She Was A Voice: A Review of “The Book of Longings”

“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings

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The reclamation and rediscovery of my voice have been the driving throughline of my life since 2011 when my vocal cords were damaged resulting in a year of silence. I already felt pretty invisible in my daily life, as though I was seen and heard only by my husband and kids. Though I regained my voice through the miracle of a silicone implant, the trauma of the muteness has never fully left the deep recesses of my heart and soul. Those who have known me in an up-close way, or who read my work know this truth about me.

In her latest and most audacious work, inspirational author Sue Monk Kidd imagines another invisible and unheard woman, telling a life of her creation, a wife of Jesus during the period of unknowing: the years between his temple conversations with the rabbis and the day he stepped into the river Jordan to be immersed by John the doomed prophet. Only an undiluted curiosity undergirded with a fertile and open mind will be able to read this beautiful fiction unthreatened.

We meet Anna as a teen, full of restless joy and enormous dreams of writing, a voracious reader who had begged her father unrelentingly to be taught how to read and write. Anna is a young woman of expansive ideas trapped in an ancient patriarchal culture. I recognized her heart-cry immediately, I too was once a young bookworm with a passion for justice and a tendency toward the favoring the underdog.

The Hebraic culture of the New Testament era comes vividly alive in the author’s adept hands. Ms. Kidd revealed in an interview with researcher Brene’ Brown that she spent 14 months of eight-hour days immersed in history and religious study, joking that she was smitten by Roman aqueducts in Galilee; her daughter finally intervening with an exhortation to get on with the writing. Her dynamic descriptions of the terrain, the architecture, the food, the daily life are so real I expected to see dust on my sandals and to smell olives on the breeze upon lifting my eyes from the page.

Anna is to be married to an old man in a play for power by her father, a wealthy, landless scribe in the court of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who would eventually see Jesus in his court. Events twist and turn, and Anna is instead married to young Jesus, a man so full of compassion and the spark of joy that he is utterly captivating. I have wondered since I was young enough to watch Sunday School stories be told by puppets and felt board cutouts what the young man Jesus might have been like, and this imagining feels completely credible.

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Ms. Kidd is careful to craft a plot that is fully supportive of the sparse details of Jesus’s life that are written in the Biblical gospels, she doesn’t rewrite or recreate Jesus and his ministry, she simply attempts to create a fictional idea of what might have been, and in doing so, she provides a feminine window into the early Christian world that has not often been seen. Anna is, in truth, a proxy for all the women who have ever felt absent in the Jesus story, who have been unheard in the power plays and overlooked in the histories executed by men. “The deeper we go into our own experience, our own journey, the more likely we are to hit the universal,” says Ms. Kidd.

As a companion read to The Book of Longings, Ms. Kidd’s spiritual memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, is a remarkable deep dive into the fracturing and rebuilding of feminine faith; it too is universal. I have been working through it for some time. I say “working,” because the truth of what Brene’ Brown calls her “mid-life unraveling” is unfolding in my own life, and has been for a period of long years. It was only in the last three that I began to tiptoe from the desert created by church trauma to embark upon newer vistas of grace on my way back to verdant faith. Reading the final chapters of Dissident Daughter simultaneously with Longings scored the truths of both deeply into my heart in the same way that Anna inscribed her prayers into a bowl: women are deeply, tenderly, radically loved by God.

If a reader can access her imagination and be unafraid to ask “What if?” there is abundant grace, wit, and courage in this gorgeous novel. What a bold, yet humble gift is Sue Monk Kidd. I encourage all to read, and to listen to her episode on Unlocking Us. Its radical, gentle message is both balm and benediction.

Brené with Sue Monk Kidd and Jen Hatmaker on Longing, Belonging and Faith

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Cathedrals: Third in a Series

I loved this photo because of the juxtaposition of dark towers on blue sky. It’s the towers of Catedral Metropolitana de Quito in the capital city of Ecuador. My husband and I were wandering the streets of old Quito when we happened upon this enormous edifice, the sun was beginning its descent in the west, and the gates were locked to visitors. What struck me then was how quiet the churchyard was. I had visited St. Patrick’s in New York City, that church is teeming with tourists and congregants, the steps are crowded with families snapping photos. But the Catedral was whisper quiet, the only sign of life the black birds hopping in the courtyard or flying above our heads.

When I visited Notre Dame in Paris, another cathedral of double towers, I remembered Quito and its holy hush, so opposite of the clamor at ND. Both sacred, though. The Divine can be found in both whisper and shout.

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If you’ve never traveled to Ecuador, it’s a beautiful place. Learn more about the Catedral here:

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Playing Church

When I was a little girl back in the mid-1970s, my brothers and I visited my grandparents during summers in dusty, windy Lubbock, Texas.

My grandmother was a professional seamstress and my grandfather was a carpenter, these were folks who made their living with their hands. Salt-of-the-earth people. Humble people. Wonderful people.

 

There wasn’t money for lavish entertainments when we visited, and my grandmother was always in the middle of sewing for paying customers, so our play was very simple. Simple and quite wonderful. In the cabinet where toys lived was a Dennis the Menace doll that I always played with, I am pretty sure it belonged to my father when he was a boy, or maybe one of his little sisters.  A can of Lincoln Logs kept me busily occupied, the can was of cardboard with a tin lid, they rattled and shook within that canister, letting us know that they were ready to build. There were board games and puzzles and paddle balls, lawn croquet was a favorite. I loved the way my grandmother said the word, “Wicket.” Her head kind of wiggled almost imperceptibly and her consonants were eloquently crisp.

 

But the game I remember best was when we “played church.”

It was always at Grandmother’s suggestion, but I didn’t mind. I was a little girl who loved church. My grandparents’ church was a beautiful one, with a sanctuary awash in sunlight. It was open and airy, with acoustics that made the robust a cappella singing that is the hallmark of my tradition reverberate through one’s chest and very heart. I remember Bible stories told on felt boards and enacted with puppets and singing “Roll the Gospel Chariot Along” with exuberance, running right over that old Devil with my tiny, righteous fists. There was a gentleman who kept his jacket pockets full of peppermints each Sunday morning so that the little ones in the congregation could slip their hands in for a treat and a sweet smile.

Back yard church was warm, the air sweet and juicy with the scent of my grandmother’s muscat grapes ripening on their vines. Bugs buzzed around our heads, as cicadas chirped an accompaniment to my song leading and preaching. My congregants were my two little brothers and some dolls; Grandmother fetched aluminum pie plates from the cupboard and set a handful of saltine crackers in them, and we were given a jelly glass of grape juice. With these sacraments in place, we passed the plates and imagined we were partaking of the body of Jesus.

I remember feeling loved and sensing God in those moments. It was a sweet game, a pretend with nothing but the purest heart of a little girl at its nucleus. Perhaps these memories are why I feel most in tune with the Divine One when outside, or in a small home church instead of in a building. Quiet worship suits me best.

Lots of folks “play” at church as adults, but their games are not genuine and wholesome. For too many, their faiths are not conduits to a true experience of God, they are instead a set of criteria, like chess rules, that are used to manipulate others into fear and compliance. Sometimes, the game-players strenuously clamber over others to be king-of-the-mountain, instead of walking in the shadowy low places, where humans hurt. The draw of the powerful is, to these churchgoers, more alluring than the ache of the broken and disenfranchised.

broken_cross_by_cantabrigianWe are, of course, seeing this play out on a national level, and our country is cracking under the pressure. There are politicians and public figures who are donning masks of piety, fooling some into believing there is no rot behind the facade. That matters, oh yes, it does.

It matters down here where the regular folk live, in church organizations where members play “politics-by-tithe,” more money is spent on smart lights or interior designers than on feeding the poor, or just plain old kindness is a rarer and rarer commodity. I don’t think that the problem in America is that we need more Christians, I think we need kinder Christians.

Put simply, faith is about kindness. It is “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” It is “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” It is “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”

I know I am imperfect in this. I sometimes speak cruelly. I often miss chances to serve, sometimes because I don’t realize, but also sometimes because I am just not into it.I can really screw this thing up.

There are days when I wish I could turn back the clock to when I was nine years old, confidently waving my arm back and forth as I sang “Blue Skies and Rainbows.” But I can’t. No, I just try to keep my soul connected to the One who matters. I watch and listen for Christians who aren’t playing games, who use the tenets of their faith to nurture, not needle. And I remember my sweet grandmother, her grapes, and pie plates of crisp, salty crackers.

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Cathedrals: The Second in a Series

“History and beauty lie in the baroque wrinkles of old cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, temples and faces whose stories are told without a single word.”
― Khang Kijarro Nguyen

I left organized religion years ago, but find that cathedrals still speak to me. I believe it’s the vast and varied stories that each cathedral holds that draw me close. Somehow, I sense the histories of those faithful, and the vibrations of their prayers.

When I visit a new place, I make it a point to seek out these edifices, and find a few moments to sit it their peace. This particular cathedral is St. Paul’s in Melbourne, Australia. It’s located just down the block from the National Gallery of Victoria. The day was quite cloudy, mid-winter, and perfect.

I was particularly struck by the large banner hanging on the church building’s side, proclaiming that the church welcomes refugees. Just this morning, my husband observed that so many religious and conservative organizations seem driven by fear, it is comforting to see that this church body is driven by kindness. Like Jesus himself.

https://cathedral.org.au/

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A Magic Kingdom

I recently returned from five days in Orlando, exploring Disney World for the first time in my 52 years. I cried a lot. I cried on the first afternoon, when I watched the show in front of Cinderella’s castle as Minnie, Daisy, Elsa, Anna, Tiana, Rapunzel, and a chorus of dancers sang about imagination and courage.

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I cried that evening as the fireworks exploded and projections lit up the castle while Tom Hulce’s Hunchback sang “Out There.”

I cried when I rode the Pooh ride and when I saw stuffed Dumbos. I cried when the Peter Pan float passed during the 3:00 parade. I cried when Lebo M’s voice chanted:

“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama”

while I stood in line to enter Animal Kingdom.

I cried one last time, sitting on a grassy knoll at the Polynesian Resort, watching the fireworks show from a distance, making a memory with my niece and nephew.

Heck, I am crying right now, just typing this.

Why? Why do I cry so much?

Well, there’s the obvious answer: Disney is my children’s childhood. I didn’t grow up with much Disney. Some of that is simply because of when I grew up. During the 1970s, Disney animation was in a slump, resulting in limited access to the stories. We didn’t have a Disney channel, we just had Sunday night’s Wonderful World of Disney, which featured Disney shorts, sometimes Disney features, all hosted by Walt himself. My mom didn’t want to watch it. My parents did take us to an anniversary release of Bambi in 1975, I was just eight years old; and the only other Disney film I saw in theaters until I took my three-year-old daughter to see Beauty and the Beast was Herbie Rides Again. 

Mary Poppins is the one exception to the paucity of Disney in my life. It blessedly ran on television frequently enough that I came to know it by heart. Julie Andrews as Mary was my hero. She, with her magical carpet bag, lilting soprano, and penchant for order, was the epitome of womanhood. I loved that she showed up unexpectedly, floating through the sky with an umbrella, feet turned out, impeccably dressed.

Spit Spot!

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What I loved about Mary was that she could come into a house with miserable, neglected children and heal it. She could sing to the toys and they would put themselves away, birds were fed, and the parents eventually learned to see their lonely kids by the magic of flying kites. When I met Mary Poppins and Bert beside the swan topiary near the Sleeping Beauty castle in Anaheim, or in the English pavilion in Orlando, I was overwhelmed with joy. I understood completely that I was meeting gorgeous actresses. Truly, I did. But here’s the thing that happens, if one can set aside cynicism and just embrace the whole scenario: I met Mary Poppins, who spoke to me with flawless diction and loved my Jolly Holiday skirt and ears. I would say I was a child again, and maybe that’s a little true. But I was 51 years old, too. Fifty-one, and just really starting to recognize in a visceral way how short life really is and how essential it is to look for love and drop little seeds of it wherever one finds oneself.

I did not encounter the Mary Poppins of the books until adulthood. The literary, non-singing Mary is a little more acerbic. In the movie, there’s an underlayer of sweetness just under Mary’s efficiency, less evident in the books. In Travers’ hands though, whimsy is abundant and imagination is the cure for boredom, sadness, and grouchiness. In the very first book of the series, the grumpy author writes this simple yet profound sentence, when Jane and Michael ask Mary where she’s been all day and her answer doesn’t match their own expectations: “Mary Poppins gave a superior sniff. ‘Don’t you know,’ she said pityingly, ‘that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?'”

My mom wasn’t much for fairylands, nor for stories, nor for books. I do not remember a single instance of being read to, and the only book I owned was a copy of Bible stories that my grandparents gave me. I didn’t have books with Disney stories, or records like my husband remembers having, ones with “Bare Necessities” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” to listen to in my room.

My family was too poor to pay the light bill, never mind a trip to Disneyland; so when my first child was born in the same year that Ariel made her debut, I hopped right on board the Disney steam locomotive train (figuratively speaking, anyway. I wouldn’t get to ride the real thing until I reached middle age). We watched Little Mermaid over and over, I have the most precious photo of my dad on the floor playing with Hilary and her Ariel doll. When my son was just three, he went through a Dumbo phase: every morning, between 3:30 and 4:00, he sleepily stumbled into our bedroom, shook us awake, and asked for Dumbo. He was having bad dreams nightly, and the sweet blue-eyed baby elephant chased away the scary things happening in his brain. We began to leave the VHS cued up and ready before retiring to sleep each night, so that we could get him tucked in with as little fuss as possible. My youngest daughter chose Finding Nemo for her sixteenth birthday theme- unlike the other high school girls who were making duck lips and wearing too much make up, my girl dressed as a Pixar character. We read the stories, we sang the songs, we raised our kids with Disney magic all around us.

I cry when I think of it because Disney resonates: Disney is fueled by love.

I know that millenial ennui dictates we poo-poo that. But bear with me.

Disney, as a brand, is driven by story*; and the stories all center around one common theme: love.

Walt’s love for his granddaughters inspired him to create Disneyland so that they would have a place to play and imagine.

Disney is:

Love of story itself, whether revealed in orchestral pieces as in Fantasia, or in written words, as in the Milne Winnie the Pooh stories.

Love of planet. What is Moana but a great big hug for Mother Earth? The 1950s were a decade of documentary shorts like Nature’s Half Acre, all opportunities for Walt to share the wonders of eco-science with the country.

Love of parent/child. The Mama Bear character in Brave stands in for protective moms everywhere, and when Dumbo’s mom sings him a lullaby while rocking him in her trunk, I weep with melancholy. Gepetto’s wish for a son, made real by the Blue Fairy? Perfection.

Love of friendship. Are there two more sympatico friends than Woody and Buzz? Who doesn’t hope for a group of friends to stand and protect in times of vulnerability, like the dwarves did as Snow White slept?

Love of romance. I have my own Prince Charming, and so I love the romantic stories when shoes are left behind on staircases and hairy beasts are redeemed by the tears of a true love.

Love is magic.

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We know it, deep down, but we forget. Walt knew that sharing these stories and building these worlds would give us glimpses and doses. It was his mission. They still take that mission very seriously in every facet of the company, as I learned when I attended the Disney Institute last year. Their people love what they do.

 

And so, when I immerse myself in the environment, it is a hug for my soul.

When I watch a movie, it’s an infusion of affection and strength.

When I don a Daisy tee or drink steaming hot tea out of a  Tinkerbell mug, it’s an inoculation against despair and bitterness.

When I hit “play” on my Disney playlist, I feel joy. For the woman whose childhood was so devoid of play, of imagination and joy and connection, Disney gives me a place to act like a kid again.

I know I am not alone in this. The parks, cruise ships, and resorts are overflowing with other humans who love the stories. I daresay even the dad I saw in the Magic Kingdom, wearing a shirt that proclaimed in Disney font: “Most financially irresponsible day ever” encountered magic that day with his small children. Disney parks are brimming with all ethnicities, all physical types, all ages. Big, burly urbanites pose with Goofy, silver haired grannies get kisses from Minnie, and tiny boys hug Woody’s legs. We love it.

It’s that simple. Once upon a time, I was a lonely, bedraggled, neglected child. I found my prince, I made a family, and I created a life that is full of love, my very own magical kingdom; and the wonderful world of Disney helps me celebrate it.

 

*Yes, I know Disney is also profit driven- it’s a business. A big one. I don’t hold that against them. They craft story and they create a place where even grown ups can pretend their lives are perfect, even if it’s just a respite. I work in the world of theme park myself, and Disney does it better than anyone.

 

Short and Sweet: Connection

I love this sentiment, and had to snap a photo of it immediately upon discovery.

Yesterday, the cathedral at Notre’ Dame burned, thankfully not beyond repair, and in the news coverage, I breathlessly witnessed people from all over the world sending prayers and love and hope; not only for the church itself, but for the citizens of Paris, for whom the Lady is such a symbol of art and eternity.

We are connected. Each of us is somehow connected in spirit to humans, to animals, to Earth. To the Divine One.

Namaste’.

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Weary. Tired. Drained. Energized.

Tired are my feet, that felt today the pavement;
Tired are my ears, that heard of tragic things-
Tired are my eyes, that saw so much enslavement;
Only my voice is not too tired. It sings.”
― Aaron Kramer

One of the things I am discovering as I hit middle age is that I am tired. All the time. So, so tired. I am in the middle of “The Change,” which may be part of it. Hormones are preventing sleep at night, so I’d really rather hunker down and read a book when I should be doing tasks around the house. I have to have a debate with myself when I need to go out and work on my flowerbeds:

Does it matter? (Yes.)

Who’ll notice? (The Neighbors.)

But it makes my back hurt and my hands ache! (It’ll burn calories and build muscle, take a Tylenol and rub down with Father Thyme balm.)

Flowers and fertilizer are expensive. (Think of the bees.)

Now that I live in a house with a sprinkler system and no longer have to schlep around a water hose in the heat, there really is no excuse to ignore my flower beds. I actually love digging in the dirt, and I love how the beds look when I pull into my driveway surrounded by marigolds and geraniums. It’s just the damn exhaustion. My inertia is magnificent in its…lack of ert.

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I do keep doing what needs to be done…for the most part. A couple of Diet Dr. Peppers each day keep me moving: I am teaching three college classes in addition to my full time job, exercising 4-5 days a week, making sure laundry is done, dogs get walked, grandbaby gets babysat, etc. I recently applied to volunteer at our local women’s shelter, which will be an added obligation on the agenda; but I have a feeling it will give me some perspective on what exhaustion of the spirit looks like. Menopausal fatigue can’t compare to that.

But today…I am weary of something else. This morning, when my husband turned on the news, we were gut-punched with the news of another hate crime, this time a shooting in New Zealand, a country that hasn’t had a mass shooting in around thirty years. It’s on the other side of the world from my Texas home, but our globalization means that we are all connected. We are all, no matter our country, children of God.

I say this to the conservative members of my family (that’s most of the clan).

I say this to the progressives in my family (there are a handful of us intrepid souls).

I say this to friends, I don’t care where you fall on the political values spectrum.

I say this to colleagues.

I say this to strangers:

We cannot afford to go on this way.

What we say matters. About a month ago, I wrote about the conundrum we face when we try to have productive political discussions. We seem not to listen with any intent to discover, we just wait for the other person to take a breath so that we can insert our own opinion. I wondered if it was worth the effort and the risk of lost relationships. I thought maybe I should just start silencing my own self, keeping my worries and judgments and questions stifled. For the sake of peace.

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Last evening, I happened upon a conversation on a friend’s Facebook wall, and my friend, a progressive, was trying to understand and connect with an old friend of his that had gone on a lengthy multi-post tirade against Muslims. No one could get this man to understand that the religion of Islam, the Quran, doesn’t teach the extreme hate that he believes it does. Several people tried to get him to understand that most, overwhelmingly most, Muslims are peaceful folks who just want to live a life of joy with their families. The thread hurt my heart. Then I woke up to hear about a white supremacist shooting up two houses of Islamic mosques; and I wanted to go back to that post, to that man, and challenge him. Because his own hatred was the sort that cost at least 49 people their lives yesterday as they were mowed down in their houses of prayer.

This vitriol isn’t targeted only at Muslims. Yesterday afternoon, an insurance agent on Facebook’s marketplace used a thoroughly disturbing and inappropriate photo of a fatal car crash to sell insurance policies, and joked about traveling to Mexico. When someone questioned her wording, a cascade of fury and hate was spewed at any and all Mexicans. It turned my stomach to read the posts, because I realize that I am, without knowing it, walking among racists each and every day.

These conversations do matter. They are the climate where intolerance and bigotry foment. Social media is the new public square, and what we say and allow to be said incites. Provokes. Inflames.

Chips away at our hearts.

Voices of reason are required. Gentle voices, yes. But not always.  Those of us who are tolerant and empathetic, who see the humanity in people of different colors and faiths, may be hamstrung by the belief that we must ever and always be benign. Moderate. Though the cause of kindness will not be served by hatred and venomous speech, it won’t be served by silent compliance, either. A polite “please” will not expose and root out hatred in hearts.

I am tired, yes. But I am more tired of shootings, of crying children, and of words of prejudice masked as patriotism excused as free speech than I am of anything else in this mess. I believe, with all my heart, that women are going to have to be the impetus for change on this. Men like my husband, who had tears in his eyes this morning, do grieve. And I have encountered women who are as bitter as anyone could be. But if the compassionate and open-hearted women who have been silent for so long will add their voices to the conversation, and will make allies of like-minded men, perhaps love can prevail.

The women I admire in the public eye (Glennon Doyle, Liz Gilbert, Brene’ Brown, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai) have spoken over and over about putting kindness, bravery, and justice into the world. They have big platforms, they speak on television and their podcasts have thousands of subscribers, they’re invited to speak in full coliseums and their books line shelves. Those women are capable of inspiring enormous change. Their scope makes me feel insignificant. Powerless. But I am not.

My voice is small. My reach is tiny. My following is negligible. But by god, I am going to keep trying. I am going to continue combating negative with positive. I will strive for healing. I will take the high road, though I may not be a tranquil traveler upon it. And I will speak. I promise to do it with respect, though maybe not with my best manners. I will speak. And I will act. I will contribute money, I will march, I will write, I will befriend, I will advocate, I will send letters. It’s going to take actions both large and small to right the ship. I’ll just add a Diet DP to my daily intake to stay awake and get “woke.”

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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.

Amway

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.

Courage-to-be-still3

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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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.

Fairies, Poetry, and a Magic Kingdom

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

-WB Yeats

I captured this sweet little fairy house in Tinkerbell’s Pixie Hollow, Disneyland, Anaheim.

I love fairies, and I firmly believe that life becomes more lovely and love-filled when we allow our spirits to recognize magic, in all its various forms, in all its abundant places. Whether enchantment arrives by pixiedust, baby giggles, healing hands, sunlight, or the gift of forgiveness, magic is free, it’s beautiful, and it’s for each one of us to enjoy. And to share.

What’s your magic?

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