Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The One About Vomiting

I couldn't remember the last time I had thrown up. I have no memories of doing so in our house in Sioux City, so it must have been before we lived there -- possibly a decade or so ago.

But my streak was broken Monday night, about five minutes before the pastor and his family arrived for dinner at our house. (Fabulous timing, o stomach of mine.) I suspect the leftover quiche I ate for Monday's lunch was the culprit. It had all the signs of food poisoning. Just a 24-hour thing.

Vomiting . . . what a phenomenon. I had forgotten how repulsive and miserable it is. And yet, what a blessing that our bodies have this automatic mechanism in place to protect us. I could almost hear my inner systems screaming, "TOXINS! TOXINS! Eradicate them immediately!! Stat!" (I don't know what "stat" means in this context, but we've all deduced from medical dramas that it implies urgency, and this situation was apparently urgent.)

Goodness, the violence our bodies inflict to purge us of poison! The thoroughness of the purging! EVERYTHING goes that may have entered with the offending party. No traces of the toxin may remain. Every other non-essential system in the body shuts down so more energy can be put toward the cleansing (which explains the exhaustion that my daughter was surprised at -- "why would food poisoning wipe you out so badly?").

So, in the moments of calm between violent purgings, I was able to experience some genuine appreciation for what my body was doing for me, painful and gross as it was in the experience.

And I was able to consider how beneficial it might be if we had systems in place to purge us of other toxins we encounter in life.

So, when a poisonous idea enters our minds, our mental systems would scream, "TOXINS! DANGER! Eradicate that immediately! Before it infects and spreads!" Followed by a violent purging, which would necessitate a day or two of gentle meditation to recover. I might even be willing to lose a bit of short-term memory in the process if it meant being protected from thoughts that would be ruinous to me in the long run.

And when a toxic person enters our lives, our systems would scream, "DANGER! POISON! Get them outa here! Go! Go! Go!" I'd hope I could re-establish the healthy relationships that might be lost in the violence of eradicating the toxin, but sad as it might be, that sacrifice would be worth the price.

Yes, such purgings would be painful and disruptive and costly in many ways. But oh, the costs they would save us in the long run! And how much more cautious would we be about the various poisons we encounter in life if we knew each of them would knock us out of commission for a couple days like that.

In case you're wondering, I'm feeling much better this morning, thank you. And my daughters did a fabulous job of greeting our guests and serving dinner Monday night. A good support team is critical in such a dangerous world as ours, with its perilous ideas, risky companions, and questionable quiches. I'm thankful for mine.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Mainstreams and Margins

Our Sunday School teacher used that phrase yesterday. Mainstreams and margins. Our society tends to refer to "majorities" and "minorities," but I think these terms are more accurate. You can be a statistical majority and still be on the margins of society. It's not about the numbers.

In the context of our discussion, the teacher asked us to consider situations in our lives when we have been in either camp. When have you been in the margins? And when you were, what were your thoughts and feelings about those in the mainstream? Conversely, when you've been in the mainstream, how did you think and feel about those in the margins?

We were examining passages in Acts about conflict resolution -- specifically Acts 15, when the Council in Jerusalem had to make a decision about circumcision. Do Gentiles who trust in Christ have to become Jews before they become Christians? Is Christianity just a new branch of Judaism, or is it something else entirely?

At that time, the Jewish Christians were the mainstream. Gentile Christians were the margins. Kind of interesting, when you think about it.

In the United States, Christianity has been the mainstream since Europeans began settling the land. And most people will insist that it still is. Look at all our churches. Look at all the Christian holidays we celebrate. Look at all the surveys indicating how many people identify as Christians, believe in God, attend Christian worship services, etc.

But you see, that's about majority. I'm talking about mainstream. And I contend the national waters are started to flow down a different stream.

Oh, I don't think churches are going to start disappearing right away. Blatant atheism isn't going to be running rampant around here anytime soon. But I'm convinced we're headed the direction Europe has gone. I haven't ever been to Europe, but from what I understand, churches are mostly historical artifacts around there. Very few active members. And very few churches that are serving as salt and light in the dark worlds around them.

John Piper said in a recent sermon, "The Christian Church in America suffers from about 350 years of dominance and prosperity. . . this has deeply ingrained in us a massively unbiblical mindset, namely, a mindset of at-homeness in this world and in this age." It has been easy to be a Christian in America, and that easiness has created a feebleness that will be our downfall.

I vividly remember the words a couple decades ago of a missionary from a country in the Eastern block that had been freed from Soviet control and was experiencing new religious freedoms. His believing friends in that nation were bemoaning to him, "Why did God take away the blessing of persecution?" Easy Christianity was making for weak Christianity. Ineffective Christianity. Faux Christianity. What makes us think our faith was supposed to be easy?

The blessing of persecution. Dare we ask God for that blessing upon our nation? I'm coming to suspect that the Church was always meant to stand in the margins rather than float in the mainstream.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Grateful for the Air in my Lungs

For the past several years, the common cold has been increasingly common for me -- that is, it is always the same thing.

It starts with a sudden wave of exhaustion. I usually find myself crashing on the sofa for several hours, too tired to move until I'm moving my body into bed. By the time I wake up the next morning, my throat is sore. That eventually develops into a stuffy, runny nose that lasts for a few days and ultimately progresses into a cough.

The cough is the big problem. I apparently have some form of Reactive Airway Disease, my doctors tell me. The normal cough at the end of my common cold irritates and inflames the lining of my lungs, so that long past what would be the natural end of that cold, I still experience asthma-like symptoms: difficulty breathing and a horrible, hacking, miserable cough that lasts two or three weeks at least and brings me completely to the end of myself. I always end up in the doctor's office getting scads of medication trying desperately to get it to stop.

This past round (last spring, I believe), the doctor loaded me up with two different types of inhalers, a super-strong cough suppressant, and . . . some other pill that I don't remember what it was for. He instructed me, next time I have the beginnings of a cold, to start immediately bombarding it with all this stuff -- the hope is to prevent my lungs from ever getting inflamed in the first place so we don't have to fight the seemingly hopeless fight of calming them down.

So, I have all these meds in my cabinet, and I've been bracing myself for months. Now that I'm in a school again, I figured I'd be surrounded by germs and would be fighting a plethora of illnesses all year.

But that hasn't happened. I'm still waiting for my first cold. It's been teasing me . . . I've had many days of feeling what felt like minor symptoms starting to creep in. My daughters have both had colds, and I assumed mine was next. But I'm now over five months into a school year with no real illness of any kind.

When I go to bed at night and pray, I've found myself taking deep breaths . . . and feeling such genuine, heart-felt gratitude. For clear lungs. For open sinuses. For that fabulous feeling of air flowing through my nostrils and filling up my lungs with ease and slowly flowing out again. For being able to breathe. I still know that another cold is coming (for all I know, it may hit later today), and so I am genuinely praising God these days for every hour I have air flowing easily in and out of my body. It feels so wonderful to breathe!! And it feels so wonderful to be thankful for breathing.

It feels so wonderful to be thankful. I think I need to be more intentional about being thankful for the obvious things in my life. Being thankful for them now feels so much better than being angry when they are denied me later. It's not like God owes me anything anyway -- not even breath in my lungs.

Monday, February 16, 2015


Our family has been attending a very traditional Baptist church for the past couple months. We're not quite ready to commit as members -- still have some questions about things -- but it has been a good experience.

As I said, it's very traditional. Huge choir for a small church, and a good choir. A fabulous organist and a great pianist. The pastors wear robes and they follow the liturgical calendar, which is very unusual for a Baptist church. They sing hymns -- some of them very new hymns, but still always hymns. No "praise band" here. 

I'm finding that my worship is very different in this setting. And I'm enjoying it right now.

There are a few times in the service when the musicians are just playing instrumental music for meditation or preparing your hearts. And I've started actually trying to use those musical interludes for that purpose, rather than looking through the bulletin or around at fellow worshippers. It's kind of nice to see how much more readily you hear the voice of God when you're intentionally making a point of listening for it, rather than expecting it to knock you over the head to get your attention.

I've often caught myself thinking of my parents during service (the woman in the choir with my mother's hairdo often prompts that). My parents, and others from their generation. And then I think of other generations before that. Many, many generations of believers who all sang hymns like this, sat in services like this, prayed to God like this, heard the Word like this . . . I find myself feeling a connection with Christians throughout history. I can't say I've ever felt that kind of connection in a contemporary service.

And there's another difference -- one that I'm not sure has anything to do with this particular church or this type of service. I suddenly realize that in recent years, I've been so very aware of the nominal Christians in my churches. Not just the "seekers", the people who are not sure about their faith who are attending church to learn more. But the people who claim to be believers but who are clearly not serious about it, to the point that one has to wonder if they are genuinely "saved" at all. 

At least I always wondered if they were. And grieved over it. I've felt so sad and burdened over the lukewarm state of the church for the past couple decades, that sometimes even going to church at all depressed me. 

I suppose I still feel that way some, but I don't necessarily feel that way in church services now. And again, I don't know that it necessarily has anything to do with this church. I'm sure there are just as many nominal believers sitting in these pews as there are in any church in America today. But I'm not thinking about them. I'm not worried about them. 

Maybe it's because I'm no longer on the "worship team" planning the services, so my focus is less on the congregation and more on my own meeting with God. Maybe it's just a spiritual stage I'm going through, a mini-hilltop experience. I don't know.

But I like it. I like leaving church service and feeling sufficiently fed. Feeling like I'm not alone in my walk. Feeling like I and many others -- here and in other places, now and in other times -- have met with God and communed. Not just looked at Him, or heard about Him, or played with Him. Communed.

Yeah, I like that. I hope this keeps up.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Can We Celebrate This?

The Butler was on this past weekend (at least in our house – Hubby DVR’d it). And I was once again moved by the scene at the end when Cecil Gaines watches Barack Obama winning the presidency.

Because as much as I am opposed to the man’s politics and policies – as much as I disagree with the direction he has taken our country in the last six years – I was and still am quite moved by the fact that our country finally elected an African-American to its highest office. Seeing a movie like The Butler, which reminds us of how bad things were at one time for blacks in our country and how hard the fight was to turn that around, only makes me the more grateful.

My daughter, on the other hand, was surprisingly complacent about the whole thing. Maybe it was a big deal, she said, but it really shouldn’t have been.  It shouldn’t have mattered what color his skin was. Well no, honey, it shouldn’t have – but it did. That’s the whole point. And the fact that it doesn’t matter to you now is kind of the whole point.

Can we take a moment to celebrate the fact that – despite the whole “black lives matter” controversies of recent months – we are raising what is probably the most colorblind generation the United States has ever seen? My children had to be taught that some people see blacks as inferior, and they found this fact strange. There’s a victory right there. I don’t remember being taught that. I just knew. It was part of my experience; it’s not part of theirs.

In 1995 and 1996, I worked as a temp in an MCI sales office in Springfield, Missouri, with an African-American receptionist named Belinda, who became a close friend. This was during the O.J. Simpson trial – and in a city about an hour north of the Arkansas border where a road sign informed you that the local Ku Klux Klan chapter sponsored the clean-up of that stretch of highway – so she and I had a lot of talks about race relations during that year together.

I remember the day she told me that her parents believed that every white person in America thought like Mark Fuhrman – that all white people hate black people. I was stunned. You mean to tell me that, if they walked in this door and saw me sitting at this desk . . . didn’t know me from Adam . . . knew nothing about my background, my faith, my beliefs, my experiences, my heart . . . they would look at the color of my skin and immediately assume that I hated them?? Yes, she said, they would. That had been their experience.

Stunned, I tell you. I was completely stunned.

She was quick to tell me that she certainly didn’t believe that – her life experiences had been quite different. And her daughter’s experiences had been better yet – her biracial daughter had never experienced any significant prejudice that she was aware of in her fourteen years to that point (despite living in a city where blacks were a very small minority). My friend had much hope for the future of race relations in our country and in that community in particular.

Can we take a moment to celebrate the differences in life experiences in the three generations of that African-American family?

I’m not so ignorant or sheltered as to believe racism has been eradicated in America. Frankly, I’m realistic enough to believe that it never will be eradicated in America . . . in this world . . . or in this life. Humanity is just that sinful. But in the midst of difficult times in our country, I would love to hear more people celebrating that, by the grace of God, we are not who we used to be.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Life as an Extended Metaphor

During the children's sermon yesterday, we were asked to examine our hands and pray for God to bless the work they do. So I did. And when you think about it, your hands do an amazing heck of a lot of important things.

Examining my hands closely also reminded me of something I've noticed many times over the last few years: they look like my mother's hands. The backs of them anyway. The same veins sticking out in the same manner. Wrinkles in the same spots. My thumbs curve just like hers did when I stretch my fingers. Yep, I have my mama's hands.

At least in appearance. Not in practice. In a poetry writing class I had to take in college (ugh -- I'm not a poet and don't I know it), I experimented with a piece that was an extended metaphor comparing my mother to a pair of hands. My professor (who was patient and gracious with my efforts) commented that this was kind of a bizarre image, and I suppose it was. But the truth is, my mother is probably best symbolized by her hands.

Hands that cooked meals for her family and for many others.

Hands that sewed clothes and household furnishings and anything else that could be created on a sewing machine.

Hands that crafted macrame plant hangers, quilted casserole carriers, felt Christmas tree ornaments, and pinecone wreaths for our door . . . among countless other items.

Hands that faithfully and consistently kept our small house clean and tidy. (After her death, my sisters and I remarked how we never actually saw her clean the bathrooms, and yet the bathrooms were never dirty . . .)

Hands that pulled weeds in the garden and hung laundry on the line outside.

Hands that smoothed my hair into a bun for ballet class. (Eight years of ballet and I never learned how to do my own hair.)

My mother had a warm smile and a sweet voice. But it is her hands that represent her best.

But as I said, I don't think I inherited those hands. I mean, I don't think my kids will look back on me after I die and remember things I did with my hands. I kinda wish that wasn't the case, because part of me wants so much to be like my amazing mother. But God just didn't make me that way.

I don't know what extended metaphor my children would make of me, but it would be pretty interesting to know. I think they are still too young to answer that question -- as thoughtful and creative as they are, I think you need more life experience and perspective to come up with something like that.

My words, maybe? I have many words. I deal a lot in words. That would definitely put me in contrast with my mother. Yeesh . . . if I am going to be remembered for my words, I may need to close my mouth more often . . .

Friday, February 6, 2015

Food, Glorious Food

Here is evidence of a loving God: food tastes good.

God didn't have to make food taste good. He was not beholden to us in that way. Just because the intake of nourishment is required for our survival does not mean He had to make this intake a pleasant experience. It could have been accomplished with something as dry and boring as popping a pill. Or with something as uncomfortable as an IV -- or even more painful than that. Our food that we eat could be tasteless and bland, or even foul and distasteful, something we have to force ourselves to consume to continue to live.

But God didn't do that. He made food, and he made food delicious. He made the nourishment process one that not only satisfies our stomachs but also satisfies our tongues. He made food taste good.

Now, I know what a lot of you are saying, because it's what I would be saying if I clicked on a random post and read the above paragraphs. "Yeah, but it's all the food that's BAD for me that tastes good. The healthy food sucks!" But that's not necessarily so. That's only because of what we sinful little boogers have done to our taste buds. You can't fault God for that.

I have a friend who grew up in Albania. She craves vegetables and fruit. Seriously. LOVES them. When I give her my customary gift of a bag of caramel popcorn at Christmastime, she thanks me graciously and puts it out for her American husband and children to eat. Not that she doesn't like sweet stuff (she makes a mean baklava), but she can only eat so much of it. And she doesn't have the craving for it, or for the fatty stuff, that we Americans do. Her taste buds were trained well from early on. She eats like we were meant to eat (and you can tell by looking at her).

So, yeah, believe it or not, healthy food tastes good if we eat like we're supposed to eat.

God was also good to make the nourishment process something that satisfies not only our bodies but also our souls. Case in point: we have to sit to eat. I mean, yes -- it's possible to shove food down our throats while running around doing laundry, diapering babies, and responding to emails (and many people do). But we all know that eating on the run is not good for us, digestively or otherwise. Eating requires at least one free hand to do the shoving, and it is much more efficiently done with two hands and in a seated -- or at least stationary -- position.

So, this need for physical nourishment also requires us to take two or three breaks during the day. Which are also good for us.

And since those breaks are required of every human being, and since they tend to come for all of us at similar times during the day, those breaks tend to become a social time. The standard practice in most cultures that I'm aware of is to eat with other people. Meals are for feeding our spirits with social connection as much as for feeding our cells with nutrients.

Again, God didn't have to make any of this work the way He did. Feeding ourselves could have been a lonely, miserable, even painful ordeal that we had to endure on a daily basis. Instead, he made it very pleasurable -- pleasurable enough even to be tempting as an idol in our lives. He was willing to risk that potential competition for our hearts to give us something that gives us joy.

He doesn't NEED to be that kind to us. He just is. It seems He wants us to enjoy our brief stay in this world. We should probably be more grateful for that.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

My Future With Dementia

Yesterday, a friend posted on FB a link to a news story about Alzheimer’s disease (which you can see here). The reporter experienced a simulation created to give you an idea of how life is for victims. It was fascinating to watch.

My father died in 2001 after a 21-year battle with Alzheimer’s. His three sisters have all been diagnosed now as well. (His three brothers haven’t shown any symptoms that I’m aware of.) Since there is a genetic component to this, I've known for quite a while that there’s a chance that I may be afflicted one of these days.

I think that should disturb me more than it does. Maybe if I watch more videos like this one, it will. And maybe as I get older (Dad was diagnosed in his mid-50s), it will. But right now, I surprisingly seem to take this in stride.

I've made it clear to my family that I want them to have no hesitations over putting me in a nursing home when it is time. Please do the work to be sure it’s a good nursing home (I may even do some care-shopping myself while I’m capable). And please keep an eye on me and visit me frequently. But don’t think you’re being heroic or loving by keeping me in your house when I reach the point of being dangerously debilitated. Put me where I’m safe and you’re safe, too.

I've also made it clear that I want them to appreciate the humor in the situation whenever they can. Seriously. I remember once visiting my dad in the common room of his care center when a fellow patient wandered into the room. She looked around curiously, and then announced loudly to everyone present, “I gotta pee!” And she dropped her sweatpants and undergarments to her ankles. The four care workers in the room came diving from their various corners, calling in unison, “Noooooo!!!!”

I tried SO hard to stifle my laughter. It was hilarious. Please don’t judge me – if that had been my dad, I would have laughed, too. It was funny, people! If I get to where I’m doing crazy stuff like that, I want my family to feel free to find some enjoyment in it. Life will be hard enough at that point; you gotta see the humor where you can.

The editor of World magazine once wrote about his mother's Alzheimer's experience. She had apparently had a miserable, difficult life and was generally a very unpleasant, miserable person to be around for most of it. Until she got dementia. Then she forgot all the old resentments and hurts -- every day was new and bright. He said her last three years of life were probably her happiest. Sometimes there is a blessing in forgetting.

I don't expect that to be me -- I don't think I have horrible resentments that will bring bliss when they are forgotten. But I have been making a point of trying to change my general mental state. What I have noticed about people as they age (including my parents) is that they don't really change in personality; they just lose their ability (or desire sometimes) to put on the mask that they are expected to wear in polite society. They say what they really think. They act how they really feel. They stop playing the "nice" game, and usually not by choice. 

This being the case, I want to be sure that I'm genuinely nice, that my thoughts and feelings are full of grace and love, so when my filter is gone, I'm not spouting venom to the world that serves to isolate me from the world. My best preparation for old age, I think, is submitting myself wholeheartedly to God changing me from the inside out, so I'm as much like Him as possible. 

Which, really, should be my goal in life anyway, right?

Monday, February 2, 2015

On Our Words and Who They Glorify

Dear, dear friend,

It is extremely rare that I feel God gives me words to speak to a specific person in my life, and even when He does, I am hesitant to speak them. It feels arrogant -- it feels presumptuous -- it requires courage I don't always have. But you have spoken truth to me before that you felt I needed to hear, so I hope you (and any other readers who may also need this message) take these words in the same spirit.

As I sat listening to the sermon yesterday, one word from the pastor brought up other words from this week . . . which brought up other words from my past . . . and ultimately the Lord brought your face, vividly, to my mind. It started with . . .

. . . The story in Mark 1 of the demon-possessed man. "What do you want with us?" the evil spirits in him screamed at Jesus. "Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are -- the Holy One of God!" To which Jesus responded with a stern rebuke: "Be quiet!" Or as the pastor paraphrased, "Put a lid on it!"

Sometimes, the evil spirits around us (or within us) need to be told immediately and emphatically to put a lid on it. And this reminded me of . . .

. . . A comment a friend had about my post a couple weeks ago about MLK and adultery. She told me when she started reading what I wrote, she wanted to tell me to stop focusing on the sin and forgetting the restoration that God can bring from it -- "because evil would love for that to happen." Evil would love for that to happen. The enemy loves for us to speak of his work. It brings him glory.

What a sobering thought. I, through the words I speak, can either bring glory to God or glory to the enemy. God forbid that I glorify the wrong entity. And it reminded me of . . .

. . . Many years ago, when a friend was comforting me in a moment of sudden overwhelming crisis. After crying with me for a few minutes, she pulled herself together and began to pull me together by saying, "Okay, we need to start focusing on what's true. This is true -- let's think about that. This is true -- let's meditate on that. This thing here: that's speculation. We don't know that it's true, so we're not even going to go there. God is truth, He lives in truth, and we need God's presence here, so truth is all we're going to speak."

Amazing and powerful words my friend spoke to me that day. They have come back to me in many a trying time. "Whatever is true . . . think on these things," Paul tells us in Philippians, and in 2 Corinthians he reminds us to "cast down imaginations." Focus your thoughts on what is true, and only let those words escape your lips. Which brought to mind a song . . .

. . . A song that I know you hear on K-LOVE all the time, too. Toby Mac reminds us to "Speak life - speak life, to the deadest darkest night . . . when the sun won't shine and you don't know why." Mac has been singing this to me all morning this morning. I've heard much teaching (Christian and secular) on the power of our spoken words, and I know you have, too, because you've shared it with me.

My friend, I know life is hard, and it's particularly hard these days. But I want to remind you of the power of the words we speak. "The Lord inhabits the praise of His people," we are told in Psalm 22. Our words can glorify God and bring us into His presence, or that can bring glory to the enemy and give him more power over us than he has a right to. There are thoughts and words that Satan brings to our mind that we need to, emphatically, tell him to put a lid on.

Watch your words, my dear friend. Speak words of hope . . . speak love . . . speak truth . . . speak life.  Even if just to yourself.