08 November 2013

7 Quick Takes, Family Edition

1. This week, I made a quick trip up to my parents' house in PA. My mom has a (very painful)herniated disc, so my sister and I cooked some meals and I took them up, leaving the kiddos in the care of hubby. I can't remember the last time I drove any significant distance without at least one child in the car--and most often, two children who consider the car to be the best place to hone their apparently much-valued bickering skills. Three plus hours alone in the car, listening to whatever music or podcasts I wanted? Bliss. Maybe my parents will need some more help in a week or two?

2. Speaking of which, my mom has been mostly flat on her back for the better part of three weeks, unable to do any cleaning or tidying up. My dad also has some trouble getting around. I, on the other hand, have no mobility problems to speak of, *and* recently hired a cleaning lady to come every other week. My parents' house STILL looks cleaner and (for sure) tidier than mine. I will now place the blame for this on our darling children (just ignore that derisive laughter from my sister, who stayed with us for a time before we had children).

3. So is it petty to wonder whose food my parents will like more, that cooked by me or by my sister? Maybe I should have given my parents a rating card for each dish, and not told them who cooked what. Except the meatloaf I made kind of fell apart, so after being frozen and reheated, it will likely end up being tasty meat crumbles. Wendy wins again--drat that chicken a la king!

4. Back to the appalling state of our abode--Monday is when I truly realized that tidiness vs. messiness is an inborn trait. My oldest is messy, and sees no problem with it. Asking her to clean up her room (or, when she was younger, her toys) is tantamount to torture, as far as she is concerned. I'm convinced that she really sees no reason for it. "It's fine!" she will say, as I look at her supposedly clean room, and point at obvious pieces of trash on the floor--right next to her trash can.

On the other hand, Monday afternoon, I said to my youngest daughter, "Your friend is coming over tomorrow--can you pick up your toys in the family room? Then later we can clean your room." (She's five, so still qualifies for parental assistance in room cleaning.) She happily (!) cleaned up her toys, then said "I'm going to clean my room now!" and disappeared for a good half-hour. When I checked her room, it was tidy, nothing on the floor, and she had even had a go at making her bed (difficult because it's a loft bed). I'd say it's amazing what the promise of a playdate can do, except that I have tried the same strategy with my oldest and still gotten moans, groans, and maybe one clear spot on the floor where her clean laundry used to be.

5. One of the perks of going up to PA was the chance to stop at the local tea shop. After reading this article about pesticides, plastic teabags possibly leaching chemicals, etc., I have sworn off buying more tea at Teavana, which is the only place I've found here that sells loose tea. If any fellow NoVa residents know of a locally owned tea shop, please let me know! But I don't know that anything can beat the blend I'm currently in love with, an organic black tea mixed with coconut. Yum.

6. In the past year or so, I've really become interested in people's stories. Rather late in the game, I realized that if I ask the right questions and engage with other people, they will tell me the most fascinating things. This is in stark contrast with my modus operandi since childhood--when the stories in books were far more interesting than actual living, breathing people.

Last week, I was sitting on the playground while my younger one played, with my Kindle in hand. A young woman sat down near me. I had seen her briefly the week before, when (who I thought was) her son played tag with my daughter. She struck up a conversation with me, and instead of giving her noncommittal answers and going back to my book, I asked her where she was from. And that led to a very interesting story: a young woman from Jordan, who had come to the U.S. to visit relatives (the boy was actually her cousin) and decided to stay and get her nursing degree at the local community college. She already had her bachelor's degree plus a master's in social work, and had worked in her field, including traveling around the world doing music therapy for an international NGO, for nearly a decade. But she had always wanted to be a nurse; her parents had discouraged her from majoring in nursing when she was younger, because the long hours would make it difficult for her to get married and have children. Now, she was still unmarried and without children, but she was in the United States and an adult, so why not pursue her dream? She was eager to finish her studies and get back to Jordan, though, because she disliked the NoVa weather and missed her family. All this from a random woman on the local playground. And I would have missed it if I hadn't paid attention and listened.

7. And here's a different take on pursuing your dream: Phil Vischer, the founder of the hugely popular Christian cartoons, VeggieTales, now speaks and writes about what he learned when his company disintegrated around him. What happens, he asks, when your dreams die? Listening to this, I was struck again on how truly following Christ can sometimes be the opposite of what culture tells us is important. "Follow your dreams," says the American culture, and people arrive from all over the world to do just that. But Christians are to be about the business of following Christ. How countercultural can you get?

Here's a short version of Phil's story, though I find the graphic shenanigans every time they make an edit annoying. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJw_njstsNg

And here's a talk he did at Taylor University, which I found funny and thought-provoking.

For more Quick Takes, go to Conversion Diary.

02 November 2013


Here’s how it went from my perspective. The two primary leaders of my church’s women’s Bible study retired in the spring, so a call went out that new volunteers were needed to replace them. [As background, about 50 or more women attend each Wednesday morning. First, everyone meets in a big group for snacks, “fellowship” (Christianese for social time), and a short worship/devotional time. Then, we break up into smaller groups for study (five groups this year, each on a different topic).]

I’d been going to this group for two years at that point, and I had me some thoughts and some opinions on the devotional part of the morning. I was also pretty sure that the hardest role to fill would be the person who spoke to the large group every week. I’ve heard rumors that some people don’t like to speak in public. So, Speech League girl thought, “I should offer to do devotions. I could do that.”  The undertone there, I’m ashamed to admit, was “I could do that better.
Anyway, on the end-of-year survey/plea for volunteers, I wrote that I’d be willing to “help” with devotions. By “help” I meant, “gimme that mike ‘cause I gots some IDEAS.” I did not follow up or mention it to anyone. I figured if whoever ended up in charge needed help, they’d call me. I dismissed it from my mind and went on my merry way.

In mid-August, I got an e-mail from the new leader of the Wednesday gathering. My response sheet (and another person’s) had been overlooked earlier, but was I still interested in helping with devotions? My first phone call with the leader was interesting. I did this thing I do sometimes—“listen” to the other person with the thing I want to say already in mind, so I can interject it as soon as the other person pauses. Except that the ideas that she was outlining were pretty much the same as the ideas that I had. We were already on the same page in terms of content, and we had never spoken before that moment.
One thing led to another, and I’m now the one who plans (with the music team) and delivers the devotion each week. I get to choose the stories I read, and the Scripture, and I get to use all my inherent dramatic flare (oh, and I do possess some Drah-ma on occasion) to read them. It’s not a lot of time up front—maybe 5 to 10 minutes of me with the mike, bookended by songs selected by the music team. I’m also trying to recruit other members of the group to speak about their faith stories, so it’s not always just me reading out of a book. It’s going well, and we’ve had some good feedback. I feel like I’m contributing my talents to the good of this group, which is made up of truly stellar and spiritual ladies, and which has contributed a lot to my own spiritual growth.

 The leader emailed me a few weeks ago about something or other and added that she was glad I had responded to God’s call to lead devotions.  My knee-jerk reaction was that I had heard no specific call. I volunteered because the job was in line with my skills/talents and I thought they would need the help. I supposed that I was acting on God’s principles of sharing your gifts with others, but there was no burning bush or strong impulse (or at least no impulse that was distinguishable from my, ahem, not-so-virtuous view that I could do it better).

Now, here’s the situation as told to me from other people’s perspective: The newly minted leader of Wednesday morning women had everything in place by midsummer (which is saying something in an organization this size undergoing its first leadership turnover in 15 years)--except someone to lead devotions. M. knew from the start, she said, that leading devotions wasn’t her thing. But she was willing to do it if no one else came forward. She said to me recently, ”But every time I thought that I’d just go ahead and do them, the Lord slapped me down. I just knew someone else was supposed to do it.”
At one of the team leadership meetings during the summer, M. announced to the leadership team that she was still looking for someone to take over devotions. (My volunteer sheet was apparently found at some point later.) Last week, a Bible study leader who was at that meeting told me, “When M. said that, the Holy Spirit told me it was you. Your name came into my mind. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I was unsure about speaking up. But I want you to know that it was supposed to be you.”

What gives me pause here is that I had never spoken with this person before September. I had heard her name, but hadn’t put a face to it until this fall. She had never been in a small group with me or had any meaningful interaction with me.
(Another woman heard this conversation and said, “Yeah, I thought of you, too!” This person I knew and had been in small group with, so that was not so disconcerting, though it was very nice to hear.)

The more I think about that conversation, the more it causes me to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about myself and about how God works. I have no reason to disbelieve what I’ve been told. I believe God speaks to people today—heck, I’ve been the occasional recipient of such communication. But not often, or at least not often in a way that has this kind of—supernatural?—feel to it.
The idea of God talking to other people about me is what really gets me. Are the 10 minutes or so once a week that I stand up and read from a book of God-stories  really so important? Am I really so integral to that 10 minutes? It doesn’t seem likely to me. Then again, “his eye is on the sparrow,” so why wouldn’t God be interested in that 10 minutes of someone talking about him and his work?

And does it count as being called if I just thought, “hey, I’m a decent public speaker, I could do that” and threw my name in to the ring? Most of the time, when God called people in the Bible, burning bushes or otherworldly visions or being struck blind was involved. And the person’s response was more like, “whoa, wait, you want me to do what?” Of course, standing up in front of 50 nice Christian women is on quite a different scale than arguing with Pharaoh in his throne room.
Maybe that’s the crux. I think of “being called” as a big deal—one is called to “let my people go” or to go into full-time ministry or to leave your cushy life and take care of dying people in Calcutta. But maybe God also calls us to the smaller things—to give a few extra dollars to that charity, to send that encouraging note, to stand up and read a devotion for 10 minutes each week. And maybe it doesn’t always feel so mysterious, or even terribly spiritual. Maybe it’s God working through our own willingness to serve.

And maybe, just maybe, we’re more important to God’s plan than we think we are. Maybe we influence people more than we know. Maybe the small tasks that we fumble through, with our mixed motives and our haphazard ways, are still vital to God’s kingdom. What if God’s calling you, quietly, faithfully, lovingly, to take up those small tasks, to learn more of his ways, to follow Him in the everyday--and not wait for that burning bush before you begin?

03 October 2013

The Problem with Knowing the Right Answers

Some years ago, I think I inadvertently freaked out our pastor while giving him a compliment. He had just preached a sermon on the Transfiguration, and had gone in a different direction with it than I had heard before. I told him that I had heard many a sermon on the story of Jesus’s Transfiguration—there’s a Transfiguration Sunday every year on the liturgical calendar, after all. Most sermons I’ve heard on it go in one of maybe two directions—both of which I recited to the pastor. But he had brought something new to it, so I appreciated it.

Over the next couple of years, he mentioned that conversation a number of times, and that’s when I realized that maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. After all, he still had to preach a sermon on that story every year, and I had just shown him that I was a bit jaded with the usual interpretations. I think I took away his fall-back position.

This is the challenge with “growing up in the church”: after a while, you know all the right answers. Or, rather, you’ve heard enough sermons and/or spent enough time in Sunday School that you can predict what lesson the preacher/teacher is going to highlight from the most frequently read Scripture verses.

The Transfiguration? Can’t always stay on the mountaintop, gotta take that glory and insight with you when it’s time to muck around in the valley of real life.

David and Goliath? God will fight for you.

Abraham and Sarah? The importance of faith.

You get the idea. But what happens when you go beyond the “right answers”? That is, the answers those of us who grew up in the church learned in Sunday School? That’s when the real wrestling begins. (There was this guy named Jacob…)

We went to a newly formed “small group” last week (church-speak for combo Bible study/social club/support group…a way for people to actually get to know each other outside of sitting in pews facing forward). Our church is reading through “The Story”—basically a Reader-Digest-condensed-version of the Bible, long on action and short on “begat” lists and tabernacle-building instructions—and the small group discussion focused on the story of Joseph. And as I said to the discussion leader later, I felt like the downer of the group. A good part of the discussion focused on how Joseph’s bad experiences—being sold into slavery, later thrown into prison, and then becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man, though still a slave—saved him and his family from starvation (and not incidentally, Egypt, as well). I’m sitting there thinking, “Yeah, it says God was with him…but he was still in prison!” And I’m the one who pointed out that, yeah, Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery, but he did mess with them a good bit, first. (And good for him…they deserved it.)

I guess I have a knee-jerk reaction to easy answers. And the Joseph story is easy to simplify, because Joseph himself says it, to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Ding, ding, ding! Correct answer! And then he and his brothers hug it out. Happy ending.

Maybe the problem is not in the story—it’s in the fact that we can read about a person’s entire life in 10 minutes. But when we’re in the midst of our own lives, it’s not that simple. Some of the members of the group told stories of hard times which turned out to have had blessing and purpose. And sometimes, we can look back and see how something desperately hard worked out for good. Sometimes we see it. Sometimes we don’t—the meaning, the purpose escapes us.

Then, too, I wonder about the practice of examining each Bible verse for a life lesson, a practical application. Should the vivid people and grand adventures of many of these Bible accounts be reduced to “but what does it say to meeeeee?” I believe the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible, but I think that often we are too quick to jump to the end of the story, to recite the pat answer, to speed through the uncomfortable parts.

Joseph was enslaved for over 20 years…and probably for the rest of his life (although once Pharaoh plucked him out of prison, he wasn’t exactly making bricks). I bet those years he spent in prison seemed awfully long and even hopeless, but in the Bible, those years are given just a few sentences. How did Joseph cope? Traditionally, we’d say that he had faith—and I’m sure he did—but did Joseph ever pray, “Hey, God? Are you there? Is this what I get for being faithful?” As readers, we know that he was in the middle of his story, not the end—that good things were coming. But Joseph didn’t know that.

Being in the midst of our own story is different than being the reader of someone else’s story. There’s no jumping to the end of the book, or even the end of the chapter. There are no point-of-view changes, no omniscient narrator or wry voiceover, no real sense of plot structure. Once in a while we might get a glimpse—like Joseph did—of a purpose, a sense of direction. But most of the time, we’re living in the spaces between the sentences, trying as hard as we can to keep the faith. “God was with Joseph” the Bible says, repeatedly. I wonder, did Joseph feel that? Did he know it?

Ah, and now the temptation, to bring it all back to me, to my life. What does this story say to meeee? Can I wrest answers from these musings—or from my life—and come to a tidy ending? What if I just hold up the sharp shards of my disjointed thoughts and doubts and questions, all my old pains and new longings, and let them bloody my hands and cut into my soul, and present them to God, not asking for answers?

27 September 2013

7 Quick Takes

--- 1 ---
Both girls have been sick this week, and K has been really annoyed that I made her go to school and kept her sister home. Sucks to be the one who *doesn't* have a fever. A's fever started on Saturday and went straight through Tuesday night. No other symptoms. Wednesday morning, she woke up with a normal temp. Back to school on Thursday. K is still coughing...since the weekend before Labor Day. She's been through one round of antibiotics and five days of albuterol with no effect. Called the doctor for a second round of antibiotics to start today.

--- 2 ---
Both of my children dislike school. A started kindergarten (all-day) with such excitement---loved her new backpack, loved packing her lunch, being a big girl, etc. For the first week. Second week, she was done. She misses me, "school is boring," she doesn't want to go to school. She cries nearly every day at the bus stop. Last week, I wrote a note to her teacher, who responded immediately, saying she had no idea, and that A is great in class. The teacher wrote that she talked to A a little bit about whether she felt sad in school. A came home and said, "My teacher told me not to cry at the bus stop." And she didn't...for one day. Then she got sick and got to stay home, and Thursday it was near hysterics. Today was better, although she still repeated all morning, "School is boring. I don't want to go to school."

--- 3 ---
K also dislikes sixth grade. She says it is tiring and confusing. I suspect that part of the problem is that she hasn't been healthy since school started. But it is also a fairly big change in schedule for her, since the kids are switching classes 4 times a day. Last year, it was a half-day with one teacher and a half-day with the other. They're preparing the kids for middle school next year, of course, but since the elementary school doesn't have lockers, the kids must carry everything with them from room to room in their backpacks. I'm wondering whether the lack of a "home" is wearing on her.

--- 4 ---
And then there is one of those things that's hard for a parent to assess. There's a boy. An annoying boy who likes to get laughs or attention by swearing. And K says that he especially likes to say "bad words" to her. It bothers her a lot. We suspect that he has a little crush on her, but it's also possible that he's just plain targeting her for teasing. It's hard to tell from her description. She dealt with it last spring by asking the teacher to move her away from him (or vice-versa), and it seemed to help. She has not done that so far this year. He is seated near her in homeroom (about 15 minutes, she says) and in one of her other classes. We've talked through various strategies with her--put up with him/ignore him; ask the teacher(s) to separate them; talk to the counselor about it; have Mom e-mail/talk to the counselor about it. So far she's chosen to just try to ignore him. I would love to observe exactly what's going on, since I can't tell if it's just a boy trying out some ways to garner attention or if it's reached the level of harassment. But K has now reached the age where Mom intervening is an embarrassment. I was going to e-mail her teachers on a different (minor) matter, and she begged me not to.

--- 5 ---
People are asking me what I'm going to do now that both girls are in school all day. My plan is to write more. Here, and some fiction I'm experimenting with. But somehow, so far my days end up just floating away. It's time for the bus stop before I know it. Time management has always been a huge challenge for me. I'm always making lists and schedules and then can't figure out how to stick to them. This week has been a wash because of A being home sick, but today and next week I will start anew...again.

--- 6 ---
Here's another thing with the writing: there is always something else to do. And usually that "something else" has to do with the house or the kids or volunteer work at church. And doing any of those things serves other people. Writing feels self-indulgent--I'm not getting paid for it, it may never see the light of day except for maybe the few people who read my blog--and yet, it is one of those gifts that I think God wants me to use. So I spend the day feeling guilty because I "should be" writing, or I spend writing time thinking I "should be" doing something more productive, like cleaning up or running errands. Or I can just noodle about online, reading Facebook and the like, and I can feel bad because I'm not doing anything at all. Aren't you glad you're not in my brain?

--- 7 ---
Speaking of my weird brain, Jennifer at Conversion Diary has been talking about Meyers-Briggs types, and a commenter linked to a YouTube video about my type--INFP. A series of motivational-style posters and sayings, most of which seem pretty darn accurate. (Like, "Clutter? What clutter?" as papers rain down from on high.) My favorite: "INFP. I am NOT too sensitive!" The picture even looks like me as a little girl. I just spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get the video to start right at that point, but I can't get it to work right. So fast forward to 3:33 to see it.

INFP is the rarest type, I believe, which just goes to show what a special snowflake I am.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

18 September 2013

Paul's Story, Your Story

I wrote and read this devotion for "Gathering Day" for our church's morning women's Bible study (called Women of the Word). The devotion theme for this year is "God's Story, Your Story, My Story, Our Story." (I would have had fewer "stories" but it was a team decision.) Anyway, I got some good feedback on it, so I thought I'd post it here.

Hello, my name is Jennifer, and I am part of God’s story. And so is every one of you. Today, we’re going to look at Paul’s story, and how it might speak to us as we begin a new season together,  seeking to follow the call of Christ.

Here is Paul in Philippians, telling his story. This is from The Voice translation.

If any try to throw around their pedigrees to you, remember my résumé—which is more impressive than theirs. I was circumcised on the eighth day—as the law prescribes—born of the nation of Israel, descended from the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew born of Hebrews; I have observed the law according to the strict piety of the Pharisees, separate from those embracing a less rigorous kind of Judaism. Zealous? Yes. I ruthlessly pursued and persecuted the church. And when it comes to the righteousness required by the law, my record is spotless.

But whatever I used to count as my greatest accomplishments, I’ve written them off as a loss because of the Anointed One. And more so, I now realize that all I gained and thought was important was nothing but yesterday’s garbage compared to knowing the Anointed Jesus my Lord. For Him I have thrown everything aside—it’s nothing but a pile of waste—so that I may gain Him. When it counts, I want to be found belonging to Him, not clinging to my own righteousness based on law, but actively relying on the faithfulness of the Anointed One. This is true righteousness, supplied by God, acquired by faith. 10 I want to know Him inside and out. I want to experience the power of His resurrection and join in His suffering, shaped by His death, 11 so that I may arrive safely at the resurrection from the dead.

Paul had every credential of success according to both the world and the religious establishment. He was born into a respectable, even prominent family. He was well-educated. He was faithful to his religion—he was detail-oriented in obeying Jewish law. He was so dedicated to the well-being of Judaism that he persecuted those troublemakers and rabble-rousers who had the gall to preach that Jesus was the Messiah. He was secure in himself and his own righteousness. Until Jesus knocked him to the ground—literally—and turned his life upside down. Paul heard the call of Christ, and nothing was ever the same. He threw it all away—his comfortable religious practice, his reputation, most likely his family and friends, even his personal safety.

But he didn’t throw away his life for a cause, a way of life, or even a new religion. No, what drove Paul, his ultimate goal, was knowing Jesus. We might say that Paul devoted his life to spreading the Gospel. But what Paul says is “I want to know Jesus inside and out.” To Paul, the prize is not success, or self-improvement, or even doing great things for God. The prize is Jesus himself. And to know Jesus more and more, Paul is willing to leave his comfortable life behind him, to go through hardship and suffering—even death—if it will bring him closer to Jesus.

Maybe you have a story like Paul’s. Maybe you grew up in “the church”—whichever church that might be. You went to Sunday School, to youth group, maybe even a mission trip or a Christian college. You were the good girl, the one who followed the rules, the person all the moms wanted to babysit their kids. As an adult, you went to church faithfully, brought your children to Sunday School, maybe sang in the choir or went to Bible studies. You’ve been trying your best all your life to live up to the expectations of what being a good Christian looks like. And maybe all those expectations are tiring you out.

Or maybe your story is not like that. Maybe the only time you walked into a church was for weddings and funerals. Life in your family was good, but God didn’t figure much into it. Or maybe life in your family wasn’t so good, and you still carry scars from it. Perhaps you’re still haunted by mistakes you’ve made, or by dark paths you’ve traveled, either because of your own choices or someone else’s.  Maybe some days you’re struggling just to keep your head above water.

I’m here to tell you that no matter what your story is, God wants to be a part of it. Not just a part—God is calling you—calling me—to stop holding onto our own story so tightly, and allow ourselves to become a part of His story. The world tells us that we should be masters of our own fate, we should take control of our lives, pursue our dreams, achieve our goals. But God calls us to surrender our fate, to give up control, and most of all, to pursue Him. Life with God is not about following rules or living up to expectations—our own or anyone else’s. It is about following the gentle call of Jesus and allowing him to heal and shape us.

When God’s story intersected with Paul’s story, Paul was completely and utterly changed. Not all of us will have a dramatic Damascus road experience (although some of us will). But all of us can seek to know Jesus more and more, to ask Him to shape our story. That’s why we’re here. That’s why Women of the Word exists, as a way to seek Jesus together.

Over the next few months, will you allow God’s story to intersect with yours? How will your story change—how will my story change—as we open our hearts and our lives and ask God to tell His story through us? I can’t wait to find out.

18 April 2013

The Language of Worship

I’ve read that language can shape how we think, as well as how we speak. From my own limited foreign language experience, I tend to think that’s true. German is a highly structured language compared to English, requiring the poor English speaker to memorize dozens of endings for each word, so that each part of speech is properly categorized and matched within the sentence. Spelling is consistent—what you see is what you get. On a visit to Germany in college, I impressed the lady sitting next to me at church with my German. I admitted, sheepishly, in English, that my German was actually very limited. But I could sing a hymn or read a prayer with the best of them, because I knew how to pronounce everything. English, in contrast, greedily poaches words from other languages, pronounces them as it will, and never changes the spelling. Thus, English words have an unpredictability that makes spelling bees a real challenge.

One may argue that the German culture is similarly structured, with defined roles—and rules—to an extent that can seem fussy and even overbearing to us casual, careless  Americans. The ubiquity of American media—as well as near-universal English study at young ages, I would posit—may have “softened” some of the overt social formality in younger generations, but it still exists.  

Recently, we attended Palm Sunday services with my parents in my hometown.  They currently attend a United Methodist church, a recent change for them. Although I grew up “in” a UM church, my parents switched to a Lutheran church years ago, and I, of course, have been a Lutheran since just after I married in 1992. So it’s been a very long time since I worshiped in a United Methodist church. I wondered whether I would feel “at home” despite my long sojourn as a Lutheran, and in some ways, I did. The hymns were all very familiar, the same hymns I sang as a child and teenager—especially “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus,” which I still have nearly memorized. But the service—even the sermon—felt different in a way that surprised me.

I “converted” (does one convert from one Protestant denomination to another? Seems a strong word when much basic theology remains the same.) to the Lutheran church just after hubby and I got married. He was raised in the Lutheran church and feels comfortable there. But I didn’t switch just for him. I fell in love with the Lutheran liturgy—the ancient and evocative  words, the eerie chanting, the emphasis on Scripture and on Communion. And the foundational Lutheran theology of grace, grace, grace.  Imperfectly lived out, for sure, but one of the understandings on which Lutheran theology and culture rests.

Traditional Lutheran liturgy differs only slightly from Catholic and Episcopal liturgy (though our theologies have more significant differences), and through the Catholic tradition, reaches back into the earliest days of Christianity. Much of the words are taken from Scripture, soarguably the liturgy reaches back even further… to John seeing visions on the island of Patmos (“Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain”), to Simeon holding the baby Jesus (“Lord, let your servant depart in peace”), to David and the Psalms. The liturgy, to me, feels dense with mystery and meaning and history. I slip into it when the service begins, like a comfortable garment. I’m familiar with the order, the movement through the service, the words that seem to echo through the ages and around the world. I am a part of a long line of believers, a tapestry knit together over time and space, singing or reciting or praying the same words, in many languages.

The Methodist worship, in contrast, seemed pared down, simplified. Much less standing, no kneeling. A hymn, a prayer, a reading, a sermon. The service felt open. It had more space, less density. Instead of a layered, woven tapestry, it was a line of polished stepping-stones, each one defined and solid. Few congregational responses, other than hymns. And I thought of Methodist history, of John Wesley and circuit preachers on horseback in the American wilderness, stopping to preach, to sing, to pray with plain-talking, work-hardened pioneers. That the Methodists tend toward minimal liturgy makes sense in the light of their history as well.

Circling around again to languages, I come to my mother, who sees the two services differently than I do. She finds the Lutheran liturgy repetitive, boring, and therefore doesn’t find the same meaning and comfort in it that I do.  I have no real complaints about the Methodist service, other than it seems less participatory, more focused on what’s “up front.” But I do prefer the liturgy.

Of course, the reason we have so many denominations is generally not a good one—despite Jesus’s repeated pleas and prayers that his followers be marked by love and unity, the Church became many churches because of our inability to agree or to tolerate disagreement. But perhaps one of the blessings of having many “flavors” of Christianity is that we also have many languages of worship. Those of us who find meaning in familiar words, in chanting, in kneeling and standing and sitting, can worship God in the language of liturgy. Those of us who find meaning in simplicity, in hymns, in the quiet spaces between prayers, can worship God in their language. And other languages too, the language of a joyful gospel choir and call-and-response; the language of guitars and drums and raising hands to the sky; the language of laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. All are different, and yet all are for the same purpose: to worship the One who made us.

And, someday, I believe, we will worship all together—in every language, in every tongue. Us liturgical folks will be kneeling and murmuring the Lord’s Prayer, and the Pentecostals will be shouting and dancing, and the contemporary praise bands will be playing loud and fast, and the United Methodists will be “telling that old, old story,” in English and German and Spanish and Farsi and Hindi and on and on, and our separate worship languages will harmonize into one song, THE Song. And the Lord God will smile and laugh and love us all at once. And it will be good.

08 March 2013

7 Quick Takes

1. I’m going to the Balanced Bites nutrition seminar tomorrow in DC. I’m excited to meet several cookbook authors/bloggers that I’ve been reading, and to maybe learn a bit more about things I can do to stay as healthy as possible. Also nervous about seeming stalker-y on the one hand or stiff and shy on the other. I’m old enough now that I should just accept that my social awkwardness will assert itself somehow. I will most likely blurt out something that makes me cringe at the memory for days afterwards. There. If I expect it, I shouldn’t worry about it too much, right? It’s all about managing expectations. And sweet, sweet denial.

2. We watched the episode of “The Big Bang Theory” last night where Koothrappali had a texting date in a library. Other than the fact that I can’t text very fast because two left thumbs, that’s how I feel sometimes—I am much better in writing than I am in person.

3. Which brings me to something I think about now and again. I should write up a complete post about it sometime, but here’s something to think about next time you read a newspaper article, book, or blog post: people who are good with words can make anything sound authoritative, or slant a story the way  they think it should go. Maybe that’s why I don’t necessarily believe news stories tell the whole truth—I know how easy it is to slant a piece, because I’ve done it. I’ve managed to crank out authoritative-sounding articles based on three 15-minute phone interviews by stringing together “good quotes” in an organized manner. I once wrote a very peppy-sounding memo for improving practices at a company I worked at, based on my and others’ ideas. A week later I wrote an irate e-mail about mistakes made on one of my projects. I was called into my boss’s office and reprimanded for the tone of the e-mail. He said it was counterproductive, and look at the way this memo is written, you should try to communicate like that. He didn’t know I wrote that memo, too. The difference was, the memo was slanted to the way I knew he and the troubled section of the company would respond. The e-mail told the same truth, just stated baldly and bluntly. Both, of course, were written verywell.

4. Got an allergy workup yesterday. Nothing terribly significant. “Luckily” for me, they were extremely thorough. When I came up negative to everything on the scratch tests on my back, they re-tested for environmental allergens with stronger solutions. With about 30 syringes, injected under my skin and good heavens, that hurt. Came up weakly positive to cats, dogs, horses, cockroaches (!), and a couple types of mold—but weak enough that the doctor didn’t think I needed to do anything about it, unless I had stronger symptoms. So I started my prednisone today. My adventure in pharmaceuticals begins.

5. Is it a bad thing that I hope the prednisone gives me some burst of manic energy? That might be the only thing that helps me get the house in half-decent shape. Of course, I already want to kick K. out of her room for a few days and do some major crap removal. (Expensive crap, mind you. Only the best toys-that-will-be-played-with-briefly-and-then-thrown-into-the-closet-until-mom-tries-to-donate-them for my kids.) She complains that she can’t clean her room because she has no place to put things. But then refuses to part with one.solitary.item. because “It is mine, mine, my precioussssss.”

6. Now that I’ve complained about K., I must brag about her. She’s been having some minor troubles with the boy who sits next to her in math class. From what I can tell by her description, the kid is trying to shock and/or impress her. ‘Cause telling a girl that you can curse in various foreign languages (and then proceeding to demonstrate) may just be the most sophisticated pick-up line a 5th grade boy can think of. In any case, it’s been annoying her. She asked me to call the teacher and ask her to separate them. I told her that she should talk to the teacher herself, privately if possible. We rehearsed a sentence or two that she could say. She was nervous the next day before school, but I put the ball in her court: it was her problem to solve, and her decision whether the boy was distracting enough to brave talking to the teacher about it. She came home that day and said she’d made the request, and the teacher moved her immediately with no fuss. And that now she could concentrate better. Yay for K. solving her own problems and speaking up for herself.

7. I’ve been reading through the Gospels backward (John first, and now Luke), and this evening I read Luke 6:45. “45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Usually, I would skim right over this—good fruit, bad fruit, any good church girl has heard this a thousand times. But tonight I thought, What am I storing up in my heart? Maybe I should choose more thoughtfully.

For a gazillion more Quick Takes, go to Conversion Diary.

22 February 2013

Becoming Focused

Last summer, we were standing in church, preparing for prayer. Up front, the pastor talked about a man who had just died suddenly—50 years old, with children and a wife. I did not know this man, had never heard his name. But my mind ticked off how much older he was than me—8 years. And what felt like a certainty settled in the pit of my stomach—that maybe I wouldn’t have the long life I always assumed I would have. What if I died sooner rather than later, like this man? Fear swept over me, paired with the faint thought that I was being ridiculous. But it persisted, this dark thought—what if I die and my children don’t know that I love them?

My relationship with my oldest has always been rocky. My personality and hers clash, and days go by when the strongest emotion I have toward her is frustration or anger.  We don’t just butt heads, we lock horns and get stuck that way, pulling and pushing at each other, swaying back and forth, trying to win some meaningless point. At other times, my penchant for absorbing and internalizing others’ emotions combines with her intense emotional reactions to produce a downward spiral where I automatically try to shut her down to protect myself, and her reactions escalate as she feels more and more unheard.
And if I die, will that be what she remembers? She won’t know how much I love her, the good and the joy I see in her, if I don’t tell her. If I keep it inside, and instead carp on her messy room or the nth time I’ve asked her to do something and she loudly resists.

The fear of death, for me, has always been the fear of leaving things undone—of things unwritten, of things unsaid, of potential wasted.

In the fall, I started a Bible study of 1 and 2 Peter. Truthfully, I had no particular interest in those books of the Bible, but it had been a long time since I had studied the Bible, not just a Christian book on a particular topic.

Peter wrote to Christians suffering intense persecution in Rome. And within these two letters, I found a perspective on suffering that I had not really thought about before, that I suspect today’s comfortable Protestant churches don’t emphasize much: that suffering is part of life, and that it brings us into closer fellowship with Christ.
12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
Peter (and, in other books of the Bible, Paul, too) talks about suffering as a privilege, even advising his readers to take joy in it.  And Peter managed to make this comfortable 21st century girl long for the closeness with Jesus that he said came with suffering. What did those first-century Christians know and understand, that I do not?
Around the same time, I started reading Crazy Love by Francis Chan. I felt called to go deeper with Christ, to stop piddling around and making excuses, out of fear and mistrust. To trust God more, and worry less.

I wasn’t sure where this was going to lead me. I did volunteer to teach an ESL class at our church—it fell suspiciously just within the 3 hours that my younger daughter was in preschool, and I thought, well, it was one small step toward sharing the gifts God has given me.

In November, I had a colonoscopy. Not just for preventive purposes—colon cancer runs in the family—but for specific symptoms. I was relieved that nothing life-threatening was found, just a so-called benign condition. Still, the cause was unknown, an inflammatory or autoimmune response, and there was no cure, just treatment of symptoms. Having been on a Paleo diet since February 2012, I decided to try a dietary experiment (an autoimmune version of Paleo) to help the symptoms, since the doctor could offer nothing more than glorified anti-diarrheal or immune-suppressing drugs.   I also began taking an amino-acid supplement that promised to help heal the intestinal lining.

It worked. It didn’t restore full normalcy, but it reduced symptoms to the point that I felt no need to try the sample drugs the doctor gave me.
Around the time of the colonoscopy but before I started the autoimmune diet, my neck and hands reddened and started itching. I wondered if I was reacting to some substance connected with the colonoscopy, the anesthesia or prep meds. I waited for several weeks, hoping the autoimmune diet and/or time would heal it. Even as my digestive issues improved, the rash only got worse.

My primary care doctor said I had eczema and gave me a prescription for a steroid cream. I faithfully used the steroid cream, but it didn’t do much good. My hands, particularly, got worse and worse. New patches started. I made an appointment with a dermatologist.
On December 26, the family went on an outing, and I went to the dermatologist. I expected a diagnosis of psoriasis or some more severe form of eczema, maybe some stronger cream or insight into what could be causing what seemed like a prolonged allergic reaction. What I got was a physician’s assistant saying “Hmm. That’s interesting,” and then calling in the doctor.  In less than 5 minutes, the fast-talking dermatologist ordered two skin biopsies and a blood panel, and kept saying a very long word that started with “derm”.

“Does autoimmune disease run in your family? Are you having any muscle weakness, trouble going from sitting to standing? Any trouble swallowing? When did this rash start?” And then just before he blew out of the room like a small tornado, he paused. “Can I take a picture of your hands with my cell phone?”

I looked up the two diseases the dermatologist had mentioned. Lupus I had heard of. Dermatomyositis I had not.  From the attitude of the doctor, I gathered that he was pretty sure that dermatomyositis was the diagnosis. I started researching.

And that’s when the fear returned. This disease, unlike any of the medical conditions I’ve been diagnosed with over the years, is life-threatening. It is also an autoimmune disorder, cause unknown, cure nonexistent. The treatment is basically the same for all autoimmune diseases: suppressing the immune system in an attempt to stop the body from attacking itself. As a bonus, dermatomyositis is rare. About 50,000 people in the U.S. have the disease. In this “flavor” of autoimmune, the body attacks its own muscles and skin, causing a distinctive rash as well as possibly severe muscle weakness throughout the body. It can also attack the lungs, causing irreversible damage.
In the two weeks between that first visit to the dermatologist and my return visit to get the test results, the slight stiffness and pain in my hands—which I had previously attributed to my occasional bouts with carpal-tunnel or repetitive stress symptoms—became much worse. The muscles in my arms and legs felt sore, like I had just completed a hard workout. I fumbled with my younger daughter’s car-seat straps, needing two hands to press the release button, and sometimes multiple tries, where before I had needed only one hand. I started doing more things with my left hand, as my right hand was weaker and more painful. It was like I developed arthritis in my hands overnight.

I kept feeling like I was about to catch a cold—a tightness in my chest, the urge to cough. A sense of utter fatigue, coming unexpectedly like a wave.

But it was the fear, the sense of urgency, the sadness that came with thinking my life had just shortened, that caused the most pain. I half-joked to my husband that I was having an existential crisis. That hokey evangelistic question that starts out, “If you died today…” became real to me in a way I’ve never experienced.
Here’s the thing, though. My fear was (is) not about my final destination. I am not worried about what awaits me after death. In fact, some days I look forward to it. My Jesus will be there to greet me. I’ll be free of that internal battle between sin and Spirit. I’ll be free of the anxiety that has dogged me as long as I can remember, and of the blind selfish habits that I too often allow free rein. Meeting the God that for much of my life has seemed hidden, hard to find in the muck of sin inside and around me? I can’t wait. Maybe when “the moment” arrives, I will be afraid. No way of telling ahead of time. But this is now, and truthfully, the thought of what awaits after death brings anticipation, like a kid waiting for Christmas.

No, what scares me is what I have left undone. Have I told my husband, my kids, “I love you” enough? Have I acted like our kids are God’s gift to us, or have I too often treated them as nuisances, in the way of my running mental to-do list? How many times have I sighed when my 4-yr-old said “Mama, can you play with me”? How many times have I lost my temper, and do they outweigh the times I have remained calm? How often have I snapped at my husband because something went wrong in my day? If I died today, how would my children remember me?
Because here’s what happened when mortality hit me in the face, in the schedule-free time between Christmas and New Year’s: my long-held dreams/intentions of writing a novel or restarting my freelance editing business got a few scant thoughts, and my focus sharpened to the people in my life. My kids most of all, since the worst part of being afraid for your life is imagining your children growing up without a mother.

And I realized with a shock that—even if I still have 40 or 50 more years to live—it’s time to stop fooling around. It’s time to take risks, to stop caring what others think of me, to stop trying to please my demanding inner critic, to start caring more and more deeply about what God wants for me. To actually do something with the gifts God has given me. To open myself to the Spirit, to really, truly trust God with my life, with my family’s lives. To push aside the fears of not being enough, not doing enough, and break through to just being who God created me to be, to do the work that God created me to do.
To be authentic, with my family and with my writing. Because those are the two things I know for sure that God placed me here to do. It’s easy for me to get caught up in that running to-do list—running the kids from place to place, planning meals, cooking, doing laundry, etc. But if I snap my way through a busy day, yelling at the kids and ignoring my husband, the lovely dinner I prepare will be nothing more than ashes in our mouths. If I write to impress some nameless reader, or temper my words to avoid showing my real flaws and screw-ups, or to avoid offending someone with my faith or my opinions, then I am not serving God with my words—only myself and my own ego.

In early January, I sat in the dermatologist’s office, asking questions about my test results and watching the physician’s assistant’s face. She looked like a deer caught in the headlights. I had tested positive for four antibodies. She kept repeating that I was “complicated” and gave me a referral to a rheumatologist. I was in and out of that office in under 15 minutes. When I looked up my positive results that night, I discovered why she looked so uncomfortable—each positive antibody was indicative of a different autoimmune disease. And they were all scary.

The first Bible study after the Christmas break, the reading included with devotions was a section of Psalm 119. The leader gave us a short time to practice some lectio divina, a prayerful reading of Scripture. And this doesn’t happen all that much to me, but that morning, I was stopped in my tracks.
73 Your hands made me and formed me;
    give me understanding to learn your commands.
74 May those who fear you rejoice when they see me,
    for I have put my hope in your word.
75 I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,
    and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.”

The psalm continued on the little handout that I was reading, but I did not. It was like a wall slammed down in front of me, stopping me from going further. In faithfulness you have afflicted me. I don’t know what the psalmist was afflicted with. There was no indication or further explanation in the text (or at least, not in that section. Psalm 119 is the longest psalm—it goes on for pages and pages). And I can’t explain what happened any better than this: in that moment, it felt like God was communicating with me. Telling me that He was faithful, that whatever happened, He would remain faithful. That there is a purpose.
It all sounds very woo-woo, even to myself. Which is why, if I tried to talk to you about it, I would stutter and stumble and blush. But the fact remains that I read this, I felt this. The presence of God was vibrating around me, just for a moment, and it felt like a window opened and light shone in on my fear and dread. And I’m writing it here to document for my children, and for any others who care to know, that God is faithful, and that I choose to trust my instincts that He gave me that verse.  So I grabbed onto that phrase, and I’ve been holding on tight.

Since then, I’ve seen a rheumatologist, had many more tests, and found that my current state of health is apparently better than the rheumatologist had expected. Despite some inconclusive test results, she continues to go with the first diagnosis, dermatomyositis, saying I have “classic” symptoms. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter as far as treatment is concerned. All autoimmune diseases have the same treatment—a small collection of drugs that suppress the immune system.
I’m also exploring possible other triggers—as someone with celiac disease, I tend to wonder if other food sensitivities/allergies have come into play. After much deliberating, I’m holding off starting treatment until I can get some allergy testing. I have my first prescriptions in hand, which I’ll start the day after I see the allergist in early March. In the meantime, my rashes have abated somewhat, thanks to the very strong steroid cream prescribed by the dermatologist’s PA.
 I don’t know what will happen. If I think too hard about it, the fear sweeps over me again, and that feeling of having a lead weight in my stomach. And then I have to stop, and deliberately turn my mind to other things, and remind myself that I’ve surrendered this situation to God. I must choose, over and over, to trust.

I chose the name of my blog “Here I Stand” after the words Martin Luther supposedly spoke when ordered to recant his efforts to reform the Catholic Church. At the time, the name referred to my new life in Germany—not too far from where Luther lived and worked and ran for his life. Here I was, in a new place, where I had to learn to live and thrive.
That quote, including the end of the sentence, still has meaning to me today. “Here I stand, I can do no other.” I can be no one except myself—my real self, the one who is currently obsessed with Jesus and sautéed spinach and fears that others will think she’s gone off the deep end. The self that writes in her head all day but fears that she can’t get it down on paper just right—or at all. The self that loves her children but still yells at them and is afraid that that is all they will remember of their childhood. I want to be done with that fear.

Here I stand, wondering how much suffering is ahead of me. Here I stand, taking one more step toward trusting God and his faithfulness. Here I stand, turning over this diagnosis, my fear and uncertainty, to God—again and again, for I can’t yet prevent myself from snatching it back and brooding over it. Here I stand, hoping He can still make something beautiful out of all this, out of me. Here I stand—not walking or running or jumping. Some days standing is all you can do. Here I stand—I can do no other.