I have been traveling, traveling, traveling. Last week I was smack dab in the middle of Missouri. Yesterday I was in the eastern part of North Carolina. Today I am on my couch, where I plan to stay.
In my travels, I have been talking to children about stories and writing. I talk about how we humans seem to need our daily dose of storytelling or else we get a little cranky. We are creatures hungry for meaning.
And I sign a lot of books. When I sign books, I ask kids to tell me something about themselves--one thing they like to do, or an interesting fact about them. When I hand their book back to them, I say, "Thank you. It's wonderful to meet you."
If I am a Christian, I am the least of all. I do what I should not do, and do not do what I should. But one thing I can do, and sometimes remember to do, is love the ones who are put in my path. And fortunately for me, many of these are children, whom I find easy to love. Even the ones who are smart-alecky or half asleep when they sit in the audience stand before me vulnerable and shy and sweet, asking so politely if I'll sign their book (or a piece of paper or their hand).
It is my hope and my dream that for some of these children it matters that the visiting author talked to them and listened to them and said, "Oh, I like your name!" or "My sons play World of Warcraft and Minecraft, too!" It's not much, but it's what I can do. What I hope they hear: You are loved. Your story is important.
To begin with, a quote about what happened on the cross from one of my favorite theologians, N.T. Wright:
It is all too possible to take elements from the biblical witness
and present them within a controlling narrative gleaned from somewhere
else, like a child doing a follow-the-dots puzzle without paying
attention to the numbers and producing a dog instead of a rabbit.
This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an
angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t
much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought
people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s
deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so
angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the
world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting
recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the
line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’,
I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was
I found this helpful in my thinking about the cross.
I just finished Patrix by Nadia Bolz-Webb, which I enjoyed a great deal. Bolz-Webb is a Lutheran minister who is unorthodox in how she presents herself in the world (lots of tattoos, lots of piercings), and in many ways orthodox in her faith (though not entirely, which is why some people have problems with her). One of my favorite chapters in the book was about her stint as a hospital chaplain, which she had to do in order to be ordained. Her first day on the job she was called into an E.R. trauma room, where the doctors were trying to save a man's life. "What am I supposed to do?" she asked one of the nurses. The nurse looked at her and said, "Your job is to be aware of God's presence in the room while the rest of us do our jobs."
Your job is to be aware of God's presence in the room.
What a great job! What a difficult job in these times of one distraction after another!
More than once I've sat in a hospital room feeling like I had to make small talk or comforting talk ("everything will turn out for the best, I'm sure," that sort of thing), either of which, in the face of the patient's prognosis, seemed at best clueless and at worst vaguely cruel. But in spite of the monitors and the carts rolling by and the TV noises leaking in from other rooms, there's so much silence to fill up on these visits, and you end up filling it with a lot of nonsense that's neither comforting or meaningful.
What if instead of talking, I made it my job to be aware of the presence of God in the room? What if being aware of the presence of God means holding someone's hand and being present for her the way God is present for both us at that moment?
I know that from time to time when I'm in a stressful situation, if I can remember to ask God if he's in the room, and if so, could he give me a little help, He makes himself known. This happened last year at Easter, when my children were being terrible at church--bored by the service, clearly ready to go--and I asked God for peace, right there, right now, before I did something that would get Social Services involved in our lives. And the peace came.
And then last summer at the beach, when we were at a restaurant, when Jack was being awful to Will, and Will was starting to cry, and I was like, "Jesus, feel free to intervene at any time, buddy." And suddenly, I knew we should leave. No doubt in my mind about it. We canceled our orders and went to another restaurant. We started over, and we had a lovely dinner.
The problem is, I keep forgetting to do this. I forget that this help is available to me whenever I need it. I forget that my job is to be aware of God's presence in the room. Always, always, always.
Well, it's been a quiet month in Lake Woebegone, my hometown ...
In some ways this has been a very strange month. Simultaneously crazy-busy and very, very quiet. I have taken up teaching again--to be precise, doing Saturday morning writing workshops with kids--which takes a tremendous amount of upfront planning, followed by a lot of revising after I see which of my lesson plans worked and which flopped.
I've also been preparing for a big trip to Missouri next week and realized halfway through planning my presentation that it wasn't going to work. Back to the drawing board.
Planning, executing and revising, planning, executing and revising. That's my life in a nutshell. Emphasis on the revising.
In case you're wondering, I'm still being frugal, except when it comes to grocery shopping. I gave up on being a frugal grocery shopper. I'm not being a profligate grocery shopper, just one that acknowledges she lives in a house with three males (four, if you count the dog), and all of them like to eat.
BUT I have yet to step foot in my local Target this year, and that, my friends, has made all the difference, even if I pay a bit more for cereal and toilet paper at my grocery store. It is a truism of contemporary life: for every twenty-five dollars you plan to spend at Target, you will actually spend fifty. I've never known this not to be the case.
Two other things that are helping me: interlibrary loans and not enough time to quilt (which means a lot less money spent on fabric). I'm having such fun with the interlibrary loans! I'm working my way through my Amazon wishlist and shopping list via the ILL. I figure I'm saving five bucks for every book I borrow instead of buy used. AND I have also discovered that if you request that your library buy a new book, they will! I recently put in a request that they buy two newly published books I've had my eye on, and almost immediately the books were on order.
One of the reasons I'm not getting much quilting done is that right now I'm having to be a very proactive parent. Will, it turns out, has not really mastered the whole time management thing, and now that he's playing baseball again, the kid really needs help.
I'm fairly hands-off when it comes to my children and homework. They need to learn to sink or swim on their own. Will's not exactly sinking, but lately he's been floundering a bit--forgetting that he needs our signature on a project proposal sheet or putting off projects and papers until the last minute. He's a bright kid but has the organizing skills of a tree sloth. So now we have a meeting every afternoon after school to go over his homework assignments, upcoming projects, and make a schedule for the day.
Is it helping? Sort of. Right now Will doesn't have computer or TV privileges during the week, so that frees up a lot of time. But even when homework is the only thing on Will's agenda, he can still find a lot of ways to do--well, nothing. Pat the dog, play nerf basketball in his room, hang out in the room where I'm working or reading and look pitiful.
As someone who spent most of her school years doing her homework on the bus in the morning, I understand Will all too well. Sometimes I think I cut my kids too much slack because I was such a worthless child myself. All I wanted to do after school was play with my friends, read and eat chocolate covered peanuts. That's it.
But--and, I think, as a result--I also spent too much time as a young adult flopping around like a fish thrown on a dock. I had no clear direction of where I was going, and it took me a long time to figure it out. I was twenty-nine when I figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up. The Man had similar issues, and one of the reasons why we are sending ourselves to the poorhouse to educate our children at Our Fine School is because we hope they will enter young adulthood more focused (and quite frankly, better educated) than we were.
So less quilting, more hand-holding, for now at least.
I feel like some of you have been praying for me since my last post, A Pause in Lent #3. Am I right? If you are, I can tell, and I thank you.
When I was thirteen, my recently born again brother sat me down and told me he was worried about my mother. Yes, she was a very nice person and yes, she'd gone to church her entire life, but she wasn't saved. You see, Episcopalians think all you have to do is be baptized as an infant and you're good. And that's why Episcopalians, including my mother, were going to hell.
I'd been going to youth group with my brother, and he must have assumed I was saved and heaven-bound, a perfect compatriot in the battle for my mother's soul. It's true, I'd tried to get saved. I'd said the right words, but I didn't feel any different. I'd expected to feel kind of glowy and special, but I just felt like me.
So I wasn't saved, and my mother wasn't saved, and all the sudden it seemed to me that any God who would send my Jesus-loving but un-born again mother to hell was not a god I cared to do business with.
I didn't voluntarily set foot in church again for another twenty years.
Today I was at church, listening to a very good sermon when the minister said something about Jesus dying for my sins, and you know what? My knee still jerked. I had the thought: we need a new vocabulary for talking about the cross, because I know I'm not the only person who has had dealings with toxic Christianity and can't hear certain words and phrases without wanting to flee. In fact, I know a whole boatload of folks who experienced toxic Christianity--judgmental, wounding,"You're a child of God, but something is very wrong with you" Christianity--as children and young adults and never came back. I don't blame them.
I'll be honest with you: I'm still working out what happened on the cross. I have never understood the economics of the sacrificial lamb. Why would God need to torture one human being (and his son, at that!) to save another? This is not to say I don't think Christ's death on the cross isn't significant; I'm just still working out its meaning, which I suspect I may find located in the resurrection.
(My born again brother is now, by the way, an Episcopalian.)
The opposite of toxic Christianity is healing Christianity. Healing Christianity doesn't say, let's find the sinners and make sure they're saved. It says, let's go be love in this world. Let's go be the hands of Christ. It feeds people and gives them water and lets them know we are all broken and God will make us whole in time. Which is very good news indeed.
You know what words and phrases don't me cringe when I hear them in church? Reconciliation. Restoration. Love. Justice. Mercy. The kingdom of God. The peace of Christ. May it be with you. And also with you.
"I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." --Maya Angelou
"It is the things I have left undone which haunt me far more than the things that I have done."
I keep thinking I should go to jail. I could be a literacy tutor or participate in a Bible study or just visit someone who doesn't get visitors. It's one of those things we're told to do if we're interested in doing unto Jesus, and I could do it. I worked in a public defender's office in Tennessee back in the day, so I've spend time in jails, and I've spent time around prisoners. It's not like the idea makes me uncomfortable, though between you and me, I hated the way the jails smelled, and the prisoners themselves, after a few months in, always had pasty white skin because they almost never saw the sun. They called it a prison tan.
But I don't go over to the county jail to tutor or study the Bible or just hang out, and the reason why is because I fear the day there's a knock on my door and my newly released prison friend is standing at the doorway. Would I really let him into my house? What if that newly released prisoner is Jesus? Aren't we supposed to assume he is?
Most days it's just easier if Jesus doesn't knock on my door.
See, when you get right down to it, I think real Christianity is really hard, and some days I don't think I'm quite up to it. I'm pretty good with the honoring your mother and father thing, and the not lying thing, and the not stealing thing. I wasn't always so good, but I was working some stuff out when I was younger. Like Ms. Angelou, I know better now and I do better now. But that's only half of the equation.
There's a lot I leave undone. That concerns me so much more than the things I did. Sometimes I imagine Desmond Tutu (in his starring role as God) looking at me with big, sad eyes. He's shaking his head and sighing. I've read the instruction manual, right? Am familiar with the Sermon on the Mount? And what about feeding the hungry and visiting the prisoner do I not understand?
I don't have any great answers here, no great summary--you know, I've decided I WILL go visit the prisoner! I WILL trust God! One of the purposes of observing Lent is to ponder our sinful ways. And that is what I'm doing. I pray that God will show me how I can serve Him in this world and that He will give me a big push in the right direction so I won't be haunted by what I've left undone.
Okay, I halfway pray that. On my good days. Maybe a halfway prayer is a mustard seed. What do you think?
... but Will and I ended up watching "The Wizard of Oz" instead. If you're around my age and grew up in the States, you'll recall what a big deal "The Wizard of Oz" was back in the day, how it was shown on TV once a year and constituted a major cultural event. It was grand and totally scary. Some of my earliest nightmares were about the Wicked Witch of the West, and those flying monkeys still creep me out.
Ah, witches. When I was a kid, I loved reading about them. What was the attraction, I wonder? The picture book witches were almost always comical, but the witches in novels were more problematic--darker and more threatening. Bruno Bettelheim, who wrote extensively about fairy tales and child development in his book The Uses of Enchantment, thought that reading about witches (and evil stepmothers) helped children deal safely with their negative feelings about their mothers.
Watching "The Wizard of Oz" last night made me think about how we still don't have much use for unattractive, unfeminine women in our culture. Ugly (the Wicked Witch of the West)=bad and pretty (Glenda the Good Witch)=good. None of this is profound or new, I know; in fact, you barely have to scratch the surface of things to reach that conclusion.
Still, clearly one reason women fear aging--at least in western cultures--is that they fear losing their looks and becoming less feminine. But if watching the Oscars two weeks ago taught me nothing else, it's that women who let themselves age naturally are so much more beautiful than those that fight nature. There were at least two cases of plastic surgery gone wrong that made me want to weep.
In her comment on my last post, Pom Pom wrote, "We have a substantial fleet of fifty year olds at school this year [Pom Pom is a teacher] and
we keep talking about having an after-school gathering for them because
we'd like to affirm them, tell them what we love about them, and assure
them that the fifties really are fabulous."
Pom Pom, I am all for this idea! You should do it! As I approach fifty, I find myself looking to older women, particularly in books, to show me the way. Lately I've been reading Madeleine L'Engle's nonfiction and books by Margaret Guenther, an Anglican priest (right now I'm reading Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual Direction for the Second Half of Life and Walking Home: From Eden to Emmaus). These writers have lived so much and experienced so much, and they seem awfully wise to me in what they say about life and how to live it.
When I was younger, a lot of my friends were guys. Partly this was because I was passionately into music (listening to it and seeing bands) and most of my friends who shared my passion were males. But it was also because as a girl I was hurt very badly by other girls, and for a long time I didn't have much use for female friendship. When I was in my twenties I told an older woman friend of mine that I found men more interesting than women, and I remember her shaking her head, like she couldn't believe how wrong I was.
I joined the company of women when I had children, and since that time I have found great joy in the friendships I've made over diaper-changing tables and at little league games. And guess what? In general I find women more interesting, complex and, yes, wiser than men. And funny! I know so many funny women who can deliver punchlines and roll with the punches like nobody's business.
I don't think I'm afraid of growing old--like a lot of people these days, the main thing I fear about old age is dying badly (years in a nursing home slowly losing my faculties, that sort of thing). But I do like the idea of having spirit guides take me through my paces--senior girl scouts marking the trail for me (preferably with chocolate) and showing me the way. So Pom Pom, start that group and get a movement going! I'll be happy to join in.
I'm a writer and a stay-at-home mom who keeps meaning to mop the floors because I think it would make me happy if I did. I love books and music and writing, spend entirely too much time in the dentist's chair (I bet I have more crowns than you do), and used to think I was sort of bohemian, but now I wonder. No tattoos. Minivan. That story.