Short and Sweet: Inclusive Faith and Charming Steeple

On a trip to Seattle last summer, my husband and I took a ferry to Bainbridge Island for a stroll along its main thoroughfare. One of the things I loved about the Pacific Northwest was feeling simpatico with the citizens, both politically, environmentally, and spiritually. If not for the frequent gray skies, I might never have come back to Texas.

We encountered this sweet little church on our walk. These Christians seem to be walking a loving walk. This sort of faith is nothing short of magical. Blessed Be!

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‘Round the Bend

CarouselI love carousels. Maybe it’s because I remember riding the Six Flags Over Texas carousel with my dad, back in the 1970s. I took my own kids on that carousel in the 90s. Last spring, I rode the carousel at Disneyland. I was over the moon to sit on Jingles, the horse especially created for Julie Andrews.

I encountered the gorgeous carousel above at the Galveston Pleasure Pier on a cloudy January day. I was there for a solo getaway. I have found that alone time is one of the great pleasures of my middle age. Perhaps because it’s my choice when I spend some time in solitude, whether it’s to write, explore with my camera, or eat delicious meals while reading a book, I never feel alone when it’s just me.

 

 

I’m Outa Here.

Fruit Salad, Laundry Soap, and Evolving Faith

It has long been my practice to write small observations about the little magic moments found in daily life. I try to keep mind and heart open to signals that the Universe, or God if you prefer (perhaps even Goddess), places in my path; sometimes connected to what I see in nature, perhaps a song, or a memory. For months I have been bumping into Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in such random and frequent encounters that I decided the Universe has something to say to me through her life and work. Based on beloved author Liz Gilbert’s MO I bought a biography to read and started an index card file for research about Shelley’s life and work. Someday, maybe it will be a book.

Today, the signal is all about the Fruit of the Spirit (I capitalize because sometime in my distant past a preacher instructed that this phrase is a proper noun, and so must be appropriately capitalized- I have no clue of the veracity of said pulpit-granted grammar lesson).

I don’t really know why, but I was singing the old vacation Bible school song about the Fruit just a day or so ago. While standing in the shower, my mind chanted them all, with the little melody:

Love

Joy

Peace

Patience

Kindness

Goodness

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self Control.

I remember another sermon in which a pedantic preacher spent a ridiculous amount of my Earth time parsing whether the Fruit was singular or plural, his point being that they were a collective, and that you’d better excel at all equally if you wanted to be in God’s good graces.

Sometimes we major in minors, yes?

This morning, after my recent reminiscence of the Sunday School ditty, I was scrolling through Facebook and two friends’ posts showed up consecutively with the Galatians scripture embedded in lovely green graphics. Same verse, identical color scheme, different art.

A signal, I think. This may not head where you’re expecting, by the way.

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For, you see, I consider myself a “Recovering Christian.” I grew up in a conservative evangelical tradition, where adherence to scripture was valued (which can be great), but what adherence meant was subject to a preacher’s interpretation (which can be awful). It was drilled into my heart and mind from the time I was very small that it was my duty to save souls. The church had mounted Matthew 28:19 above the exit doors, admonishing us as we left the carpeted lobby to head among the heathen masses:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

I carried with me a deep fear and painful guilt that I was supposed to offer Jesus and the church’s “Five Steps of Salvation” process to every single person I met, and for an introverted soul who deeply wanted to please both Jesus and my church leadership that was an unbearable burden. I stumbled through some door-knocking, invited kids in the neighborhood to Bible class, stammered through opening conversations about Jesus with school friends. Scary. Through junior high and high school, I struggled with one-one-one evangelism, and slid right on into college that way. In my small private church college, it was a little easier. Pretty much everyone was already a baptized believer; but I was introduced to a new gospel: the gospel of Amway.

“Do you know anyone who might be interested in making a couple extra thousand dollars a month working 8 to 10 hours a week?”

“I was wondering if you could give me your opinion on a business I’m looking at. I really value your opinion and could use your input.”

“Well, sure, we do sell Amway products, but that’s only about 20% of what we sell. Everything else comes from over 2,000 other companies, most of which are ‘Fortune 500’.”

I fell in love with a boy who did Amway. He had signed up before we met. Here’s how it went:

Respected college professor was supplementing his small Christian college salary with the multi-level-marketing scheme (and who can blame him, really?), got his son involved, his son approached Travis. Travis, being a people-pleaser, said “Sure!” And so our first six years of marriage were spent trying to make this crazy thing work.

I mean, it does work for some people. It does. Good grief, our current Secretary of Education bought her way into the Presidential cabinet with her Amway family fortune.

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Amway provided an automatic circle of friends, which was really cool for this introverted young woman. We gathered for weekly meetings to account for progress, sat together at church, enjoyed monthly potluck suppers. We attended conventions at semi-fancy hotels and paid registration and room fees that we didn’t have the money for (but it was an investment in our future so our sponsor helped justify it). Attendees sang patriotic songs- several times I delivered Sandi Patty’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” to open the festivities- flags were waving, tears were shed. Many wore red, white, and blue. There was lots of testifying about how the Lord had blessed our endeavors. Guest speakers dangled tempting photos of tropical vacations and reminded us how much easier it is to tithe when you’re rolling in the big bucks, part of the allure of the health and wealth gospel. The pain of it, even now, is that love for Jesus, love for country, and love for wealth were so enmeshed that my faith became clouded. It’s easy for that to happen when you somehow believe that God is going to bless you with cash if you just keep working the plan; then He doesn’t. The Fruit of the Spirit had a hard time flourishing in the garden of my troubled heart.

Amway nearly destroyed us. It really, really did. There was an underlying message that if you truly loved your family, you would overcome your discomfort and approach everyone about joining you, so there we were, twenty-ish years old, both with horrible self-confidence issues, trying to pay bills and buy shoes for the baby, and honestly no credibility whatsoever. I did what I was told I should and kept reminding Trav to make the phone calls. He called, usually without success, and became discouraged, which I interpreted as “You don’t love me and our daughter enough to overcome your discomfort” and I wouldn’t make the calls myself because I was an introvert, dammit, and besides it’s the man’s job to provide for the family (I tell you- I was a different person then). We would consider bailing on the whole thing, then he would say he did want to keep it up, so the whole cycle would begin anew.

Then there’s the whole recruitment thing. I don’t make new friends easily these days. I didn’t back then, either. I would meet a lady and think she might make an awesome friend, but I would either spoil it by using an Amway approach line, thereby cutting off all hope of future conversations, or I would just chicken out and not approach at all because I knew that at some point I would have to bring up Amway.

Travis and I didn’t trust each other, we didn’t trust ourselves, we spent money that should have been spent feeding our child on extra products or convention tickets, we risked friendships. Our marriage nearly caved. We watched another couple in our group disintegrate under the pressure, that was when we knew we couldn’t do it anymore. We confessed to our sponsors, and they lovingly told us that if they had known how we were struggling, they would have helped. They would have advised us differently.

So here’s my takeaway from Amway: I was not living a life, nor setting goals, that were true to my real self. I didn’t know who that self was just yet, so I let other people define it. I spoke affirmations that I now know were in complete contradiction to my deepest nature. I dressed like and aligned my politics and religion with those peers, I played tapes about building a business when I wish I had listened to music instead. I paid babysitters and gave up valuable evenings with my sweet little ones, all so that I could sit in strangers’ living rooms trying to sell them the dream and a starter kit.

Amway wasn’t for me. Around my fortieth birthday I realized church wasn’t for me, either. The church, like Amway, nearly destroyed us as well. Stories for another day. But authentic friendships? For sure. The rabbi Jesus? Absolutely. These days, I share a different good news; which is that we are all capable of meeting the Divine One in our own way, in our own time. No church or preacher required, though I know that many, many people find great joy in both of those things. But you know what is needed, sorely needed, in our world? Those Fruits. I believe that when we spend time where the Divine One resides, we cultivate love, joy, peace, and patience. We harvest kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

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Now that I am fifty-one, I don’t quite follow the rules of the 1970s little girl Christian that I was, nor do I adhere to the 1980s dutiful Amway salesperson. When I was a youth, I recited, “See and save. Seek. Save.” In the Amway days, my mantra was “books, tapes, and meetings.” Now, it’s “Be still. Be still. Be…still.” I know which one resonates deeply with my soul, and I won’t let even the promise of a yacht or my own island in the Caribbean move me from it again.

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A Wintry Walk (Texas Style)

Just a few days ago, one of our vendors stopped in the office to say hello. He lives in North Dakota when he’s not working our (or others) festival. He says it’s 10 degrees below zero there!

So I went out walking on our site. It was chilly for a south Texas winter day, but I had a jacket on (and by jacket I mean just a fleece hoodie) and encountered, among the brown, dormant plants, little pockets of color. Enjoy these little fluffs of joy during the off season, courtesy of Mother Nature.

 

Isn’t nature magical?

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Short and Sweet: Vinyl LPs

My generation, the oft-forgotten Xers, grew up with vinyl albums. I had a small collection when I was a little girl: the soundtrack to The Sound of Music, Barbra Joan Streisand, Barbra Live in Concert at the Forum, and the original concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar. Unusual for a six year old, I admit.

While visiting NYC in 2008, I saw this revival of Gypsy with my son on a day when Ms. LuPone had to perform in her house slippers due to a foot injury. Even in her fuzzies, she brought the house down as beleaguered Mama Rose. My son bought me this record, I love to sit and listen on the leather recliner when my husband isn’t home.

Music is an enchantment. Story is great magic. Solitude is a gift. And the love of my son is priceless.

What’s your favorite song?

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A Thirtieth Birthday

Today is my oldest child’s thirtieth birthday.

Huge, heavy sigh. How can so much time possibly passed since the day I first held her?

I remember my thirtieth- I had three kids, aged 8,6, and 3. I was teaching third grade at a local Christian school with an extremely low salary, so money was…tight. But friends from church gave us tickets to see the Broadway touring company of “Kiss Me Kate,” and I think we saved up money for a dinner at Outback Steakhouse. I was utterly domesticated.

Not my girl, though.

This woman is out in Los Angeles, being brave and daring and falling and getting back up and risking and laughing and crying and learning and writing and acting and ailing and earning and…

living.

It’s not that I didn’t live at 30, but I chose the known path. The safe path of traditional marriage, child-bearing, and school teaching. For me, the great unknown was simply making a healthy, vibrant family. I didn’t have one growing up. I wanted to forge a new path that looked so simple, so traditional, so wholesome, that it was for me, a frontier.

Hilary was the first child, the one who had to bear with all my learning and figuring it out. I may have taught her how to put on her shoes, brush her teeth, and know the front from the back of her clothing, but she’s the one who taught me how to be patient, how to cuddle, and how to listen to one’s own deepest heart.

When she was about twelve, and in a rather awkward phase, she loved to sing. But she wouldn’t necessarily do it with anyone watching. I was upstairs, putting away laundry or some such thing, and heard a sweet soprano voice cutting through any sounds of cartoons downstairs or traffic on the street. Upon realizing the sound came from my own back yard, I opened a window and hid behind the curtain, peeking out to see Hilary, feet planted in the grass, mouth wide open, singing a Charlotte Church tune with all her sweet heart and soul. She thought she had no audience, but she had a host of listeners: leaves, birds, blades of grass, the Divine One, and me. Her mom.

She still sings; her spirit and soul sing a melody of independence, grace, and creativity. Now, though, she doesn’t hide in the back yard to do it. She puts herself out there. Comedy clubs, spontaneous musical theatre tunes on the interwebs, producing a web series, acting studio; these are the professional modes. And in her personal life? She left an unhealthy marriage and started a new chapter, surrounding herself with friends and venturing into the murky world of Los Angeles dating.

My daughter is fierce yet tender, intelligent yet humble, gorgeous yet unaffected. She is the first of my three greatest gifts. I am so grateful she’s mine.

Happy birthday, Dink.

Abortion Meets Compassion

About five years ago, I decided to reshape my life. A mental health scare coupled with spinal injury and vocal cord paralysis may bring on the overwhelming need for change, I suppose. When the you-know-what hits the fan in pretty much every area of your life, it’s time to re-evaluate what you believe.

And I decided to believe in compassion; compassion for my own self, and compassion for others. Even, maybe especially, others who make different choices from the ones I would.

That sounds easy, right? Not always, my friend. Nowhere even close. Living a life driven by empathy can sometimes wound. It can occasionally wear you down.

Last night, I had a bit of a rough start to my evening. I was rushing from my full time job in an office to my part time job as a college professor. Traffic had been light, so I had a few minutes to sit in my car and eat an apple while checking in on social media.

Thanks, Facebook.

Here lately, because of a case in New York, there’s been a lot of talk about late term abortions. Talk that hurts.

If you know me at all, if you have heard my story or read my blog, you know that I used to be a devout Christian. I was raised in church. I won the Bible Bee at church camp in sixth grade, I studied Bible at Lubbock and Abilene Christian Universities, I counseled at camp, I spent seven years as a youth minister’s wife, I created the Sunday School curriculum for our entire church in Oklahoma. I physically helped to baptize two of my children. I stood in the shade of my husband’s sunlight, as a good Christian wife was meant to do. I stayed home raising babies as much as possible.

I just love it when a stranger on social media calls me both an “atheist” and an “idiot” in the same sentence before going on to trumpet their own Jesus faith. Pffft. Silly, silly man. Jesus and I go back a long, long way.

In my youth, both spiritual and emotional, I believed all the things a Christian is supposed to believe when it comes to politics. What was it Paul said? When I was young, I spoke like a child…etc.?

In the current American climate, I have come to suppose there are three weighty issues that fuse faith with politics; one’s stance on a wall to keep out illegal brown people is now tied with opposition to abortion for top priority. Putting mandated Christian prayer back into schools seems a distant third.

I only want to talk about abortion though. And how it changes the way people relate to each other.

First, let me get this out of the way: I believe abortion is a tragedy. Always. I never, ever think it’s a thing to celebrate.

When I was eighteen, I was resolute in my understanding that abortion was a sin. An unforgivable sin. So very sure. It was what my preacher taught, and it made sense. Precious sweet embryos need protection. They need a chance to live. They are dear. It was, in my young and certain mind, a black and white issue. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Then a friend, I’ll call her Cindy, found herself pregnant. She had been a fringe youth group girl, we hung out some at devotionals and trips to putt putt, but we went to different high schools. We weren’t close. To be honest, it surprised me when she came to me, imploring me to take her to the abortion clinic in Dallas. I didn’t have a car, but she just needed me to drive her home, in her car.

No one else would help her. She told me then that she felt she could trust me. That I would keep her secret. That I could forgive her. Friends, sisters, that was a crucial moment. I could have condemned her like all her other friends had done. I could have told her she should have just kept her legs closed.

But I thought of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. How he knelt, how he refused to condemn her. How he said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Cindy had been abandoned by pharisees. She needed me to be Jesus. So I took her to the clinic.

I don’t know what I expected, maybe a shadowy, filthy room with cobwebs hanging in the corners and an upside down crucifix suspended over a stone altar engraved with a pentagram? Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” playing backwards over the sound system while men wearing butcher’s aprons cavorted in glee as they worked over the poor women? I was scared to walk into the clinic, though. It turned out to be a well lit, clean doctor’s office. It looked like the same place I had visited my entire childhood to get antibiotics, vaccinations, and lollipops. Cindy ached after it was over. She didn’t cry, but she was very, very, quiet. I got her home and tucked in to her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals.

Just six months later, another close friend had a secret abortion. Pretty much the same reason, and secret because of the derision she knew would be heaped on her. We attended a private Christian college, and sexual purity was literally a requirement for continued attendance at school. The appearance of chastity was the price of admission to our social life. She could not bear the shame, and she would not stigmatize her family.

Did Jesus ever reproach women who were suffering with shame, even if their sin was sexual? Did he ever, ever put limitations on the blessing he offered? I’ll stake my life, there’s no instance in which he ever imposed boundaries on the gift of grace and compassion to hurting people. Self righteous pharisees? Yes. But not hurting people.

Not being Jesus, I still struggled, though. I ached in my soul to think of lives not lived. Embryos terminated. I knew what church taught. The Bible is not specific about this particular situation, and so one has to decide if its prohibition of murder is applicable. I asked my mother in law about it, and was surprised to hear her own thoughts. She supported keeping abortion legal. Surprised is too mild a word, really. I was stunned.

My MIL reasoned that women would have abortions. Period. Always had. Always would. In her heart and mind, to allow a woman to perish due to a misplaced, jagged coat hanger causing uncontrolled hemorrhage was as vile an outcome as the other. To my mother in law, the woman’s life and safety was precious and also worth protection. Pragmatism, yes. Compassion for women? Definitely yes.

I remind you, in case you’ve forgotten the bit I wrote at the top- I think abortion is a tragedy.

In my early 30s, I was staying at a beach house with a group of relatively new friends, and as the night progressed, we started talking about abortions. Several of my friends had had them. Different ages, circumstances, responses, faiths. I began to understand, to really get it: it is possible to have compassion for all the people in the scenario. And in the time that has passed since that night, I have learned of more friends, students, and even family who have trod that lonely sidewalk into the clinic. I don’t think any of us are truly untouched by it.

So that’s the way I have approached the abortion issue since that night. I utterly and unequivocably refuse to sit in judgement of a woman who feels she must have an abortion.

I understand why some people can’t condone the act. I really do. Nevertheless, I believe with all my soul that my heart contains enough compassion for both mother and lost child. Our hearts hold limitless love. It is only when we choose to wall off that love that we cannot meet people in their need.

You know what I don’t understand? When some of those same, supposed Christian warriors call me names. Like “Idiot.” or “Atheist.”

It is incomprehensible to imagine Jesus talking to me like that. It is unfathomable to put Jesus on a street corner shouting obscenities at wounded women entering clinics. And yet, for some, it is their MO. It’s how, in their sense of righteous indignation, they’ve decided to win the race to climb Morality Mountain. They’ve forgotten though, that Jesus isn’t up there. He’s down in the valley, loving on the hurting folks. Even the women who have chosen to abort a child. And so I must, too.

Curious Aussie Bird

“For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.” D. H. Lawrence

I encountered this little guy at the Sydney Zoo, he and I had a moment of riddling communion.

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Conundrum

It’s not easy being a person of conscience, of ethics and morals and decency. It’s really not. Your own particular brand of conscience may require tithing and public prayer before digging in to your chicken fried chicken at Black Eyed Pea (90s me), regular donations to Public Media (00s me), monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood not because you think abortion is a party but because you hate the idea of women bleeding to death from botched back-alley abortions (10s me).

Your decency might be to support the US flag, no matter what the circumstances. You might believe, honestly and truly, that patriotism is unquestioning.

Your morality might include sponsoring a child through Compassion International, a fantastic organization which I still happen to support monetarily, even in my post-church life.

You might volunteer in a soup kitchen, you might always tip 20% because you comprehend that those in the service industry need to buy groceries; you might even drive a Prius.

And if you’re like me, it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you refuse a plastic bag in favor of your reusable one, or hand the paper-wrapped straw back to the drive through window attendant while explaining to their puzzled faces that you carry your own stainless steel straws with you, it just seems like it’s never enough…

because it’s clear that no matter what choice you make, it’s going to have a harmful, unintended consequence somewhere in this great big world.

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The genius TV sitcom “The Good Place” is handling this conundrum with a deft touch this season. As Michael, so brilliantly played by Ted Danson, and his posse of afterlife wanderers is realizing, the most innocuous choices can have magnificently terrible consequences. A simple tomato purchase is rife with opportunity to wreck a distant life in an accidental and unavoidable ripple effect: pesticides and underpaid laborers, for example.

Here lately, I find myself stymied by the quest for toothpaste:

the tubes that normal toothpaste come in are not recyclable. So when I throw them in the bin, where do they end up? Land fill.

I could order the chewable tablets that you bite down on, they’re packaged in glass, but then there is a truck that has to deliver them to my house, which creates more exhaust fumes, and thereby a larger contribution to global climate change.

Baking soda just tastes gross.

I have settled for a brand that touts itself as good for the groundwater, and it comes in a tube that is made from plant material and is recyclable.

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But then I am plagued by the follow up thought: I hear that recycling is at a near-halt because the Chinese are no longer buying and shipping our waste to China, and American waste companies can’t afford to actually recycle the volumes of plastic and cardboard that are now stacking up in warehouses.

What about the turtles, fish, and ducks, friends? WHAT ABOUT THEM?

And can we talk relationships? I spent a good hour today worried and upset and angry. Like so many others, I posted the video of the red capped teen staring. I try to keep my social media political posts to a minimum- just a couple a month, normally. My life’s work is about finding joy and sharing peace. Not about stirring up discord.

But this incident of the Catholic high school boys and the Native American elder really bothers me. Maybe it’s because I taught high school. I am familiar with that smirk, I have been cornered by a high school boy who threatened me harm out of the sight of security cameras, I have been hit by a student, I too have found myself in the midst of an unruly group of inadequately supervised teens and known the fear of turning every which way only to realize I was at the mercy of the “Lord of the Flies” adolescents.

But those aren’t the relationships that upset me today. Not tribal elders, not smartass teens, not their school leadership. And yes, I have seen the opposing arguments that we don’t know the real story, and to be frank, I am not buying most of it.

No, today it came from an old friend. A friend who is so staunch in her conservative world view that she posted a response that I could not even begin to handle. I deleted the whole thread, which I was planning to do anyway, but once the conservative mommy blog link was shared, I churned. I churned all afternoon. I would gladly have had an actual dialogue with this friend, but what I was unequivocally not willing to do was read a right wing mommy blog.

And here’s where I am stuck: What happens when our own particular value systems are so firmly at odds with each other that to compromise feels like we are cutting a piece of our gut out and laying it on a table as blood sacrifice?

There’s a lot of talk that goes: “We all, at the most basic level, share the same values. We just want a safe and happy place to raise and love our families.” Yeah, well, that’s the easy and obvious one. But if you go just one step deeper than that, to ask the questions about what justice looks like, what good citizenship looks like, how money should be spent, which lives have value and where people should be able to breathe freely, things get more complex. And those values are as essential to our humanity as loving and providing for our families.

Wasn’t it Jesus who said:

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)

Those rude teenagers in Washington DC are not my enemy. And that gentleman beating the peace drum is not the enemy of the conservatives.

When does keeping the peace with friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and relatives, at the cost of staying silent on issues we feel passionately about, begin to erode our souls? How do we compromise when to compromise feels like betraying everything we hold dear? Or does it even matter, except in the voting booth? Does dialogue about issues matter?

I don’t have an answer. What I do know is that my own worry about which toothpaste to use is a microcosm of everything else that I am fearful about right now. It just seems like a decision about freedom and equality is too tough, so I’ll debate the merits of my organic toothpaste purchase. Shall I buy mint or vanilla flavored?

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