Sunday, January 31, 2010

Alabama part 2: The Word

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14

One thing I have learned in my journey into the wild is that relationships begun and largely maintained over the internet can be profoundly encouraging and healing. I've also had the privilege of learning that when you finally get to spend time face to face, it will add new and wonderful dimensions to your understanding and experience of the person, no matter how well you thought you knew them from a geographical distance. If I had to name the main impression I got from Huntsville, it was "The Word becoming flesh looks like this."

In “The Shack,” the story tells of Mack’s painful history in his relationship with his earthly father. Wounds like this can truly take a lifetime to heal, and perhaps even then some, as portrayed with Mack’s father later in the book. I laughed when I read that “Papa” Father God was a big black woman cooking dinner in the kitchen when Mack arrived at the shack. This portrayal caused so much controversy, yet I understood it instantly. This was the flesh that Mack needed to see at the time. He couldn’t handle a father. He needed to see someone who looked safe, who was warm and inviting.

I stared at the email as if it was going to bite me. “Call me anytime if you want to talk. I’d love to hear from you.” I had enjoyed emailing with her for a couple of months now, but I knew what happened when you opened your heart to a new friend. I replied that I was sorry, but just coming out of a new ‘friendship’ badly burned and couldn’t find the courage. She didn’t seem put off, she was very kind and understanding.

When I finally got to meet Aida face to face a couple of weeks ago, I thought she looked like an angel (who came up with the idea that they have blonde hair and blue eyes?). The curly hair she complains about in damp weather was snowy white and in perfect soft waves. Her warm brown eyes and dark complexion reminded me of my oldest friend, the only one from years past who has stuck around over time. She is also very warm and friendly, also small and dark-skinned with warm brown eyes. It was like Father was trying to show me, I am safe and kind. I am a friend you can count on, I won’t leave you either. This is what safe and kind looks like.

Aida has commented about the love shared during our weekend in Huntsville. I have thought about what was unique about it. Really, I think the absence of manipulation and self-serving agenda is a primary factor in any group (or pair) of Christians being able to enjoy a real atmosphere of love. Aida has let me know on many occasions that she trusts me to grow, to make good decisions, to do the right thing. She doesn’t want to fix me, she wants to be my friend. Safe and kind is allowing others to be themselves; love trusts.

For years I imagined I needed a spiritual 'mother' in my life. But perhaps, Father is telling me I’m no longer a child, that he trusts me to be an adult. That what I need most is sisters, such as this older sister who is patient and kind, advise me when asked, but never tries to lord over me or make me feel like a child.

“Call me. Here’s my number,” said the email. I looked at it with the same suspicion as if it had said, “You’ve won the sweepstakes! Call this toll free number now!” Why would this “man of God” want to talk to me? Didn’t he have more important things to do? I emailed him back instead, and the reply came back, “Call me. Let’s talk.”

I understand all too well how Mack must have felt about his father. The words ‘safe’ and ‘father’ still don’t feel like they belong in the same sentence. I think Father decided he needed to start me off with a brother. Someone not quite so intimidating, a relationship that doesn’t feel impossibly unsafe.

I still find it uncanny how much Darin reminds me of my earthly brother, and yet he doesn’t. The reminders are there – the sense of humor, the restlessness, the mischievous grin, the adventurous spirit. Yet there is so much difference – Darin’s kindness, his focus on others, his ability to really listen.

Women need men in their family, brothers and fathers and others. Father knew it would take someone unique to get through to me. Someone who would give his phone number to a woman halfway across the country, simply because he wanted to be a friend. Someone who was concerned with reaching out in love, rather than maintaining religious appearances. Someone I could look at and think, “He truly is my brother.” It’s like Father is saying, you are important to me. Brothers and fathers can be safe and kind. This is a good place to start.

Family is not just supposed to be about rituals with people you’re related to by birth. Nor is it supposed to be about rituals with people you go to the same building with on Sundays and Wednesdays, and say “Hey Brother” as a generic catch-phrase of greeting. It’s a sacred word that I hope to have the privilege of fully living out in this lifetime.

Monday, January 25, 2010

An interim thought: Children

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. “

Matthew 18:2-3

I have always found it interesting that Jesus said this, since most little children can’t read. However, my experience inside of our culture’s Christianity largely consisted of ‘wrestling’ constantly to make myself read and understand the Bible.

Reading a book about someone I didn’t really know was overwhelming. When you throw in a few confusing and misleading translations, numerous conflicting ideas about what this or that passage really means, and mix it together with people who think they’ve been put on earth to set everyone else’s Bible doctrine straight or declare them to be destined for a really hot place, well - somehow the above Matthew verse never made much sense to me.

I spent years agonizing over the Bible, trying to understand it, and trying to get someone to explain it to me in a way that would help me grow spiritually as promised. Sometimes, the offered explanations further confused and scared me half to death. Things only grew worse over the years, the more I tried. The final blow came when I read a book written by a master of Scripture Twister. After that, the only reason I had any desire to remain a Christian at all was, hopefully, to keep from going to hell. I was a lot more like a 39 year old basket case than a trusting little child at that point.

These days, I find myself asking my heavenly Father to help me see what a daughter looks like in his eyes. To understand what it is like to be like a little child, in his arms, safe and loved forever.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Alabama part 1: The Experience

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Jesus, John 13:34

I was privileged to spend a weekend recently in Huntsville, Alabama, with some great folks, a couple who have been dear journey mate friends for over two years. Trying to describe the blessing of this weekend is hard to do. I decided to write a series of contrasts between some of the discouraging times in organized church, and a few snapshot moments of our weekend in Huntsville, as follows:

“That’s too far to drive. Why don’t we just meet somewhere in town?” was the reply I got after inviting a new acquaintance to my home for lunch and fellowship. This woman lives about 45 minutes away from me. And of course, there are the old friends from a city 3 hours away who are still ‘going’ to come and visit. None of them have showed up yet. Gas prices, you know.

Two women plotted for weeks on how they were going to work this out. Their friendship had grown and blossomed despite several hundred miles that separated them. One plan had fallen through, so they’d just make another one. After a flurry of emails and changes of plans that were beyond their control, it was finally time to pack their bags. They each drove eight hours to meet in the middle, their eagerness at being together making the miles fly by.

I went to church like I thought I was supposed to, faithfully, every week and sometimes twice or even three times a week, for years. The same people were there each week. Some of them ignored me altogether, others were ‘glad’ to see me if they wanted something. A few were genuinely kind and pleasant, giving me a hug of greeting, before rushing off to do their duty for the church, whatever it was that day.

The kitchen was filled with the sound of two women screaming for joy as they threw their arms around each other, laughing and crying. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s really you,” says one of the women through her tears as they cling to each other for a long moment. Then dancing for joy, they shouted gleefully, “We did it! We did it! We’re here! Yaaaayyyy!”

When my family was first saved years ago, we were told by the church we were attending that fellowship was most important. The way to have the ‘right’ kind of fellowship was to faithfully attend the home group meetings, Bible studies, and other church functions. One thing I remember about this time is the generic greeting from some of the people we saw all the time, of “hi, boys” to my two sons, close in age. Keeping their names straight must have been too much trouble, although I repeated them numerous times.

A man is talking to two teenage boys about their interests. After only one weekend of spending some time around my boys, this man tells their mom how light-years beyond most teenagers they are. They are great teens, and yet, it doesn’t really take a lot of intentional notice to see their special qualities. It just takes a few minutes here and there of choosing to listen. Knowing how to listen is one of the greatest gifts one person can give another.

“We have a great children’s program!” is one of the favorite tag lines of up-and-growing organized churches. This is code for “We have a place for you to drop your children off so they won’t bother you or anybody else during the worship service. After all, their little peeps and coos might distract the worship team from focusing on the Holy Spirit, or the pastor from delivering his sermon.

A beautiful lady with curly white hair is holding a little girl she just met. She tells her how beautiful she is and gives her a hug. Later, the man who was talking to the teen boys takes this little girl in his arms and gives her a hug. He winks as he tells the girl’s mom that he’ll take her any time Mom wants to trade kids.

I remember a typical home group meeting at our first church, everyone sitting there trying to look spiritual. It was usually very quiet except for the home group leader droning on with his Bible lesson, pausing here and there and asking if anyone had any comments. A couple of people’s eyes were often drifting shut, but they would snap to attention and put the ‘serious spiritual’ looks back on their faces. Someone might sneak a glance at his watch. A toddler might escape crying from child care in the other room, and the mother would jump up and whisk him out of the room lest the lesson be disturbed.

“I love the art work on your walls,” says a woman to the hostess. The guest is then treated to a tour of some of the paintings, each with a story. They walk past a man and woman in animated conversation, two teen boys waxing enthusiastic about their sports to a listener, and a little girl happily chasing a big girl through the other room. The woman’s husband, normally not a social guy, is talking animatedly with someone he just met. Normally this couple is eager to get out of these ‘home group’ meetings. Tonight the evening ends all too soon.

“I’m going to go wait in the car,” I snapped to my husband on more than one occasion when trying to get out of the building after Sunday morning church. He would be busy picking up scattered bulletins from the floor as part of his usher duties. My children, holding a wad of Sunday school papers, treasure chest toys, and lollipops, would be whining, “Mommy, I’m hungry.” Swirls of chatting people would be moving around us like we were a rock in a rushing stream, passed over just as swiftly and casually. We’d make our way through the crowd to the door, then through the parking lot virtually unnoticed.

“I have an idea,” says a man with a kind smile. “Let’s just give each other a hug, say goodbye, and leave.” So with tears in their eyes, the women give brief and final hugs to each other and him, climb into their cars and leave. It is about time, they have been saying goodbye, smiling through tears, for 20 minutes.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now abide in my love. If you obey my commands, you will abide in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and abide in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

John 15:9-11

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


One of my favorite heart books is “Divine Nobodies” by Jim Palmer. Two and a half years into my journey outside of organized religion, it remains among my very few favorites.

For those who haven’t read it, the book is divided into chapters drawing spiritual journey parallels with personal experiences and folks in Jim’s life. One of these ‘folks’ is Laddie, although Laddie had fur and four legs.

“The Black Hole of Intimacy: Laddie the Dog” was the hardest chapter for me to read because it was so sad. The theme of this chapter was Jim’s struggle with depression.

Laddie the dog was Jim’s childhood friend. Jim rescued Laddie from his abusive older brother’s neglect and harsh treatment, and began to care for Laddie himself. The two of them helped fill the empty spaces of hurt and loneliness in each other. Jim wrote, “Laddie and I arrived at a certain understanding: we needed each other if we were going to make it.”

When Jim’s family had to move to an apartment, his mother informed him that Laddie was going to have to go to a new home. I could hardly read the description of Jim and his sister going to leave Laddie behind in a new home. Such loss from separation from someone you love is truly a bottomless pit, in and of itself. It can seem that God simply isn’t big enough to compensate for how deep the pain goes.

As Jim so eloquently said in this chapter, “I have not easily let go of the secret hope that somehow it could all be magically erased or made right or the wishful expectation that someone or something could compensate for the sadness.” I know this feeling all too well myself.

Many years have passed since this time in Jim’s life, and almost three years have passed since I read Jim’s story of himself and Laddie. I remember at the time thinking I wish that there was some answer to these awful, unfair situations that seem like they’re nothing but a black hole of sadness that has made a permanent home inside a human heart.

Meanwhile, last month I found myself coping with feelings of emptiness and loneliness with a few too many boxes of chocolate covered cherries and viewings of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” This is a long season of no close local relationships in our lives, and the desire to reach out and really make a difference in someone else's life was eating at me day and night.

I suppressed a tired sigh as we rumbled down the road toward a relative’s house for an annual obligatory Christmastime visit. This one was particularly uncomfortable, someone who I never knew how to talk to and wasn’t ever really sure whether they even want us to come visit. Visits with these relatives usually consist of hours of sitting and chatting sporadically as a TV blares in the background, and this one was no different, but for one thing. As we turned into the drive, I noticed a young black Labrador Retriever lying in a bare spot on the snowy, soggy front yard.

The little guy got up and wagged his tail as we got out of the car. We patted him, being dog lovers. As I scratched behind his ears, he plastered himself to me and groaned in a way that caught my attention. His groan was so desperate – hungry for food, for warmth, and most of all, for attention and love. I noticed how thin he was. He seemed to say, Please, please help me. Please love me.

We asked the relatives about him, and they offhandedly replied that he was a stray who had wandered into the yard and they were planning to take him to the animal shelter tomorrow. We started to eat lunch when the ASPCA commercial with Sarah McLoughlin came on TV. I put my plate down and tried not to cry. I saw my son do the same.

I went outside in the cold and sat with the dog hungrily nuzzling my lap. Then I thought of my longing to make a difference to someone. I knew what we were going to do. We decided that that someone this Christmas was this sad-faced little dog, with his fuzzy puppy face and skinny ribs sticking out of his poor shivering body. When it was time to go, we put him in the van and started on the long drive home.

We realized that doggie might go to the bathroom on the car floor, so we stopped at a store to get a plastic cloth for him to lie on. As we tried to urge him to move so that we could spread out the cloth, he cried and trembled all over from head to toe, like Wile E. Coyote after taking an “Earthquake Pill.” We realized that he was afraid we were going to dump him out in the parking lot and leave him there. This was probably how he had ended up abandoned the first time.

I stroked his trembling body, and told him through tears, “No one is going to hurt you. No one is going to leave you. You’re safe with us. We’re going home now.” We all petted him and talked to him, and he soon went to sleep on the floor of the van and didn’t make a peep the rest of the way home. He is truly an amazing little guy. As many whining, yelping, blow-outs-from-both-ends episodes as I’ve had taking our other pets to the vet over the years, five hours in the car without a hitch with a scared young pup was more than a small miracle.

The picture at the top is our new furry friend. He is fed, he is comfortable. Already the sinkholes behind his ribs have almost disappeared. He has new furry friends to play with (my other dogs). He has humans who pet him, romp with him and scratch behind the ears where he can’t quite reach well enough. He has room to roam and run, a dog’s paradise. He is no longer abandoned, no longer without a name, no longer without a home.

Although he is young, he is like an old dog in some ways. He is gentle and wise, thoughtful and melancholy. He sits for long stretches and is clearly in deep thought. I think he remembers what life was like before, and is able to ponder where he is now, and be glad. He once was lost, and now is found.

I called to make a vet appointment for him the next morning. The receptionist asked the dog’s name, and it came to me instantly.

“Laddie,” I said. “His name is Laddie.”