength moves divers ways. The hem of her shores provide means. Her fruits bitter sweet. Hand picked, refined choice. She shares her troubles with cups of comfort. What was lost is found in her eyes. Posted battle scars display her courage. Exposed stains prove labor well done. Refuse reveals what is most used. Delicate sorrows laced with blooming joy. She has everything to offer – by pound, dozen, liter, ounce – her harvest is delivered with an easy yoke. No movement is in vain; driven by purpose, her will makes a way. She approaches with boldness. Even in stillness she lays with classic grace. Her breath in every petal, her voice in every stone. Every creature, every element, every inch of earth her home. Witness character, common fellowship. Casual, seasoned. Heroic poise. Her cry, a silent light in darkness, heard and seen by heart. All parts of her come together for good to them who trust God’s glory is at work. Her emptiness, a window to the promise her children possess. The Lord’s hand is upon her, her spirit richly blessed. And though the roads are narrow, often traveled alone, they are always open, and they all lead to home.

Vision is biased; like beliefs we selectively choose what we want to see. Our eyes are drawn to specific people, places and things because of our thoughts and personalities. An empty milk jug is garbage to one observer, to another it is a planter. What something is depends on who is observing the object. This is true for the manner is which we view one another as well. A woman and child may appear physically poor and hungry, or rich and full in spirit. To me she may expose what is wrong with a country - oppressed and forsaken - or her struggle could reveal a country’s hope and path to liberty.    

I had double vision in Cuba. Because I live in America as a person of color, I have mastered the art of maintaining what W.E.B. Dubois called a double consciousness. Discord can be harmonized into jazz. The dissonance can create a tension that makes one feel more alive and present in the moment. Still, my American perspective inherently blurs my testimony. Even with a rather liberal consciousness, I had a hard time viewing those standing in line for a liter of milk as liberated. But I had no context, no reference point from which to compare what was with what is. Was American exploitation less evil than Cuban oppression? Subjugation less offensive than domination? Elitism less marginalizing than restricted freedom? True, no citizen of Cuba has more than the other. There is no black or white social stratification system, no upper, middle or lower economic classes. Everyone is equal; but everyone is poor. Is it better that a people are all in the same boat, even if that boat is sinking? Better to die together than alone?   

This was the most notable character of Cuba. The sense of obligation to community stands in sharp contrast to American society. We have to work at building what Cubans rely upon for basic survival. Ours is a choice, a leisure agreement to cooperate with one another, fueled by a desire to live more sustainably. Theirs is a need, an urgent concession each person must make if she hopes to live a minimal existence. Despite the forced nature of community, the people of Florencia, Cuba possess a gift that has been lost in American culture, replaced by acute cases of individualism and isolation. The people of Cuba greet one another with genuine care and concern for the other’s well being. A personal visit occurs as often as we make trips to the grocery store or check e-mail. They stop in the middle of their coming or going to speak, even if they just shared a cup of coffee earlier that morning. Honest fellowship is a standard of living that far exceeds the value of our perceived freedom of choice between coke or pepsi.    

The most inspirational population is common in both countries; Cuban and American children rrepresent the best in humanity. Their transparency creates authentic connections and honest communication even without the benefit of a common language. I noticed that though all children love to play, some do so with a higher intensity that borders on frenzy, devouring the opportunity to be children, absorbing the attention like our most deficit American kid. In this respect, children in Florencia mirror the energy of our youngest at-risk, traditionally disenfranchised American children, though without the behavioral issues, (a difference in Cuba which may be related to heavier demands for discipline and compliance with authority.)   The greatest impression is what serves as my motivation today. I first saw it during our play time with the children. The game was simple, act out an animal well enough that we can guess the animal. When given the choice to be whatever they wanted, children and adults participated with a fervor I would expect at a college championship game. This fire, so easily kindled, spoke to my spirit. No matter our cross, God has placed liberation on our hearts. We all long to be free within.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Suffering Movement

Called to Question
Not a day goes by that I don’t question life. I have the mind of a four-year-old at times; it’s not the questions of who, what, when, or where that give me pause, but why?
Much of this inquiry has been internal. Why am I the way I am? The manner in which I define my identity is often determined by the answers given to this central question. This curiosity is then extended beyond the boundaries of my own skin. Why are people the way they are? What moves them to do what they do?
Of course there are the socio-psychological reasons, contextual clues that come together as a confluence of forces over which it seems we have no control: race, class, gender, nationality and so on. Demographics have become demigods, cultural inventions to which we honor and obey, often painfully contorting our round persons into square specifications. I believe this marks the beginning of our suffering in life. Suffering is, in fact, a universal truth that crosses cultural and geographic lines. Though degrees of suffering vary, no one is immune.
All religions try to address the issue. I have found the most honest philosophy to be that of the Buddhist: Life is suffering. Such a simple answer, however, inevitably leads the four-year-old to put her hands on her hips and ask, “But why?”

Some Answers Create More Problems
Why are children molested? Why are women raped? Why are civilians killed? Why do so few have everything while the rest of us struggle just to maintain? The Buddhists would answer that we suffer because of our desires. I agree with this in material terms but have yet to see how it responds to the above questions. Under this philosophy, children desire to be safe and protected, therefore they must let go of this desire to be free from suffering. Women are attached to the idea that their body is sacred and should not be violated; if they release their ideas about what is sacred could they reach a state of nirvana while being raped?
Obviously, this last thought is an extreme oversimplification, and it is not my intention to offend. I recognize the wisdom in much of what Buddha teaches as a very complex form of simplicity. As I grow older, however, complex theories only compound my dissatisfaction. Perhaps America’s culture of instant gratification has permeated my shield against worldliness, but I need to simplify the complicated world in which we live. Yes, this is clearly a desire, and if I simply let go of my attachment to understanding life, I will be at peace. This is one reason why I am not a Buddhist.

Still, I can see the appeal in Eastern religions. They are somewhat passive, in stark contrast to the often aggressive extremism found in some versions of Christianity and Islam. To a Buddhist, all struggle and tension are released. More to the point, under this philosophy there is a notion that offers a reason behind our suffering; karma suggests that we are all receiving our spiritual inheritance. I suffer due to bad karma, inherited because of something I did in a previous lifetime. Men in this life mistreated me, not because I allowed them, but because I was a womanizer in my past life. I am poor and needy now, not because I made unwise financial decisions, but because I was rich and selfish then. I must have also abused and neglected children. Because of this past, one I can only imagine, suffering is necessary in order for me to pay for previous sins.

There was a point in my spiritual development when I bought into the basics of karmic law, but I was misguided. I created much of own suffering to speed up the karmic process, hoping I could pay off the debt from my past life sooner. The problem with this way of thinking is obvious to any spiritually mature person: one can never know in this life the amount owed from the past. It can only be assumed based on how much one suffers - the greater the suffrage in this life, the more heinous the deed must have been in the past life.
There are some traditions, the ancient Vedanta for example, that believe God may sometimes intervene in dispensing the karma due, but only a spiritual master can tell you “the sequence in which our Karma will bear fruit.”[i] But what if the master delivers bad news: Sorry, it seems you are destined to pay the amount in full. I would pray the amount didn’t include capitalized interest! Jokes aside, there is a disarming dilemma in karmic belief systems: if one is powerless in influencing his own condition, why bother?
Karma can easily lead to excusing ourselves from the hard work of healing and living healthier in this life. Worse, if we believe we get another life after this one, what’s to keep us from relishing every inch of our fleshly desires? In today’s American society, too many conform to the “play now, pay later” mentality. If karma is true, Americans in particular will be paying off spiritual debts for many lives to come.

Christianity's "Karmic" Solution
Of course there are other, more evolved ways we can engage karma, and though it is not called karma, Christianity shares similar views. You reap what you sow. What you put out comes back to you tenfold. These phrases suggest there is a choice in the cause that creates the effect. They resonate with what is supported by science: the law of attraction - like attracts like. Negative spirits seek and invariably finds negative spirits. If my life force steals from the Creating life force, I’m destined to be bankrupt in the end. If, however, I give selflessly without expecting reward, I am promised to be given blessings beyond my imagination. "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:38).
This solution demonstrates it would be in our best interest to become an agent in our own healing. It holds us accountable for our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. If I think I am limited, I will be bound by those limitations. If I act like a victim, I become easy prey. If I feel depressed daily, joy will pass me by. The opposite is equally true. If you think you can overcome obstacles, you discover paths that lead the way. If you act respectable, you are given respect. If you let go of your pain, you create an open space for healing to take place. The spirit created living this way will ensure that we will not only enjoy this life, but our after-life as well.

Godliness Is Unnatural
Giving unconditionally is terribly difficult. It can be done for a day or two, some may even manage for months. Yet, invariably, they will fail if they rely on themselves to keep giving. To be like this every single moment of each day requires supernatural ability to respond to all matters spiritually. Bill Myers sets up his main character with such a challenge in The Wager. Without spoiling the ending, the moral is this: it is not within our power to be godly.
I am more likely to respond out of natural instinct – fear – rather than any super-spiritual power. I may act respectable, but there is no guarantee that I will not be disrespected, and if caught on a day when I am low on love and patience, I will most certainly lose my karma cool. Should I fall to this temptation, I damage my trouble free existence in the next life, all because someone provoked me in my moment of weakness.
This is hardly fair. Thus the major flaw in karmic law: there is no forgiveness or grace. Should I fail to think and act positively just once, karma shows no mercy. Karyn Henley notes this in her book Love Trumps Karma. “Law is impersonal. It cannot forgive. People harvest what they plant. That’s just the way it is.” Here is where Christianity, in my opinion, bridges the karmic cliff. “He is grace, mercy, forgiveness and love.” Coming to know and receive these gifts is a learning process. Henley uses the tree of knowledge as an example. “Humans needed the tree in order to grow mentally and spiritually. The tree taught us to understand God’s goodness and love. God’s purpose in all this was for humans to learn and admit that we are not God, and for humans to allow him to be God, the Supreme Creator.”[ii]

Means to a Righteous End
So according to the Christian view, it is for higher learning that we suffer. To know ease and comfort, we must become familiar with it’s opposite: suffering. To appreciate goodness, we must experience evil. To know how right God is, we must witness how wrong we are. It is a simple formula, in order to make any comparison or contrast, we need two distinct variables. The further apart in likeness, the more obvious the distinction between the two forces. Once the difference is learned, one can exercise free will to choose which force to follow. The power of the chosen force convicts and empowers us to move.
We cannot know this by nature; the best way to learn is through experience, not explanation. Herein lies the answer for why we suffer great evil: we need a sharpening tool. Great evil sharpens the image of goodness. St. Paul addresses this very issue, noting that it is through weakness we are made strong. Anyone with even a superficial understanding of life would agree that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Suffering, according to this view, is our baptism by fire, testing our metal to reveal our worth. Even Darwin would have to agree, the stronger the animal, the greater chance of survival.

Is it necessary, then, that children suffer? The answer is as difficult to swallow as suffering itself, but put simply – yes, we must all suffer. Why? As I evolve in my spirituality, and serve as steward to my own children, I have come to understand that knowing the difference between good and evil is as critical to our growth as is the knowledge of left or right, up or down. The earlier a child learns, the sooner she can choose her direction in life and act accordingly.
I am not so naïve, however, to teach my children that if they simply do good, they will be treated nicely. Even under God’s protection and grace, I can still be visited by evil. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” This is parallel to the “Life is suffering” philosophy, but unlike Buddhism, Christianity has a more forgiving end: when I turn to God in my trouble, I receive His grace. Unlike the notion of karma, which says “God is very fair and gives you exactly what you deserve,"[iii] the notion of grace says that though we deserve to suffer greatly, we are liberated from our sins through faith in Christ.
This freedom has a price: when we turn to God, we must turn away from sin. This clause is for those who would run to God when they’re broken, receive the gift of grace, then turn back to sin again. This is what I call a “revolving Christian,” one who is born again, and again, and again, coming in and out of Christ’s door more often then a petty criminal in the American prison system. Sin is their identity, and until they stop identifying with what separates them from God, they will remain apart, suffering alone.

Down, But Not Out
It is on this premise that I pledge my resolve: if I am to suffer in this world, I do not want to do it alone, and I want to be strong enough to move through the trouble till its end. Yet, it is this movement that often rears resistance. To move means to change position in one direction or another. There is suffering in movement, especially if we have been stuck at the same point in our evolution for some time. The longer we have tarried, the more painful it is to move. Like pulling up dandelion roots, it is hard to let go of the ground we have covered, even if the soil no longer provides the nutrients necessary to grow. We acclimate to struggle, accepting it as part of our identity.
There are some, myself included, who have experienced so much struggle that anything else is viewed suspiciously. When presented with an opportunity to move, we hesitate or repudiate, preferring the familiar struggle instead of the unknown. We choose to stay in the struggle rather than separate from the collective suffering, for there is comfort in group thinking. At least I’m not suffering alone. Suffering alone is what weakens one’s tenacity to endure, even if we are only prolonging our suffering. This is where courageous leadership can make all the difference. One woman, too tired to walk to the back of the bus as required by law, was brave enough to refuse, sitting instead in the front. This singular action was powerful enough to move suffering to the back seat, calling on all riders who were tired of suffering to do the same.

Life is suffering. Suffering demands change. Change requires movement. People are the way they are because of suffering, or because they are free from suffering and therefore have no cause to move. What binds people together in one body is love, surely, but this expression is made possible by the experience of suffering. How quickly we join together with compassion for one another when we share similar hurts and sorrows.
Look at any tragic event throughout history; examine the movement of those who suffer as a result. No matter who they are, they are the way they are because of their response to suffering. Do they move with resistance? Do they rush through it, their actions screaming “survival of the fittest,” bullying everyone out of the way as they go? Do they recoil at the very idea of moving at all? Or is there a conscious awareness in their movement, careful and deliberate, sensing they are being made better because of their suffering? These people stop and listen before taking the next step. They reach out to offer or receive help as they limp along. They have a love of life, a resilience to survive the trouble and thrive in the life that comes after, not the next life, but in the present. They are not identified by how they have suffered, but who they have become as a result of their suffering.

[i] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma_in_Buddhism
[ii]Henley, Karyn. Love Trumps Karma, Karyn Henley Resources, 2005
[iii] http://www.gitamrta.org/articles/caste.html

Monday, June 15, 2009

Part II of Grace: Who Needs It?

To the praise of the glory of his grace wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. (Ephesians 1:6)
Grace is like my second child, a gift I didn't even know I wanted until I held her in my arms. Like grace, I didn't deserve her; I hadn't earned any "best mother of the year" awards through my first born, now 18, filled with her own doubts and desires, for and against the Lord. As motherhood gives a woman new eyes, grace shifts perspective, like coming up from viewing the world under water; clearly, with greater appreciation, and a deep sense of urgency to breath in life, one that is clean and righteous. It was time to confess and repent, the first steps to releasing God's grace.
There are so many stigmas attached to words these days, phrases have become loaded, weapons used to draw us in or push us away. The words "confess" and "repent" are layered with meaning, most negative in a society that favors prideful and rebellious ways. (Any argument against the thought that we have become a prideful and rebellious nation requires a separate discussion that cannot be addressed here without going off on a tangent, so let's assume this much at least: American society is at a height of dysfunction, and pride and rebelliousness are two spirits that are at the root.) The notion of confessing and turning away from our sins seems trite in such a society as this, laughable even. When bad is good, shame is obsolete. No shame, no sin, no need to think of ourselves in any other way but decent, good enough, or at least better than most.
I believe I’m a good person, as most people do, but this belief is misleading. First, it assumes that my standards for goodness are the same as God’s standards. This is a problem most Christians have: we assign the character of our human nature to a supernatural God. We limit God to the smallness of our imagination, as if God is the magnification of the greatest human goodness. In truth, God is beyond our capacity to imagine, as is his goodness.
Not only do we fall terribly short of God's goodness, we are arrogant and prideful when we presume our goodness is greater than our iniquity, that any deviation is merely contextual, as in “I was just having a bad day.” If this were the case, why would we ever need to confess and repent? If we are as good as we say we are, why would we need forgiveness? None of it would be necessary, thus mercy and grace would be equally superfluous. Yet, instinctively, whether one is a believer or not, a person must admit that she has done wrong as some point in her life, and if we're counting thoughts and words along with deeds, then those points would surely add up!
I think the tendency to withdraw from seeing ourselves as bad is quite innocent at first. Few want to be accused of wrong-doing, nor do most of us intentionally degrade and condemn ourselves. If I were to admit I was a shameful, contemptible woman, guilty of committing unspeakable acts, worthy only of solitary confinement in the lowest pit of hell, one might be deeply concerned about my mental health - and rightly so. Low self-esteem can be as damning as any carnal sin. This is not, however, what repentance is about. Far from it!
I have been taking a foundations course through my church and within just a few weeks, I have learned several important distinctions in the notion of repentance. First and foremost, to repent is to turn away from that which separates us from God. It is to acknowledge a need for change. My notes from the class read: "It is an inner matter, an inward action of the soul." Repentance is not based on man-made systems of judicial order where one is accused and condemned. Accusation and condemnation are tools of the enemy used to conjure guilt and remorse. These spirits lead to hopelessness, even despair. They are destructive and cause us to turn against ourselves and pull away from God out of fear. Repentance does the exact opposite; it causes us to turn away from sin and draws us to God and his grace.
To Be Continued....

Monday, June 8, 2009

Grace: Who Needs It?

"It is by grace you have been saved." Ephesians 2:5, 8.

Saved Through Grace by Faith is a common slogan printed on colorful t-shirts and worn by Christians of diverse denominational background. Grace as a spiritual concept is particular to Christianity, it's Greek word charis is found for the first time in the New Testament. Grace is a belief that though we are creatures born wicked, we are saved from condemnation; a mercy given by God through Christ. In order to embrace this belief, however, one must first accept that we are, in fact, a wicked people.

No one wants to believe he is wicked. It is more common to think that though we may sometimes make poor choices, we are not bad people. Herein lies the problem we face with receiving God's grace: in order to receive it, we must accept that we need it; that we are people of iniquity who must make a conscious effort to always do the right thing.

Post-modernism has managed to convince the average citizen that there is a social-psychological reason for every bad deed we do. Long story short, we are not responsible, nor should we be held accountable for our behavior. We had a difficult childhood, one in which we were isolated, emotionally, sexually, and/or physically abused. We were misinformed, miseducated, misunderstood. We were born into an unjust society, marginalized, ostracized, disenfranchised. We have a family history of alcoholism and/or drug abuse, it’s our mother’s neglect, our father’s absence. We suffer from toxic stress, economic oppression, a chemical imbalance or disorder, bi-polar, manic depression, compulsive obsession. Even daily living is reason enough to excuse us from our nasty selves.

If the individual can justify her behavior, then a country may not even have to provide explanation for its wickedness: a nation must do whatever is necessary to preserve the welfare of its people. The means necessary is open to subjective suggestion, national welfare can range in distribution, and which population of people is served is based on the ruling party’s own volition. As leading nations are abdicated from liability, its people follow by example. In other words, what is right is relative to the general times, current leadership, and the most persuasive opinion.

Moral conviction is now an outside intruder, self-righteously imposing it’s judgment on society, (and almost certainly pushed by right-wing conservative bible-thumpers, an easy label that at once dismisses and condemns anyone who might stand up for a belief that is centered on spiritual principals.) What remains is a more accepting, inclusive pluralist society in which I’m okay and you’re okay and it’s all good. Who could ask for anything more? Further, why do we need grace at all?

To Be Continued…..

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rooted in Love: Grafting A Family Tree

History Hobbyist

If not for my aunt, I wouldn't know much about my mother's side of the family. Where I was curious enough to simply learn the first few generations, she has gone back to learn the name of the town my ancestors emigrated from to come to America. She uses a number of on-line tools, and e-mails her newest findings to me. Like her scrapbooking, it's a time-consuming hobby. Not that I'm apathetic about searching through history. To the contrary, I find it intriguing. That's just it; with the exception of predetermining potential medical concerns, ancestry is merely an interesting tale. Still, history does speak, sometimes its account is rather ordinary, but others beg to be shared for their value in healing a past cradled in hurt. Such is the case in the telling of my story.
What Are You?
Ancestry is a line of descent that traces family history, often symbolized as a tree. My mother's tree is a myrtle. My father's is an oak. Her myrtle has been shaped by Pacific coast winds, weathering many terrible storms. It grows short, though it's crown is broad. The oak grows taller, its crown round, branches stout. Between the two, the oak has a healthier 100-year history. Nurtured in rich southern soil, its presence is strong and stable. One would not find these two trees growing in the same part of the forest, but my ancestry is unusual, my roots a tangled curiosity I often share with strangers who appreciate the peculiar. "What are you?" is the most common question I am asked, so common in fact I started charging for the answer. "It's my retirement fund," I explain. Now, with the recession, I charge extra for exact percentages.
Roots of Truth
I was born into an ancestry historically at odds in American society. My ancestors would never have come together for dinner or worship. They would not have been neighbors. Still, were it not for social conditions, I believe they would have gotten along well enough. My great grandmother was English, her husband Swiss German. They settled on the coast of Oregon, in a small town that was unheard of until a world-class golf course planted itself on the dunes. Together they had one son, my grandfather (passed March 2009) who married my grandmother, still living, also English. They had seven children, three boys and four girls. One boy died of multiple sclerosis, and it was later revealed that one girl, my aunt, the expert ancestry researcher, was not my grandfather's daughter, a truth my grandmother hid for 35 years. I think this is what prompted my aunt's search for her roots, it is also what she and I share in common: a search for our real father. For me, however, the findings exposed a hard truth about my conception, one that would take years for me to process and finally accept.
My mother is the oldest daughter of my grandparents. She grew up with the Beatles, and like most in the following era, she rebelled with John Lennon. This rebellion led her to Eugene, Oregon where she met my father. They shared housing; in the hippie days cooperative living was acceptable. One night, when the other roommates were out shopping, something happened. My mother says it was an uncooperative coupling, my father says she liked it that way.   God knows the truth.  I didn't learn about the rape until after I found my father, 17 years after my birth. Up until that point, the quest to find him had been my primary mission, and plagued my psychological development through childhood and into adolescence. The motivating force driving my obsession was related to my physical inheritance - I was the black sheep of the family, literally. My mother's blond, straight hair was a stark contrast to my black curls. My hazel eyes marveled at the soft blue of my mother's. I wanted to know why I was so different from the rest of my family. I needed to know. Once discovered, the truth, - whether his version or her's - was a secondary issue. At 17, my existence, the very purpose of my being, rested on knowing my father.
The Search Is On
In the eighties, the tools to find people did not exist. I had to use good old-fashioned private investigation. I remember my mother telling me my father use to teach art at a school in Eugene. In 1987, circumstances required that I be transferred to a new high school, (I started my rebellion earlier than my mother - perhaps that is a character one inherits.) I started my senior year at North Eugene High School. Since I was in the area, I called the school district to see if they had record of my father. They did; he taught at the very school to which I had transferred. It was as if God was finally joining the search party. The day after I made the phone call, I showed up to school early, anxious to learn more.
Within hours of my arrival at school, I discovered two people who actually knew my father - my math teacher, and the school principal. After talking with the principal, he offered his support, suggesting I call the district again to learn where my father earned his bachelor's degree. "The school may have a record of his permanent address. You'll have to wait until after school to make the calls," he said apologetically. I didn't mind, I'd waited this long to find him, what was a few more hours? Then he made a second suggestion that would change the way I saw myself from that day forward. "You could see him if you wanted. We keep yearbooks down the hall. I bet his picture is one of them somewhere." I was stunned, almost too shocked to pursue the possibility. "I have to go back to class," I stuttered. "I'll right you a pass," he offered.
What happened next I can only liken to the climax of a suspense thriller.  Tension chords played on my nerves as I walked the long hallway that extended the length of the school. Of course the yearbook office was way down at the end, in a wing I had never been. As I searched the bookshelves, I tried to think which book I would find him; in the year of my birth or the year prior to conception? I found 1969. Nothing. The year 1971 did not give me anything either. I searched for 1970 but couldn't find it. I cursed the devil, just like him to interfere at a time like this. Then I found it, tucked behind the 70s. I searched the index for his last name to no avail. I could hear the blood pulsing in my ears, the devil mocking me. "He's not here, you'll never find him. You're lost." I refused to quit, arguing against his discouragement, this has to be it! I looked through the contents; there was no listing for faculty, only a section for academics starting on page 181. I turned to its beginning and flipped the pages one by one, slowly, searching the faces on the page, looking for blackness. By page 190 I was almost in tears, the movie music of this thriller reaching its crescendo. Where is he?! Then, on the bottom of page 196, I search stopped. There, my eyebrows, my nose, my lower lip. My father. It was done. I was finally complete.
Historic Findings
The story flew by quite quickly after that day. The district office gave me the address of my father's alma mater. I mailed him a letter, which was an awkward exercise. How do you introduce yourself to a father who doesn't know you were ever born? I found the words, simple and to the point, and slipped the letter in the mail just days after my discovery. About three weeks later, I received a phone call. The voice on the other end was old, speaking my name in an unfamiliar way. "This is your grandfather." It took a few seconds to register: Grandpa who? Grandpa Franz never calls. Then it hit. The tears exploded in response as he spoke. "I wanted to tell you I received your letter and the first thing you should know is, we love you." I cannot explain how deeply that simple statement affected me. In that moment, with those few words, I felt fortunate and relieved, like finding a lost heirloom previously assumed gone for good.   I have never experienced that combination of emotions again, but I think it is what most people seek when searching for their identity, tracing history in hope of finding that Christ-like, born again feeling: I am loved, I am wanted, I am an important piece of someone's story. Months later, during spring vacation, I become a part of that history when I went to meet my father's mother and father in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Other Side of the Story
When I met my grandmother, she was in the middle stages of Alzheimer's. I had to introduce myself again and again during my visit. It was frustrating, I remember feeling cheated. I found my family, but they couldn't remember me! It was teenage overexaggeration of course, but to this day I don't believe she ever understood that I was her granddaughter. Even with a healthy memory, it is difficult to wrap one's mind around such a story. My grandfather was very accommodating, making me feel comfortable, welcome. I would spend many years after our first meeting learning about their history, my history. I had to remind myself of that often, as if it wasn't quite real for me. My father's ancestry is not as certain due to the history of slavery. My grandfather told me both he and my grandmother carry a small percentage of Native American in their lines, Chippewa and Quapaw. This is one of the first distinctions people recognize in my appearance. My grandparents were both born in Arkansas where they married and had two sons, my uncle, now deceased, and my father who managed to spread the oak seed from Oregon all the way back to Africa. I did meet my father during that spring trip, but it was anti-climactic. Like a spiritual journey, it was the seeking, not the reaching of the destination that fired my spirit. The search was over, what remained was a relationship; awkward, distant, and too easily abandoned in order to avoid the discomfort. Recently, however, as I mother my second child, now four-years-old, I have renewed interest in building a bridge over the troubled waters that carried me into this world.
Begetting Strange Fruit
The stories of two families - one black, the other white - came together at my conception. Not a gentle loving union as the river meets the sea, more like a tsunami comes upon a desert city: chaotic, confusing, against the common order of things. My emotionally flooded beginning left its people with no choice but to accept me. It is a blessing that they did so compassionately; the storm cannot be blamed for its creation. It just is, as I am - an oak branch grafted to a myrtle tree. Odd, but growing. Though I may not have been conceived with love, my life can be a reflection of love, through my relationship with others. It is a wonder, however, why God places certain spirits within a particular context; ancestry a casting designed to mold a person just so. If not by chance, for what reason did the Lord determine I should be the result of such a coupling? Why this family and not another? How is my genetic combination necessary in the big scheme of things? The bible often describes lengthy chapters of ancestry, this man and woman begat this child who married and begat that one and so on. Such precise record of lineage is clearly significant, enough to include in a sacred text. Each name an imperative connection, one leading to another, stretching back to the beginning when God first created man and woman, their likeness reaching forward with the next begotten son or daughter. Perhaps it's just that simple - I was born to maintain the connection, to continue the likeness of her and history. I am one name of many, an image of those before and those who will come after me, an added detail to a larger picture of which I cannot know the whole, for it is still developing. In this sense, it is less my ancestry and more the continuing of God's strange, but fantastic story.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Article of Faith: II

Part 2 of 5
And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, LORD, hast not forsaken them that seek thee. (Psalm 9:10)

The beginning of a beautiful relationship sprouted early like a Florida spring. It pushed through the mulch of old habits as a curling tendril, eager to attach to its life support. I was intimidated at first, newly divorced and wary of lovely promises. Still, I became engaged to that which I dared not follow in my past life, before Christ. Mr. Trust met me at the crossroads, a character uniquely different from the spirit with whom I normally travel, Mrs. Faith. I have assigned these two powers with personalities; if I view them as active participants, they are easier to approach and integrate into my daily living.

Mrs. Faith and I are long-term companions. We met during my childhood when I first began to develop a "belief in something for which there is no proof" (Merriam Webster). She didn't appear until after I found out Santa and the Easter Bunny were socially constructed figments of the imagination. Mrs. Faith introduced herself following a conversation I had with my cousin Suzanna, the only one in my family whose parents were regularly attending church. I lived just around the bend from her and while walking home on our country road I asked, "How did you get Jesus to be with you?" She said quite plainly, "Just ask him into your heart."

I was surprised by the simplicity of what was required, expecting some voodoo hoodoo ritual similar to what my mother use to do while dancing around the house with mixed incense from a joint in one hand and a smoking pine branch in the other. Though I had my doubts as to the effectiveness of my cousin's rite of spiritual passage, I determined it was easy enough to at least try. That night I called him up, "Jesus, if you're there, come see about me." Not long after I received a call back.

I was asleep in my top bunk when the light came. I climbed down from the bed to see its brightness shining from the space between the closed bathroom door and the floor. When I opened the door, the light erupted and embraced me. Nothing was visible except the lid of the seat, and bare feet standing upon it. I lifted my head to view the body, instinctively knowing it was him. Christ had come, and he was standing on my toilet. He said something (to this day I do not recall his words,) and extended his greeting with arms stretched out as if to say “come to me.” Why the King of Kings would come to stand on a commode throne is beyond me, but it was this vision that introduced me to Mrs. Faith. Though it was just a dream, it caused me to believe Christ was real and he’d agreed to come see about me, to stand above the excrement of my troubled home life and help me flush it all out.

If Christ is the lamp unto my feet, she is the path upon which I walked. Often, though, she was too soft, her ground lacked firm foundation. Having been flooded again and again by mental and emotional chaos, the path was always a bit swampy, like the earth beneath leaky plumbing. Still, I trudged along, bearing dissonant feelings of disgust and joy, as a child playing barefoot in mud puddles. For most of my short life, it has been just us, Mrs. Faith and I, supported occasionally by an olive leaf suggestion that God is indeed watching over me.

Up until very recently, Mr. Trust was a stranger to me, and I don't talk to strangers, not without consuming several alcoholic beverages, and since I quit drinking (again) and smoking (finally) I have yet to discover means to engage with strangers without great anxiety. This is an oppressive challenge and has been since childhood; I am incredibly uncomfortable in groups of two or more. This has become a considerable obstacle in my walk with Christ since two or three gathered together is the appropriate number for Him to be in the midst (Matthew 18:20).

Extreme discomfort in a group of strangers is what makes fellowship at church my least favorite component of service. "The Peace" makes me feel at war within, imitating cordial greetings, smiling by mouth only. My eyes search for a single person I know well enough that I might escape the crowd to reach familiarity. "Peace be with you" or "God Bless" is superficial for me. I do it out of formality not authentic sincerity. I feel like a fraud, masking my facelessness: These people don't know me. I'm just a hand to shake. This is precisely what I was thinking the day Mr. Trust introduced himself. He started the conversation with a question, spoken through a pastor's sermon: Do you trust that God loves you?

"Yes, Jesus loves me" is a song we learn to live by early in our Christian journey. How it is learned differs from person to person, but for the most part, we learn this simple faith first. At a certain point, we make a conscious decision to take her as our route through life, a choice that may seem foolish to some, but to believers it is an honorable feat. To believe in something that cannot be proven is bold, daring even, though there are some Christians who are possessed by spiritual pride, presuming to be superior in spiritual strength compared to non-believers who just can't seem to make that leap.

We brave Christians clasp firmly the hand of Mrs. Faith in our darkest hour, never giving in to hopelessness. Most hold onto the "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" childhood mindset throughout our adult lives. Yet, truth be told, the notion of a loving God is a learned belief. Learning a belief is as untenable as any computer program, susceptible to viruses, possibly causing an entire system to crash.

The average Christian remains with Mrs. Faith because he has been conditioned to believe. Faith is familiar to us, a road commonly traveled, comfortably reliable. But what happens when she turns in a direction we have never been before? Worse, what happens when a jackhammer rips her road to rubble? Though intangible, our faith is as real as love or beauty, as is the pain of any assault against her. Yet when challenged, exclusively relying on Faith is risky, there is always room to argue, question, doubt. We falter, our hesitation makes us weak. When confronted with the ultimate inquiry - what is the meaning and purpose of all this? - belief in the existence of God works to a certain point. Faith is good, but she is vulnerable standing alone. We must build a hedge around her. Enter Mr. Trust.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Articles of Faith: III

Do you trust that God loves you? This question was the beginning of an awakening. Initially, I did not recognize Mr. Trust nor was I fully aware of the distinction between him and Mrs. Faith. Up until this point, I figured I had made it just fine with Faith. I didn't need a Mr. anything! Then I realized I was taking the Mrs. for granted, using her to stay safe where I was, keeping her from stretching her full reach. As Adam needs a helper, my Missus needed a Mister. I could feel the spirit of the Lord wanting to take me further, deeper, but I wasn't brave enough to ask for such an encounter. Instead I prayed the Lord would search me and show me what I needed to be closer to Him.

He answered in a flash. Flashes are visions that appear in that grey area where I am not fully awake, but not yet asleep. In this flash I saw people crossing a deep, black chasm. The distance wasn't far, no more than 20 feet. I was looking from above, watching them cross the darkness- but there was no bridge. It was there, for they were walking on something, but it was invisible. I watched as they all crossed successfully. Then it was my turn. I came down from above and into my body. I took steps towards the cliff, then a few feet onto the bridge I could not see. Then I did what everybody knows they should not do but do anyway out of instinct: I looked down. There was nothing under me, just the empty black hole beneath my feet. In my panic I heard the Spirit: "That's your problem. You don't trust me." I opened my eyes, fully awake, knowing the truth had been revealed.
Rather than simply accepting the truth, I had to push the issue. I prayed, "Help me trust in you." Now I understand what "Pray wisely" means. I should have known better. When I prayed "Let my faith increase," the Lord sent me trials to test and strengthen Faith. Praying for Trust could only lead to trouble that requires dancing with the man himself. This first dance started clumsy, like waltzing backwards in broken stilettos. If I had only known my prayer was in the process of being answered, I would have gone barefoot and ran with it. As it was I thought I was being punished.

I had fallen into disobedience, refusing to do what God had asked of me: stop drinking. After my grandfather died, I had a hard time working through the loss on my own. The day of his death I drank two rum and cokes as fast as I could. Later that night, I finished a bottle of wine. Several weeks later, I was back into the routine: a glass after work, another while cooking, and two more by bedtime. One day, I was bored. I sat down at the computer but could think of nothing to write. Staring out the window, my mind idle, I decided to simply relax all day with a bottle of wine. As I was stepping out the door, I heard the Spirit: "Don't do this." I did it anyway. That night my daughter called, "Mom, your car died."

She had come home to visit during her spring break. It was the last night before she had to return back to school on the west coast. She wanted to hang out with her friends so I let her use my car. I was half asleep when the phone rang."I don't know what happened, I heard this noise and then everything just locked up." She explained quickly, trying to assure me that she was not responsible for the breakdown. "I added some oil, but it still wouldn't start. Some guys helped me move the car, and that's when we saw the oil trail in the road." Then she put her friend's father on the phone."You don't have an oil filter," he said."But I just had my oil changed last month," I responded."Well, they must not have put it on all the way because there's no oil filter now.""So, the engine is dead."He didn't want to kill all hope but I could hear the truth as he stuttered, "Well, now it is, yes. I think. Maybe. I don't know for sure because I can't see, but....there's no oil filter. It's....""Dead."My penance had come; I had not prepared to pay so soon. I began totaling the cost: towing, engine, labor...... The spirit of worry skipped into my bedroom, jumped on my bed and sang her mocking song "Here I come to save the day!"After my daughter's safe return home, I lie in bed and let the spirit of blame chastise me. "You brought this on yourself. You're so stubborn. Weak." I remembered the biblical verses I the Lord revealed to me during my last two trips off the wagon. In January I read "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice....." (1 Samuel 15:22). I obeyed for a time, until my divorce in March, after which I headed straight for happy hour at Ballyhoo's. A few drinking days later I read "Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine; they that go to seek mixed wine. Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his color in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder." (Proverbs 23:29-32) God was speaking to me, warning me as gently as he could. But I wouldn't listen. Instead of building of a protective hedge around my sweet Faith, I dug a wine-filled moat in which I was drowning. I imagine Mrs. Faith reached for me, but I'd gone under.

The morning after my car died I felt washed up. Bloated, eyes puffy. Worry dragged me out of bed by my feet, urging me to figure out how I was going to get my daughter to the airport, a four hour drive there and back. First things first; I called the garage and informed them of their botched job on my car. He offered his apologies "if it was our fault." I heard the implied loophole and immediately countered, "Your people were the last one's to work on my car!" He offered to tow the car to the shop and said he'd call as soon as they had a look under the hood. That was good, but it did not solve my immediate problem. With renewed calm I asked him, "How do you propose I get my daughter to the Jacksonville airport? Her flight leaves in three hours.""I....I" Great, more stuttering. I waited, hoping. "I don't know how to help you with that." Of course not. The cynical spirit was glowing around me as the clock kept ticking.My daughter called a couple friends, but I wasn't holding my breath. Who is ready and willing to drive for four hours at a moment's notice? No one - no surprise there. I decided to rent a car, adding the cost to my tally. Enterprise picks up their customers, unless they live outside city limits, which I did. I managed to get a ride into town to pick up a car, though not within the necessary time frame. I had to call to change my daughter's flight. Cha-ching. The cost kept building.On the way to the airport I called the garage. "It could not have been anything we did," the manager announced. "You've driven 1300 miles since we changed your oil. If it was our fault, the filter would have come off sooner.""So, it's my fault?""Well, do you have any enemies?" His suggestion of sabotage triggered the spirits of guilt and shame. Does God count?"No." I tried to sound certain."I just can't explain it then. I've never seen anything like this."A mystery that cannot be explained is either beyond man's ability to reason or an act of God - though the former is often because of the latter. I determined the latter was true in this case. Still, I needed an earthly solution."What do you suggest I do?""You can call our insurance company."Ah, bureaucracy - the most reliable of outcomes for any problem needing an expedient solution. Days of phone tag, stacks of paperwork and the liberal use of explicatives. Yes, I was going to pay dearly. Should I be ever be tempted to drink again, I would have this experience to remind me the cost of a bottle of wine.I made it to the airport, said my good-byes, drove back, delivered the little one to her father, and returned home with little over an hour left before I had to go to work. I checked my messages. "Gill" from the insurance company had called, assuring me he'd be in the office until 4:00 and provided his number - long distance of course. I had to add $10 to my phone card so I could make the call, and as expected, he was "away from his desk or on the phone" and would get back to me as soon as possible. It was 3:45. I sighed. "You're going to make me sit with this anxiety all weekend aren't you, Lord?" I left a message for Mr. Gill, then resigned myself to pondering the mystery that would remain on my mind for the next 36 hours. Mrs. Faith waved. Who are you waving at?! I see you! My grumbling spirit couldn't see Mr. Trust smiling as he stood right behind me. I changed my clothes and pulled back my hair for work.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Articles of Faith: IV

Trying to divorce my personal life from the public arena is like asking a turtle to remove his shell. I'm rather transparent when it comes to my emotions. My theater background helps buffer the shock of toxic stress. For the case of the dead engine, I became the television commercial voice advertising the latest prescription that cures faithlessness. Order now, and receive a free trial period! We'll send you, at the most inopportune moment, a chance to test your faith! In some cases, people who experience a trial do experience side effects including mental cramps and emotional fatigue. People who don't have faith may have more severe symptoms. My period wasn't too unbearable; Mrs. Faith walked with me as I showed up to work, fellowship mask in place, ready to perform the friendly customer service song and dance.
I looked forward to talking with Patty, co-owner of the restaurant where I serve. Strict in her work ethic as she is in her Pentecostal faith, Patty intimidated me at first. She reminded me of my mother: critical, commanding, yells a lot. Yet when it comes to dealing with daily drama, Patty is approachable, understanding. She loves as passionately as she hates. She adores children; her own daughter died when she was just a teen. She admonishes mock Christianity that feels good, faith built with cheap stucco versus real wood. "His yoke ain't that easy!" She struggles, but she's sturdy and honest. She admits her own short-comings, willingly pointing out the knots in her beams. "I smoked pot for six years after I was saved. People don't change overnight!" She remembers what it was like to be a babe in the arms of Christ; struggling to pick apart the old life, trying to determine what can be refurbished and what must be demolished and completely rebuilt.

I shared with her my assessment of the car saga. "God is punishing me for drinking." She warned against such thinking. "It's not punishment," she reflected. "Sometimes things just happen." I wanted to believe her, but Faith shook her head. Was she negating what my boss said? Fortunately we were slammed; I had tables back to back and no time to ruminate reasonings and renditions about my car's condition, though I wanted to believe Patty's explanation. I did not want this to be punishment, I wanted to drink. Yet, the Spirit speaking in me demanded a holy different desire: to abide in Christ. What if my car dying was a consequence for me straying from the path God has set before me? The implications are vast, the least of which is that God is watching and he is actively participating in my life. God is watching me - a small town girl, a brown-skinned little orphan Annie, a traveling gypsy, a former pot-head and recovering alcoholic, a single mom living on food stamps and $3 tips. I heard the question again: Do you trust that God loves you? Mrs. Faith reached for her Mister, but I was standing in between, not yet ready to let them meet.

Tired from a busy night at the restaurant and emotionally exhausted from the car situation, I collapsed into bed. But the devil wouldn't let me rest. For hours I tried to figure my way out of the conundrum. What happened to the oil filter? Who could have taken it out? My ex-husband used to work at Jiffy Lube but he's too lazy to crawl underneath my hood. And I don't get close enough to anyone to make enemies. I gave up wondering and moved on to other concerns. How am I going to get to my other job on Monday? I can't afford to miss a single day! Boxcars of worries rammed into each other, my train of thought stalled on a broken track. "Enough!" I threw the covers off me, got out of bed and down on my knees to pray. "Lord, forgive me. Help me. I can't fix this one on my own." I continued pleading, more than necessary. Mr. Trust laid down to warm up my side of the bed. When I finally curled up to sleep, he put his arm around me.

When I woke up Saturday, I didn't notice any change, not immediately. I went about my morning ritual, still thinking about the car, but by the time I took my second sip of coffee I noticed the edge wasn't so jarring. There was no bridge to cross the abyss, none that I could see. Yet, the anxiety of crossing had lifted. Without its heavy weight oppressing me, I could think more clearly. "I just have to trust God is working," I announced out loud. My cat looked up at me, indifferent, then went back to eating her breakfast. The birds went on singing, calling out from one grand oak tree to another. I am often envious of animals. They don't have to worry about rent or utility bills. Their car never breaks down. If only I could be as carefree as a bird.

Christ came to liberate us, proclaiming that God will never forsake those whom He loves. And He loved the world - saints and sinners alike. If we trust in His love, the words of Christ should come as no surprise: "Consider the Raven: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better that the fowls?" (Luke 12:24) Christ assures us: "Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:31). This being the case, Christians should be immune from worry and anxiety. Do you trust that God loves you? If I am following the word of the Lord, then my answer should be a resounding "YES!" Why, then, was I so troubled?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Articles of Faith: V

Faith is incomplete without Trust. Trust is the heart of Faith, the face under the mask. Faith is the invisible path; Trust is the gumption to make the crossing. To act in Faith is passive without the strength of Trust to make the leap. Faith is believing God exists; Trust comes from knowing God loves us. The bond that holds Mrs. Faith and Mr. Trust together in perfect union is our love for God. If my bond is weak, the real question is not whether God loves me, but how much I love God.

My love for God is proven in my willingness to surrender, submit, and obey; to become fully dependent on Him. I can hear the shrill shriek of feminist liberals upon reading that last sentence. I recognize their voice, it was mine once. Surrender makes me a loser, submission makes me a slave, obedience begs for rebellion and dependency is needy. But these descriptions are true only in a man's world. In God's world, nothing could be further from the truth.

To become a willing servant of Christ requires intimacy, the kind that cannot be realized if it is blocked by pride, egoism, or self-serving agendas. To receive Him into my body and allow Him to remain for life, I must stripe away these layers of self-sufficiency and become an open vessel to be filled with His Love. Love between a man and a woman is a stream compared to the ocean of Love God has for us, the kind of Love we, as his children should have for Him. This love affair is just beginning for me, but already I have come to realize that I was serving God for selfish reasons. I have been serving to avoid hell, for protection against curses. I agreed to follow Christ because it's the only way to get to heaven. I surrendered my life so my cup would overflow with gifts and rewards. But what if God took away the promise of heaven? What if he announced that there is no hell? What if I got nothing out of the deal? What if my engine doesn't get fixed? Would I still love him? Will I still be willing to serve?

The answer to this question is directly linked to the strength of my faith. True love for God is unconditional; it turns simple faith into enthusiastic devotion to Jesus himself. Love says, "I delight to do they will," regardless of what I receive in return. I seek and serve Him just to be in His presence. This kind of love is measured by obedience. Jesus says, "If you love me, keep my commandments." Love perfects faith, it transforms hope of reward into the hope of likeness, for union with Him that I might know him. That is what made Christ so powerful in his work, he trusted God loved him, and he loved God unconditionally. Trust came easy for him, He was God! He walked in certainty, knowing the truth of God's love intimately. Before calming the storm, he did not cower on the boat; wring his hands with worry, cross his figures whispering "Oh, God, please let this work. I hope, I hope....." He commanded with authority, and it was done.

To have that level of trust requires a closeness I don't yet posses. It calls for regular contact, a well-established long-term relationship, one that reveals patterns upon which one comes "to rely on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence" (Dictionary.com). The patterns are there, the experiences I have lived through are proof enough that God is with me and will not forsake me. But will he fix my car?

Yes. He did, and more. The manager of Tires Plus on Main Street replaced my engine, provided a rental car for a week while they put it in, and reimbursed me for the fee I was charged for changing my daughter's flight, as well as the cost of renting a car to get her to the airport. It is still a mystery as to how I lost the oil filter. I could assume that because they agreed to fix it that they were, in fact, responsible for the break down. But I wonder, was this a faith test? Did God answer my prayer - "help me to trust you" - through an act of mechanical failure? If I go with the natural assumption not much changes after the resolution: my car broke down, it was fixed, end of story. If I follow the supernatural possibility, however, the Lord blessed me with a proposal: do you, daughter of God, take this man, for better or worse, through sickness and in health, till death do you part? Mr. Trust is awfully handsome and he makes me feel beautiful, from the inside out. Yes, Lord, I will. "And they lived happily ever after" is not what I expect from this partnership, but I do anticipate a lifetime of mysteries that will bring me ever closer to God.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Work in Dying

"For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten." Ecclesiastes 9:5

There is a laborious process to dying, for the person who dies, as well as those left behind. The work in dying is a job for which few voluntarily apply; it is dirty, painful and without reward.  Nonetheless, every living thing is eventually called in for work.  There are books that describe the duties, stages outlined to assist those who are new on the job. I, however, am an experiential learner; books can only take me so far before I must simply jump in and deal with the work at hand. Such is the case in my grandfather's death.

We all knew his time was coming. My mother had been preparing me for 20 years. Every time I went to visit him, I stepped carefully, thinking This may be the last time I see him. That's what makes my memories so vivid; I was coloring them in even while he was alive. Still, his death hit me harder than I expected.  Most alarming is how the color is fading, time and tears washing out the brightness of his image.

My grandfather died on a Thursday morning. I received the phone call an hour before I was scheduled to work "job A " as a server in a Mexican restaurant. There was no way I could provide good customer service with a smile that night. I called my boss; "My grandpa died, I'm not gonna' make it in." I spent the night with a bottle of wine to depress my depression. For a week following his death my emotional response ranged from snot and slob sobbing to numb indifference. This, too, matched Grandpa’s personality, bi-polar mood swings was his normalcy.

The day after his death I was longing to be by a river. Fortunately, the Santa Fe is only a 15 minute drive from my apartment. My hibiscus had a new bloom; I picked it and took it with me to the river. I watched it drift in the shallows, wondering if it would be carried away into the slow and easy current or if it would simply get stuck in the slimy muck on the side bank. I imagined Grandpa’s afterlife the same way; was he lifted to heaven or is he arguing even now, cussing out the reaper at the gates of hell?  Rain started falling, so did my tears. I fell to my knees and let go.

I went to lunch afterwards, ordering a bowl of clam chowder cooked with bits of bacon.  I ate the meat in his honor, topping it off with two doses of rum and coke. The server, Christy, comped my meal; I must have looked truly pathetic. By five that evening, I was sufficiently cried out, eyes red and puffy, but went to work anyway. I was glad we were busy; it's hard to recall fond memories of dead relatives when filling up chips and salsa for table six, calling in sides of guac and sour cream for table three, and trying to remember if the woman at table four wanted sweet or unsweet tea. Saturday night was equally busy, though there was a raw moment when the grandchild in a large party walked up behind her grandfather and gave him a loving hug, just as I used to do with my Grandpa. I swallowed the lump in my throat and asked the mom what sort of dressing she wanted on her side salad.

Sunday morning I went to a lively church service but felt dead inside. The Holy Spirit tried to move me, but I didn't feel like feeling. Sunday evening I learned the memorial service would be the next Saturday. I panicked: I have to get there! I want to be a part of the service! I need to say good-bye! I went on-line to search ticket prices that started as high as $2,500 roundtrip for two - I was very insistent that my daughter come with me, for my own comfort and to share with her the significance of her great, great grandfather Franz.

I finally found two tickets for $1,400 - an amount that equaled my entire savings. My aunt offered to help, and I was sure my mother would pitch in, but money woes would surface eventually, something I am avidly trying to avoid, especially given the current recession.  But this was Grandpa, the man of my life. I called my bank to make the transfer. Strangely enough, I couldn't remember my pass code. I was forced to wait and call first thing Monday morning to finish the transaction. I called the airline to at least reserve the tickets. When I hung up, I felt a sense of peace; I was going home.   As I lie down to sleep, however, I was nudged by worry.  What if I need that money for an emergency? What if my hours are cut, how will I make rent? What if….. Financial insecurity is the surest way to attack faith.  I said a prayer requesting the Lord's guidance, as it was clear I was too emotionally attached to think clearly.

The next morning I performed the usual routine, got the preschooler ready, jumped in the car and prepared to leave for "job B" as a writing specialist at the college. The car stalled but started on the second attempt. That's when I saw the warning light reading "security." This advisory didn't make much sense for my car's functioning; I don't have a security system. I proceeded with my morning agenda with the spirit of anxiety sucking on the lining of my stomach.

After I dropped off my daughter, I immediately pulled into the nearest service station. I called into work after learning I would need a new battery, an oil change, and two new tires. "I'll be in tomorrow night," I promised, and would need to be - with one night's work loss from job A, and one day's work loss from job B, I didn't have the luxury of missing much more. Attending the memorial would take me out for a week. What was I thinking?

While waiting on my car, I realized God was working for me. If I'd purchased those tickets the night before, I wouldn't have been able to take care of my car or anything else that may come up in the months to come. All praise be to God, for He can see what is truly needed: security for the insecure, not a memorial for the mortal, a human attempt to fill in hues of what is now like a black and white photograph, absent the colorful life. Besides, Grandpa wouldn’t know whether I was there or not, "...the dead know not any thing." It's more important that I get to work and provide for the living. Grandpa would want it that way.

The next day I went to job B, helping students with their essays. I walked in a few minutes late.  There was a student waiting. I dumped my purse on the designated shelf, picked through the nametags, found mine and attached it to my shirt. As I sat down, I glanced at the student's assignment sheet: Compare and contrast two poems about death. "You've got to be kidding me," I said in defeat. The student looked up at me, questioning my response. I sighed my resignation, "It's been a long week."

I hadn't visited Grandpa at the cabin since my now four-year-old was just crawling.  I brought her home to accomplish a specific mission; baptize her feet in the river.  I took pictures, wrote my thoughts down in a journal, brought a few rocks home.  But how can I ensure she will appreciate the significance of that captured moment?  More importantly, how do I express who Grandpa was to me, to our family?  She’ll never know him as I did, for when I die the memory of [him] is forgotten."  My only hope lies in a high and rocky place.

If one wants to know God, walk in His love.  I suppose the same can be applied to Grandpa. As the man and the place are one and the same, I will go home to walk in his presence.  My daughter and I will search for rocks shaped like hearts. We’ll take hikes high into the hills and listen as the mountains share their lessons, the kind Grandpa might teach: There are highs and lows on every trail; wear the right shoes, watch out for poison oak, and stay away from the edge.  I’ll cook whatever is growing, I may even add a bit of meat.  When night falls, I’ll tuck her in to sleep on the patio and together we’ll lose count of the stars.   In my prayers, I’ll give thanks for good food, good company, and a good place to enjoy both.  I'll miss you, Grandpa.