This Thanksgiving, I’m reminded again of Helen at the assisted living center who regularly tells me she hates her life and wants to die.
From a pragmatic standpoint, it doesn’t really help that Helen doesn’t believe in a God who loves her- a God, in short, to Whom one might give thanks.
Recently, though, Helen has taken to following my advice (which is amazing in itself, because my own children only rarely do this- take my advice, that is).
Every day now, as she heads to bed, Helen compiles a list of five things she’s thankful for in the preceding day.
At first, this discipline was gruesomely painstaking.
When I checked in with Helen after a week of her trying this out, just to see how the whole thankfulness thing was working, she read me her list as if it were her own one-line obituary and she had a bad case of amnesia. At one point, she broke down sobbing, clasping her face in her hands, and moaned, “I hate my life!”
I’ve been there. Maybe you have, too.
Helen’s reading went something like this:
“Monday: Grateful for my room, the food here, “Golden Girls,” sleep, ?”
“Tuesday: Grateful for my room, the food here, “Golden Girls,” sleep, ?”
“Wednesday: Grateful for my room, the food here, “Golden Girls,” sleep, ?”
By now you’re catching my drift: Helen was miserable.
We decided she would work on making her thankful list more specific. Instead of “food,” why not include the actual textures and tastes of her favorite dish? Instead of “room,” why not notice the feelings of “home” and the sounds of “aloneness” that comfort her?
The last time I saw Helen, she was doing better. She was still making her daily thankful list. This time, though, Helen was laughing. She even thanked me with genuine gratitude for my prayers. (On past occasions my mention of anything “religious” would elicit only a bitter guffaw.)
No perfect ending here, mind you. Helen, like many of us probably, struggles with the recurring dreariness and darkness of this world and her own brokenness. Her lament is one of having made mistakes that now in her twilight years she cannot fix or undo and often regrets.
Still, Helen, like all of us, is very much a work in progress; and in the blooming of her gratitude, she is, I believe, on a path that leads to God.
This Thanksgiving my husband and I have been making our lists, paging through old Bon Appetit magazines, madly preparing, as many of you, for a big feast. But I’ve decided to make a different list. A thankful list. And here it is:
Today I’m thankful for:
- the love of neighbors with whom to celebrate this day
- a genuinely good man with whom to share these past seventeen years of my life, who, in addition to being the dad who coaches his son’s soccer team, actually enjoys cooking the Thanksgiving dinner and makes a damn-good turkey (Confession: I’ve never made a turkey.)
- two children who hold me accountable to be a better person
- the changing colors of fall outside my window as I write this
- simply being alive, stomach bug and all
What’s your thankful list? Care to share it? And, Happy Thanksgiving, by the way!
By way of an addendum to my recent review of the new James Bond flick, fellow saint and sinner Michael Frost has shared a wonderful resource: The Ultimate James Bond Fansite. If you’ve ever entertained the notion of being one of Bond’s arch-villains or femme fatales, you’ll find your favorites here. (For me it’s a tough call between Honey Ryder and Tanya Romanova.)
(Incidentally, on another note, can anyone point me to the Lord Tennyson poem that Judy Dench’s character, “M,” quotes towards the end of the movie?)
If you’re another restless soul looking for the More that we haven’t found in our churches- more direction, more truth, more life and more community- then I think you’ll like our next series, “The Visual Word,” which will feature photos and Scriptural reflections by fellow saint and sinner Katie Archibald-Woodward, as she encounters God in the natural world and in her own comings and goings and restless peregrinations.
I had the privilege of meeting Katie in, of all places, church, (Kairos Church here in Atlanta), and she’s one of these people who lights up a room. We discovered in our last conversation that we grew up only minutes away from one another in the otherwise unmemorable but endearing suburbs of southern California. You’ll get to know Katie better next week when our series starts, but in the meantime you can find her blogging here.
Yesterday’s traveling companion home was the last chapter of Parker Palmer’s gem of a book, A Hidden Wholeness. (It has convinced me that in another life I could become a Quaker.) Palmer concludes his final chapter with a poem by Mary Oliver, titled “When Death Comes”:
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility.
and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular;
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews would caution that this world is not our home- that in a sense we are only visitors. I suspect he or she is right in at least one sense- a hunger for eternity, for true and unending life with God, is the source of our wanderlust in this sad, beautiful world which is passing away. But, Oliver is also right: if we are to find our own souls- that “hidden wholeness” to which Palmer gives voice- we must be more than visitors here; our sojourn on this earth is like that of a bride taking the world into her arms, and loving it passionately, without guile.
How will we live today to show that we are more than only mere visitors to this world? Leave your answers below.
If you don’t hear from me for the next few days, it’s because I’ll be in Chicago, Illinois for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. If you’re not familiar with AAR, it’s a very large gathering of academics, authors, their student followers, and wannabe academics and authors, all scurrying around to various lectures discussing obscure theological ideas, using big, strange words, and trying to sound smart and relevant. (Just think your own insecurities on steroids.)
I’ll be there to meet publishers, and my book hook and elevator pitch for Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls are finally ready.
One restless soul on life’s open road discovers rear-bumper grace.
Here’s the pitch, and please don’t hesitate to tell me what you think:
“Grace Sticks” is both a spiritual memoir and theological travel guide for other “restless souls” looking for more direction, more truth, and more life. I invite my readers to reflect on how the bumper stickers they affix to their cars or entertain at traffic lights are themselves spiritual aspirations of sorts- ones which ultimately point us in the direction of the One who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In our journey, with bumper stickers as pit stops, readers will laugh, cry, be provoked and be inspired to look for God in the most seemingly frivolous and unlikely of places. They’ll also discover there’s as much grace to be found in the journeying itself as in the end destination.
Believe it or not, the process of crafting a book hook and pitch was actually a helpful spiritual discipline, in that it obliged me to whittle away the non-essentials to the main point, the point being what my life up until this juncture has been really about.
You don’t have to be a writer or aspiring author to do this sort of thing.
So…what one sentence defines your life’s journey? What would you most want to communicate to others about your life and what it has come to mean to you? Does God make it into your sentence? Why or why not? Leave your sentences below!
The skeleton at the beauty parlor is retiring.
I heard the news just the other day.
Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the neighbors who every year at Halloween brush off that funny, old ensemble, positioning it strategically near the sidewalk for the viewing pleasure of all passersby, is retiring. Maybe the tradition just became too clunky and burdensome- much like the things we do in our churches when we stop understanding why we do them.
As farewell to the skeleton at the beauty parlor who has inspired me, here is the piece I wrote last year. May your golden years be bright, whether lived out at the local dump or on another otherwise ordinary yard somewhere in downtown Atlanta.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann calls the church a story-telling fellowship, as Tom Long notes in The Witness of Preaching. The church does not tell just any old story. The church tells “the story of Christ, and its own story with that story, because its own existence, fellowship and activity spring from that story of liberation.” This “story-telling fellowship…continually wins its own freedom from the stories and myths of the society in which it lives, from the present realization of this story of Christ.”
Moltmann’s words have me wondering whether one true litmus test for freedom is our capacity to share our own story- not just any old story, but the story about where we in our lives have personally encountered God’s grace and acceptance. All of us have stories, after all. How we share them, and whether we do, is the question.
Maybe it really is in the sharing of our stories that we “win our freedom,” to borrow Moltmann’s expression.
One story that recently moved me comes from the memoir of Mary Ann Bird. In The Whisper Test, Bird tells the story of how she met Jesus in the kindness of a teacher. Bird’s story, below, is reproduced verbatim from Leonard Sweet’s Strong in the Broken Places: A Theological Reverie on the Ministry of George Everett Ross, and I’m grateful to Tom Long for introducing me to Sweet’s work and Bird’s story:
[Mary Ann]…was born with multiple birth defects: deaf in one ear, a cleft palate, a disfigured face, crooked nose, lopsided feet. As a child, Mary Ann suffered not only the physical impairments but also the emotional damage inflicted by other children. “Oh Mary Ann,” her classmates would say, “What happened to your lip?”
“I cut it on a piece of glass,” she would lie.
One of the worst experiences at school, she reported, was the day of the annual hearing test. The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would whisper something to the child like “the sky is blue” or “you have new shoes.” This was “the whisper test.” If the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test. To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she could still hear what the teacher said.
One year Mary Ann was in the class of Miss Leonard, one of the most beloved teachers in the school. Every student, including Mary Ann, wanted to be noticed by her, wanted to be her pet. Then came the day of the dreaded hearing test. When her turn came, Mary Ann was called to the teacher’s desk. As Mary Ann cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper. “I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say, “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” What she whispered was “I wish you were my little girl.” Mary Ann went on to become a teacher herself, a person of inner beauty and great kindness.
Can you think of a time in your life when God metaphorically leaned into your ear and whispered God’s words of acceptance? How did it change you? You can send your stories to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll republish them with your permission. Or, leave one below in the comments section.
Louis CK once again has me laughing, this time with his rendition of Abe Lincoln on last week’s “Saturday Night Live.” If you missed the clip, here it is again. (Be forewarned: in typical Louis CK fashion, there is a good amount of explicit language.)
With respect to the many awkward conversations Abe has with slave owners- many of whom, I would add, use the Bible to rationalize their lifestyle- Abe says, “I just kinda think that owning a person is not cool, you stupid d_k.”
I’ll be curious to see if Daniel Day Lewis does a better job inhabiting Lincoln in Spielberg’s new flick. Incidentally, I caught a wonderful interview of Daniel Day Lewis with NPR’s Melissa Block the other day. (You can read the highlights from that interview here.)
Daniel Day Lewis had this to say about the process of finding and crafting a voice for Lincoln: “At a certain moment I choose to believe [that it’s a good approximation] because I need to believe. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no element of doubt lurking there.”
Maybe something similar could be said of the process of giving voice to Jesus in our own disparate lives.
Like Lincoln, Jesus has been so “mythologized…and therefore dehumanized,” to borrow Daniel Day Lewis’ description of his work to humanize Lincoln. Maybe we, too, must each do our own work of sifting through the clutter to hear what Jesus says to us about who He is- about how He wishes us to embody Him.
Maybe at a certain moment we, too, must choose to believe that our best approximation of Jesus is what Jesus would have wanted for us.
Maybe we, too, do this because we must.
And, maybe it is precisely at this moment that our “acting” stops and our real “becoming” like Jesus begins.
Last night’s premiere of the new James Bond movie, “Skyfall,” was a sensation.
The grand narrative of good versus evil unfolded in a quick-paced, suspense-filled string of high-speed car chases, jaw-dropping stunts, and gratuitous destruction.
And, all the traditional eye candy was there again.
An older, dashing, chiseled and sufficiently “naughty” Daniel Craig, whose dry, understated humor kept me chuckling, seethed with raw, unruffled masculinity- especially when the villains destroyed his car. (You guessed it: it was an Aston Martin.) Bond’s “girl” as usual seemed the perfect blend of beauty, mystery, provocation and fragility. My only disappointment was that yet again James seems to have lost his taste for blondes. (What happened, James?)
And then there was the arch villain who brimmed with evil concoctions, but with just a hint of humanity to make him funny. Javier Bardem skillfully plays Raoul Silva, a washed-out former agent with a perverse compulsion for revenge against his former boss, M.
What I wasn’t expecting from Bond was a theological sound byte. In Bond’s first and only real conversation with arch-enemy Silva, Silva asks, “What is your hobby, Mr. Bond?”
Bond replies, “My hobby…is resurrection.”
The statement is apropos in light of the plot, which I won’t give away. But it is also, I think, a wonderful way to encapsulate what Christianity, (and therefore, hopefully, the Christian), is all about.
Our hobby is resurrection, too.
If only it came with all the other sexy perks of a Bond flick, also.
Here at the intersection between life and God, author Sandy Ralya recently wrote a kind response to my original review of her book, The Beautiful Wife. (Thank you, Sandy!)
Where I question Ralya’s challenge to Christian couples to have more children in response to the specter of a growing Muslim world, especially for the reason that parenting these days still largely falls on the shoulders of mothers, Ralya writes the following: “As I instruct my readers in chapter 1 of The Beautiful Wife, it’s critical to approach each chapter discussed with the following guidelines: 1. Turn to God 2. Understand your role 3. Share within a community. As it pertains to our decisions regarding whether or not to limit family size, I encourage women to consult, rather than ignore God as I did, in decisions regarding fruitfulness and multiplication. On the one hand, I can appreciate your reaction when I inserted a reference to a growing Muslim population in connection with God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. On the other hand, it was a big reaction. When my reaction to someone or something hits a proverbial nerve, I ask myself why and invite God into the conversation. Are you afraid to trust God with this decision?”
In reply to Ralya’s question, I essentially answer, “Yes, I probably am afraid”- “yes,” that is, if “being afraid to trust God with a decision about having (more) children” equates with practicing birth control or committing to a vocation while already rearing two children to the best of my abilities.
The admonition, “be not afraid” or “do not worry,” happens over and over again in Scripture, with the implication that fear or anxiety do not come from God. But the admonition is also not attached to a conversation about family planning! In Jesus’ defining manifesto about the kingdom of God- his so-called “Sermon on the Mount”- Jesus urges us not to worry about what we will eat or drink or wear. He could have added, “And don’t worry about how many children you have,” or if the condom breaks, or if you miss a day of those little blue pills.
But, seriously, I’m not sure that all fear need be an inherently bad thing. Sometimes our fears (insofar as they don’t overwhelm or paralyze us) can help to inform wise decision-making. If I am fearful of walking alone down a poorly lit street at midnight in my neighborhood of downtown Atlanta, that fear should be something I listen to. If I am “afraid” of bringing a third child into my already chaotic life of mothering two children and shouldering the responsibilities of my vocation, is that “fear” really a bad thing insofar as it attunes me to my own limits? I don’t think so.
That said, if by Ralya’s own logic, fear is inherently a problem, because it can keep us from trusting God with our reproductive decisions, then fear of a world in which Muslims outnumber Christians can also keep us from trusting God- in this case, by having more children.
But what do you think here? Does Ralya have a point? Am I being unreasonable?
My suspicions, per yesterday’s post, appear correct: evangelicals remain by and large much in love with the Republican party. In fact, they voted for a Mormon candidate, Romney, at the same, high levels of enthusiastic support that they showed in support of their evangelical co-religionist, George W. Bush, in the 1990’s.
At his blog, “Spiritual Politics,” Trinity College Professor of Religion and Public Life Mark Silk has provided a helpful summary of the results of exit polls here. These show that evangelicals favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama “at Bushian levels” of 78-21. The same trend in evangelical voting patterns in the 1990’s prevailed. While Catholics “broke ranks” for Obama by a narrow margin, we evangelicals were stalwart in our Republican sentiments.
Notably, the other demographic group I follow, the so-called “Nones” for whom I’m also writing Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls, showed an almost identical reversal in their voting for Obama over Romney (70-26).
[Note: I have chosen not to publish the survey results that Ralph Reed’s group, Faith and Freedom, presented yesterday at the National Press Club (see yesterday’s post). The objectivity of such a study, in light of the aggressive lobbying efforts of Faith and Freedom to rally Christians to vote Republican, seems questionable.]