Category Archives: Religion

Cardigan Day

A few weeks ago my husband and I watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” a documentary about Fred Rogers, and the making of the TV show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” As we got started we confessed to each other that as kids, we really hadn’t been that excited about the show. It was better than the news or soap operas, but not as fun as Sesame Street or The Electric Company. The show’s slow, calm pacing had felt off to us. Later, parenting young kids, I appreciated the aesthetics of the show a lot more, especially when I compared it to Teletubbies or Barney. I sort of grew into Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.

It was so interesting to look through the lens of the documentary as it showed what was going on in the world and in the television industry during our early childhood years. Watching children interact with Fred Rogers at special events, and seeing how fascinated they were with him reminded me of a story I’d read about a boy in an abusive home who watched the show, and clung to Mr. Rogers’ words, “You are enough. I like you just the way you are,” like a lifeline. That message WAS his lifeline. And now I think that as a little kid, the reason I didn’t connect with the show was that I didn’t need that message. I didn’t need the world to slow down. I had that already, that cup was full.

While leading a middle school youth group about a year ago, I was emphasizing how Jesus came to help “the least, the lost and the left out,” or as I once heard Danielle Strickland say, “Jesus is Lord of the awkward and uncool.” A student asked, “But, what about the popular and cool kids?” The question caught me off-guard because never in my life have I identified myself as one of the cool kids, and I had never thought about it from that perspective. (Kudos to the kid who asked the question.) My answer was, sure, them too, but the cool and popular (or the rich and the powerful) don’t necessarily feel the NEED for what Jesus offers the way people who are really struggling in these areas do. If your life is good the way it is, if you feel satisfaction with your relationships, your place in the world and with your self, then Jesus may be no more than an inspirational leader to you. Your cup is pretty full. I guess that is okay, but I can’t relate very well to this.

I came to Jesus with an empty cup. By my middle school years, I was a lonely kid who felt misunderstood and like I couldn’t get anything right. People made fun of me or ignored me and I thought it was because there was something wrong with me. I was moody and suffered so much from storms of sadness and anger. When I went to church camp, I turned it all over to Jesus, saying “This is my life. I don’t know what I am doing, but I trust that you can fix it and make something wonderful.” I found healing. Jesus calmed my storms. I did not become perfect nor did I become cool. I did find new life, where before I had felt like I was dying. Jesus gave me a lifeline. Jesus was, and is my lifeline.

Today I put on a cardigan in honor of Mr. Rogers and his work to help children know that they are seen and valued just as they are. Every day, I try to take in and “put on” Jesus’ message of God’s love and redemption. No matter whether you feel you are part of the lame and left out crowd, or on top of the world, or somewhere in between, Christ has something better in store for you. If you want something deeper, more meaningful, more beautiful than you can imagine, empty your cup and reach for Jesus.

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What I Have Done

“You did WHAT?”

“Why?”

“Why now?”

These are the questions I have been getting, the questions I expected to get. Getting a tattoo was kind of a big move for me, but not a rash one. I have seen some beautiful and meaningful tattoos on people “like me,” forty-something and entrenched in family and career. I had seen a lovely tattoo on the arm of a woman I know from church who is 20+ years my senior. About ten years ago, I thought, “If I ever come up with something I’d be happy about having on my body for the rest of my life, and can figure out where on my body I’d want it…I would absolutely get one.”

Years passed and I couldn’t think of anything I thought I could be happy with permanently. I knew some things I didn’t want: no jokes or cartoons, no butterflies (nothing against butterflies, they just don’t speak to me), no symbols of other cultures or letters from alphabets I don’t use. I didn’t urgently want a tattoo, so I didn’t worry about it: I just let the idea drift in the back of mind. Then one day, I was browsing through Pinterest and saw some tattoos that were quotes from books and my interest was fired. Words were a natural choice for me, a writer, and they could be so beautiful in form and meaning. But, what book? It took a surprisingly long time for me to realize that the Bible was the best source, considering I have been reading from the Bible since I was a child, had taught from it in Sunday school for years, and at that point had been reading it almost daily for nearly a year.

There had been a significant shift in my outlook, my focus, and in my direction in life that started as I began reading from the Bible and doing daily devotions. While I never stopped believing in God, for a long time I believed that I was a mess, hopelessly letting God down, and the best I could hope for was to try to convince everyone else that I was fine and try not to bother, or rely on, God too much. I wasn’t fine. I was panicked and numb, angry and grief stricken. My life was awesome by the standards of many and all I could see was my epic failure to realize my potential, or to connect meaningfully even with the people I loved the most. Not fine at all. My sister (who thought I was doing okay,) suggested I check out Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. It was a revelation of reassuring scripture and interpretation that challenged and transformed my faith journey. I have read critics of Jesus Calling who describe the devotions as “New Age-y” and not biblically sound, but my experience was that those messages helped heal some very hurting parts of me. Leaning on scripture and faith that what I was reading was really true, I took some risks in work and relationships. I relaxed my grip on my impossible standards for self. I trusted. I edged toward wholeness.

If the Bible was helping heal me, then what words would I choose from it? At first I thought “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” a fabulous contradiction to the awful story I had been telling myself for a long time. Knowing I was choosing something forever, I played with it. I wrote it on my forearm. The location was good, I could look upon the verse easily, and share openly, but wouldn’t be obvious. I didn’t want my tattoo to be the first thing people noticed about me. I liked “fearfully and wonderfully” a lot, but decided it wasn’t my forever verse. Romans 15:13 is one of my favorites, but it was too long for the location, and I couldn’t come up with a short cut I liked well enough. Same with “For I know the plans I have for you…” “Be still and know that I am,” is awesome and meaningful but didn’t feel right. Then it came, a message that is repeated many times in many ways throughout the Old and New Testaments. “The LORD your God is with you” In these words I know that I am never alone, and that with God’s presence comes power: power to forgive, pray, act, give thanks, rejoice and love, even when I don’t feel like I can or want to. These were the words. And with the words, all at once, came an image of a dark bird perched on the branch of a tree. The living tree symbolizes the living God, and the bird is me, choosing rest and refuge.

Stephanie resizeFinding the studio and artist was almost a comedy of miscommunications and awkward connections, but finally there was a click when my vision met the skills of Stephanie from Electric Dragonland in Hopkins, MN. I had to wait three months to see her rendering of the art, and another month after that to actually get the work done. It took two hours on a November afternoon in 2015. It wasn’t as painful as I had thought it would be, but then I had imagined myself bursting into tears and running out the door a few minutes into the work, too. I love it.

I get a mix of reactions to this thing I have done. Most people are indifferent. A few shake their heads. Many admire the delicacy of the art and wording. I am delighted that I really don’t care what others think, good or bad. It feels like something I have always had, under the surface, now revealed. It has given me an opportunity to share my faith. It has reminded me to calm down, when my thinking has shifted into bad old rutted tracks.

I got a tattoo.

It is a reminder to me and a message to others.

I got it now because I have come through some trials and can claim the enduring truth that God is with me. And also with you.

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~Peace~

Remember, And Be Glad

My first memory is of being carried up the center aisle of the United Methodist Church in my small home town. I was a three-year-old girl in my daddy’s arms, and my eleven-year-old sister walked up that aisle with us, next to my mom who carried my baby sister.  I come from what, in the midwest at that time, might be considered a religiously diverse family. My mom grew up in the Baptist church, and my dad’s parents were Christian Scientists. Through friendship, my mom began attending the Methodist church in the small town that had become their home. On the day I was baptized, so were both my sisters and my dad, we all became members and that place became our church home.

I went to Sunday school there every Sunday, and in third grade received my first real Bible, a Revised Standard Version covered in pebbled red vinyl, with a scrap of gold leaf that I used to inscribe my name on the cover. I was in many children’s Christmas programs and occasionally got the nerve-racking job of page-turner for my mom as she played hymns and special music on the piano. I went to church camp and found in Jesus the friend I needed to help me survive some turbulent years. I was confirmed in that church, wearing a dress of my mom’s and with my hair in French braids, feeling very grown up. There were annual Christmas eve candlelight services, where we sisters would inevitably get such giggle fits that suppressing them was painful and we shook the pew as we wept silent tears of mirth and pain. There was youth group on Wednesday nights and when I was a senior, a cake for the graduates.

I had a bridal shower and a wedding in that church, and about a decade later I brought my husband and my sons, ages 5 and 3, to my dad’s funeral.  My mom, sisters and I gathered up there at the front of the church and walked dad back down that aisle, the same one we walked up on the day of the baptism. I read some poem that day for the service, but now I wish I’d told this story, because this story is about family, love and the kind of faith that is built on simple acts of caring repeated often over time. It is a story about knowing what belonging is in a father’s arms, and about finding belonging in a place of faith.

This sounds idyllic, but it wasn’t always great. There were cranky people and scoldings and judgment and the same petty human problems inside those walls that you find inside and outside any church of any denomination anywhere in the world. My own nature prompted me to a very cliché rebelliousness in my later teens through my twenties. My early ideas of God were simple ones, the kind Jesus said everyone should have. Thinking about faith got more complicated over time, just as life did, but the Sunday school lessons, and the hymns, the messages and the scripture were all woven right through me and held me together for the most part, even in the very bad times. I prayed, and often those prayers seemed unanswered, but they never felt unheard.  By the time I had children of my own, I knew that faith is linked to survival, and that a spiritual home is a good thing to have. I wanted to give my children some of that same experience I’d had, and as babies they were baptized in a small Methodist Church in their own home town. To this day I continue my faith journey in that community and in the world at large. I am grateful for the support I have had along the way. In last Sunday’s sermon we heard the message of John’s baptism of repentance and Jesus’s baptism of Holy Spirit, and we heard the words from the confirmation service, “Remember your baptism, and be glad.” I do remember and I am glad.

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A Love Letter to Discover

Discover magazine, how do I love thee? I love thee a lot. Even when I don’t understand thee, I love thee. I recently received the July/August issue of Discover, which appears to be very biology-centric. This makes me happy because biology is like the hot boyfriend with a little bit of an accent and colloquialisms that make communication somewhat difficult, as compared to the gorgeous boyfriend of physics who speaks a completely different language but I don’t even care, I could just lustfully listen to him spout incomprehensibility all day. Science turns me on, yo. I have been a subscriber for years and even though I haven’t lately been able to read every issue cover-to-cover, I do try. I have gotten ideas for stories and plot twists as well as general information and entertainment from the magazine and it makes me feel better than reading People magazine does. Kind of like when I choose to eat an apple over a doughnut. As Bill Nye says, “Science rules!”

So far two articles in this issue have gotten me excited. The first, “Superhuman Vision” is about a mutant cone some women (maybe a lot of women) are carrying around, a fourth cone that allows them to see an exponential number of color variations not visible to other humans. It is kind of like the Bizarro World version of the green/red color blindness that diminishes color perception in some men. How cool is that?! Mutant powers! X-(wo)men! The thing is that many of these women probably aren’t aware that they are seeing anything the rest of us aren’t because the nature of perception is so individual. Imagine trying to describe red to someone who can’t see red or provoke someone who doesn’t taste chocolate or tobacco in their red wine to do so. Difficult. I want them to make the test they describe in the article available on the internet. Maybe I have super vision! Actually I suspect that the only thing special about my vision is the degree to which I am frazzled by floaters, which isn’t very special at all.

The other article was “Earth’s Last Unexplored Wilderness Is…Your Living Room.” I love articles which immediately make me change my behavior. I wasn’t even halfway through the piece when I jumped up and opened all the windows on the main level of my house. For fifteen minutes–until the heat and humidity (already? at 8:30 a.m.?) forced me to close them again. Now, science reveals some uncomfortable truths, that maybe not all of you want to know. Far be it for me to expose you to graphic information that could gross you out for life, so two things: you might want to disinfect your showerheads, and wash your pillowcases with bleach in the hottest water you can. As I am. That is all.

It isn’t like Discover has never led me astray. I preached the anti-high fructose corn syrup gospel for over a year based on a quoted scientist who described it as a “metabolic disaster.” Further study showed no such thing, of course. Sugar is sugar, and we are getting way too much in all of its forms. But that is part of what I like about science. People make hypotheses and test them and share the results and other people say, “Hey, that is interesting! Are you sure?” and re-test the results, using what comes to leap to more evolved hypotheses, and we are all better for it. We grow from knowledge and experience. Ideally, science is all about open-mindedness, and using evidence to guide us toward knowledge. Some also use the lack of evidence to deny the existence of things for which we cannot test, like God for instance. In earlier generations, the existence of germs and sub-atomic particles and dark matter was considered ludicrous. I wonder what fascinating things we will know for certain in the future that are unimaginable to us today? I can’t wait to read about them in Discover.

Speaking of Poe,

Okay, we weren’t speaking of Poe, but after my last post and my rather self-conscious reference to “the feather light caress of mortality’s scythe,” I have been thinking about him. Like a lot of people, I hit a patch in my tween and teen years when I read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe and other authors who made the macabre an art form. I would probably have been at least a little bit goth, had there been such a thing in those days. I have never fully emerged from that patch; part of me loves the dark side, though I’d rather read it than watch it and prefer suspense to blood and gore. (Side Note: my friend Darlington tells me that in his culture–Rwanda, but in other areas in Africa as well–people love Hollywood movies but cannot comprehend our love of the horror genre. I suspect that if we faced real possibilities of genocide, murderous insurgency, and death by famine and epidemic we would enjoy horror flicks less also.)

So in reflecting how Grandma Marian’s death affected me, I was struck by how my response to death has changed as I’ve aged. Experiencing the loss of my own grandparents as a child, death seemed harsh but unimaginably distant. When one of my schoolmates died of a hidden heart defect we all grieved, but it still seemed the greatest of improbabilities, a one-in-a-million long shot, a lightning strike. Later, I lost a friend to breast cancer and then more and more people, not that much older than me, seemed to be coming out of the woodwork with life-threatening diagnoses and fatal tragedies. I lost my father to a car accident, one friend to an aneurysm and another to a drunk driver, my best friend’s mom and my husband’s mom died of cancer, and my sister and my mom both got cancer. My sister and mother survived, but death, always a possibility on an intellectual level, was becoming undeniable even to my gut. When my husband’s grandmother died, even though she’d lived an abundant life into her nineties, death felt a whisker’s breadth closer. I heard the swoosh of a blade through the air and felt the barest touch of metal to my skin. The scythe, I thought at the time. Now I realize that Poe had it right; it is a pendulum, and it is nearing. My husband’s grandfather confided to him before he passed on some years ago, that he was ready to die. He’d had a good life, he said, and all his friends were already gone. With this most recent funeral, it struck home that perhaps every loss as you age cuts deeper.

Some cope with this reality by chasing sex, things, or inebriation; or by creating a legacy through child-bearing, corporate empire-building, or writing a book. Then there is God. Some would charge that religious faith is just the covers a child hides under, hoping they will shield him from the horrors in the dark. I believe it is more than that. My faith, imperfect as it is, doesn’t protect me from death or loss, or even worry and fear. It does shore me up when I start to crumple, and it does help me reach out past my own self interest in a loving way to others, especially those others I find hard to love. It gives me an assurance of a bigger plan that I don’t need to understand to play a part in. And all it asks is that I keep trying, even as that figurative pendulum swings ever closer. I can do that. Maybe I can build a legacy of sort, as well.

The life of Edgar Allen Poe had its share of horror, but his legacy of literature has excited the imagination for nearly two centuries. The movie The Raven, starring John Cusack (one of my favorite actors,) is released Friday (April 27th) and I am looking forward to it. Poe, played by Cusack, teams up with a detective to catch a serial killer, who stages his kills based upon Poe’s stories. I don’t expect the same level of entertainment from the movie that I derived from Poe’s stories and poems, but I hope it is well done. That is the least we can ask from a film that dares to invoke a master of the macabre.

What movies and books give you shivers and thrills? A few of my top listed books: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and It by Stephen King. Movies: “What Lies Beneath” and “Coraline.”

Taking The Pulpit

When I was in my teens, a minor revolution occurred in our small town when our Methodist Church got a female minister. Her name was Judy, and she was the first minister I would know by her first name, separate from the words Reverend and a last name. I, being an angry feminist from my earliest years, was enthusiastic about the change. It was about time a woman came in and showed everyone that we were just as capable getting this job done as the men. Judy surprised me by being earthy and well, a little weird. She laughed a lot and comported herself  differently than the ministers I’d been used to, who had always seemed to be kind of big on the issue of dignity. She also had some kind of unique ideas about worship and God. If I found Judy to be a little unconventional, I can’t even imagine the uproar she caused among the adult congregation, although I did hear a few conversations between my parents on the subject. I don’t remember what they said, just that I was surprised that “the preacher” was a topic. Like most Methodist pastors of that time and place, Judy was with our church for a few years, then transferred elsewhere. Change is hard on a congregation, and maybe the frequent changes of leadership is part of what makes them hold so tightly to a certain way of doing things as a way to cement identity.

Through Goodreads, I became interested in a book entitled Sea Level, by Nancy Kilgore. Kilgore writes of a woman, Brigid, taking the pulpit of a Methodist church in a small Virginia coastal community. It is her first appointment as a pastor and their first experience with a woman in the role. What ensues is the good, the bad and the ugly on every level imaginable. Kilgore explores the sometimes hair-raising politics and cultural attitudes from the perspectives of various members of the congregation and the minister and her family. There is also a plotline involving  Mary, an artist more attuned to ideas of the Goddess, born and raised in the community but long ago fled to New York City, who returns to connect with her roots and to try to integrate them with her free-thinking and independent way of life. Mary and Brigid become friends and allies in a place where many demand both of them sit down and shut up. There are some differences, but I strongly suspect that Judy would have recognized Sea Level as a variation of her story of church leadership, ostracism, changing times and hopefully, support in my hometown. One of the biggest lessons I take from Sea Level is that being right and feeling certain don’t always come as a package.  In the book, as in life, there are no tidy endings, but there is a sense of assurance that persistence pays off, that living right and trying hard will, most of the time, see you through.

See Goodreads for my full review of Sea Level. Sea Level is available from Amazon.com or from your local bookstore (may need to order it,) and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Why Christmas?

O, Blessed Day of Restoration! Otherwise known as “getting back to normal.” Regardless of your theological perspective on Christmas, or lack thereof, for many of us Christmas is a time of shaking up business as usual and refocusing on both higher and lower things. Our regular schedule gave way for shopping, wrapping, decorating, creating, worshipping and giving, but most of the regular stuff still needed to get done. People who got time off from work can be forgiven for feeling robbed of the rest and relaxation they associate with vacation time, and those “at-home” folks (who either never get a day off, or for whom every day is a vacation day, depending on whom you ask,) just added the extra tasks on top. The music, the secrets, the spirit and the fun memories heightened the excitement and kept it fun, while the culture of fabulosity pressured us to add sizzle and stretch to perfection. Christmas is often like a vacation: expensive, time and labor intensive, delightful, satisfying and anti-climactic all at the same time.

That is, assuming your Christmas didn’t include a metaphorical hurricane. So many did. Some of us are still processing a holiday season viewed through the lens of grief: a lost home, job or loved one, some with absence so fresh we can still taste the tears. Others of us are struggling to get a handle on problems: mental or physical health issues for ourselves or ones that we love, or economic storms still looming off shore, or other disappointments in life that reframe our sense of who we are and what we can expect in life. These events do not recognize a liturgical or cultural calendar. Christmas can be a source of solace and/or bitterness in these times.

And then it’s over. Sure, it is time to write thank-you notes and clean up the mess. Eventually it will be time to put away the decorations. But business as usual resurfaces at the top of the to-do list and the hum-drum activities that may ordinarily chafe slip back on like well-worn work-casual shoes. More function, less glitter. I try to nurture the spirit of Love, Peace, Hope, Joy and Giving that is Christmas to me all year around. Weathering both daily squalls and storms of a lifetime would be unimaginably harder without my faith that God is with me and will see me through all things; and loving others as Jesus taught can get lost in the day-to-day without practice and a supportive community. I can maintain faith and love without observing Christmas, and I know that the trappings sometimes get in the way. I understand why some would do away with it altogether. But for me the celebration of the season reinvigorates my mindfulness of how I practice what I believe, now and in the seasons to come. The tree gets put away but the spark remains.