Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Drug Called Busyness

I'm posting excerpts from a piece I've been polishing up for a devotional book. What appears below is neither the author's original composition, nor (I expect) what we'll end up publishing, but something in-between. Consider this a sneak peek! This is from one Mark P., whom I don't believe I've ever met. Yet as I read about his life I see we have more than a few things in common...

He begins the piece by describing walking along a riverbank with his wife on a rare day off:
...Caught up in a frantic and busy schedule, I could not remember the last time I had purposefully gotten away for quiet and rest. Each day I felt more and more pushed, and I knew it was all of my own making.

Other concerns, some beyond my control, were also weighing heavy on my heart. My mother's cancer was not responding to treatments, college tuitions were due again, the business I was running in the Balkans was under some new pressures.

And a pattern of morning anxiety had started. Each day I woke startled, my heart pounding as if a fire alarm had awakened me. I had a horrible sense of impending doom. This so preoccupied my morning thoughts that I rushed through a quiet time with the Lord, thinking all the while, "I need to get going; I have so much to do. I have to get started!" The Lord did not get much quality time from me, and consequently, I was not really listening to Him much. Praying? Of course, but in a frantic, rote way. All the time, the twisting knot in my stomach that I had awoken with would get tighter and tighter.

My loving wife convinced me that I needed to talk to someone about this, and I finally shared it with a mentor who happens to be a professional counselor. His diagnosis? I had been stuffing down my hurts, concerns, and troubles pretty well on the surface, but they were beginning to fight their way out and refused to be stuffed any longer.

I had unwittingly been treating myself for this "illness" with a form of medication that surprised me when I found out. It wasn’t the usual type of drug so common in the world. Not alcohol, not narcotics, nothing "over-the-counter." I was self-medicating with a drug call "busyness."

In my quest to make the anxious feelings go away, I just stayed busy. As long as I kept it up it worked like an anesthetic for the pain. I seldom sat still for very long. When I did stop to take a break - perhaps watching a movie with my family - I would fall asleep from sheer exhaustion, only to wake up and repeat the cycle the following day.

My mentor’s recommended treatment was something quite different: decompression time. He told me I needed at least an hour a day of reflection, meditation, quiet time, and soul searching. No less. In other words, I needed to treat this illness with a healthy dose of daily Sabbath rest.

After more than half a century of living I now had to learn to really "do Sabbath" for the first time in my life. I had just ignored this command of the Lord. And it’s one of the "big ten"!

I began devouring every reading material on the subject, but I paced myself. This could not just be another busy activity; it needed to be an escape from activity.

In his book "The Rest of God" Mark Buchanan sums up what he calls the Golden Rule of Sabbath. It has two parts. The first part: "Cease from that which is necessary." In other words, "stop doing what you ought to do." And the second part: "to embrace that which gives life." Each of us knows the kind of things which we do because we ought to - or at least that's what we think. Likely we could each also conjure up a list of things that would relax us and bring enjoyment.

Simply stop doing the one, and make sure you do the other!

Easier said than done, but possible if you "renew your mind."

Years ago, I often traveled to China on business. The Chinese have one word made up of two written characters for the word "busy." Interestingly the two characters are "heart" and "killing." Busyness kills the heart. It is fraught with "ought to and should do" obligations.

Sabbath rest is like a balm or healing salve to the heart. It's a rest that comes only when we slow down enough…quiet ourselves so that we can hear Him and enjoy Him. There is much that the Lord wants to impart to us, things about Him that we can only experience if we truly have a Sabbath heart…and experience the rest of God.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Sez Who?

1. Questions

A few days ago one of the guys in my small group from church shared something that got all our attention:

“Lately I’ve been asking God a question – I don’t mean to sound like a heretic here but these are my actual words: ‘What would it look like, God, if you actually loved me?’

“The answer… well, you know that song in Fiddler on the Roof, ‘Do You Love Me?’ Tevye asks his wife that, and she’s amazed: all these years I’ve been cooking and cleaning for you, raising children with you, and you have to ask, do I love you?

“It’s been like that. We have food and water and shelter and money and health and relationships and all these other good things. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that those things are an answer to my question. His love shows up all around us, every day. We are so incredibly blessed.”

Being on sabbatical and of a pensive bent to start with, I have been asking similar questions. Oh, they are kind of scary questions, and I am reluctant to say them aloud. After all, they sound like accusations, the kind of thing I have no right to ask. I’d prefer to put on a happy face, to be the wise and serene sage instead of the angst-ridden, ungrateful adolescent. But it’s better to express these things than to push them away or stuff them down.

And I think I have reason to believe that God likes it when we ask these questions of him: it allows him to give us the great gift of an answer. Oh, he doesn't tend to answer the "why" questions very much. But he gives us answers all the same - if we are so bold as to ask and patient and humble enough to listen.

I find myself longing for consolation from the one whose perspective I can trust the most.

2. Does My Life Matter?

As befits that angsty adolescence I sometimes am, I have some questions about death, and some about love. (A teacher friend once told me those are really the only topics her teens ever write poetry about). And a lot of them seem to flow from this one: Do I matter? Does my life matter?

Everybody thinks it’s tragic when a mother or father with young children dies: those little ones depend on them! But nobody depends on me. I have no dependents. Some people’s obituaries are full of lists of survivors: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews and nieces and more. But if things go as expected, Megan and I will be the end of the line for our family. Will anybody remember me when I’m gone? If I weren’t here would anybody miss me? Does my life matter? Will I leave anything enduring behind?

I want to be spiritual enough to put aside selfish ambition and vain conceit and say, as Paul could, that to live is Christ and to die is gain, that I’d rather depart and be with Christ anyway. But I don’t know that I’m there yet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not depressed or thinking about throwing away this gift of life. I’m just thinking about how fleeting life can be and wondering what to make of it.

3. Sand and Waves

My friend S. sent me a picture from our trip to Indonesia a few years back - see above. It was taken at dusk one night when several of us went for a sunset walk along the beach. At first I thought about how nice it was to walk along the beach, and how I'd like to do that again, especially in a place as warm and pleasant. But then, my mind took an uncomfortable turn. It went to the cheesy Christian poem, “Footprints in the Sand.”

I realized that one of my objections to the metaphor is that it implies that the impact of one’s life might be just a row of footprints, swiftly washed away by the incoming waves. Is there nothing eternal about my life; is it just an ephemeral walk on the beach? Oh, I know, we could do worse than sand and sunset and gentle waves. But pleasure is not enough. I want something more.

4. What Wins the Debate?

Last week I spent a couple of days volunteering as a community judge for a speech and debate tournament. It was held in downtown Denver. They always need volunteer judges. I’d never done anything like that but both of the families I know who belong to hosting organization thought I’d enjoy the experience. I did, immensely!

After watching a debate or two I noticed that some of the competitors tended to lean on strong, clear statements that, while they made an emotional impression, didn’t always hold up under cross-examination and were fairly easily refuted by the other side (if the other side was not intimidated by the skills of their opponent).

In many cases they quoted lawyers or journalists or scientists without making it clear that the people they were quoting really had the experience or authority to support their statements. Sometimes, the debaters just said, “according to [name],” without making it clear who that person might be or what entity they might represent. As a judge, I had to take such evidence with a grain of salt.

To win the debate, you couldn’t just be the best or most forceful speaker, you had to make the strongest case, you had to martial the most compelling evidence - on the best authority.

It gradually dawned on me that this is true in my own life as well as in the world of debate. My accuser may tell me terrible things about myself and my worth… may present an abundance of evidence, all of it crystal clear, forcefully stated, and damning, to support the case that my life doesn’t matter or that I’m too screwed up to be of use to anyone. But where do those accusations come from? Are the sources credible? Do they hold up under cross examination? Or, strong as they sound, do they fall apart in contrast with the defending side which may make only simple, solid claims, but makes them on good authority, e.g., the authority of a brilliant designer, omniscient and omnipotent sustainer, merciful redeemer, etc.?

Psalm 103

1 Praise the LORD, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

2 Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits-

3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,

4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,

5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.

9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;

10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;

12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;

14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

15 As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;

16 the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.

17 But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD's love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children's children-

18 with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.

19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Two More Years, She Said

What kinds of things do you want to inspect personally and bring home yourself, and what would you just as soon purchase online?

A quart of milk, a bouquet of daffodils, or a bag of frozen peas would generally go in the first category, I think. You can buy them online if you want to, but for more trouble and expense than stopping by the grocery store.

Many personal items are things I’d prefer to inspect in person. Too often, clothes ordered from a catalog or website seem to be the wrong shade or cut, after all, when they arrive. And in spite of the great deals at places like Zappos or eBags, they, too, sell items I would rather touch and see in three dimensions before making a purchase.

And (unless you’re buying something electronic which you can download) there’s a bit of a moral aspect to this kind of thing. Do we really want to opt for purchases that are shipped half way around the world, cheap for the consumer but expensive for the environment, over doing without or buying local?

Sometimes I’ll browse in a regular store and then buy online. It’s nice to have that option. I know bookstores and libraries won’t be going away anytime soon, so for books I go those places first. I’m quick to look, slow to purchase.

But I wonder how long we’ll have that option with the music industry. I was thinking about replacing some of the cassette tapes I’ve worn out with CDs. Yes, I know that statement marks me as pretty old fashioned on several accounts! But I still want something physical, particularly with my computer in the last year of its life; downloading music and burning my own CDs or other backups seems an inferior solution, compared with just getting music on CD.

My last online purchase of a used CD was muffed by an Amazon seller who instead sent me a paperback book called “Astrology on the Light Side of the Brain,” intended for a Wisconsin woman named Katherine. Oops. Sorry Katherine. I'll put it back in the mail.

So I went shopping. And found, well, hardly anything. Nobody seemed to carry more than a minimal selection. I wasn’t entirely surprised, but I struck up a conversation with a clerk and asked her for the industry scoop.

“They’re telling us to give CDs two more years,” she said. “Smaller sellers have stopped carrying them altogether, and larger sellers can keep them only if they sell them at a loss.”

I think I’ll keep buying CDs – at a modest rate – while I can get them. When they become passé I’ll tuck them away in the antique buffet where we store our LPs. Still play those sometimes, too. Do you?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sabbatical Menu

"I think I'll get going," I said to the roommate as she drank her morning coffee.
"What do you have to do today?" she asked somewhat reflexively.

"Nothing," I answered, a grin slowly spreading across my face. "There's nothing I have to do today!"

It's a nice feeling. I don't suppose I could have that feeling all the time, but I'm cultivating a taste for it.

Here's one of those tips some of you don't need and others can't imagine adopting, but I'll throw it out there in case there are some who could use it.

I'm not making to-do lists. Nope. Whenever possible, I'm making menus: list of possibilities. Creative ideas, fun ideas, interesting ideas. What sounds satisfying, refreshing, filling? Put it on the menu. Then, particularly when bored, restless, or overwhelmed, look and see what's on the menu. Order anything that sounds good.

Go ahead: get dessert too!

Postscript: If, on the other hand, you find your to-do list inescapable - and perhaps unpalatable - consider Jon Swanson's 8 ways to get unstuck.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sabbatical and the Pursuit of Rest

It's my sixth week of sabbatical. Some of you have been asking me how it's been going and what I've been doing, though regular readers may have picked up more than a few clues.

I’ll say this first: I never thought I’d be very good at this. It’s too much about resting, playing, and taking it easy. And I’m not like the old man who reportedly said, “Nobody is better at ‘nothing’ than I am!” I’m not in that league; I get depressed by three-day weekends. But some things are worth doing badly, and I have to say I think I’m getting better at dawdling, sauntering, musing, resting, and the like.

In fact, the more I’ve gotten a taste of the unhurried existence the less I've been afraid of it; the more I like it.

My convictions that living an overextended life is itself a wasteful way to live are also growing. I’d like to share more of what I’ve read and experienced on this topic, but have been reluctant to do so. After all, some of you are nap and vacation experts; others probably feel helpless, trapped by the busy-ness of your lives. Whatever I post about rest, and margin, and letting the Holy Spirit and not the pressures of life determine your priorities, I hope you’ll keep in mind that I’m just beginning to really learn these things. But I am learning.


It's been fun to do what I think of as "stay at home mom" things. It's unlikely I’ll ever be a SAHM, at this point, and certainly it would bring some significant challenges if I was. But I have enjoyed spending time cooking and baking, housework, etc. No actual babysitting, but I've been to the M. family's house to read aloud to their eight-year-old several times, and spent one recent afternoon watching the H. girls perform in a horse show. I've gotten together with friends for coffee or walks, puttered around the house, and even did a bit of "scrapbooking" of a sort.


I’ve also been reading a lot, though that is pretty usual for me. Our church is doing this "Bible in 90 Days" thing which I've been helping facilitate, so I've spent a lot of time reading the Bible. I haven’t done a ton of writing; haven’t really wanted to. I’m thinking of trying out a daily journaling habit after Easter. And see where that takes me, ask God to chart the course. You know, I’m very much a thinker, and sometimes that gets me into trouble. Restful thinking – musing – is great. Worrying – fretting – is obviously not. Productive thinking is somewhere between the two, in terms of the energy input. I’ve got some stuff to process, certainly.

I don’t want to dive into it too deeply just yet. But soon, perhaps.

On the Social Front

Socially, this time has been a mixed bag. I still haven’t really seen people I wouldn’t probably be getting together with anyway, though looking forward to those times, enjoying them, and reflecting on them after, has sweetened them considerably. I’m hoping to spend time with a few families coming to Colorado from out of town on their spring break this week. And I think I will push myself to take a little more initiative than usual to make sure I have enough people-time each week.

One thing I’ve discovered about myself in doing this is that my usual tendency to spread myself too thin, costly as that is, has been a strategy for avoiding the disappointment of unexpected time alone. You know, it’s one thing to be given time alone as a treat, quite another to be left alone because you are a pathetic loser.

Oh, I know, you’d probably tell me I’m not a pathetic loser, but I seem to still have this fear within, that I am. Where does it come from? It’s probably some combination of enemies’ lies whispered in my ears, pressures from the media and the culture that have more influence on me than I like to admit, and unrealized childhood dreams of being a “popular” girl.

So now, with my usual coping strategy of keeping busy taken away, I find that fear resurfacing with a vengeance.

For example, this weekend there was a miscommunication with the small group I’ve been in for a long time, and lately facilitating. For the others, busy people who could really use a little more family time anyway, it was not such a bit deal I think. But I actually showed up at the house with my potluck dish (and lesson plan for the evening) in hand, looking forward to spending time with some of my favorite people. This really is the closest thing I get, here, to family time, so it's important to me. When they said, “Wait, didn’t you get the message? We're not meeting!” I was so embarrassed, so disappointed… I walked back out to my car and just sobbed and sobbed.

While I hope I can get to the root of that, talk to God about it, and get to a place of greater equilibrium about these things, I also acknowledge that living a simpler, more focused life – putting more of my eggs in one basket – may mean deeper disappointment when things don’t go as I’d like. Hmmm… worth it, to live a more intentional, less fragmented life? Yes, I believe so.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Not Like the Others

“[G.K. Chesterton] did so many other odd things that chances are nobody much noticed. He was continually losing his way, sometimes within a stone’s throw of his own house – or even in his own house, he claimed – forgetting things, losing track of what time or even what day it was, and drawing pictures on blotters, napkins, walls, virtually any surface that presented itself.

“An endless torrent of articles, reviews, essays, and poems tumbled from his pen, and often he composed them on the run – in a tea room, on top of a double-decker bus, standing in the doorway of a shop, or leaning against a wall scribbling in pencil in a penny exercise book or sometimes just on his cuff. He read as continuously as he wrote, and his friend Father John O’Connor, the prototype for Father Brown, the most famous of his fictional characters, said that when he finished with a book, it looked as though ‘It had gone through every indignity a book may suffer and live. He turned it inside out, dog-eared it, penciled it, sat on it, took it to bed and rolled on it, and got up again and spilled tea on it.'

“He was in his twenties when he started carrying a sword-stick whose blade sometimes slipped out and went clattering to the pavement as he moved about the London streets. His younger brother, Cecil, maintained that it was not an affectation but that he carried it because, in his romantic imagination, he always dreamed of being caught up in some amazing adventure in which he would need it for defending himself.”

Fredrick Buechner, in Speak What We Feel, pp. 85-86

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nichole's Story

I met "Nichole" the day before I moved into her parents' house. A pretty Uzbek girl in her early 20s, Nichole was fascinated by the foreigners in her city. She had a part-time job working for some of them, friends of mine, and lived in a house not far from them. I needed a local family to live with; her folks could use the rent money. They had the space, and the house was suitable. So we decided to give it a try.

Life hadn't been easy for Nichole. At the insistence of their mutual grandparents she had been married to a cousin in a nearby town several years before. He was carrying on an affair with somebody else and not very interested in the marriage - especially when the child born that first year (right on schedule) turned out to be sickly, not very much fun, and prone to fits of crying. When the baby needed serious medical care and her husband's family would not pay for it, Nichole felt she had no choice but to come home to her parents. They took her back in. After all, she could go out and work, helping to support the family, and they liked having a grandson around. Still, they waited, hoping the marriage could somehow be mended.

Nichole had been badly hurt. She was sure the neighbors disapproved of her. She couldn't see a way out. She had some false ideas about the glamorous life she might lead if she could get out of her neighborhood and live in a big city somewhere, maybe abroad. I knew that these ideas might cause some problems for me, and they did - so much so that I have not stayed in touch.

But clearly she needed someone to be her friend, love her, and help keep her out of trouble. It just so happened that that was what I needed, too.

So began what is probably the most significant cross-cultural relationships I've ever had. There have been others with whom I had more common ground, or learned more from, but nobody I had more fun with than Nichole, nor anyone with whom I experienced more of what differences in culture can really mean - on a gut level.

I found another young woman to be my "formal" Uzbek tutor, but I tried out everything I learned on Nichole and her family and learned as much from them as from anybody. They took me places, and helped me learn my way around, and shared their lives with me. They made sure I was properly clothed and fed and cared for. Without them I would have been helpless, foreign; with them, I could experience at least a bit of what it is to be an insider.

Nichole enjoyed showing me around, sometimes showing me off. And having me around made her feel a bit more glamorous. She enjoyed telling people I was her sister. I remember the time she took me to get my hair cut and then starting boasting to a man in the salon that she and I were with the CIA (!) She liked to carry my laptop computer if we went someplace together - pretending she was an American businesswoman and it was hers. Sometimes we watched movies on it, or listened to music. Before long my Uzbek was better than her English, but we usually communicated in a mix of English and Uzbek words, Uzbek grammar.

I remember sneaking off and buying bananas - an expensive imported food - at the local bazaar, and sharing one with her on a picnic. She was as delighted as I was, having not tasted one of these luxuries in years. It was as good as she remembered, but she stared at the remains for a long time, trying to figure out how characters in the cartoons could slip on a banana peel. How we laughed about that! I was too embarrassed to bring out the other two bananas I had in my bag, having bought one for each of us on the picnic. One seemed like such a splurge.

Sometimes being Nichole's friend presented painful ethical dilemmas. I remember the day she came to me for advice about where to conceal the answer key she'd purchased, a sure way to ace the entrance exams for getting into college. Or her agonizing over how to pay the $5/month to put her son, less than two years old, into preschool - which in that society was considered the right thing to do for kids as soon as they were weaned. And what about her idea to leave her son with her parents, come to America (say, on a tourist visa) and stay to make a new life for herself? She was sure that would be the best for everybody. It seemed to me at the time that if I gave her any encouragement in that direction it would mean betraying her family, as well as betraying my own country.

And sometimes our worldviews clashed. I remember the day I came home and Nichole told me our house was haunted. The witch-doctor had told her mother we had "djinn" and needed to get the place exorcised, basically. I also remember the day her estranged husband came hoping to see his son. Nichole became hysterical, begging me to take him away and hide him in someone else's house so he wouldn't be kidnapped. She thought the father had no right to even see his son if he wasn't going to support the two of them, such as by buying them a flat to live in. This was so different from the way I was used to seeing marriage, custody, and parenting that I didn't know what to make of it.

Enamored with foreign men, she fantasized about meeting one who would marry her and take her away. Never mind that she wasn't, technically, divorced; who needed to know? None of the handful of foreigners in our city was likely to take advantage of her in this but I was afraid she might discover the ways she could meet one on the Internet.

Well, it's been years now. The friends who had arranged for me to live in Nichole's city have all left, and my ability to speak and write the language have waned considerably. I had never answered the many letters appealing for money and other help. So I don't know much about what has happened to Nichole. But last I heard she had reunited with her husband and they were living in the capital.

I hope she is well.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Seeds of Revival in Haiti?

Eleven Years Ago...

In the spring of 1999 I traveled to India for a couple of weeks to get some things set up for a couple of research teams we were sending out that summer. It was a significant trip, but much as I was "into" what we were doing, I kept thinking about what was going on back home.

Eagerly I sought out copies of the English-language newspapers. Sometimes they had articles from my city, but I knew there were probably things unfolding of which I knew nothing.

The reason I was so preoccupied was that the day before I left Colorado a nearby high school had experienced what was, for us, an unprecedented tragedy and trauma: the Columbine High School shootings.

The events of that day shook our city and were to change it dramatically. When I returned I found the whole community in mourning over what had happened. The friend who picked me up from the airport filled me in on how people we knew were involved in what had happened and how they were responding, as well as what God was doing through all of this.

Many had turned to Christ during this time. Pastors and counselors were giving themselves in ministry to those most affected, and churches and youth groups were filling up. I realize some of you might find this offensive, but I can't think of anything more wonderful than for people, through good times and tough ones, to come into friendship with Jesus.

And of course, that kind of thing wasn't really making the coverage I found in the Hindustani Times.

And Today...

Similarly, it sounds like many in Haiti are turning toward God during this time of (much greater) upheaval, and in the midst of all the stories about raising money and distributing resources, those stories are not being heard.

Here's how Jeff Fountain, a ministry leader with YWAM, reports it in his "Weekly Word." (This one hasn't been posted yet but they are archived here.)
"Following the massive earthquake that devastated the country, killing 210,000, injuring 300,000 and displacing 1.2 million, the United Nations reported a month ago that Haitians entered a ‘symbolic three days of reflection: on the destruction of their homes, their towns and their capital city’.

"Less politically-correct versions of the same event described Haiti’s President Préval as calling the nation to three days of prayer and fasting, in place of the traditional Mardi Gras celebration of revelry and feasting.

"Only five days before the Mardi Gras was scheduled to begin, the president invited the people to join him in humbling themselves in prayer for forgiveness and healing, in front of the damaged presidential palace. No one could predict how many would respond to this call on an island steeped in the tradition of voodoo.

"What transpired, however, resembled an Old Testament scenario.

One Million

"Rev. Calvin Lyerla, from Florida, describes the scenes he saw in the capital, Port-au-Prince in a UTube video.

'On February 12, as the day began to break, more people than the eye could see were gathered in that downtown area. Standing with arms extended to heaven, desperate Haitians cried out to God to forgive and heal their land. There must have been one million or more people filling that downtown square. Some had climbed trees, some were sitting on rooftops or on automobiles.

"'From 6am to 6pm, each day for those three days they came. Scriptures were read, prayers were prayed, songs of worship were offered up, declarations of repentance were made. The prime minister arrived early the first morning and stood weeping for over an hour. Later the president led the people in prayer, calling upon God to heal his country. Here was a nation brought to its knees, and God was pleased.

"'Some 3000 conversions were recorded that day, including over a hundred voodoo priests.'"

"Voodoo is one of Haiti’s two official religions. African slaves brought this animistic faith with them, and generations later many Haitians still believe their fate is controlled by spirits needing appeasement through voodoo rites.

"Despite receiving billions of dollars in aid, Haiti remains the least developed nation in the western hemisphere. Development experts blame voodoo as a major obstacle to progress in Haiti as well in as parts of Africa. Without ethical content, voodoo remains deeply influential even among educated Haitians.

"The Wall Street Journal quoted one missionary who had lived for 20 years in Haiti as saying: 'A Haitian child is made to understand that everything that happens is due to the spirits. He is raised to externalize evil and to understand he is in continuous danger. Haitians are afraid of each other. You will find a high degree of paranoia in Haiti.'

"Others report a spiritual transformation across the nation since the earthquake. People from many spiritual backgrounds, including voodoo, are becoming Christians. Stories continue to surface about miraculous survivals.

"The widely-reported news of the 28-year-old rice vendor who was found alive after 27 days under the rubble generally failed to report his story that a man ‘in a white coat’ had brought him water. A five-year-old boy, trapped for three days, told his mother that an old man had given him food, water and crackers every day."
See also: 40,000 Haitians Profess Faith in Christ Since Jan. 12 Quake (Baptist Press).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Would You Rather Build a House, or Remodel One?

M. was telling me about the long process of remodeling his house. As a person who is fairly useless around the house (except for the cooking/cleaning bits) I am easily impressed by people who have a lot of practical skills. Wouldn't it be something to be able to buy houses and "flip" them? Or to be able to recognize the potential in a place and draw it out, through patient, clever reconstruction?

Some other friends of mine bought a smallish farmhouse and proceeded to give it a second story so there would be room for their many children (who, formerly, may have been spreading out bed rolls in the pantry, perhaps?)

But M. was quick to add something that surprised me:
"I wouldn't want to actually design and build my own house. I'm too much of a perfectionist. I'd want it to be just right and would be frustrated if it wasn't. But working with a house like this one, I know it isn't going to be perfect, that it isn't going to be everything I might want. Many decisions were made by someone else and I will have to live with them. I find that a lot less stressful. I'm just making it better."
What about you? Are you a make-it-from scratch person, or do you like to take things and improve them? Would you rather have a blank sheet of paper and some charcoals, or to make a collage or sculpture from found objects? Would you prefer to draw your dream house or to pick one out of a catalog?

Maybe I just don't have the creativity, imagination, or skill to face the blank sheet of paper, but I have a strong preference for starting with a menu, catalog, or a list of options and resources. I like having a bunch of ingredients and deciding what to make out of them.

That's creativity, too, though, isn't it? It's just a different sort. When we moved to the big city after our parents' divorce Meg and I had to take some tests to get into the 'gifted' program. In one of them they gave us a sheet of paper with about 30 circles on it, all the same size, and instructed us to decorate them. Meg made elaborate, beautiful designs in hers, while I made mine into bicycles and sunglasses and and caterpillars. Both of us got high scores.

Writing and Editing:

Even as a writer, I can go much further, much faster, when I don't have to come up with my own ideas. That's probably why I don't freelance. And I don't do poetry, or fiction. But I know a good idea or story when I see it, I like putting the pieces together and finding a way to frame them.

So one of the possibilities I'm tossing around is being a writer-at-large for our ministry, even if it was just on a project-by-project basis while doing other things as well. I want to interview people and write up what they say. I want to get things down on paper for people who don't have the time or skill to do it. Is there a job in that? I think there might be.

There are a couple of guys in the ministry's home office in Florida who I think could really use someone like me. Well, I still have doubts about me, but not about them. They would be a great group to learn from, to be part of in some sense. And I think they could use a journalist/editor at their disposal.

All three of them are visionary types, but play different parts. One is something of a dreamer; he has all kinds of ideas, good ideas, probably more than he could ever follow up on. And since he's in a rather lofty position, people are interested in his ideas. The second guy is a critical thinker: he's brilliant, savvy, and also has good ideas, but his real strength may be in being able to sort out the good ones, the significant and strategic ones, from the ones that aren't as good. The third guy is a publisher. He can also write, and edit, but mostly he puts his energy into keeping things running, knowing what's practical and marketable, and dealing with the problems or obstacles.

I don't know how much these three actually work together, or who else might be in the mix. But I sense I could do some great work if I put myself in the hands of these three guys. That is, if they were willing to take me on and trust me to run with their ideas, to provide contacts and feedback and open some of the doors that wouldn't open to me otherwise. We could do some really helpful group projects.

If I didn't drop the ball or somehow misplace it. If it didn't turn out to be a ball of twine, a giant one, that ended up not really worth looking at. That's the problem with big projects, things that are complicated, multi-faceted, probably book-length. There are projects like that I've carried, not finished, for years on end. And the guilt and shame can be overwhelming. Do I really want to put myself in those kinds of situations? Or are there ways to keep them from getting that way?

That's where managing our ezine these last five years or so has been such a joy. Almost zero stress. It's a beautiful setup, everything is bite sized, and I've had a great team to work with. I never wake up in the night worried about it. I never miss a deadline. Get those 1000-1500 words or so - purpose and structure so clearly defined - ready to go, and have it all queued up by midnight Tuesday. Weekly. 5000 readers will notice - well, at least a good handful of them will - if I don't get it done. I could keep doing Miss Cat ezine for years on end and never be unhappy about it.

Well, I'm not doing the ezine now. And I have a couple other projects on hand:

One of them is an academic paper. Needs to be ready to present at a meeting at the end of April. My title is "Listening as a Ministry: Empower Others by Listening Before Speaking." No, I haven't started it yet, but I have a bunch of stuff I can draw on. I don't actually plan to start it until next month, though I don't want to tell the event coordinator that.

The other is an editing project. As I work on it I'm reminded of the down side of being an editor instead of a writer. Some of this stuff seems really awful to me. But because it's supposed to be devotional writing and was submitted by respected leaders, I don't know how much I can just tell them how bad it is. Somehow, I should be able to clean it up, right? We may be able to get new stuff written, but the project had languished for some time before I picked it up... beating the bushes further will probably mean even more re-purposing of materials written for other contexts, and half of what we've got is like that already.

If this project is going to be done in time for the big event where my colleague wanted to distribute it, I need to make serious progress on it pretty soon. I've had the initial collection of material for months now, but am only just now sitting down to work with it. Seemed like a good project for sabbatical, after all. I'm struggling against my own prejudices: I don't like all the religious capitalization (it shows up in every sentence!), and some of it is just pure, poorly expressed emotion. What's not too artsy is too preachy: we've got a lot of sermons. And the poetry is no help. Do we really want to include poetry? I'm just the copy-editor, I tell myself: it's not my job to dismiss what they have to say, it's my job to arrange and make the most of it.

But what if only half of this is really use-able? I'm regretting having agreed to this, sight unseen.

Some of it - oh, some of it, is really good. I want to post it here because it's really wonderful, inspiring stuff.

If you're the praying sort, pray for this project, and for me as I explore the pros and cons of doing more writing, versus other things I could pursue in this next season of life. Even in this season of life. I had a dream last night that I took off for a couple weeks and took swing dance lessons. Not likely to happen, but it might be nice - especially if more writing lies in my future - to spend some time this sabbatical doing things that use an entirely different part of my brain.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bible Marathon - New Light on the NT

I finished reading the Old Testament and began with the gospels this week, and have a heightened awareness of the ways the two connect, especially with all the quotations from the prophets, the psalms, the law. I also read Philip Yancey's book of reflections on the Old Testament, The Bible Jesus Read. It's excellent. I loved his chapter on Deuteronomy, the most gracefully written of the five books of Moses. He was at the end of his life, recapping for the younger generation - as the only old man in their midst - what God had revealed.

It's bittersweet. Moses, the man of God raised up after a 400-year silence, he who led them out of Egypt and who talked with God as a man talks to his friend, he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Until - well, consider this scene from the New Testament:
"Jesus knew Deuteronomy well: during his own wilderness sojourn, he quoted from it three times to counter Satan's temptations. Later, at a hinge moment in his ministry, Jesus climbed a high mountain to meet with God the Father. As when Moses met with God on the sacred mountain, Jesus' appearance changed too. 'There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun; ... his clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.'

"Peter and John shrank back, dazed by the scene. A voice rumbled from heaven and suddenly, there on the mountaintop before them, stood two giants of Israelite history. At once they recognized Elijah, the fierce, wonder-working prophet whose return every Jew anticipated. Just to the side - it could be no one else - stood Moses, engaged in casual conversation with Jesus.

"...The scene of Jesus' transfiguration contains a fact often overlooked by Christians, but poignant for any Jew. At that moment of tender mercy, Moses finally realized his life dream. He stood on a mountaintop smack in the middle of the Promised Land."

(Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read, pp. 104-105)

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Characteristics of a Supportive Community

Community. Most people want it, and feel they aren’t getting enough. And it matters, if we’re going to grow, if we’re going to persevere, because most people don’t amount to much of anything without a supportive community – much as we Americans like the myth that we can lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

What does community look like, so we can look for it, cultivate it, and provide it to others? This list from a session at the Navigators workshop I attended rang true with me:

Care giving: Do you have a community where you receive this, not just provide it for others?

Transparency: Do you have a place to go where you feel you can be honest and open with others about your life?

Vulnerability: What about inviting feedback from others? Going beyond transparency, vulnerability is allowing others to respond to you (hence making you able to be wounded).

I realize I often get to “transparency” and stop there: vulnerability has a higher price tag. It’s not safe. So the next item is:

Safety: If you're like me, you're looking for an environment of grace, where you are free to be who you really are, not giving in to pressure to cover that up with something more acceptable or impressive.

Affirmation: Environments characterized by affirmation are rare. The best affirmation is that which recognizes, speaks to, and encourages our true, essential identity; not just praising our ability to perform to others’ expectations.

Acceptance: This aspect of community may be the flip side of affirmation. It’s not hard to find a group of people who will accept us on the basis of our strengths or accomplishments, but what about a place where our weaknesses are accepted?

Protection: Members of a supportive community protect one another and help each other in areas of weaknesses. (If, on the other hand, you feel you have to protect yourself, you will find yourself vulnerable to those same weaknesses.)

All this sound too good to be true? Which are you experiencing? Which are you feeling the lack of?

Among the hindrances to experiencing community, said the speaker, are:

  • Independence (self-sufficiency).
  • Task-orientation (i.e., an environment of performance rather than grace).
  • Unreconciled relationships (e.g., harboring hurt and anger or withholding forgiveness from others).

Monday, March 08, 2010

Waiting for Life to Get Back to Normal?

I think I met her only once, and she wouldn’t know who I am. But we have pictures of her family on our fridge and I read the newsletters she sends to my roommate.

C. has been through some tough stuff these last few years. Not only is she raising three young children, but she’s also nursed her husband through cancer and helped care for a father whose heart is slowly failing. A few months ago, her mother unexpectedly and suddenly passed away from a major aneurism. C. finds herself in the “sandwich generation,” raising kids while caring for aging parents. “To be honest, I actually do feel like a sandwich,” she writes. “A Panini sandwich, smashed and grilled!”

In such circumstances, she found herself writing to friends, “When life gets back to normal, let’s get together!”

“And then I catch myself… If the Webster dictionary based the definition of normal on my life, they would have to publish a new edition every month to keep up with the rapidly changing definition of ‘normal.’ If I waited until everything returned back to normal, I would never get together with anyone. So now I’m thinking of changing what I write on emails to this new phrase: ‘My life is abnormal, so let’s get together.’”

As C. has discovered, life is filled with twists and turns, and we can’t expect it to smooth out this side of heaven. As long as we are here, we might as well get together and support one another in good times and bad. The community and fellowship we can offer one another are sweet.

* * *

In this abnormal season of my life I'm feelin' the love. Everyone I asked to be in my sabbatical support group said yes, and insist that they are honored to do it. Even though I cried through our whole first meeting, pretty much. (Kind of knew that would happen. I don't cry easily, but certain things take me right there.) People I hardly know at church are giving me hugs and smiles. One woman whose name I have a hard time remembering told me she'd awoken in the middle of the night and prayed for me. Yesterday an old friend called out of the blue to tell me I'd been on her mind and let me know about a dream she'd had about me. Huh. Practical stuff too: a man I know fixed my computer for free, and the couple who owns our house stopped overnight and fixed all kinds of stuff around the house.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Listening / My Ways and Your Ways

I wonder if the most helpful and courageous words each one of us might say to one another would be those God speaks to (and through) his prophet Isaiah: “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts.”

I don't want to be sacrilegious. But have you ever thought about those words? Can you picture saying them to your spouse? Not that (as in contrast with the original context) "my" thoughts are higher and better and came with a guarantee. But in the simpler sense... what if we all gave each other the gift of honestly acknowledging that each of us has a bit of a different angle on the world? Wouldn’t our depth perception increase if we could bring those angles together for a fuller, richer, picture? Wouldn’t our relationships be better if we could more frequently recognize, articulate, and honor each other for our differences, and delight in discovering a new point of view?

This paradox continues to amaze me: that all of us are more alike than we are different, yet made in unique designs that do not fit the stereotypes with which we try to understand one another. That we all have so much common ground and yet are each designed with a unique mix of traits and tendencies defying classification.

But admitting our differences and listening to one another with true kindness and openness are incredibly hard work. Draining. Especially when it comes to those who are close to us or seem, in many ways, most like us, where we feel we have the right to be understood just by being ourselves.

During the year I spent in Central Asia I interviewed members of one team that struggled to communicate with one another in Uzbek, a second or third language for each of them, because they had no other common language.

Another team could communicate comfortably in English, but had significant cultural differences. In fact, each one of the couples was made of two people born in different countries.

In both cases, members of these teams (and marriages) knew they would have to work at understanding and being understood. They expected misunderstandings and culture clashes and worked hard to resolve them.

Not so for a more homogeneous team, in another city, made up of people from one country and all around the same age. They all bore great feelings of disappointment that they could not, as a group, get along and provide a supportive network for one another. They expected unity to come naturally and were almost offended when it did not.

So perhaps expectations play a part: when you know someone else is different from you, you may set your sights lower, work a little harder, and be pleased to find common ground. When you expect someone to be like you, you think the other person should be able to read your mind. If so, you may be surprised and undone by the differences that nevertheless arise.


It’s unusual to see those two truths dancing together with grace and beauty, but one place I do see it is in the relationship between books and their readers. The act of reading celebrates both: It opens up new worlds, and it holds up mirrors that we might see ourselves reflected and know that we are not alone.

So, maybe reading is a good place to practice seeing the world from someone else's point of view.

I just finished reading Anna Quindlen’s 1998 slim tribute, How Reading Changed My Life. As a child who read because she loved it more than any other activity on earth, she says,

“I felt that I too existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer, but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island.” (p. 6)

And even as an adult, she found reading a haven:

“I remember the first year after my second child was born, what I can remember of it at all, as a year of disarray, of overturned glasses of milk, of toys on the floor, of hours from sunrise to sunset that were horribly busy but filled with what, at the end of the day, seemed like absolutely nothing at all. … What saved my sanity was disappearing if only for the fifteen minutes before I inevitably began to nod off in bed, into the dark and placid English rooms of Anita Brookner’s newest novel, into the convoluted plots of Elmore Leonard’s latest thriller, into one of my old favorites, Breakfast at Tiffanies, Goodbye, Columbus, Our Mutual Friend, Wuthering Heights. The romantic ramblings of Heathcliff make a piquant counterpoint to dirty diapers, that’s for sure. And as it was for me when I was young and surrounded by siblings, as it is today when I am surrounded by children, reading continues to provide an escape from a crowded house into an imaginary room of one’s own.” (p. 31)

Perhaps good conversation can accomplish the same thing as reading does. I love this quote from the American Library Association’s Hazel Rochman:

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but most important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” (In Quindlen, p. 7)

Monday, March 01, 2010

Olympic Monoboarding

In 1993 I was a recent college grad and working as a temp receptionist. One day a traveling salesman came through the office and charmed me into buying a hot-off-the-presses, 1200-page, illustrated, one-volume encyclopedia.

I don’t think I paid anywhere near the $75 cover price. But whatever I paid, it’s held its value… at least up until today’s age of “Just Google It.”

Deb and I laughed to read this postscript on the “skiing” entry:

“Recently, monoboarding or the use of a single, very broad ski, similar to a surf board, used with the feet facing the front and placed together, has become increasingly popular. See ‘surfing.’ “

Wonder if anyone thought, then, that “monoboarding” (under a new name) would ever make the Olympics?