We were Methodist the way some are Cubs or Packers fans. By the age of ten I could retell all of the stories of the great ones: John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke. And I could explain the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to any passerby before I had my ears pierced or could stay home without adult supervision. I even recall writing in my diary once that when I grew up I’d name all my children after Susanna Wesley’s offspring. And to this day, my heart is strangely warmed every time I hear the hymn “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”.
I was so absorbed in our pot-lucking, summer-revivaling Methodism it didn’t occur to me that there were good people in the world who were not Methodists. I’d heard that there were people who did not believe in Jesus, or any God for that matter, but from what I could tell they all belonged to tribes out in the furthest reaches of Africa and had never even heard the Gospel message. For that they couldn’t be blamed! And I figured it was only a matter of time before the missionaries arrived and told them all about Christ. Then they too would be Methodists.
In second grade there was a boy at school who I noticed only ever wore blue jeans, even in the sweltering Texas heat. I found this very curious. I remember sitting on the sidelines of my brother’s soccer game with my friend, Mary Ellen. We were sucking on orange slices and watching the boys sprint up and down the field when the boy ran by in his thick jeans, his brown, stringy hair in wet chords that stuck to his face.
“Why does that boy only ever wear pants?” I asked. There was a Texan twang in my voice then. It grows thinner with every year I’m away.
“It’s because of his religion.” She said. “He can’t wear nothin’ else.”
I accepted this for what it was and figured he must be a Baptist simply because I had just noticed a Baptist church down the road and it was the only other church I’d seen in town besides the Methodist.
As I grew older, I weaved my way through the vast diversity of Christian traditions. There are not many that I did not try on for size. I’d say I never came in contact with snake handlers, but truth be told had I stuck around long enough with a couple of groups I would not have been surprised had they brought out a bag of snakes towards the end of the service. But it is within the Methodist church that I first encountered Christ.
The earliest incident I can remember occurred one late Sunday afternoon as I was walking through the church with my father. He was going about the place making certain the doors to the Sunday school rooms were shut and that the Bibles were put back in place. It took a while, but we eventually came to the sanctuary. My father went up to the pulpit and began digging around for something. I don’t remember what. I crawled under the pews. I often liked to pretend I was a spy and under the pews I was crawling through dark underground tunnels towards an uncertain freedom.
Now you must remember that children are more adept than adults at feeling the mysteriousness of a sacred space. Stained glass windows and lofty ceilings were meant to draw our eyes heavenward, and they do so quite naturally for a child. An empty sanctuary filled with such wonder and awe can be a terribly frightening place.
At some point, I looked up and my father was gone. The sanctuary was so big and empty and filled with the Holy Ghost that I panicked and started to cry. A moment later I looked up in the top right corner of the balcony and saw a bright glow. It was most likely the warm, afternoon sun coming through the windows (it really doesn’t matter what it was), but with the eyes of a child I thought it was a flame and I took it to be Jesus. I felt immediately He was there watching over me, caring for me. I knew I was safe, and as long as He was there nothing could harm me. I stopped crying and sat down to wait…for my father to realize he’d left me alone in the church sanctuary (Yes, Dad. I’m still a little bitter about this one).
I often forget this memory, but it has the habit of reappearing at times when I am in the depths of despair. It comes to mind and I am then gently reminded that I am not alone, that I am cared for, and that as long as I remain in His presence nothing can truly harm me.
I stopped by the old blog the other day to check out some recent comments posted, and it occurred to me that it has become much like a garden overgrown with weeds and wayward vines, only the weeds are spam from companies selling bed mattresses and vitamin supplements…among other things. I’ve spent the past week trying to spruce things up and now I’m ready to get back at it. On a side note, let me just say thanks to all who sent such lovely emails and other notes of encouragement wondering when I’d be back to blogging. You’ve no idea how much they meant to me!
When I last wrote I mentioned that I was trying to write about my conversion to Catholicism. I’m still trying to, but I’ve encountered far more frustration than I have productivity (not to mention that I keep recoiling at the thought of writing another formulaic story of triumphalist conversion). I was talking about this with my friend, Mary, who happens to be one of the kindest and wisest people I know. She is so sweet in fact that her husband once told me when they first dated he was convinced it was a sham—no one could actually be that nice—and that she was somehow making fun of him. He kept asking her out just to get to the bottom of it all. As it turns out, she really is genuinely that kind.
I was sitting at Mary’s kitchen bar while she was milling about the place, emptying the dishwasher and wiping down the counters. As I write this, I fear that had Mary been in my own kitchen she would have still been wiping the counters and emptying the dishwasher while I sat and talked. She would have insisted. Anyway, I was telling Mary about my frustrations and wondering if I should just chuck the whole idea and maybe even give up on writing while I was at it, when she stopped and said flatly, “You just need to find the right angle.”
It was so obvious I felt a bit ridiculous for not having thought it myself, but since it came from Mary the insecurity passed quickly and was replaced with excitement at the thought that there was still a story to tell.
I went to Texas last week to celebrate my father’s retirement. It’s a long, monotonous drive down I-20 from Atlanta with only the occasional fast food joint to break up the invariability. But it all pays off as you cross the state line and are greeted by the golden waves of tall grass against a wide horizon of dark evergreens. People often describe the landscape as vast. Even the clouds seem more substantial here, and they can weigh you down with a formidable gravity. It is true that you can see a storm from miles and miles away, and I find it both exquisite and foreboding. Only the narrow-minded fail to see the beauty in such a place as this.
Most friends from out of state who come to visit Texas say they feel exposed. Every year I return I feel it too and can’t help but think about the person I was when I left and I recall all of the things I was running from. There is danger in vulnerability. But this year as I approached the state line I was thinking about conversion and all of the ways in which Christ has revealed Himself to me throughout the years.
I once dated a man who believed a person was not “saved” unless he or she could point to an exact moment of conversion—a moment in which they acknowledged their absolute brokenness, left their life of hedonism and debauchery, and definitively dedicated their life to the Lord Jesus Christ. I spent the better part of a year trying to pinpoint the inauguration of my own faith before throwing in the towel with, I must admit, a considerable amount of frustration and disappointment that I had not been granted the proverbial burning bush experience. My life, rather, has been a series of conversions, some so small they would seem inconsequential to most people. But they have all been at the hand of God and must, therefore, be considered miraculous. These are the stories I want to tell, the stories of meeting Christ in the piney woods of East Texas and then again at the alter of a Methodist church while Wesleyan hymns were played upon a piano in the background. The conversion stories.
I’ve been writing a book. There, I’ve said it. I haven’t made it common knowledge mainly out of fear of not being able to finish what I’ve started and then having to explain to everyone who asked how things were going that I failed. Also, it’s going by at a snail’s pace. I don’t get to write until all the kids are tucked into bed each night, and by that time I’m mentally exhausted. It’s a pretty good night if I’ve produced a couple of paragraphs with some semblance of cohesive thought by the time I stumble into my own bed. At this rate I’ll be lucky to complete the book by the time my children are in college.
At least that’s what I was thinking the other day until talking with a group of women about Facebook. Oh, Facebook…We were discussing how most people only ever present the very best versions of themselves on FB—their perfect homes, perfect families, perfect vacations…perfect food (I still don’t get why people post pics of the food they’re eating. I’m sorry. I just don’t.)—and how we often walk away feeling so inadequate, covetous, and ungrateful for the things we do have.
It all got me thinking about honesty and about how I present myself to the world; how it’s so much easier and safer to present the neat version of myself instead of the messy, self-doubting, or cynical version of me that I often fear will be rejected.
Safer…I’ve been wrestling a lot with the idea that so much of modern, Christian art and literature is safe—safe, sterile, and innocuous. It doesn’t make anyone feel anything but cozy. It’s not dangerous enough.
All of this is to say that I’ve scrapped the whole damn book. I’ve put a big, fat red X through the words and tossed them aside, which is hard to do because these are words that I’ve written and somehow they are an extension of me! But it needed to happen. Most of what I’d written was innocuous.
Instead, I’ve started writing about the truly dark night of my own soul, about being in the clutches of severe depression and about contemplating death. Only on a technicality can I say that I wasn’t suicidal. I was much too afraid of God’s wrath to ever pull a trigger or throw myself from a cliff. But I wanted an end, and begged God for one every chance I got. He, it seemed, was always there wagging His finger or rolling His eyes. I hated existence—both God’s and mine—and every waking moment for me was sheer torture. But somehow God drew me out of all of this, and I began to learn what it means to be the child of God, to be loved and to find true healing. I began to hope. And hope, when entertained, begets courage. Courage begets faith. And faith, well, faith can move mountains. I am not at all the person I once was.
Pelagianism—perhaps that’s a topic for another post.
As it turns out, it’s a lot easier to write about the real me than it is to write about the neatly fabricated me (though I will say the neat version of me is a heck of a lot funnier and smarter than I really am). Who knows, maybe I’ll finish the whole thing before the kids head off to high school.
And for those of you wondering (and asking) when I’m going to write something funny again I promise it’s coming. I’m planning an entire post just for you and I think I’ll entitle it “As You Like It.” And, yes, that’s a reference to Shakespeare.
Those closest to me know that I have a deep and tremendous love for Thomas Merton. In fact, there is no Catholic writer who has had a more profound impact on my life than he. I was reading New Seeds of Contemplation when I entered seminary. His words were like water on parched ground. They drew me out of my self-absorbed, navel-gazing spirituality and awakened inside of me a desire to contemplate God in a new way and to make myself vulnerable to Him. I had read in his book that God “answers Himself in us and this answer is divine life, divine creativity, making all things new. We ourselves become His echo and His answer. It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us to contemplation He answered the question, so that the contemplation is at the same time, question and answer.” I wanted to become God’s echo and His answer.
It was while reading the Seven Story Mountain that I actually began considering Catholicism as a real option for my life. I had been wrestling with the idea of transubstantiation and just decided something along the lines of Flannery O’Connor’s sentiment that “if it’s a symbol, then to hell with it” when I came across a passage in Merton’s book where he described his intense longing for the Eucharist. I felt it too, and I felt so much of what he described in his own journey of faith. He has always put into words just what I am feeling. Or perhaps I should say his words make sense out of what I am feeling and have always made me want to draw closer to Christ. And he, unlike so many others, can speak of reason and mysticism in the same breath without insisting that one necessarily negates the other. And I’ve always wanted so very much for them to belong together even if at times no one around me thought they could.
It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read anything by Merton. In truth, I haven’t read much of anything theological recently. I suppose I needed a break. But someone mentioned his name the other day and I found myself that next day picking up his book Thoughts in Solitude and it was once again like water on parched ground. I’m sure there are writers for you all who have done just as much for you as Merton (and I’d add C.S. Lewis) has done for me. I’d love to hear who they are.
Here’s a quirky confession: from time to time I sign my checks and credit card receipts with names like Agatha Christie, Madeleine L’Engle and Dorothy Sayers—I’ve even signed them as Jane Marple and G.K. Chesterton—all in protest over the fact that too often our identity in this world can be boiled down to a set of numbers (social security numbers, account numbers, etc). I got the idea from Madeleine L’Engle’s memoir A Circle of Quiet. She used to sign her checks as Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the checks would always be cashed just as mine are every single time. My name is insignificant. Only the numbers matter.
While I was walking out of the grocery store today a man called out, “Will you buy me a sandwich?” I’m typically so rushed that I wouldn’t have even noticed the man in rags hovered by the door even if he called out to me. But I was alone and walking, quite uncharacteristically, leisurely out the door. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure. I’ll be right back.” I went to the deli department and asked for a foot long sandwich, grabbed a bag of chips and a bottle of lemonade, and headed to the cashier. I was waiting for my turn to check out when it occurred to me that it’s not a full meal without a dessert, and so I picked up a candy bar to throw in the bag. I will never forget the look on the man’s face when I handed him that meal. It was so gentle and delighted. He was no longer a homeless man as I would have typically labeled him in my mind, but a person with real pain and also real pleasure.
I wondered what his name was. I wish I’d asked him. I wish I had sat down with him while he ate and talked with him a bit about where he was from and where he was going. I wish I knew more about his family. I wonder when was the last time someone asked him about his family. I bet he has a good story, and I do love a good story.
This afternoon I came across a quote from Henri Nouwen that seems fitting. “Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity and power is a false identity—an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says: ‘You are not what the world makes of you; but you are children of God.” We are all more than what the world has made of us whether it is a set of numbers or a label of any kind. We are children of God.
Today Dan and I celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary! In honor of this I thought I’d re-post this piece I wrote about my wonderful husband a while back (you can find the original post with comments here). I really am a very lucky woman!
For Valentine’s Day
With Valentine’s Day looming, the director of our preschool opened a board meeting this week by reading an excerpt from an old Erma Bombeck article called Living with Gusto . What our preschool director doesn’t know is that she and I share a deep love and admiration for Erma Bombeck. In fact, while other girls in high school were pouring over TeenBop! Magazine and learning how to apply makeup I was reading Erma Bombeck (yes, I realize the image that this paints of me and I’m okay with it now). The first book I read of hers was one she wrote about young children and teens surviving cancer entitled, I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise. It made an indelible mark upon me and since that time I have been one of Mrs. Bombeck’s biggest fans.
In the article, Living with Gusto, Bombeck includes illustrations of simple ways in which a husband, who is not typically given to sentimental and overly romantic gestures, shows his wife that he loves her. In light of this, I thought it would be a good exercise for me to reflect upon the simple ways in which Dan shows that he loves me. I’m not saying that he is not romantic. I just thought it would be a fruitful exercise of gratitude. So, here it is. This is how I know that my husband, Dan, loves me…
I will not comment on the recurring accusations in our family that there are more pictures of this owl family during the brief time I watched them than there are of our children, and I will neither confirm nor deny hanging out of a 2nd story window by an arm and leg with my camera just to take these shots! Anyway, back to the list…
It’s the simple actions that Dan makes on a daily basis that show me that he loves me. Without these, a dozen roses and a box of chocolates would be a hollow gesture. I encourage you to make a similar list for your spouse or significant other. Who knows. As Erma says, it may just save your marriage another 15 minutes or so.
I’ve often thought that writing is an awful lot like putting together a puzzle. There are all these things you want to say and the trick is to find a way to piece them together so that when you take a step back you find that they’ve created one beautiful picture. My father is a master at this. He can fit just about anything together and somehow produce something so poignant that it makes you want to be a better person, a better Christian.
He’s so good at this that when we were younger my brother, sister, and I would try to come up with the most random things we could think of—like rubber chickens or Tonya Harding—and dare him to work it into Sunday’s sermon (my father is a United Methodist minister if you didn’t know). We’d then sit in the pews giddy as little children waiting for Christmas morning wondering if he’d do it. And he did! Every single time he would fit the most absurd ideas into his sermon so seamlessly that you were convinced it had always belonged there. I’m quite certain this is a God-given talent and one that, after this weekend, I am forced to admit I simply did not inherit.
All weekend I’ve wanted to write about the fact that on Friday morning my sister stepped out onto the deck and hollered back, “What’s with all the feathers in yard?” And I knew, much in same way you know to panic when there’s silence of any kind while children are in the house, that our dog, Murphy, had killed the neighbor’s chicken (It was really only a matter of time before this happened). Since then I’ve tried to work out a way to use this story as a launching pad for some great theological truth, but I’ve got nothing. I thought for a bit that I might be able to work in something about confession, seeing as how I tried at first to pretend nothing had happened and even considered hiding all of the evidence (which is impossible because there are feathers everywhere) and avoiding all eye-contact when coming to and from the house but eventually found myself riddled with guilt and knocking on the neighbor’s door, confessing all that had been done after which I felt so much better.
I then thought of writing about the love and humility of a sister who, armed only with two trash bags, voluntarily went into the backyard and cleaned up what was left of the poor bird and how this one action shattered all my pride in being a strong Texas woman (because let’s face it, there was no way I was going in the backyard as long as that headless and mangled chicken was there). Though for what it’s worth, I will say that I once drank warm milk straight from a cow while I was in Africa, and I think that should stand for something (other than just stupidity). But really that’s all I’ve got, except that is for a bunch of jokes about KFC and buckets of chicken from some of my more insensitive friends—you know who you are…and you should all be ashamed of yourselves!
I’ve recently run into a few people who told me (in no uncertain terms) that I need to get back to blogging. I argued that it hadn’t been all that long since I last posted, but then I sat down to check things out. And I realized-once I reacquainted myself with the whole admin/blogger relationship thing-that I haven’t posted anything since MARCH! So sorry! But perhaps we can be like old friends and pick up where we left off.
Truth be told, I haven’t done much writing at all recently. I’ve just been trying to enjoy the summer with my kids. Although, I did have this piece on the Integrated Catholic Life a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been working on a bit of fiction. I’ll let you know if something comes of it.
I have done a lot of thinking, though, and most of it started with a momentary desire to have a more profound love for the Eucharist. All too often I come to the end of Mass with little recognition of the fact that I have been in the very presence of Christ. I’ve spent some time praying about it, and it seems to me that my love for the Eucharist will only grow as my love for Christ deepens. This might seem obvious, but it comes with the realization that I have not loved Christ as I should; as I could. And that necessarily leads to an examination of conscience and then allowing myself to be vulnerable to His love which must change me. So, maybe that’s why I haven’t been writing much. I’ve just had a lot on my mind. But it’s good to be back, and I hope you’ve all been well! I’d love to hear from you!!
On Saturday morning Jack bounced into our bedroom and proudly announced that he’d been wearing the same pair of socks since Ash Wednesday.
As soon as the words left his mouth a distinct rage began to pulse through my veins as I thought about all the time I’d wasted each morning frantically digging around in laundry baskets looking for clean socks. “I give you a clean pair of socks every morning!” I shrieked. “And you’re not wearing them?”
“But you take a shower every night. Are you telling me, that you put the same pair of socks back on after you’ve showered?”
“Yep! I even wear ‘em to bed!”
I wrinkled my nose in revulsion, “That’s disgusting!”
*I actually think in some bizarre 8-year old boy sort-of way this accusation only made him more pleased with himself*
Then Dan, who’d been completely silent up to his point, mumbled from beneath the blankets, “Is this some weird form of Lenten penance?”
If it is, then whose penance is it supposed to be? Jack’s or mine?
It has made me think about Lenten penance, though. Have you ever wondered where the whole giving something up for Lent came from? I often do, especially since I am notoriously bad at keeping these types of Lenten fasts and am always looking for some sort of loophole or easy way out (I’m not proud of this and you can read about last year’s Lenten fasting here).
Anyway, here’s a great article I read the other day about giving things up for Lent . Hope you find it as intriguing as I did! I also hope that you’ve found a more suitable fast or form of penance than some of the ones listed in the article (and obviously something better than what Jack has chosen)!