Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Young Girl and a Powerful Man

As a freshman in college, I was cast in the lead role of the play Antigone.  A week ago, today,  I was back on campus with my husband and my daughter.  We toured the campus and visited all the important places, even gaining entrance into the costume room where members of every cast would sign the wall.  That play changed my life.  It was the door that would open my heart and mind to who I am today.

Later that day, we were settling to bed at a hotel, watching the breaking news about Trump's terrible (albeit not surprising) conversation, recorded eleven years ago.  Talking heads were going insane, suggesting this was the end for Trump, that he would back out of the race, etc. etc.  I was so tired. I went to sleep.

Back at home, I attempted to settle back into my routine, but my mind grew increasingly troubled as I watched Trump's version of an apology and the resulting commentary that followed from people I know...some of them even part of the cast of that play that so altered my life. My stomach ached. I couldn't sleep.  I obsessively read article after article on Facebook.

Their reaction goes something like this:  Well, yeah. What he said was bad.  But we've got to think about the Supreme Court. We've got to have pro-life judges! We've got to have judges that believe in traditional families!  Besides, it's only words.  Women don't seem to mind trashy talk in dirty books and movies and tv shows.  Kind of hypocritical, don't you think?

Antigone is a Greek tragedy.  We utilized a translation that had been modernized.  I found it online and read the whole thing through, hearing it in my memory in our own young voices.  The gist of the story is that Antigone has two brothers who have killed each other in a civil war. Their uncle Creon has taken power and to settle the matter, gives one brother a hero's burial and one brother is left to rot, unburied, as an example to the people.  Antigone is young and engaged to Creon's son. She has her whole life before her. But leaving her brother unburied meant that his soul would wander forever and he would have no rest in the afterlife.  Knowing it would cost her life, she buries the body and defies the king.  They exchange a lengthy debate, but ultimately, she cannot be dissuaded.  Decency and human dignity must be upheld.  Even if her brother was not a good man.  It is a moral double-bind.  A logic vs. heart decision.

At the time, we planned to create allusions to the pro-life movement within the production, but as rehearsals went on, the idea was dropped.  We hoped that the words of the play and the story itself would be enough to say that dignity of human life was worth protecting, even dying for, in the face of powerful leaders who would not uphold it.

There are important political agendas and there is basic human decency and you cannot skip one to get to the other.

"What a person can do, a person should do."  Antigone says flatly.

Trump's words and actions have ripped open a wound in the souls of women. An article about Kelly Oxford's Twitter question to women (here) left me nearly paralyzed by memories and shame. But for women like me, who grew up in the evangelical/fundamentalist church, there is a something especially venomous about this.  You speak of being pro-life.  How we must hold our noses and vote for Trump because of the babies.  But please, can somebody tell me, who of you is standing up for women?

For years, you told us that women shouldn't go to work. Our duty was homemaking and taking care of the children. You told us we can't teach the Bible to boys older than twelve. You told us we could never be pastors. You told us that we must be modest because our brothers in Christ were relying on us to “not cause them to stumble.” You had us kneel down before you to measure our commitment to God...or our skirts...we didn't know the difference. You made us so self-conscious that when we looked in the mirror, we learned to be a little plainer, a little uglier, a little less. You told us that we were the keepers of our purity, while the boys scaled the walls to gawk at us in the locker room from the ceiling. When the girl got pregnant, she had to get up in front of the whole school and apologize. When the man molested girls in our school, you gave him a love offering and sent him quietly on his way "for the sake of the gospel." And he molested again. When the missionary abused the missionary kids, you told the girl it was her fault. And he abused again. When we got to Bible college we talked to the other girls: "At your Christian school, too?” You told us over and over again that we could never really be equal because of the curse. And when we got married, you expected us to be attractive, but never sexy. You told us to never say no to our husbands, especially on Saturday night so that he wouldn't be lusting after other women in the church on Sunday morning. You created a collective culture of ignorant mistreatment, inequality, abuse, assault, and objectification, in the name of Jesus.

And now, you would lead those women to vote for a man to lead the whole country in that tone.  For the greater good, of course.

In 4th grade penmanship class, I practiced my cursive writing with this quote: "It's never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right."   -Dr. Bob Jones Sr.  The repetition of penmanship practice led to the permanence of the idea in my mind.

And that is the crux of the thing for me.  I have friends who will vote for  Trump because of finances or military concerns, and I'm ok with that. But for those of you who want to believe that you will achieve some greater good for the Kingdom of God by voting for someone who denigrates other human beings,  in the words of Antigone, "I spit on that.

This is not about who you vote for.  It is about what you think you are accomplishing.  Do not assume that the Kingdom of God is the same as the empires of men.  It is not built on the backs of those who can be assaulted into submission.

You can't make the world safer for babies by making it more unsafe for women.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Twenty - Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

As the plane rose in the sky and the few clouds scattered to make the scene below us visible, Robb promptly drifted off to sleep.  Apparently, planning a massive surprise 20th anniversary vow renewal, reception, and 2nd honeymoon in the middle of a job change while pastoring a church and parenting four kids, followed by four days of beach life can really take it out of a guy.  Who knew?

Alone with my thoughts, I could probably have spent the whole flight going over the trip in my mind, much like I did for the few hours of rest we had after we left the reception.  All I knew then was that I was to pack for four days for a hot beach.  I didn't know where the beach was, but I knew Robb was packing our passports.  It was his last surprise.  The flight would leave early Sunday morning, so we would have just a couple of hours to pack and sleep and then leave the kids in the care of my parents.  I was too overwhelmed to sleep, though, and instead, I spent those few hours going over the perfection of every detail in my mind.  I could not stop smiling.  I think I smiled through the flight from XNA to Atlanta where finally, all the way at the end of the terminal, I saw our destination designated at the gate:  Nassau, Bahamas.

Of course.   Of course he would take me to the Bahamas.  Twenty years ago, he had gone there on his senior trip for college, learning to sail chartered boats around the islands on a grand adventure, while  I was back at home in snowy Pennsylvania.  He bought a handcrafted box with a butterfly on it from the Straw Market there, and used it to hide my engagement ring the night he proposed. Of course he always intended to bring me back there with him.

And it had been perfect.  Just the right mix of adventures and doing nothing.  The water, so clear and blue, the sand so fine and white, the waves smaller and calmer than they are on the Great Lakes.  The all-inclusive hotel provided one delicious meal after another, and enough alcohol to pickle our livers. And the best part, as any other parent of four children could verify, we didn't have to worry about anyone but ourselves.  The lovely Bahamian people have made it their business to make their guests relax and have fun, and they are good at it.

I even got a chance to wear that cute dress I had bought.  It was perfect for our actual anniversary on that Tuesday night, when we followed a delicious dinner of steak and lobster with a moonlit walk on the beach.   We talked about our dreams and hopes for the future, especially as we were about to really start a whole new routine with Robb's new job, working from home, and the kids heading back to school.  I tried again to explain what I was feeling back at the very beginning of this huge surprise... why I asked "Am I dying?"   It was such an odd thing to say. I fumbled for an explanation as we made our way down the soft sand with the beach all to ourselves. 

 "I just feel like I'm due some sadness with all this joy."  

"Why?  We live by grace, Honey, not karma." 

Something about the objectivity of that theological statement settled me, like it often does, and our conversation drifted to other things. 

But, back on the plane on the way home, feelings I didn't quite understand began to build.  My heart pounded as I tried to ascertain what I was seeing below us.  The water was so clear, I could discern what seemed to be shallow water around the edges of land.  But I knew from flipping a jet-ski earlier that morning,  that even though it looked shallow, it was actually quite deep.  As the turquoise turned to dark blue, the vastness of the water frightened me.  What is comforting and relaxing while you curl your toes into the sand -the bigness of the ocean verses the smallness of your problems-  it becomes something entirely different as you fly above it and cannot find the orienting edges of where the water ends and the dry land appears.  I tried to read, but the opening chapters of Dave Egger's book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are nothing short of a parent's nightmare.  The more I tried to calm myself, the more I could feel panic rising.  The thought of waking Robb to tell him I was freaking out seemed too cruel. He had just given me such a perfect could I turn around and tell him I was unhappy in any way?   It seemed like the blood pounding in my ears and the pressure of the air of the plane were both pushing me into a corner of my imagination.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted everything to stop.  I wanted to hide.  I wanted to stop feeling whatever it was that I was feeling.

"God. You have to come get me.  I'm freaking out here."  I prayed.
"I'm serious. Drop whatever you are doing. I need you."


Back at home,  the school year resumed. So much newness.  Not only was Robb really getting in gear for his new job, I started a part-time gig with my friend Stacie and her shop Gingiber, answering customer service questions and helping with other areas of communication.  My ordination paper still unfinished, I observed the days and tried to guess how I might construct them in ways that let me accomplish as much as possible, while running the mom-taxi and keeping this crazy little toddler of ours occupied in ways other than say...coating herself in eyelash glue from her sister's bathroom (Sorry, Mattie).  The air cooled unusually for the weather in August here in Arkansas, and we gulped down each new day like another bite of dessert.

We had a therapy session on the calendar already, which Robb had cleverly pushed back a week or two longer than our usual interval, so there was much to talk about. We practiced telling the story of Robb's surprise with our therapist, since we will be telling it for years to come.  Much of the hour was gone by the time I brought up the anxious moments from the plane.

"What is the deal with that?" I asked flippantly, not really expecting any real answer of substance. The time was too short to cover such a big topic.  And besides, obviously, I had so much happiness to live off of, I could push anxiety away by replaying the happy story to myself and other people.   Those hours of being so perfectly loved. So perfectly safe. So perfectly relaxed.  My only job being to feel joy.

I had even described it to Robb as being life-changing.  He had raised an eyebrow to that and teased that I was being a little dramatic.  "No! I'm really not."  I explained.  It was as if my parameters of what was possible had been pushed back to a much wider, more beautiful, more hopeful, space.  Robb's "why not" of grace had cleared back a landscape that I often allow to become overgrown with doubts, mismanaged practicalities, self-imposed limitations and childhood hangups.

 Our therapist cleared his throat.  "Well, it seems to me that anxiety comes up so often for people because we exist in the world as adults the way we learned to exist in the world as children."

I choked down a sob that caught me totally by surprise.

Perhaps you want to read those words again and see how that bit of free therapy I'm passing along affects you. I can only tell you that I suddenly had the image of my own self, at about 7 years old.  In my imagination, I poke my head in, like moms do, to see her playing by herself in her room.  I know what is inside the mom's head. And I know what is inside the girl's head.  So often, when we look back on ourselves, we are condescending; "So dumb!" we think.  But in this moment, I saw that child with compassion, the way I would feel about my own kids.  My eyes followed the unruly curls on her head and observed her easy smile.  She is full of curiosity. Creativity.  Industry.  She is always thinking up a day-dream, a pretty, innocent thing.  She sees the world as basically good and she sees herself as basically strong.

But you know how kids pack for things in ways that seem so silly?  You tell them, "We're going on a trip!" And they pack their favorite stuffed animal and four shirts, and a few toys and no socks or toothbrush or pants?   I imagine myself that way too.  For life, I packed some ridiculous notions.

I packed the expectation that nothing good comes without some string attached.  I learned somehow as a kid to never think that good things just came along without something equally and oppositely bad.
There is no free lunch.
Into every life a little rain must fall.
Don't tempt the gods by being too happy.

I should make the disclaimer that I don't know if anyone was really trying to teach me that or not.  Kids just try to make sense of their worlds the best they can.

The image faded from my mind as I came back to our therapist's office and I heard his voice clarifying his comment:

"We are trying to decipher, is it a benevolent universe, or isn't it?  How are God and my father different?"

"It's Psychology 101" I said.  "I get it."


Back on the plane, my desperate attempt to reach Heaven for an answer had just been sent, and I waited for a reply like an important text.  I snapped photos, trying to look calm when I felt like any second I might start screaming.

And then I heard it.

I don't often hear from God.  Probably because I'm not often poised on the edge of terror.  I can usually find some activity to busy myself and push anxious thoughts away.  But on a few occasions, I have heard that unmistakable voice.  The economy of words is what tips me off.  They speak straight to the real thing.  My own imagination is ...obviously.... wordy in the extreme.

It was not the promise "Nothing bad will happen to you."  or "You are never going to get cancer"  or "You'll always get to have the relationships you want to have."  or even "This plane will land safely."

Instead, the words spoke to the source of my real anxiety.  My panic attack on the plane was born out of the belief that because I had experienced such bliss, I would pay for it.  It would come after me and break my thumbs and demand equal suffering. And it would be soon. Because, as one psychologist explains it, "What fires together, wires together."  If you were having a perfectly nice time and let your guard down and were just having fun, that was the moment that everything would turn south.  The principal would walk in on your dance party in Study Hall.  The family vacation turned into a yelling match. The snake slithered down the creek where you were wading.  So don't be too happy. Don't have too much fun. Don't get too relaxed.

God said to me: "I made this for you."

"I made this for you. "

"I made this for you."

There is no other shoe to drop.

You don't have to pay for sunrises.  They just happen. Everyday.  You don't have to earn leaves changing colors. It just happens.  We don't work for waves. They just happen.  A daily, reliable, tangible gift.  Love. Goodness. Beauty.  Grace.  The deep water we don't always understand. The islands of calm.  The colors. The air.  The vastness. All of it.  It's right there in front of you.

My heart stopped pounding and took Robb's hand and went home to my beautiful life.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Twenty - Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

When we were 21 years old, we accepted that a wedding reception involved a nicely decorated church fellowship hall or gym,
punch and cake,
church-approved background music,
and if you were really on the cutting edge....a picture slideshow.
And not much else.
Back then there were plenty of relatives and friends to hug.  We got almost nothing to eat while visiting with everyone and woke up in the middle of the night at a bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere starving to death.  I deeply regretted not having more formal photos taken of the groom's side of the family that had assembled from parts unknown across the country. There is a photo of Robb fake-dancing with my Mom.  We had fun....I mean...we had pulled off the wedding part and were very relieved. But it was a buttoned-down affair, reflective of our theology at the time.

Fast forward 20 years and we found ourselves once again in a church.  But this time, there was no question about having fun.  This was a party. And Robb had thought of everything.  For him, God is in the details.

He hired Fayetteville's poet laureate, Clayton Scott,  turned food-truck-chef of Best Frickin' Chicken to cater with chicken and waffles on the menu.  Their secret maple cream gravy is no longer available on the menu, but Robb got him to make me my own delicious batch because he knew how much I love it!  Long-time friend Derek from Core Brewery brought kegs of delicious local beer.  Samantha, who is one of the single most interesting and beautiful people I have ever met in my life, created the cake with a nod to our original wedding cake, with gorgeous flowers on top and candied rose petals on the cupcakes.  Scott was emcee and spun the tunes ...a masterful mix that included personal favorites and crowdsourced dance-tunes...while his exquisite Julie arranged all the flowers, including the bouquets and boutonnieres...using daisies and roses, our original flowers.  The whole thing smacked of thoughtful planning, generosity, joy, collaboration, inclusion, and un-self-conscious celebration.

Our friends Derek and Natalie spoke words of blessing over us in the form of toasts. Their words reminded us again that the love we have for each other, the life we are building, isn't just for ourselves, but instead, brings good to our community, both in and out of our church.

Somewhere in all of this, I was getting bits and pieces about the secret Facebook Event Page where the collaboration had run wild since March.  That's right...for almost five months, this joyous scheming had been simmering away.  There had been a moment when I glimpsed the page open on Robb's computer and I saw the picture at the top of the page from our wedding day, and I asked him what it was, and he had fumbled for an answer.  I chalked it up to "the surprise" and didn't think much else about it.  Little did I know of the playlist suggestions, group-thinking, and clandestine virtual high-fives that were going on under my nose as each piece of the puzzle fell into place.

What I did know was that something wonderful was becoming obvious:  My husband, who finds it so difficult at times to be vulnerable, had dropped all masks while planning this event with everyone. He was telling the truth when he wrote on the event page: "If you ruin this surprise, I will never speak to you again."  But he was also bringing people along on a grand adventure. Instead of acting as a lone wolf, he shared the whole project, inviting everyone in on the fun.  Creativity IS leadership, and he was building trust and bonds with our children and with everyone involved with the event.  Who does something like this unless they are an extraordinary person?  He believes deeply in the comedy and the fairy tale of the gospel and he has a gift for keeping child-like wonder alive for people who sometimes drift out of Narnia and think they've outgrown it.  That is what fuels him.  That is the consistent, stubborn, nearly insane assertion he has been rock-steady about since I met him: this belief in God's grace as the transformational element above and beyond all we could ask or imagine. So why not throw a perfect party for the love of his wife?  Why not pastor a church tirelessly with a full time job as well? Why not help a stranger in need?  Why not welcome all to the communion table? Why not attempt to wade the water of politics with love in your heart for everyone?  Why not believe the Cleveland Browns could win the Super Bowl?   All is grace.

If he had a twin, separated from him at birth, it would be Natalie.  They are wired so similarly and appear so differently.  So it is no wonder that my beautiful friend was intricately involved in the whole thing, I couldn't possibly explain all that she did, except perhaps that she "got it."  She knew what he was shooting for and worked to make it all happen.

 We never learned to dance.  It was "not done" at weddings by most in our circles and there are no dances at Christian schools, either.  I would fumble badly through even the Chicken Dance.  It is kind of a metaphor, really, for how we learned to be in the world: some unfortunate mix of my personality type, circumstances and lousy theology had kept me for years under the impression that emotions must always be expressed neatly and tidily and our bodies aren't to be trusted as a medium of tidy emotional expression.  But looking around, I was easily reminded that everyone was here for joy and not one person in the room would judge us. We could dance like David and there would be no snooty Michal to ruin the fun.  So we danced the night away.   Which suited my parents just fine, because my parents are nothing but smooth and elegant on the dance floor and Robb was sure to include "their song" in the playlist.

Our Charleigh was born for dancing.  I asked her where she learned to dance like she does and she turned her chin and said, "I just make it up."   Her athleticism and fully-committed attitude had us in stitches.  I tried to keep up with her once and ended up with burning thigh muscles and a river of sweat running down my back.  But how we laughed!  And our friends!  I knew I could count on them to keep that party swinging. I could watch them dance for hours and my sides burned from laughing.

At the end of the evening,  our friends whisked us out the door without letting us help clean up.  Their send off was a sweet detail:  At our wedding, I dreamed of being sent away under a shower of rose petals, of course captured iconically by the photographer.  But our florist forgot the rose petals, and instead, I have a photo of 300 people outside a church that always reminds me of the frankly awkward scene in the Sound of Music when the partygoers wave to the children and echo their "Goodnight."  It always bothered me.   (the movie and the omission of the rose petals. Equally.)

So of course, my husband remembered the rose petals.  Of course he did.   And Nikki captured it all.

And then he said,
"Are you ready for one more surprise?"

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