Archive for the ‘The Consequences’ Category

God’s Favorite

Heart Block

Once again, Steve Wiens of The Actual Pastor has hit the metaphorical nail on its literal head.  Go on and read him here. Then carry on.

Now. Let’s think about love for a moment, can we? This is February, the month when you can’t walk through Walgreens without a zillion red cardboard hearts leering at you from every shelf. These are supposed to make you think of love.

“Here babe. For all the wonderful things you are, and the great stuff you do for me, I will give you this box of cheap chocolate and a dozen roses that were $9.99 at Wal-Mart. It’s the thought that counts, and I’m thinking all this should buy me some ‘alone time’ with you, if you get my drift.”

If Wal-mart and Walgreens and other things starting in “wal” are any indication, we believe in love of the cardboard heart variety.

But what about the real kind? What does real love look like?

Steve offers one example—a sandwich.  I can think of other things.

On Tuesday night, we went to a church in Fairlawn to pay our respects to our friend Mike’s mother, Janet Rodgers, and her precious family. The place was jammed. Everyone had a story. Everyone had a memory. We didn’t know her, but we left feeling as though we had. Her whole life was a legacy of love, and a lot of it was the practical, hands-on kind. Our other friend, Liz, commented on Facebook, “After [Mike] spoke, I reflected on how Janet made everyone feel like her favorite. Just like Jesus! You are Jesus’ favorite. And so am I.”

What an amazing legacy! I want to be Mike’s mom when I grow up. (This is looking doubtful at the moment because of the whole flamethrower thing, but it’s good to have goals.) Is there anything more awesome to say about someone than “She made everyone feel like her favorite?”  God is like that.

God is way bigger than human systems and ideologies and understandings. God cannot be defined by debates or diminished by demagogues (even the ones who claim that they have God’s words in their mouths).

God doesn’t mess around with the cheap stuff and the self-serving motives because, well, God doesn’t need much. Instead, God offers people God’s self, and says “You are my favorite.”

In this month of crazy cardboard love, let’s do something radically different. Every single day, let’s do one wild, generous, fun, loving thing for someone who crosses our path, because they are God’s favorite, and they may not know. Besides, I’m God’s favorite, too, and so are you.


Here Comes The Bride (All 625,000 of Her)

The population of the Richmond, Virginia metropolitan area is 1.25 million people. As cities go, that’s really not very large; lots of American cities are bigger, and certainly in global terms, it’s not immense.

No, Richmond does not feel all that large until you find yourself crammed into a small bridal shop with the 625,000 women who are either brides, mothers of brides, sisters of brides, bridesmaids, or babies of brides.

This weekend, my sister, my mother-in-law and I joined my daughters and a mother-in-law-to-be for a whirlwind day of wedding dress shopping. We did this in Harrisonburg with the Older Daughter about three years ago, so we thought we knew what to expect.

We were wrong.

The Younger Daughter had made several appointments, because you can’t just drop in to a Bridal Shoppe and browse around. You have to have a “consultant.” This person chats up the bride and can determine after three minutes exactly what the bride likes and doesn’t like. She then shuts the bride up in a tiny cubicle with some strange undergarments, and brings her things to try on.

The face says it all.

The face says it all.

We’ll call our first stop “Goliath’s Bridal” because we do not wish to be litigated against. When Team Suz arrived for its 9:30 appointment, all 625,000 Richmond women were already in the parking lot waiting for the doors to open. We hung back because Team Suz includes her grandmother, and we did not want her to be trampled in the stampede.

Once inside, we were assigned a “consultant,” who used her 180 seconds to determine what some other bride, possibly on Mars, liked. After shutting Suz in a cubicle, she brought dresses that looked like a bride had exploded out of a pile of Miracle Wip. One of these looked like The Mummy exploding from a pile of Miracle Wip. Another of them had a ten-foot train, which our particular bride immediately stepped on. No.  

Because these dresses require more infrastructure than a nuclear reactor, it takes an eternity to get from one to the other. Plus, consultants at Goliath Bridal work with more than one bride at a time. After hours of waiting, the brides’ entourages get bored and start critiquing other brides. As it happens, these brides’ entourages have no sense of humor at all, and so it’s not uncommon for the police to be called.

We watched all this with incredulity, taking turns sitting in the two chairs provided for our group of six. In our same area were three other brides and their cheering sections, a large bevy of bridesmaids looking for dresses, and two mothers-of-the-bride trying on things in unhappy colors while their own entourages insisted that no, those ruffles don’t really make your rear look like the bed in “The Princess and the Pea.” In the middle of this chaos, someone had loosed a handful of toddlers, and they were playing tag. Techno music thumped in the background, and I began to think longingly of the peace and tranquility of a cruise ship.

When our consultant brought Suz a dress that looked like a bride erupting from a duvet, we called a halt and sprinted for the car.

Little Mermaid Meets Dawn of the Dead

Little Mermaid Meets Dawn of the Dead

The presence of the grandmother precluded any stopping for soothing beverages, so we went on to the next place, which we will call Alfred Angelo, because that’s its name and because we want everyone to go there. We were one of three brides in the ENTIRE STORE, and their entourages were comfortably seated on sofas at discreet distances from each other. No techno played anywhere, and everyone was polite and kind. Our consultant took Suz with her to look at things, so every dress she tried on was perfect. We breathed and relaxed and made friends with the other families.

And yes, she found the perfect dress, and maybe we all cried a little. And yes, I shed some tears of joy because my youngest daughter is so beautiful and precious, but I have to admit, even though she’s going to read this and know the truth, relief was also a factor.

Cruising for a Bruising

Divina at a distanceThe inadvertent blog hiatus was brought to you via the MSC cruise line, because I was trapped—I mean vacationing—aboard the Divina for a few days. I left for this trip feeling apprehensive and unsettled about cruising, and I came back convinced I’m some sort of freak.

See, before we went, 100% of the people I mentioned this cruise to reacted with joy and envy. “You’re going to LOVE it,” they said. “Wish I was going with you,” they said. “This is going to be the best vacation you’ve ever had,” they said.

So I relaxed fractionally and decided that so many happy cruise passengers can’t be wrong. It’s going to be great. I’m going to have lots of time to unwind and plan my upcoming semester and generally be happy and festive.

Now I am forced to believe that I am the only person in the history of the world who hates, and I mean viscerally hates cruise ships, cruising, and oceanic voyages in general. I feel terrible about this. My Beloved’s mother has longed for the whole family to take a cruise together, and I have been the holdup. Everyone was so in hopes that I’d love it, opening the door for us all to go together.

Unfortunately, my imagination kept getting in the way. Even when the seas were calm and the sun was shining, all I could think of was the band on the Titanic playing

Our ship from a safe distance in Jamaica.  This is about as close as I feel comfortable.

Our ship from a safe distance in Jamaica. This is about as close as I feel comfortable.

“Nearer My God to Thee.” In our case, of course, since this was JamCruise, the band belonged to Bootsy Collins, and it was playing “Night of the Thumpasaurus People,” but it’s the same thing.

So I have composed a letter to everyone that reads thusly:

Dear Cruising Family:

Thank you for your kind invitation to join you in venturing out into the hostile environment of the ocean in search of relaxation and weight gain. I truly am grateful for the love and generosity you have shown me throughout the years, and trust this will continue when I tell you that I would prefer to stay home and babysit a room full of three-year-olds who have been drinking coffee and eating marshmallow rabbits all morning.

I am just not cut out for cruises. I have seen both The Poseidon Adventure, and most of Titanic, and they are all I can think of when we are out of sight of land. In fact, I know pretty much exactly how far it is to land all the time—about three miles straight down—and I do not find this comforting. I can achieve the same level of relaxation that I had on our cruise if I stay at home and prep for a colonoscopy, so I regret to say that this is what I will do in the future.

Having said this, I quite like the ship, and would be perfectly happy staying on it, provided it never moves out of the harbor. I believe this kind of boat is called a “hotel,” and if you’d like to take a family jaunt to one of those, I am absolutely on board with that.

Love and hugs,

Music, New Uses for Underwear, and Resigning as Associate Director of the Universe

The Wooten Brothers will be performing at the Keswick Theatre on Dec. 12.

On the theory that we have to do things off our beaten paths once in a while, I confess that my Beloved and I have seen the Wooten Brothers twice in fewer than five days.  We saw them perform at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke on the 7th, and on the 10th, we saw them at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Regi, Roy (“Futureman”), Joseph, and Victor, you can get a taste of them here.  The clip is from the Jefferson Center on Saturday. 

Tuesday evening’s show turned into Wednesday morning’s show, and by the time we got back to P’ville, it was closing in on 2 a.m., and I have to be up and buzzing at six.  I am too old for this, or at least out of practice. 

The point is that on Wednesday, while my body bumbled through the day and battled a headache, l felt so much better spiritually.  I realized later that it was because I made zero demands on anything or anyone, including me.  I was just happy to be upright, and had to focus a certain amount of energy on making sure this continued to be the case.  It’s amazing how much stuff you can let slide in the interest of 1.) not falling over, and 2.) not accidentally wearing your underwear on your head.  Other stuff happened, and some things got done, but I didn’t have a huge, difficult agenda for the day.  

At lunch last week, a friend confided that she had a crucial deadline looming, and her stress levels had soared since she didn’t have enough time for the perfect job her perfectionist nature demanded.  I want to be this woman when I grow up, because she was able to add, “So I have to let go of those expectations and just do what I can do.” 

I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that her “just doing what she can do” will be awesome.  And no humans will be harmed in the creation of her projects, either.  Today, when I am rested and refreshed, I’m tempted to ratchet my own expectations meter back up to “impossible.” When I do that, people I love will suffer, because I am not wise and gentle but really kind of harsh and prone to swear.

Listen, I haven’t got any fresh doses of cosmic significance, but today I will live as if I’m exhausted.  I’m going to evaluate a small mountain of student work and be merciful, since I’ve been given a lot of mercy recently.  I’m going to get my hair cut.  I’m going to spend part of the evening with a friend I love like a sister, and we are going to laugh like maniacs.  I may wear my underwear on my head on purpose.

It’s such a relief not to feel like I have to micromanage my world.  Today’s true thing:  I am a child of God among all the other children of God, not the associate director of the universe.  All I have to do are the things I’m given, in any particular moment, and do those as well as I can, not as well as I can if I absolutely kill myself and make everyone else miserable while I’m doing them.  When I start doing that, somebody please kidnap me and take me to see the Wootens or the Mantras or Pigeons Playing Ping-Pong, so I can stay up all night and feel better in the morning.

Skipping Church

DawnThis morning, I am playing hooky from church.  There will be hell to pay for this, not on account of church, which has always been pretty gentle about attendance, but on account of my nephew, who will perseverate and badger my friends, and when he sees me at noon, will immediately ask why I was not there.

I haven’t decided whether to confound the felony of skipping church by lying.  My students make “I overslept,” do duty for “I could not face one more day of Walt Whitman,” although they sometimes also use “I had a headache” to good effect.

What I will not tell my nephew is this:

Sometimes, when your heart hurts, church is the last place you can be.  This morning was our children’s Christmas pageant, and I’m sure our kids were adorable.  I love them, and normally I love the Christmas pageant in all its tinseled glory.  But not today.

Three Sundays ago I sat behind my mother in her hospital bed, holding her head so she could breathe.  She could not talk to me.  I think I heard her voice for the last time on November 24th.  She died in the wee hours of November 26, in the arms of a young woman who loved her but not in mine.  I have put that into a mental file of things I’ll think about someday.

I find myself putting the tragedy at Sandy Hook into that same category.  If I need to sort it out in my own mind, someday I will.  I watch people on Facebook pile that grief onto themselves, as if that helps, and think about how we have shrunk God to some impotent little feel-good deity who watches as helplessly as we do, when awful things happen.

I do not believe in that god.

What I do believe is that we are truly free moral agents.  We can choose to do right things or wrong things, and God has chosen not to stop us.  Anyone who thinks that’s not fair should try living in a cage for a while, because that’s what not having free will is.  But we have it, and the price we pay for having it is, and always will be, the suffering of the innocent.  This is the rot at the core of the apple, the dark stain on the soul of humanity, the thing that kills us as surely as a bullet from a madman.

We choose.

Badly.  Well.  We do the best we can, and it is not good enough.  We cry out to God to fix the madmen and the politicians and the broken hearts, and we miss the point, the reason we need God in the first place, the reason Christianity isn’t just another religion in a crowd of religions.  Guilt and grief don’t just go away.  Someone has to fix the soul, not the circumstances.  Alone among religions, Christianity puts the burden of that repair on the deity, where it belongs.

A strong person who makes a weak one do all the work is a bully.  God is not that.  God did all the work and said, “Here.  Take my teaching; it’s easy, and the burden is light.”  God did not say this so that we could live happy-shiny lives with no pain or suffering, but so that the rot at our cores can be cleaned away, and we can live with the consequences of our choices, and other people’s choices, without wacking out.

People who dismiss God as some kind of divine nut job who could prevent tragedy but doesn’t, have missed the point.  Santa Claus is the one who delivers all the presents; God is the one who meets the need – God alone has the ability to redeem the bad choices, to help us forgive ourselves and other people.  God has done everything God can do to teach us how to live, but God will not force us to live that way, or to accept forgiveness or to give it.  What God will do is give grace we don’t deserve, over and over and over.

Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person; it’s just the last thing.  The worst thing that can happen is living in the dark stain of anger, fear, hatred, self-loathing, ignorance . . . all those wrong choices that pile up on us an suffocate our souls.

Sometimes, I won’t tell my nephew, you have to sit alone in your dining room and sort that stuff out in your own mind.

Some Old Thoughts on an Old Topic

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, because my life keeps getting in the way.   My best intentions fade, not in the face of busy-ness, but in the face of my own unwillingness to speak; it’s been a hard month, mostly because of things I have zero control over.  None.

So tonight, I was digging around in some old computer files looking for something called an Assessment Form.  (Don’t ask.)  What I found was an essay I wrote in April of 1999, when I was also knotted up by things I have zero control over.  Here is that essay.  My children are grown, but it’s still relevant, I think.


What I Learned in Third Grade

 Scattered over the floor of my car, right now, are six math homework sheets with smiley stickers, two soccer balls, a set of roller-blades and pads, a language arts workbook, and, oh yes, a copy of a “Notice to Parents” from my son’s third grade teacher.  Northwood Elementary, the notice tells me, will have an “Intruder Drill” on Thursday.  “Please prepare your child.”

Please prepare.

Eleven years ago my  husband and I left Hampton Roads, with its 2.5 million inhabitants, for rural Southwest Virginia.  Drive-by shootings in our city were so common that they never made the paper’s front page, or got any mention at all on the evening news. Our house was burglarized twice, once while we were inside it.  One of our friends’ sons was expelled from school for acting as a go-between in a drug deal.  He was ten.   The schools, churches, synagogues, gymnasiums, libraries, even the malls, bristled with metal detectors, armed security guards and paranoia.

Most people we knew, including us, invested a lot of money in security systems, and even then the madness leaked in around the sealed windows and under the deadbolted doors.  I never napped outside in the hammock, and the girls did not play alone in the yard.  Sometimes there were particularly bad nights when I would hear gunfire in the housing project behind our back fence, nights when my husband was working, putting the people in front of the bullets back together.  I would stand in the window of my darkened room, watching the shadows with a pounding heart, while my children slept under their Pooh mobile, I as helpless as they.

Your child.

We vowed to ourselves that our baby daughters, snuggly, cheerful two-year-olds, would not grow up in this world, even if it meant a smaller school system, longer drives to live theater and museums, the unavailability of some very good things.  And so we left, came home to Appalachia where shootings mostly apply to deer and turkeys.  We knew we were buying some time.

We bought eleven years.  Now, the fear of the madness, if not the madness itself, has caught up with us.  Intruder drill.

How do you prepare your child for the threat of violent death?  Why should you have to?  Can we lock enough doors, huddle in enough corners, detect enough metal or arm ourselves enough to ever feel completely safe?

It is the day after the tragedy in Littleton, CO, and my children are playing with other kids in a park across town.  It was very hard to let them go; I felt like a careless parent. They kissed me in the preoccupied way of children going off to have a good time, and they were gone.  Now I sit on the edge of my herb garden, ostensibly pulling weeds, but really listening for shots, sirens, sorrow.  It is not a satisfactory pursuit.  Eleven years later, I am still helpless.  It occurs to me, not for the first time, that I will always be helpless, and, wracked by the tension between love and helplessness, I pick up the cat and go inside.  There is nothing to listen for.

I asked my son, who, at eight, has never lived anywhere but the mountains, what an intruder drill was and how he felt about it.

“We go into the corner and lock the door,” he said, nonchalantly.  ”Mr. Reed comes around and checks to see if he can spot us.  If he doesn’t see anybody, we get ice cream.”

Treats.  For successfully hiding from someone who wants to kill you.  I wait for Chip to tell me how he feels about this, but he has launched into a long description of Josh’s abilities at kickball.  This is all the preparation for the intruder drill that he is going to get.  I tell myself that the drill is a fad, a modern version of the bomb drills of the 1960’s.  But my brain still plays the footage of running teenagers, frantic parents, sobbing friends and relatives.  Every morning, after my kids have left the car and gone chatting into their respective schools, I find myself biting back tears.  I spent eleven years feeling secure and in control; now I wonder, every single morning, if I will get my children back.

After a week or so of this I can’t help but wonder if I’m not drawing the wrong conclusion here.  The response of my white, middle-class, suburban culture has been to have intruder drills, to install metal detectors, to do all those things that didn’t work in Hampton Roads in 1988 and are not going to work now.  Helplessness and paranoia are suffocating me, my children, their friends.  The message is not, it seems to me, to batten down the hatches still further.  There is no riding this one out.  It is never going to stop.  I am never going to be anything but helpless, and by extension, the schools, the town, the county, the Authorities, whoever they are, are stuck in helplessness, too.

This is a lesson that cancer survivors, AIDS patients, residents of war zones and other sufferers learn far more quickly than we comfortable people:  we are not in control of anything.  God may be in control of things, but we are so far incapable of understanding what that means that we might as well accept our inability to manipulate events.

Far from dumping us into despair, however, our helplessness teaches us something valuable, which may be why we have it.  Every moment is precious.  It sounds so stupid, so trite, so much like a banal motivational poster.  I hate the very insipid-ness of it, the same way I hate Precious Moments statuettes and cards with kittens on them.  I don’t believe for an instant that the world is simple or reductive.  But.  We read stories to our son every night and snuggle in our bedroom chair, thankful for the pressure of his warm, healthy body.  I braid my daughters’ hair and laugh at their jokes and let them wear my shoes.  We write letters, go out with our friends, throw open our rarely-locked doors.  Here, we have learned to say, is another day not wasted.  Precisely because we are helpless, the world should be echoing, reverberating with “I love you.  I love you.”

When the fateful day arrives, I ask Chip how the intruder drill went.  He bursts into uncontrollable laughter, dribbling peanut-butter cookie down his chin.

“Whitney and DeMarcus and I hid in the back corner of the closet, all squeezed up in there.  We were telling jokes and laughing and DeMarcus farted and, Mom, I thought we were gonna die.”


Well, tomorrow’s the Big Day.  I go into the hospital with all my original parts, and come out in a few days with some new ones.  And the question that’s weighing on my mind today is:  (drumroll, please) What do they do with the old parts?

I mean, can I have the head of my own femur to use as a paperweight or something?  It’s my femur, right?  I brought it to the hospital with me, so I should be allowed to take it home, albeit in a hazmat bag.

I have lots of plans for this bone.  I could put it in a shadowbox and create a little bone-fragment diorama.  I could make it into some amazing Goth jewelry.  I could polish it up and turn it into a family heirloom, so that generations yet unborn can have an actual bit of great-great-great-grandma to lose when they move to the moon.

Lest you think this is macabre, let me remind you that the habit of hanging onto bits of people is a time-honored practice.  In fact, it’s one that has fascinated, amused, and horrified me all at the same time, ever since I learned about reliquaries and what they contain.  Practitioners of many religions, Christianity and Buddhism among them, have long treasured bits of people, often encasing these bits in ornate, portable containers called reliquaries.  While I would never dream of putting myself in the “saint” category (and people would be lining up to remove me from it in any case,) I think the reliquary idea could be a winner.

As early as the first century, AD, Christians started squabbling over the bodies of the Apostles.  Italians stole (yes, you read that correctly) the body of St. Mark from Alexandria, so they could rebury him in the basilica San Marcos in Venice.  (Recently the Venetians sent Egypt a finger bone as a token of good will, which adds a new and disturbing meaning to “giving the finger.”)  A thousand or so years later, residents of Canterbury were dipping bits of Thomas Becket’s robes in his own warm blood for their reliquary value, and he wasn’t even a saint yet, having been dead for about five minutes.  Few other saints got to rest in peace, as their bones were divvied up by opportunists and shipped to various churches.  In fact, there have been so many of these dispersions that, at last count, St. Theresa of Avila must have had 47 ribs and 153 teeth.  Buddha also scattered teeth all over Asia.  Several saints had up to nine arms each, and in the late Middle Ages, there were enough shards of the True Cross around to build a large hut.

The unreliable provenance of these relics, not to mention the un-biblical veneration they got, was one of Martin Luther’s triggers for the Reformation.  People’s credulous acceptance of, say, St. Peter’s tibia, or bits of St. Andrew’s skull really got on his nerves, particularly since most of the apostles were martyred by people not likely to hang on to a bit for the possible resale value.  Some of them were buried in about five graves.  Luther also cast reasonable doubt on the Genuine Burning Bush Branches, the  fibers from Mary’s veil, and the nightmarish collection of foreskins. One of the more unstable French kings paid nearly half his kingdom for the purportedly original Crown of Thorns, somehow intact after nearly 13 centuries.

Saints and martyrs are not the only people to spread relics around. Several specimens of European royalty had bits of themselves interred in various locations, perhaps as a way of reminding the populace that the king was still with them.  Communists, for reasons best explored by psychologists and from a long way off, like to keep whole leaders under glass.  Lenin and Mao have been on display for decades, and there is an entire profession of people making sure that they stay presentable, which is something to think about the next time you decide you hate your job.

Anyway, all I want is my own relic, which I promise to treat in a tasteful manner, like some of these.  Further bulletins as events warrant.

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