Monday, December 15, 2014

I'll Ride with You, But Do I Have to Bring Jesus with Me?

I woke up in the middle of the night to see a tweet from dancer Sharna Burgess, that said “Thinking of you” with the hashtag, “prayersforsydney”. [Thanks, lsn, for the correction. The error was all mine, not that of the lovely Sharna Burgess, and I made it twice.] Knowing that she is Australian, I figured she meant the city, and a little further reading showed that there was a hostage situation going on in a cafe there.

By morning I woke up again, this time to the hashtag “illridewithyou”. Since the hostage taker is Muslim, Muslims around the city are concerned about reactions to them, and their fellow Australians have begun offering to accompany them on public transportation to prevent harassment, or worse. “Illridewithyou” is trending worldwide as I write, with both concrete offers of help along specific routes and supportive comments.

And as it happens, the offers of help fit in well with the subject of yesterday’s sermon at St. Anonymous.

I showed up at church after a long absence. Not so long, when you consider that I was there three weeks ago for the bake sale, but that was Layperson Sunday, so Pastor J was not there. Yesterday she greeted me like the prodigal kid, minus the ring and the fatted calf. I wonder if she would be so happy to see me there if she knew about my habit of discussing her sermons on my blog, not usually in a favorable light. I really need to make more of a point of writing about the ones I like and appreciate, not to mention about the things I like and appreciate about St. Anonymous in general, but the whole point of my blog is to give my grump side a place to play.

Yesterday’s sermon, however, was not one of my favorites. It was based on the story of the shepherds in Luke:
The Shepherds and the AngelsAnd in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,14 “Glory to God in the highest,    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”[a]15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.Luke 2:8-20English Standard Version (ESV)
The story itself, I love, not the least because it is, of course, the story that Linus recites in A Charlie Brown Christmas, when Charlie Brown despairs of ever finding the true meaning of Christmas. Dr. J, however, really, really, loves it, and said she could preach any number of sermons on it. This time she chose to focus on the latter half of verse nine “they were filled with great fear” and verses seventeen and twenty. The shepherds, despite being filled with great fear, spread the word about what they had seen and heard.
Dr. J went on to use this story as scriptural proof that we need to be out there talking to people about Jesus, even though it is scary. She hears from so many members of the church that their way of witnessing is to do good things for others, not talking about Jesus, and she used the shepherd story to show that this attitude is “not scriptural”. The shepherds were afraid, but they went and spread their story anyway.

She went on to deal with the argument that “I don’t know a lot about Jesus”. She urged us to review the events of each day and look for places where Jesus could have been acting - the smile a stranger gave us, our not speaking up in a meeting when it wouldn’t have been advisable, finding our lost car keys.

Okay, that last one was mine. But by this time it had occurred to me that people with a story to tell, tell that story without urging. The shepherds saw a light from Heaven and heard an angelic voice, followed by an angelic choir. Do you think they needed prompting to tell that story? A few generations down the road their grandkids were probably saying “Not this again” at holiday dinners. The “Jesus helped me find my car keys” stories I see on Facebook don’t come close. 

Pastor J went on to say that if all we did was to do good for others, we would build an awesome life for people, but how would they ever hear about Jesus?

Not seeing the problem here.

"It’s like we are saying to God, 'God, I’ll help you build your Kingdom, but I’m not willing to talk about you' . . . It’s easier to do good things for others than to talk about Jesus.”

Okay, seriously? Has she not noticed that there are a lot of people in public life talking about Jesus, and that we still don’t have this paradise on earth she’s envisioning if we all substituted doing for talking, or for talking about what we are supposedly doing? Meantime, my cousin Garett is still in Liberia, as far as I know, and so are a lot of health workers who are risking their lives in a place where thousands of people have died of an incurable disease and she seriously wants me to think that that is easier than telling people about Jesus?

But I started off talking about #illridewithyou, so let me get back there. Suppose I were in Sydney and free to offer what escort service I could provide to someone in a headscarf. What would it sound like to that person for me to say, “I’m doing this because Jesus wants me to” or “I’m doing this to be Jesus to you today”. I know that Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, but would they take those statements as a sign that we have some beliefs in common or as a sign that I’m part of what they are afraid of? How much sensitivity to their fears would I be showing, and wouldn’t showing sensitivity to their fears be something Jesus might want me to do?

I think if I were going to bring religion into it at all, it would be by listening. “I know a little about your religion, but probably only enough to get a lot of it wrong. What does the Quran say is the obligation of believers in a situation like this?” Maybe that would get us around to a discussion of our shared and disparate views of Jesus, maybe not. I’m having a hard time seeing how strangers offering friendship to other strangers in jeopardy is going to give Jesus a sad.

I imagine, though, if I were there ride sharing with people in jeopardy, eventually I would wind up with a story to tell: a story that one of them told me, a story about what it felt like, sharing non-privileged status with a stranger, a story of other strangers offering support.

And as I said, people with a story to tell, tell that story without urging. Maybe that would have been a better message, to get out there in the world and do something, do more than you are doing now, do more than you think you can do. Sooner or later, you will have a story, and you will tell it.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Family Values

My cousin Garrett is in Liberia, helping people cope with the Ebola epidemic. Here he is being interviewed via Skype by a reporter at New York’s WPIX:

If that doesn't work, here is the URL:

By Miss Manners’ reckoning, Garett is my first cousin once removed; by my family’s traditions, he is my second cousin, and by the calling customs of my nieces and nephews, he’s my baby cousin, being the son of one of my first cousins and the grandson of my dad’s younger sister. I’m not entirely sure I ever met Garrett, unless it was at a barbecue his uncle held while I was in NY visiting my sister this past July. He and I are Facebook friends, but he doesn’t post much. I knew about this interview because his uncle and aunt posted the link to this interview on Facebook. We are all quite proud of him.

AmeriCares, so their website tells me “is a non-profit emergency response and global health organization. In times of epic disaster or daily struggle, we deliver medical and humanitarian aid to people in need worldwide.” Garett is Vice President of Emergency Response, hence his trip to Liberia. His organization has been providing supplies that medical workers need in order to provide the care that they can without risking their own lives or infecting other patients.

AmeriCares has scaled up its response by providing eight emergency shipments of essential medicines and personal protective wear to both Liberia and Sierra Leone to help treat Ebola patients and to provide protective gear for health workers facing great risks in trying to control the outbreak. 
The shipments contained over 90,000 pairs of gloves, 88,000 face masks, and over 28,000 units of protective clothing including scrubs and disposable coveralls and gowns. Shipments of intravenous fluids to rehydrate Ebola patients have also been sent to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Now they are working on large shipments of bleach to be used in infection control. People find Ebola scary, and rightly so, but it isn’t an airborne virus. Catching it requires coming in contact with blood or other bodily fluids from an infected person, all too easy to do if the proper protective wear and disinfectants are not available, but preventable if they are. Ebola is also not necessarily a death sentence. If patients get symptomatic care (such as rehydration) to keep them alive until their immune systems kick in, it is possible to survive Ebola. It’s not the same as getting over the common cold, but there is no reason to shrug and say, “Oh, well, what can we do?” either. 

So what can you do? Donate, obviously, if you possibly can. You can donate to AmeriCare here, but if any readers know of other reputable organizations working on Ebola relief efforts, go ahead and post about them in the comments.

If you are the sort to pray, or send good thoughts, or use other blessing rituals to signify your solidarity with people going through bad times, yes, please do! Garrett is not involved in direct patient care and does not anticipate being in any danger, but there are the many medical workers, the patients themselves, their family members, and anyone with the potential to be infected  to whom you can direct your efforts as well.

And go ahead and remember Garrett while you are at it, just in case. Because even if neither of us could pick the other one out of a police lineup, he’s family. Apparently, he’s one of the people who sees the rest of the world as family, too.

Update: More from Garrett here:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Happy Birthday, Elyse

Today was Elyse’s birthday. I say “was” because Elyse is with us no more. She died on an April night at the age of 16 when a congenital aneurysm that no one knew she had ruptured. I knew her parents because I worked with her mother, and when I heard of Elyse’s death, I went to their house, where a large crowd had gathered to be of what comfort we could. Elyse was brain dead but being kept alive on life support so her organs could be donated. That was important to her parents, who were overcome when they learned Elyse’s heart was too damaged to be donated.

“She had a good heart,” I reminded her mom, one of those stupid, useless things you say when you want to be comforting but there are no words that can do that.

My friend told stories.  Elyse was a quiet elf of a child with an engaging grin. She had asthma, but like most teens, she wanted to fit in with her peers. So for months she did not tell her gym teacher about her condition. My friend told about how she learned that when the class had to run sprints, Elyse bravely puffed along, well behind everyone but willing to try. I could see her in my mind. It sounded like an Elyse thing to do.

I had to leave the next day for a planned visit to family, but my husband went to the funeral. He said it was crowded, and he was on a long line to see the family and pay his respects when another coworker saw him and took him on a shortcut through a side door. “The Bishop was there,” my friend told me when she returned to work weeks later. Seeing that Elyse’s father was the principal of one of the city’s Catholic schools, I didn’t find the Bishop’s attendance excessive, but I was glad that my friend had that comfort.

Five months later, on Elyse’s birthday, two airplanes slammed into the twin towers in New York City. Today everyone is remembering, and mourning, the people who died in that attack. It is appropriate that they do so.

But I woke up this morning remembering a little blonde elf of a girl who will never be older than 16, and whose death was no less tragic.

Happy birthday, Elyse.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Like a Girl

I swear I used to be able to write poetry once. Maybe not very good poetry, but actual poetry. This one, inspired by the Always (Proctor and Gamble) "Like a Girl" ad campaign, is more like a really bad essay broken up into verses, but it's what I've got.

Her name was Jeanne.
She was a peasant. She loved her country, 
She loved her church.
She led an army, and won a victory
And then another, 
Like a girl.

When she was murdered,
For so called witchcraft, 
her fame outlived her.
Now she’s a saint
Just like a girl.

Her name was Sacagawea.
She was a teen.
She was a mother.
She helped an expedition, 
Across the waters,
Across the mountains,
She guided the men,
Just like a girl.

Her name was Harriet.
She was a slave,
Who found her way free.
And she led others along a railroad,
Like a girl.

They followed markers
They followed the North Star
They followed quilts displayed on clotheslines
Made with stitches and patches
By many girls.

Her name was Florence.
She traveled with armies,
To nurse the soldiers,
Injured in battles planned by old men.
She nursed the wounded,
She heard their screams
She was unflinching 
When she came to tend them, 
Just like a girl.

Her name was Amelia.
She was a pilot,
She owned the sky.
It wasn’t men’s then,
It belonged to anyone.
So she explored it, 
And tried to conquer it
Just like a girl.

Her name was Rosa.
She rode a bus.
One day she planned it, 
She kept her seat
When someone else demanded it.
She did not waiver.
She sparked a movement,

Like a girl.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Half an Acre

I am holding half an acre
Torn from the map of Michigan
And folded in this scrap of paper
Is a land I grew in
Think of every town you've lived in
Every room, you lay your head
And what is it that you remember?
Do you carry every sadness with you
Every hour your heart was broken
Every night the fear and darkness
Lay down with you
A man is walking on the highway
A woman stares out at the sea
And light is only now just breaking
So we carry every sadness with us
Every hour our heart were broken
Every night the fear and darkness
Lay down with us
But I am holding half an acre
Torn from the map of Michigan
I am carrying this scrap of paper
That can crack the darkest sky wide open
Every burden taken from me
Every night my heart unfolding
My home
I first heard the song Half an Acre on a Liberty Mutual ad several years ago, and found it on iTunes and purchased it. It’s a haunting song, and still one of my favorites to listen to when the mood strikes.
I have an inconvenient kind of mind, however. I can’t listen to words like “I am holding half an acre, torn from a map of Michigan” without thinking, “That must be one big-assed map.” I used to live in a house on a half acre lot. It seemed large enough when I was mowing the grass, even with a riding mower, but I if I look at a state map of Louisiana and try to pinpoint where that half-acre is, well, pinpoint is the operative term.
So today for some reason I decided to figure out just how big-assed a map we are talking about. Google and I had a little sit down and I discovered that one half acre is 21, 780 square feet. Michigan covers an area of 96, 716 square miles. In case you are wondering, one square mile is the equivalent of 27, 878, 400 square feet. So half an acre is very roughly one one-thousandth of a square mile, and Michigan is roughly 96,000 square miles. If met calculations are correct, half an acre is roughly one 96-millionth the size of Michigan.
A pinpoint is looking a little large.
And speaking of points, of course, the feasibility of holding a half-acre scrap torn from a map of Michigan is not the point of the song. I get that. The song is about fear, regret and disappointment, and how each of us needs a home place we can go to, even if only in our minds, when those threaten to overwhelm us. The scrap of paper is a metaphor for the half-acre more or less that we carry in our minds.
The mind that in my case, can’t help asking, “But just how big is that scrap of paper?” Because asking such questions and tinkering and figuring out, that’s my home.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Meta Mavis and Meta Tabitha Have a Chat about Their Authors

“Why do I smirk so much?” Mavis asked. “I’m not a particularly smug or supercilious person. Why can’t I have a shy smile, or a fond smile, or an occasional grin? Or a moue? A moue in the sense of a flirtatious pout would be awesome, although a few grimaces of distaste for Mikhail and his roaming hands during the judges’ comments would have been okay, too. Why can’t I have a moue?” 

“I don’t know. I’ve been pretty much banished from existence until my recent engagement.” Tabitha flashed her ring in the light from the window of Mavis’s condo. “I’m not in a position to understand current authorial conventions in fanfiction.”

“That’s true. I’m glad you’re back, actually. I was getting tired of all the drama with Karl.”

“Drama? With Karl? My Karl? How do you have drama with Karl?”

“I’m supposed to be secretly in love with him.”

Tabitha trilled merry peals of laughter. “Oh God. Why am I trilling merry peals of laughter instead of laughing like a normal human?”

“I don’t know. Maybe our author has been reading attemps at Regency fiction. Or getting into the Denim Vodka.”

“The Denim Vodka doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” Tabitha smirked. “Wait a minute. Now I’m doing it, too. Why am I smirking?”

“Our author got tired of writing ‘said’, I think.”

“Now I really need the vodka. You?”

“I can’t. I’m pregnant.”

“Again? Isn’t that like the third time this month? Maybe you should sue the people who make your NuvaRing. Is Mikhail with you this time, or did you throw him out thinking you weren’t worldly enough for him?”

“It’s not Mikhail.”

“Karl? My Karl?”

Mavis hung her head in shame. “It wasn’t my idea. It wasn’t even Karl’s idea. One minute I was giving him an affectionate peck on the cheek to congratulate him on your engagement, the next minute my lips were on his and before I knew it, I was doing something called ‘deepening the kiss’.”

“Better than smiling/groaning/moaning into his mouth, I guess. But you didn’t get pregnant from kissing.”

“No, next thing I know I was on the kitchen counter and we were deepening something else.”

“On the counter?”

“Yes, and I had left a corkscrew on it, too. Ouch.”

“I can’t wait until some of our authors get older, gain a little experience, and see the advantage of mattresses,” Tabitha sighed. “We have a new one.”

“Sleep Number or Tempur-pedic?”

“Sleep Number with a memory foam top. So what are we going to do about the baby?

“You’re going to run me out of town. Wait, is that ‘you’re’ or ‘your’? You are going to run me out of town, I’m going to convince Mikhail that the child is his, and for about a decade I will tolerate a loveless marriage in which we have two more children.”

“Mikhail can’t count to nine?” Tabitha said off-handedly while trying to fit “Mikhail”, “Mavis” and “loveless marriage” into one coherent sentence. She gave up.

“It’s the accent. Accents automatically remove 15 IQ points. Unless they’re French.”

“How about if you tell Karl about the baby, I bow out gracefully, and Mikhail and I go through a few bottles of Denim Vodka and have drunken sex?”

“Suit yourself. Just so you won’t be too disappointed, let me warn you. He wasn’t joking about the hat.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Girl at the End of the World

For I don’t know how long I have been seeing this picture on Patheos when reading the several blogs I follow there. It looked interesting, but I wasn’t particularly moved to read the book. 

Then one of the bloggers I follow on twitter retweeted something that sounded interesting from someone called Elizabeth Esther, and I began following Elizabeth Esther, too. I shortly discovered that Elizabeth Esther is the author of Girl at the End of the World, so I decided that if I could find it at the library, I’d read it. A trip to our library’s website revealed that yes, they had the book (2 copies), I could put a hold on one and have it sent to the library closest to me, and a few days later, there it was. Forty some odd years ago when I got my first (barcodeless, cardboard) EBR Parish Library card, I did not envision such efficiency. Now I’m looking forward to the day when a drone drops the book off at my door.

The book is a memoir of the author’s upbringing in an Apocalyptic church, one started and run by her own family. 

I was raised in a homegrown, fundamentalist Christian group—which is just a shorthand way of saying I’m classically trained in apocalyptic stockpiling, street preaching, and the King James Version of the Bible. I know hundreds of obscure nineteenth-century hymns by heart and have such razor sharp “modesty vision” that I can spot a miniskirt a mile away.Verily, verily I say unto thee, none of these highly specialized skills ever got me a job, but at least I’m all set for the end of the world. Selah.
This excerpt from the back cover sums up both the book’s content and the author’s breezy style, a style that covers a world of heartbreak. In one sense the book is an easy read: it’s written simply, there are no mind boggling statistics or difficult academic concepts to absorb, and it’s broken into short chapters. In another sense, the book is a difficult read, as books about abuse and suffering always are, especially if any of it happens to resonate with some of the reader’s own experiences. Rachel Held Evans described the book as, “the sort of book you plan to read in a week but finish in a day.” My experience was the opposite: I planned to read it in a day but had to keep putting it down because it got to be too much, so it took me closer to three.
Part of what made the book so difficult for me was that the author does not belabor her experiences. Her matter of fact style in describing what she went through (multiple daily spankings, being made to quit an after school activity she loved and needed to get into a private college because it interfered with her numerous chores at home, having a teacher question her science project because when she measured her resting heart rate it was over 100) more than anything she actually says conveys how the bizarre can seem normal when you are raised with it.
In the end, Elizabeth Esther was able to make her way out of the cult she was brought up in, find a new way of living with her husband and children, and even make peace of a sort with her parents. I find it interesting that for her, finding her way to the Catholic Church was part of her healing path. My relationship with my stepmother was a stormy one, but the one thing I am immensely grateful for is that she sent me to a Methodist church and not the Catholic one I had been baptized into. Well, that, and the whole saving my life thing, but it’s pretty much a toss-up in my eyes.

Fortunately, neither Elizabeth Esther nor I are tasked with selecting each other’s spiritual path, and her reasons for becoming attracted to Catholicism make perfect sense to me, even if it’s a path I wouldn’t have chosen. In the end, that’s what makes the book so heartening, the message that we can overcome childhood brainwashing (the author’s own term, from the Prologue) and look at the world through our own eyes. I do recommend reading the book, whether in a day or three or even a week.