11 September 2009


Recently, I was asked if my essay "Powerful Birthdays" could be republished at the Episcopal Cafe. I agreed, and am pleased that more people will get to see it.

I wrote it a few weeks after the hijackings on 11 September that lead to the destruction of the twin towers in New York City, the Pentagon, and the crash of Flight 93.

It is both odd and sad that I have a "where I was" memory of this event. I am old enough to remember where I was during the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, but that memory is fading over time-- party because I was in High School, and, other than the loss of the shuttle, it was an unremarkable day.

On the day of the hijackings, I woke up before dawn and couldn't get back to sleep. This is not a normal thing for me. I'm a night person and usually only see the dawn if I have been up all night.

I don't remember when I learned about the attacks. I can't remember if I heard about them before leaving the house and deciding that it would be best to go into work and be as normal as possible, or if it was after I got into work.

I do remember the strange, jittery sensation of experiencing something unfold around me. It didn't help that my office was on a major thoroughfare and that, on a normal day it was not unusual to hear the sirens of police, ambulance, and fire services multiple times in one day, and this was not a normal day. Every time a siren shrilled its way past our building it made me jump.

I remember my Mom calling me to let me know that my brother was okay. He not only worked in Washington D.C. but on those days that he took mass transit in to the city, one of his stops was the Pentagon station. That day he had driven in to work and he spent hours in the car trying to get our of the city and home again.

I don't remember anything else about that day. The feeling I remember from that day is one of trying to carry on in the face of something too large to comprehend. I also remember a feeling in the air that the best thing we could do was carry on as if nothing had happened. That there was nothing we could do to help, other than hold down the fort, as it were. Everything that could be done on the east coast was being done by the people there-- the best thing for us to do was to stay out of the way (and off the phone lines).

A few weeks later I wrote my essay and it is still what I believe, but I won't be surprised if several years from now, my son (who is 10) looks up around this time of year, rolls his eyes, and says 'this again'-- meaning TV specials marking the event, the NFL marking it on game days that fall on or near the date, and people like me saying "I remember where I was when..."

That moment will likely not be relevant to him and will feel like we are just tearing open old wounds the same time every year, because that is how I felt every year around November 22 when all of the "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" memorial moments would replay in our national consciousness.

When I was much younger, I used to think that there should be an expiration date on such memorials. (I was rather callous when I was younger.) I thought that five or ten years were enough, that lowering the flag for every national tragedy in perpetuity would only lead to having our flag at half-mast year-round.

One of the things that changed my mind was a movie. Several years after the attacks, I was taking Norwegian classes and we watched the movie "Cool and Crazy" which is about a Norwegian male chorus from a small town in northern Norway. Not long after we watched the sequel, Cool and Crazy: On the Road. I was warned in advance to bring tissues.

It turned out that the choir had come to New York in October 2001. After deciding to go ahead and come on their tour, they took the opportunity to talk to people in New York about their feelings after the attack. That section of the movie made me realize how devastating the attack had felt to people living there in a way that no American news coverage had. It also shows the contrast between the physical and emotional devastation of the attack sites and the relative normality of much of the rest of the country.

It is a very jarring film to watch because the viewer emerges from the intense atmosphere of New York after 9/11 to the wide open spaces of a beautiful fall in the Dakotas and on to California. One moment a man who survived being bombed as a child in Norway during World War II is comforting a woman who could see the towers fall from her apartment and the next that man is on a bus to a harvest festival in the mid-west.

But that is the way life is-- jarring and full of contrast. There is no one right way to experience the aftermath of such an event. I just hope the children of my son's generation will give us time for our memories but that we will not force them to carry our memories into their futures.

12 July 2009

Erratic Orbit

Today I got up, dressed for church, left on time, arrived early only to find...

...that today there were no 1030 services-- today was the day of the Church picnic.

Now I don't go to church regularly, but the priest had called us to see if we were thinking of becoming regular members of the parish and we'd said yes. Have we received any other information from them? No.

Does their web-site say that there are no services today? No. (There is a listing for "Church picnic" under events but no time, date, or location is given.)

Do I feel bad that it is currently pouring down rain and I am indoors with a nice cup of coffee and my computer? No.

However, I have a new description of my status as a church-goer-- I'm a comet in a highly erratic orbit and you never know when my path will cross with an actual church service.

18 March 2009

Faith Formation Through Fic Reading

I'm the type of person who can find deep meaning in a bowl of cereal and I love reading, so its not surprising that much of my thinking about religion comes in the form of the books I read and how I respond to them. This time around I've been reading a mix of fiction and non-fiction.


“Meditations on Violence: a comparison of martial arts training and real world violence" by Rory Miller
I had the opportunity of watching a presentation the author gave on how police are trained to handle potentially violent situations while balancing competing needs. I found him to be a compelling speaker, so when I found he had a book out, I bought a copy. It is a quick read and packed with useful information and interesting insights. In fact, I would recommend this book most highly because so much of it comes from the author's personal experience-- as he says in the introduction: “This book is about violence, especially about the difference between violence as it exists 'in the wild' and violence as it is taught in martial arts classes and absorbed through our culture.” As someone who does not have much experience with violence first hand, I found his book to be engaging and thoughtful. He explores the difference between the structured violence of sport and the wild violence of an ambush as well as talking about the effects of both short-term and long-term exposure to violence. I really appreciated that the author seemed to stick to what he personally knows--whenever he would touch on aspects of violence where he did not have first-hand knowledge he was up front about it.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs.

I bought this book on spec at Powell's books during one of our pilgrimages there. Especially given the bro-ha-ha in the Episcopal Church over biblical literalism and inclusiveness, this looked like it might be a light-hearted take on subject. I was not disappointed. The author has a lively writing style and is perfectly willing to poke fun at himself and some of the situations he gets himself into as a result of trying to follow the bible's 'rules' as literally as possible. However, this book surprised me with its depth. It is one man's spiritual journey-- all the more interesting because he starts from a secular understanding of 'faith'.


Castle Waiting written and illustrated by Linda Medley

This story of Sleeping Beauty's castle re-imagined as a refuge for those with no other home and populated with classic fairy-tale elements is a lovely story about community and all the little acts it takes to make a house (or in this case a castle) a home. A series of linked stories introduces the reader to both the castle and the people who call it home. The stories range across the characters lives, showing little bits and pieces of the roads travelled to arrive at Castle Waiting. The detailed artwork makes it worth several close reads as more details emerge as one knows to look for them. My brother gave me this as a gift and I greatly enjoyed reading it. One of the characters that I found the most interesting is a nun with a strange sense of humor and a knack for telling stories. Her story of life in the circus and then in an unusual order of bearded sisters is a light-hearted but meaningful look at what it means to be a person of faith.

15 February 2009

Hair for Life

I was watching a keynote speech Bill Gates gave where he talked about two problems: malaria eradication and creating good teachers. During his talk he mentioned that more money is spent every year on hair loss products than on malaria research. I found that shocking (but I watch enough late-night TV not to find it surprising).

I understand that our society has stereotypes about baldness that can undermine a persons sense of self worth. However, it occurred to me that if we could divert even a fraction of the money that goes to the hair restoration industry into malaria research it would make a real difference in the lives of millions of people.

My own husband has a dome devoid of hair-- he had to grapple with what hair loss would mean to him at a young age. He decided not to worry about it and, quite frankly, it made him even more attractive as far as I am concerned (but then I am biased).

What if we could divert some of the money that goes to the cosmetics industry to disease research and prevention?

I'm not trying to single out just folks facing hair loss. There are many people (myself included) who spend money on products and services to make us look better (and thus feel better and more confident). Is there a way for those of us who are fundamentally healthy to pull back from our focus on 'curing' our imperfections and, instead, focus our money and an attention on those who could be saved from debilitating illnesses with proper research into the medical and logistic ways to halt the spread of disease?

Some facts about malaria (from Episcopal Relief and Development):

--a child dies from malaria every 30 seconds.
--malaria infects 500 million people a year.
--malaria kills over 1 million (mostly children and pregnant women).

--a one month supply of Rogaine, a tube of brand name lipstick, a jar of anti-aging cream all cost more than one mosquito net and the training to use it to help prevent mosquitoes from infecting a family with malaria.

And malaria is not the only disease out there whose eradication efforts could use a boost. So the next time I consider plunking down money for a new cosmetic I am, at the very least, going to match the funds with a donation to Nets for Life or some other group working to prevent malaria.

How much more beautiful or handsome will we be if we can walk through the world knowing we laid our vanity down on the altar of sacrifice and gave another person a chance at life?

28 January 2009

In God we Trust

I was visiting a lovely church in Manzanita, Oregon for services one Sunday. One of the bible passages appointed for the day was the parable of the hired hands from Matthew 20:1-16 in which a landowner hires workers throughout the day. At the end of the day he settles up with all of the workers, paying them all the same amount, regardless of how long they worked.

This has always been one of the difficult passages of the New Testament for me. Every time I came back to this story I would be on the side of workers who had been hired first thing who were asking why they were only being paid the wages agreed upon at the beginning of the day while all the other latecomers were getting, essentially, a bonus for working a shorter day. Not only that, but the landowner has the latest workers paid first. The early workers see that those workers are getting a full day's pay and think they might get more than originally agreed upon. When they are only give the day's wage they are disappointed.

While I was listening to the sermon, I reread the passage printed in the church bulletin. When the first workers are hired the passage says “After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.” When the later workers are hired the passage reads: “'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.” What struck me is that the first workers bargain with the landowner and make a contract, which the landowner later fulfills, while the later workers take the landowner's offer that he will pay 'whatever is right' on faith. He could have paid them anything-- prorated the day's wage, paid them piecework, whatever he felt was right-- they were leaving it in his hands.

When the early workers grumble that the later workers have been made equal to them without having put in the same amount of work the land owner makes two replies. First he says: “'Friend I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” The contract is fulfilled. He goes on to ask the early workers, who are feeling wronged: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Usually the focus of this passage it on the last line-- the summary of the parable “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” However, I found that the last question “are you envious because I am generous” is what leapt out at me. The early workers made a contract and were paid accordingly. The later workers, some of whom had been waiting to be chosen for work all day, were grateful for anything they could get. They made no contract. They gave their work and trusted to the promise of the landowner that he would pay what was right at the end of the day. When the end of the day came their trust was rewarded by the generosity of the landlord. All were paid for a day's labor.

Now, with a human landlord, a contract is a very good idea but in the the beginning this parable is introduced in the following way: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”

The parable is describing heaven. Those who trust in God to do what is right will see that promise fulfilled. Those who make a contract with God will see their contract met. God keeps faith with both.

All are equal through God's grace but some of his workers feel betrayed by his generosity. Even in the kingdom of heaven, it seems, people will still be people and feel envy, greed, despair, and disappointment. The landowner levels the playing field by providing all of his laborers with a day's wage but that does not magically transform people into generous, loving souls.

Those who are confronted with the question: “are you envious because I am generous?” are left to reflect on how it could possibly hurt them for others to be raised up in grace when they have already received full payment for their work. While those who trusted in the promise of 'whatever is right' are left astonished by the generous payment of the landowner.

And so I ask myself, who would I rather be-- the laborer who feels slighted at being paid in full for a day's labor? or the worker who was picked last, who despaired of finding work, and who ends the day showered in the joy of unexpected generosity?

Contracts are fulfilled but faith is rewarded.