Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christ from Crisis: An Advent Theology

I have often toyed with the idea that Jesus was, in fact, born out of crisis. The common thought that his death represented pain and sin but his birth called out for hope and faith seems too simplistic. God would not have sent us a savior if we had not really needed it, right at that moment. We needed it for our present as much as we did to relieve the pangs of the past and ease the difficult road ahead.

And I’m not talking about ordinary struggle. “First world” problems, as my friend, Mike, calls them (when our already privileged luxuries do not work to our advantage): my giant SUV won’t start, I accidentally bought regular Coke instead of Diet Coke, and my mother-in-law is driving me crazy. But real struggle, from hunger so prevalent around the world to the loss of a close friend or family member.

In 2004 I wrote an essay that suggested Mary (the virgin one) was actually a rape victim. It was an experience that left her afraid and heartbroken and Joseph wary and undecided. She was so empty and lonely. For all intents and purposes, she was dying. And yet a warm, innocent infant grew inside her, a moving, kicking reminder that she was stronger than the sin that betrayed her. Mary carried the Light of the World through the most treacherous darkness. And out of that cruelty and violence, out of that helplessness, came Jesus. A conception that nearly killed her ended up saving us all.

Starvation is a timeless tragedy, killing people daily or creating long, intense suffering from which there is often no recovery. In those aching stomachs and malnourished bodies, there is emptiness the likes of a manger. An emptiness that must be a vessel for a savior.

My grandpa was one of my closest relationships and the first person I watched slowly break down into death. Even though I knew it was coming, I still cannot get the images of his last few days out of my head. People tell me that someday, I will be glad that I was there with him as he took his final breath. That moment torments me, though, and I fail to see any cause for “gladness”.

Based on my born-of-tragedy theology, I try to replace my nightmares with different visions. The hospice pastor that prayed with us before my grandpa’s body was taken away described a scene where Jesus ran, excitedly, to meet my grandpa and take him into the light. I imagine them embracing as old friends, laughing, and entering heaven together. I can hear Jesus saying, “I’ve been waiting for you, Gene, and your wife isn’t nearly as patient as me.” They laugh again. No longer disabled by his Parkinson’s and failing body, Grandpa can run to meet Chiemi, the love of his life. There is so much brightness in that vision.

I think, when Jesus ran to greet my Grandpa, that brief moment that he was in between the world of the living and the dead, he left a bulb of light behind for me to find. In my emptiness from losing my grandpa, Jesus left a seed of faith to birth at a later date.

This advent has been filled with grief and suffering, it seems. I have heard more of death than I have of life. But it is at this, the darkest of times, that the savior is reborn. Jesus does not come to us because of tragedy, but he is born from it, again and again.

That light Jesus planted for me, in my empty soul, back in March, is becoming more apparent. I find it filling me up, allowing me to grieve. And a religion and a faith that I dismissed over a year ago are finally returning to me.

In a small, joyful innocence, this baby savior, molded from disaster, brings me a bit of hope.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Churchopedia #9 (Church #31): The Gift that Keeps on Knocking

Written November 2010 and November 2011.

There is great hilarity when subjects of a serious nature are reduced to the tiny icon that is a cell phone app. While scrolling through the list of free widgets for my new Android, I noticed these oddities mixed with the fun and pointless, as well as the useful and resourceful. Shake my phone and roll virtual dice: fantastically stupid. Audio step-by-step directions to my next location: ah, so easy I barely have to try. Holy Bible with Apocrypha: hold up, really? Is a text that is several thousand years old, has endured years of torturous translation and requires me to lift it with both hands now just a touch-screen away? I’m not sure whether I should be impressed or concerned.

Just when I thought the Good Book, which can also be effortlessly linked to my Kindle, was the epitome of spirituality that can be viewed both horizontally and vertically, I ran across “On the Ministry.” Described as a “new app for Jehovah’s Witnesses field service,” this five-star application takes knocking to a whole new level. Jeanene reviews: “This is a great app!! I would love the ability to keep track of multiple users. My 10 yr old is not as good at keeping records. Thx 4 this!” John writes: “This is a wonderful app that has made pioneering time more manageable and just a little more fun!”

The app keeps track of potential converts information, including any current problems or concerns in their lives. Also, number of brochures handed out, hours spent pounding on doors (they never use the doorbell), and a map to visualize their life’s work. Apps allow for sophisticated accessibility and constant communication, so this is the logical next step in evangelism.

Jehovah’s Witnesses remind me of the game “Duck Hunt.” That was a great game. A plastic box with a trigger, urging you to take out as many ducks as possible. It was easy to play repeatedly because there was always a chance you would get one more duck.

Like the game, Witnesses aren’t picky about their ducks. It doesn’t matter how small, fast or talented the duck. And the greatest thing is, no matter how many ducks you kill, you can keep killing ducks! In fact, I’m pretty sure some of the ducks you already killed come back to life just so you can kill them again.

Before I take this metaphor to a morbid level, let me make it clear that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not killing potential converts, or ducks, for that matter. But with every knock at the door, they prove their undying need to satisfy an unreachable quantity. Perhaps this app will let them compare stats and eventually, they can start stealing each other’s doors.

I invited the Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet with me rather than attend one of their Kingdom Hall Meetings because I felt like culturally, that is their most defining characteristic. What would a Jehovah’s Witness experience be without that knock? And the next one? And the next one?

When the Witnesses knocked last year, I was in a vulnerable place. I had become jaded and unforgiving, allowing my grudge for CCCUCC to dominate my spiritual quest. I found myself not believing that any church was capable of genuine goodness. I was becoming one of those I-hate-organized-religion people.

The best cure for spiritual helplessness is simple, sensible answers, which they easily provided. I’m feeling lost. Open the bible and look at that, found! I’m feeling sick. Oh, we’ve got the cure for that one, too. I’m feeling lonely (and here is when they had me): I am not, nor have I ever been alone. God, Jesus, but physically, right at that moment, Witnesses. They were there with me. My stomach dropped and I choked back the tears.

After they left I essentially shut down the churchy aspect of my blog. I needed a break. If I was so angry I couldn’t be objective and so sad that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were getting to me, then I needed some serious soul-searching.

Over the last year, I’ve searched that soul, which sometimes seems as bleak and heartless as the church I once loved. I hated abandoning my church-search mid-10, and actually mid-post. But what I hated more was that I was starting to accept that this was it for me. No more early morning Sundays. No more singing hymns on my way to work. No more simultaneously praying and crying myself to sleep.

There have been moments of pause in what I think is a medium to fast jog away from the Christian Church. When my grandpa died, I noticed a little religious yearning to help me connect with his passing and cope with the future. When the start of the school year was so stressful and frustrating that, for the first time since I started teaching, I considered leaving the profession. Each time, though, I dove into my two jobs and my Ph.D. I ate massive amounts of good food. I slept-in on the weekends and watched TV in my free time. I started dancing weekly, sometimes daily, and concentrated on my friendships. All activities proved more helpful and comforting than any church.

But recently, an interaction with a Jehovah’s Witness that is an acquaintance of mine has brought me back to this entry and the vulnerable place I was in over a year ago. Since I had no blog to intellectually sort out my religious ponderings, I started ignoring them. The Witness gave me a tract; I threw it in the trash. She sent me an email with a bible verse when my grandpa died, I deleted the email. She asked me what I was searching for and I told her, “Nothing.” I ignored her knocking, and it felt good. I was never unkind or disrespectful. So, logically, she shunned me. That’s what Christians do when you don’t fit into the proverbial box.

There was a time when I would have never opened myself up to Jehovah’s Witnesses, like I did last year. And I would have never ignored their incessant knocking tactics, like I have done these last few weeks. The same part of me that was not vulnerable to untruth was willing to learn enough from it to fight. Do I not owe it to my friends who have been disowned and hurt by the Witnesses to open that door and give them a run for their money? Is there a drop-down menu on your knocking app. that says, “Potential convert does not put up with religious crap”?

I still believe that I have a lot to learn about the Christian faith. There are 10+ churches in my future that need to be visited. There is good to be found, and bad to be criticized. I don’t necessarily need to be as strong or religious as I once was in order to experience spirituality. It is selfish and unfair of me to throw away all I have learned and let conservative Christianity dominate our culture without comment or blog post.

So, as I grip the handle of my front door, cell phone bible in hand, I encourage the knocking. I’m ready to open-up.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11- Senior Year

I was sitting in AP English IV first hour, which was way too early for European classics. Mrs. Breicheisen-Pribyl was my English teacher, a genius of sorts, but at the time she was really pissing me off. She had just given a speech on why food and drink were now banned in her classroom (liter and disruptive crinkling of candy bar wrappers). My head was in my hand and my eyes barely open enough to secretly scowl at her, as my Diet Coke and Twix beckoned from my backpack.

My senior year of high school started with mild drama when I quit the orchestra in order to join the newspaper staff. I spent my entire day in the English department, with the last hour in AP Music Theory. AP English, Grammar, Assistant to Sophomore English, Newspaper, Muse Literary Magazine and music theory. It was, now that I look back on it, the perfect day. Though I spent every free minute thinking of either my Oberlin audition or my pending brain surgery, the lack of free minutes made for a beautiful start to my end at Blue Valley Northwest High School.

Mrs. Breicheisen-Pribyl, who we just called “BP,” had not finished her rant of disappointment when her husband, Mr. Pribyl, entered our classroom. He seemed calm enough, but his pace rushed as to make me lift my head and follow him with my eyes across the room. He taught AP III next door but I rarely saw him in her classroom. He whispered something into BP’s ear and they looked at each other for a moment. It was a look that two parents might share as their son is shipped off to war.

The regular hum of a senioritis-filled classroom ceased when she didn’t begin speaking again after Mr. Pribyl left. I had studied with these peers for three years and had never heard them so quiet. BP walked to the television and reached to click it on manually. Her arm came back down like she was pondering, “Do I really want to do this?” “Mr. Stanfill,” she said sternly. “Turn off the lights.” Her arm reached back up toward the TV.

I remember vividly that first image, of the tower with smoke billowing out of the side. I tried to piece together the facts, based on what I knew and what the newscaster was saying. BP glared at the television, terrified. The part of me that was still a child wanted to ignore this the same selfish way I did most of the news. But with the speed and confusion at which my brain was operating, I could only try to process the morning’s events as an adult. I was too old for this to become a fantastical story of heroism and strength. It was ingrained in my memory as a horrifying reality.

After English I peeked into Mrs. McCrossen’s room and decided to skip my assistant block and proceed straight to Mr. Mcrossen’s journalism space. I sat on the table in the newspaper lair, keeping the door open to the main room so that I could hear the commentary. At some point I went down to get lunch, brining it up to the room so that I could mechanically put food in my mouth while I watched the news. Others joined me from the newspaper or yearbook staffs. We watched the second plane hit, the towers fall and relived the footage over and over, in the same way CNN replays the clips year after year.

When 1:30 arrived, people started to disperse. I walked slowly to the Fine Arts hallway, passing each room full of flashing television images and the blaring, unrehearsed vocals of the news anchors. I expected to find the same in the choir room, but rather, I found a frustrating sense of normality. The television was off and Mr. Eaton began class as normally as possible. He said he did not feel it necessary to continue watching the same footage over and over. The best thing we could do, he stated, is learn something today. It made me angry. How dare he act as if this is a normal day. This is the news! This is important!

In his own way, though, I think Mr. Eaton was trying to protect what little childhood we had remaining. It was a noble pursuit and for an hour it was successful. We took dictation and sung sol-feg as if it were any other day. No one knew what was about to change in our country, so he was trying to preserve our ignorance just a little bit longer.

I drove home listening to NPR, because I couldn’t stand to hear my favorite Top 40 DJs discussing tragedy. I pulled my car over in the middle of my shortcut subdivision and cried. Odd for a habitual drama-queen, it was the first tear I shed all day.

I finally checked my phone messages when I arrived at home. “What?” my brother asked solemnly when he walked into the kitchen. My eyes were wide in panic as I listened to my father’s voicemail. “My flight made it from Newark okay and I’m driving to St. Louis to pick up your mom.” Was my father really in the same airport as United 93’s hijackers? Part of me was mad at myself for forgetting what was now such an important detail of my father’s travel plans, the other part was relieved that I didn’t spend the day thinking my father was flying from the New York area.

My brother, who would normally retreat to his room to deal with a traumatic event, sat on the floor in the living room, watching CNN while we awaited my parents’ arrival. Sometime after 6:00 the U.S. Congress gathered spontaneously on the steps of the capitol in the live broadcast and sung “God Bless America.”

That is perhaps the image and the sound that haunt me most with me from that day. “God Bless America” is technically a song that I oppose due to its unnecessary mix of Church and State; but now it is one of my favorites. Every time my students learn it, I remember the heartbroken lawmakers whose only way to make sense of the day was to sing.

So many lives were changed that day, and every generation, every person, experienced it differently. I experienced it in my English and journalism classrooms, seeing my teachers breakdown and support us at the same time. I experienced it in the choir room, with a teacher that wanted to shelter and protect me. I experienced it on the steps of the United States Capitol, with a song full of both hopelessness and hope. But most of all, we experienced it together, and none of us will ever forget.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Casting Stones

This is the first column I submitted to The Star for my last Faith Walk. It didn't work, for many reasons, but I thought I'd post it anyway:

In my visits to more than 30 places of worship the last couple years, I got really fed up with the works of the church. It started with my former home church, which was more interested in throwing fancy galas and writing checks than actually doing something for the community. Mainline protestant churches were obsessively excited over canned food drives and megachurches spent massive amounts of money translating the bible into indigenous languages. With the exception of a few places, the good deeds aspect of Christianity seemed to be severely lacking. The faith focused on personal relationships with Christ, which left little room for acts of humility within the community.

After not attending church this past year, I began realizing that public service was not only lacking in churches. There is a growing political movement that focuses on self-preservation at any cost. As the recession continues in the Midwest, it is harder and harder to help each other when we can barely help ourselves. And yet there are still people with so much who refuse to acknowledge those with so little. Is this a non-religious problem or just a reflection of a faith that dominates America?

This is when the proverbial Man in the Mirror comes back and slaps me in the face. It’s easy to blame the church for all of the world’s troubles, when in reality, the church is the only place I have ever truly served my community. Building houses, AIDS Walk, Harvester’s canned food drives…arguably all could occur without a place of worship and yet, in the past year, I have done nothing. Without a church, the opportunity rarely presents itself and without faith, perhaps I am less motivated to act.

I have always believed that religious hospitals provide better care than non-religious hospitals because care fueled by faith transcends any job limitations. At the same time, that type of service and dedication requires an element of personal sacrifice that a church cannot provide. Though faith is a motivator, it’s still just faith. We need action. In my quest through the churches of Kansas City, it wasn’t really that the churches weren’t doing enough. The churches were doing as much as they could. It is the people who need to do more.

We never know when we will doubt our beliefs and be stripped of our faith. It was certainly not something I expected. I need to find dedication to my community that goes beyond religion. I am the only person that can take that first step.

It is (too) easy to judge the church

My last Faith Walk column for The Kansas City Star. Let me know what you think! I'll also be posting my first version of this column...wasn't good for the paper, but makes some different points.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Maternal Charm

The word “charm” is rarely used as a sole descriptive. So often it is paired with a negative attribute or deceptive quality. It’s a word we save to describe sly criminals and beauty queens. We use it to manipulate and blame it when we are the scammed. People beware of charm as much as they flock to it. It is a scary power and when nourished from its innate resting place in the most unintelligent personalities, it can put total idiots in the Oval Office.

I digress, though. Evil charisma has no hold on me, because I have had the privilege of being raised by charm, in its most pure and genuine form. Charm not used to compensate for faults or maneuver through life carelessly; but actual, real-life, wholesome charm—constantly exuding from a human being for the pure enjoyment and comfort of others. I am of course referring to my mother.

Shopping was never an activity I enjoyed. I still wait for an empty fridge and pantry to shop for groceries in the middle of the night. I prefer to shop for clothes online and pray that things fit so I do not have to make any in-person returns. So when I tagged along with my mother as a child, I spent little time admiring dresses, eying candy bars and reaching toward the toy aisle. Instead, I watched her. Of course, she was the center of my world. She was my mother. But she seemed to be the center of everything, the moment someone glanced our way or the checkout lady said hello. Smiles flashed across people’s faces and random strangers would ask her for assistance. An old woman clutched her arm and listened intently as my mother gave directions to the laundry detergent. Other mothers looked at her lovingly as she held the door open for a flock of children and a cart full of groceries.

As I got older, I realized that my mother’s interaction with total strangers was rare in our society. Folks in the Midwest are certainly polite, but in her presence, they become friendly. When people ask her, “How are you?” they want to hear an honest answer. When she says “Good morning,” people believe that the morning is, indeed, good.

My father’s stories about her in high school confirmed this magical effect she had on others. Just as the word “charm” is used negatively, the word “popular” has an even dimmer reputation. But not for her. She was popular because she was sunshine, and everyone wanted to feel her warmth and see her smile.

Other kids were always jealous of my parents. They were sufficiently lenient and treated my brother and me with respect. They were not too strict, but strict enough for us to know they cared. They made my friends laugh and played with us without fear of embarrassment. I could count on them to bring my own popularity to a new level.

Close groups of friends erupt around my mother and though she would never admit it, we are because she is. She doesn’t know the impact she leaves on people, whether she was the helpful stranger in the store or the best friend just a phone call away. Instead, she is grateful. Instead, she humbly bestows all of her confidence and support on us.

And still, I like to think that people are a bit jealous of me. After all, no matter the connection or the friendship. No matter the amount of time spent in her presence. She is my mother, and I will get to say that for the rest of my life.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mama. You are brilliantly charming.

Monday, April 4, 2011

13 Homes- Two Years Ago

As I move into my 14th home, I reflect on the first 13, bringing me to this piece I wrote (by hand...gasp, I know) about two years ago.

Jotted down too late at night on Friday, March 13, 2009 by Megan Highfill.

Moving out on my own has already proved both rewarding and disappointing. Now, as I sit in my bed, I’m realizing that this is the last time I will probably call this house my home. The house itself is no big deal—houses come and go, and I’ve seen seven do as such in my lifetime. What terrifies me is that this may be the last time that my true home is the same place as my mother, father and brother. Even in college, I “came home” for Christmas and over the summer. Now, there are two separate entities: My home and what I’ve tried to start referring to as “my parent’s house, a reference that is proving to be more emotional than expected.

I’ve felt this once before—when I was driving out of Oberlin for the last time, on a cold December morning. After that morning, I would never again call Oberlin my home. It’s the feeling of never coming back as more than a visitor that really gets to me. And though I can return to “my parent’s house,” I can’t do so in the same way I’ve done for 25 years.

Perhaps this is why I cling to the artifacts of my parents and grandparents and hesitate to store anything of my own as a keepsake. Home is the people in it, the things they say, create and use. So I am faithful to every dish, every gift, and every old piece of furniture. The things that are now mine that were once my mother’s, my grandmother’s and even great-grandmother’s—they are a way for me to maintain that connection. That human emotion that molds, breaks and puts back together a home.

I’m not sure if I’m ready to create my own building blocks here. Seeing that empty space makes me expect aspects of Oberlin and Kansas to walk in the room and start constructing. Surely Leah, Matt, Rachael, David, Megan and Beth are on their way. Of course, Mama, Daddy and Tavy are right outside the door. If they aren’t there, then why am I not hightailing it back to them, back to my home?

To some, this may seem silly. Why am I so emotional about a move that takes me less than 10 miles? In my new apartment, though, my mother seems just as far away as in-Guatemala Beth Peachey.

So, I draw them close. Steal a bit of the homes we have already built together. For Rachael, I have the books and the scriptures we shared, strategically accessible on my bookshelves, complete with the Secret Life of Bees. Megan, remember those plates we made and mine said “Your mom”? Well, don’t worry—I won’t be putting your mom in the microwave. Matt, our kitchen in Oberlin, including the plastic Sesame Street cups, has been reincarnated in Mission, Kansas. David, I have an original NES hooked to my TV with your name on it. The heartfelt, thoughtful style of Leah Faleer has affected just about every aspect of my apartment, and I will sit close to the television to watch So You Think You Can Dance. Bethy, your kindness and genuineness is so much a part of me that the picture of me eating ice cream and playing Super Mario Brothers on my computer can’t explain it. Daddy, I’m pretty sure a 6-pack of beer will be christening my refrigerator very soon. Tavy, the TV is in a central location and you have your own TV tray and chair. And Mama, well, that place is a glowing representation of how well I was raised. A girl couldn’t ask for a better mother.

There are touches of others, here and there, of course. And a rice cooker large enough with rice enough to serve this 10+ person family. In 2009, on March 13, I brought the total number places I’ve lived, including college, to 13. I hope to make this one as awesome as the first 12.

Thank you for my homes.