Saturday, May 28, 2011

Crossing The Country by Covered Wagon

This post was originally published August 9, 2010. I'm reposting it as part of the Christian Writers Blog Chain. This month we're writing on the theme, "journeys."

I knew that the great "Pony Express" was rendered obsolete by the introduction of the telegraph less than two years after it began. But I recently realized that another touchstone of American history, the settlement of the West by pioneers who traveled across the continent by covered wagon, lasted just over one generation (1840-1869). At that point the completion of railroads chopped the journey west from a treacherous trek of six months by wagon to a mere one-week train trip.

One spot through which all those covered wagons were driven - carrying about 500,000 pioneers in that 29-year period - was Casper, Wyoming.
You know what they say: location, location, location. Casper is near what may be the best route across the Rockies. It's built beside the [once] great Platte River, which travelers coming West had followed for hundreds of miles. Here each emigrant - having left the United States behind - would say goodbye to the river and strike off for destinations in places like Oregon, California, and Utah.
Image: National Park Service

The people of Casper seem to have accepted the fact that their home is and apparently always has been a place people come through on their way someplace else.
In fact, they've built up a modest tourist industry around that aspect of their history. Driving from Washington back to Colorado last summer I visited the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center as well as several of the nearby places of significance to those who traveled these trails.

It goes back pretty far.
The 80,000 settlers who came through on the Oregon trail were following in the footsteps of Arapaho, Lakota Sioux, and Shoshone.

Some 70,000 Latter-day Saints came, too, fleeing persecution and seeking their own promised land. Many of the most helpful tools and strategies for surviving the trip were developed by the Mormons; they were disciplined and organized. (Legalistic religions come with a silver lining...)

When the California gold rush got under way, the trail became a highway. One local resident noted that 600 wagons had passed by his house in a single day. On the other hand, I was pleased to read the entry from the journal of one man who reported a guy on horseback heading the other direction, returning to the East. He explained that he simply couldn't go on; he loved his wife more than gold.

Native Americans were once glad of trading partners and scouting jobs. Now they complained that there wasn't enough food to go around; these people were taking over, moving in as if the land were not already inhabited.

Perhaps those covered-wagon days play a big part in our national history because they left such a mark on the families who rode those trails.
It was probably the hardest, bravest thing they had ever done. It took so much courage. Many people thought you were crazy. Others envied you. It was a little like going to war. Or traveling to another country. In a way, it was both.

Have you ever been in that kind of situation? The emotions run so high. You don't know if you will survive. If you do, it knits you together together with others who have made that journey, especially the ones you went with. In the context of a lifetime, it may have been a brief experience, but it was one that will stay with you all your life. You save the souvenirs. You pass down the stories to children and grandchildren.

So many lost so much along the way. The more crowded the trails became, the more they were lined with dead animals, broken-down wagons, abandoned treasures, and hundreds and hundreds of graves. Children fell off the wagons and got run over. Others emigrants grew sick and died - cholera was a big killer - drowned in a river crossing, or were caught in storms. Not many were killed by Indians or wild animals, but some.

Timing was important. Everyone knew that if you started at the right time, you'd find enough spring grass along the way to feed your stock. But wait too long and you'd risk getting caught by an early snow in the mountain passes. You knew you'd probably make it to your destination before snowfall if you reached Wyoming's Independence Rock by the fourth of July. That must have been a jubilant place; everyone stopped to scamper up the rock and carve their names. There were dances, and sporting events, and weddings there. A huge celebration took place every July 4.

By the time you'd reached this point, you'd probably gone through a lot.
Some of the things you feared had not come to pass, at least not yet. Others, you'd overcome and survived. You'd followed the Platte River longer than you could remember. I bet the kids had stopped asking, "are we almost there yet?" Living out of a wagon was starting to feel normal.

You still had at least another thousand miles to go. 

Can you imagine leaving your country and everything you knew to journey to Oregon Territory? Would you have gone? If so, what do you think would have been the most frightening or difficult part of the journey for you?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jiminy Cricket, Temptation Strikes Again

Jiminy Cricket: Now, you see, the world is full of temptations.
Pinocchio: Temptations?
Jiminy Cricket: Yep, temptations. They're the wrong things that seem right at the time... but... uh... even though the right things may seem wrong sometimes, or sometimes the wrong things, may be right at the wrong time, or visa versa. Understand?
Pinocchio: Uh-uh. But I'm gonna do right.
Jiminy Cricket: Atta boy, Pinoke! And I'm gonna help ya. 

Ever struggle with your motivation to stay on the straight and narrow? Had to laugh at an experience I had this morning. Pulled into the Safeway parking lot to get some milk and half-and-half before the roommate arises and finds we have none. She and I both like the white stuff in our coffee. My turn to buy.
Deli Parking
15 minutes
.... says the sign where I often stash the Honda when I'm just going in for one or two items.

But then I thought: this isn't right. I'm not going to the deli. I'm going to the dairy section. Huh.

The facing car had a license-plate holder on the front. It read,
He died for me
I'll live for him.
Okay, okay, it's a sign. Literally, anyway. I'll go. I moved the car three spaces down. It didn't kill me.

A few minutes later, walking back to the front of the store with my purchases, I realized this would be a great day to make a quiche; now we had milk and there's a pie crust in the door of the freezer just waiting to be used. Ironically, the one ingredient I would need to buy was something available only in, yes, the deli...

I suppose I could have kept that parking space after all, huh?

A conscience is a tricky thing, is it not? I don't tend to guard mine very carefully. I cheat and cut corners when I don't think it matters. Yet I've also discovered that if I want my will to be strong enough for faithfulness in the big things, the best preparation is being faithful in the small ones.

I guess the other trap is self righteousness. A track record of faithfulness in the small things is no reason for pride and arrogance. Jesus had some tough words for those who considered themselves good people:
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." (Matthew 23:23) 
>> Any tips for avoiding legalism and antinomianism, both? I'd be glad to hear them. Or, of course, your silly stories!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Women’s Stories – Another from Russia

1. The Foundation of a Loving Family

S. was quite young when her father died, leaving behind a wife and two children. Maybe that’s why the family pulled together as much as they did.

“My mother was trying to provide. But we had everything by her help, as much as or even more than in a complete family. I was with my grandparents a lot. We were loved very much and raised happily.

“Looking at my grandparents I feel inside myself a great feeling that being moral is very important. My grandparents were Muslim, real Muslims, and read namaz [say the ritual prayers]. They were full-hearted about it. Their children, my mother's generation, only knew the rules and did not follow everything like the parents did. They were not as conservative.

“My grandfather was the head of the family. All important questions, for example financial questions, he was the giver of the right to do everything or not. A woman was to do what he would recommend, to give a life to his order. Daily house life, everything about it. But personally in our family we never faced a situation where a woman would be forced to do something or pushed to do things.

“My grandfather loved my grandmother very much. My grandmother is loved by everyone in the family. Now she is 90 years old. Sometimes older people may be like challenged to know what to do, to be wise about today, but she is still wise. She amazes me. She still has authority above all her children. We honor her so much. Every word she would say we follow her; we want to honor her completely. That is how it happened in our family, that's what I have to say.”

The family continues to live close to one another, in the same apartment building in fact. Grandma comes over for lunch every day.

2. Only God Can Help My Brother

So many Christians, whether living in the West or in the East, seem to believe that Muslim family life is all about abuse and repression. So I was glad to hear about the strong foundation S. felt she had from being raised in a traditional but fairly healthy family.

I did have a hunch that might be more to her story, though, and as our conversation continued S. told us that she was a Christian, a believer in Jesus, and that it happened that she was the first in her family to choose that direction. Ah; this must be why our friend (a Christian leader) had suggested we talk to S. and had set up the interview with us.

Like many of the believers we met on this trip, the one thing S. was really happy to talk about was what God had done in her life. Rather humbling. I'd come hoping to hear more about Islam and culture and how relationships work in this culture, but I kept meeting believers from various backgrounds who wanted to tell me how Jesus had changed their lives! We wondered how S. had become a Christian and how her close-knit family had responded. As the story unfolded, we found out.  

S. told us God had allowed her to go through a situation where she was brokenhearted. And coming from a loving family played a significant role in what happened next. Was S. was broken over was a tragic situation in the life of one of one of her family members.

“My brother had some problems and begin to drink. In the beginning it helped him go away from his problems, but the troubles in the end grew to be a disease he could not bear.

“It was so unhappy for me to see him die inside. I tried all I could, took him to hospitals and set up meetings for him, everything medical that can be done, I learned about and tried it all. I did not want the thought that he would die from what he was doing.

“One day a strange thought came into my mind: Only God can help my brother. So I went on the Internet and typed in, ‘cure alcoholics with God.’ The computer said, ‘Did you mean…’ and gave suggestions. The first one was ‘Christian Rehabilitation Center for the Alcohol Addicted.’

3. Intimacy, Independence, and the Internet

Amazing, isn’t it, the way people all over the world turn to the Internet with their deepest and most intimate questions or struggles? This came up several times during my time in Russia. In one of the most helpful interviews we had a pastor told us explained that they are trying to encourage the people in their church to be outward-looking, even from the beginning, to share what God is doing in their hearts.

“This is one of our problems: we are not a culture of communicating, relating to each other. What is easy for a European, to talk to and look at each other, maybe it's natural for you too but we don't have it in Russia.”

He attributed this reticence to Communism. His church has attracted a lot of young people and they are encouraging them to be active in social media and share what they are learning in those environments.  

I’d been emailing with a friend back in the States who said, “The Russians are a mysterious people, eh? And the effects of 70 years of Communism are still ingrained in their souls. Soviet Communism didn't just happen there by chance; it was fertile ground for it to take root.”

In a way, I’d been able to relate to the Russians and “Russified” people we’d met better than I can with people from some other cultures. When I’ve been in places where friendship means sitting around with uneducated women, drinking tea and gossiping for hours, I quickly feel restless. With many of the Russians we met I felt much more at home and among people like me. Yet I wasn’t sure if I liked the characteristics we had in common.

The pastor had suggested another factor that gets in the way of communication and community:

“Our city is quite wealthy. There is some pride because of that. It makes our work difficult, because people come to Christ often when they are more desperate in some way. People here are busy with themselves. In the postmodern world, individualism is risen high up. The Western world will see the fruits of that. When there is money, you have individualism. People start to think only of themselves. We have to fight with that here. Even these rich people, they know they are vulnerable inside and do need Jesus as well.”

I hadn’t made these connections before. When you put together the independence and individualism that come from wealth with the mistrust and fear of being controlled that come from the (perhaps inevitable) excesses of Communism, well, that’s quite a lot to overcome. My own independence and individualism, mistrust and fear of being controlled... they may have different roots but similar fruit. So ministries using media and the Internet may have a significant part to play both in places like this wealthy Russian city and in the world in which I live, too.

4. A Journey in Faith

S. did not tell us a great deal more about how her brother was set free from alcoholism, but she did tell  us about her own journey toward God and the stages she went through in sharing that with others in her family. So I’ll close with her words.

“I called and they asked me to come in, myself, to meet with them, so I came to the city. It happened that some people who worked with this program had just become missionaries in my town and even lived in the same building. I started to communicate with those missionaries. I saw their faith and deep connection to what they believed in. They were not perfect. I saw them do some wrong things. But they had great faith in the God they worshiped. I decided to keep this connection; maybe inside I wanted to believe as they did.

“They gave me a sermon video to watch and while I watched it I don't know but inside I had a feeling, God exists. The sermon was about the inheritance you have to give your children. Not just material things like money but their inheritance is what you give them in spirituality. Before, I had thought money was what it was important for children to receive, but then I understood it was not the only thing the generations after you would receive. I realized I didn't know anything about God.

“I understood faith was not only traditional things like sitting down for a big meal with my family, not just religious rules you have to do, not things on the outside but something that comes from inside. I wanted to have that inside. My heart opened to it, and I started to learn things. What I had was not enough; I wanted to see more sermons, and read a lot. It was like my spirit came out of a trap and wanted nourishment of faith and knowledge of faith.

“I would go to my brother and try to give him the literature but he would not accept it. Then I had a vision and saw my mother and brother standing beside me shoulder to shoulder worshiping God; this did not happen in the physical world, but I took it as what God showed me to keep me thinking about it, to remember and keep going.

“I would try to put videos on the table, give them literature, bring up the ideas in conversations, and this seemed to make it worse. Conversations became strained. But I called out, ‘God, you said, “the whole household will believe”! I give my whole family to you; this is what you promised.’

“I was depressed when I saw my brother. But because I prayed and believed now I was changed, smiling, cheerful in life no matter what happened, because of God, and I think that is what they saw. So I decide I would believe and pray and pray, not try to touch them on the topic of Christianity but just believe and pray.

“Then one day I was going to a Sunday service when I heard the words: Go and take your mother with you. So I went back and called her. She's disabled and lives in same apartment with my brother. All he was going through influenced her as well and she too was fading and dying inside. This time I said, ‘Come with me today,’ and without saying anything she gathered up her things and came with me. Before she would always say ‘No, I cannot, we are Muslim; we don't do that.’

“But that Sunday she came, and while she was there she went through her whole life [saw it pass before her eyes?]. She believed in God and repented. I realized that's what happened to her on that day.

“With time, my brother saw she had changed. She was showing God's love to him and had become a happy person. She would not nag him, her attitude was different. Sometime later he said, ‘I want your God.’

“It was tough to tell my grandmother," she added. 

Ah yes, remember the grandmother? The beloved, devoutly Muslim grandmother? 

"For a while we did not tell her so we would not hurt her feelings, but she did not make a [fuss]." 

I've found this true in other Muslim communities and families as well. The bonds of love and loyalty can often stretch more than you might thing. Societies in which people are completely ostracized from their families for turning to Jesus are quite rare.

"My greatest desire is to see my whole family to become Christians," said S. "It is my special idea. I really want it to happen.”

See also: Women's Stories: A Central Asian Immigrant

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Not Personalized, and I'm Taking That Personally

Ugh, what a week. Here's my melodrama. You may want to skip it, but writing it out usually helps restore my perspective, and maybe you'll find something that helps you, too.

Part of the stress is a work project in which I keep sabotaging myself, hating the pattern but feeling helpless to break it. It's not huge, I'm the one who makes it messy. It is the kind of thing I really ought to be able to do, I think. But there's some fear, danger, and sliminess clinging to it and I can't seem to keep it clean. Several days or parts of days went pretty well: I kept on top of the stress and my reactions to it, praying as I went. Felt like Jesus and I were taking some fairly decent baby steps, navigating the overfurnished living room of my mind to get where we needed to go. But I fell down pretty frequently, and sometimes it hurt.

Then there's the growing pressure that comes from taking none of the holidays we've had, all year. I've had travel or teaching on every one, and a lot of my weekends too. Work piling up in-between doesn't encourage the use of comp days. I am taking Memorial Day weekend off to play. And at least part of the following week as vacation. There's some stress associated with that, too, though, since I'm going to spend it with Chris and his family. Yup, I fly out early Friday. Meet the beau's clan for the first time. His mom is picking me up at the airport. It gives her an excuse to go to the Ikea in Portland. We'll have Swedish meatballs for dinner! Now, it could be a great week. And Chris is a great guy, and so, so generous with the unconditional and supportive love. But still I am nervous...

What else? As I mentioned before, this is the last week of my seminary class, and it's also my week to write for the ezine. Content has been piling up in a folder for six weeks and I sure hope there's something good in there. I do enjoy that task; it never get covered with the slime I seem to pick up in other areas. But I'll need to put some time into it.

Add to this mix two rather troubling conflicts striking on Thursday and Friday - one over email, the other by phone. A phone call conflict - heck, any kind of phone call - usually catches me off guard and feels like a slap in the face, though it may lead to the quickest closure. An email conflict may stretch out uncomfortably, but I appreciate the opportunity to choose my words.

Then, bra shopping. Perfect storm, eh? Gentlemen, you may want to leave at this point. Girl stuff. Though you may have body-image issues now and again as well. They rarely seize me unless other things have left me particularly vulnerable.

I suppose it's understandable that our modern consumer culture has standardized so many things. Taken the vast array of human preference, taste, and need and responded with efficient systems like the creation of "sizes." But doesn't it feel dehumanizing, at times? You know, when you find that your feet aren't normal, that pants are either too short or too long for your legs, or that you look simply awful in the uniform you're required to wear?

It must be particularly hard in a world where symmetry equals beauty to find yourself really a-kilter and require such things specially made. Sometimes I long for the day of seamstresses and cobblers when more things in life were made-to-order...  Personal. Though I suppose I shouldn't romanticize it too much. What if I could only have two pairs of shoes, or one, and spent my days sewing for my family? (I'm sure I could bear it, but sewing clothing is seriously outside my set of skills, interests, or pleasures...)

But back to those darn undergarments. Here's the problem. I can walk into a store's lingerie section and search for half an hour before I find a - um, well, let's be specific, 36A. (Even then I'd better try it on.) I can always find something adequate. But I get the message: Normal women have larger breasts or smaller ribcages, not smaller-than-average breasts on an average-sized body. I do like my body, and I'm not waaaaaay off. It's just that I'm neither 34A or 36B; I'm the size they don't like to make. My sister shops in fancier places. Not sure if that would make things harder or easier for me. But looking online, I'm not hopeful.

Shame, shame, shame. Do you ever fall into such a pit, feeling that it's a perfectly awful thing to be you? What triggers that for you? I'll be OK, but meanwhile I'm talking to God about these things. He's gentle and his perspective is spot-on. When I ask him, "What do you think of this, or that?" things have a way of falling into place and becoming much simpler and less slimy than they had been when they were cluttering up that living room of my mind.

One practical tip: Feeling ashamed of yourself? Writing or talking it out may help. Prayer can really clear things up. But avoid "retail therapy." Too many pitfalls!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Unexpected Benefits

When I signed up for "Bible 5112: God's Plan of Creation and Redemption," I knew some of what was coming. I knew I'd be reading and studying almost 600 pages of the Old Testament along with another 800 pages of reading and 20 hours of lecture.

I knew I'd do lots of writing. The syllabus listed an eight-to-ten-page paper, three three-page papers, and nine pithy forum posts, with thoughtful responses to other students' postings. The three exams would also include three essays apiece chosen from a list of six possibilities per exam.

I liked the way the assignments were written. Most of them were things I might be able to use again in some way. As I sometimes hear people say, "That will preach!" Some examples:
  • How does God’s grace interface with the dysfunctionalism we see in the Patriarchal family?
  • Discuss the problem of war in the Old Testament, in particular God’s command to exterminate the Canaanite population.
  • Consider the lives of Israel’s united monarchy – Saul, David, and Solomon. Summarize each king’s reign in five adjectives; add a tag line that fleshes out each adjective.
  • What life lessons we do learn from Esther? List at least three and elaborate as you have room.
  • After reading Job, interact with the statement, “Job was partly right and partly wrong.”
  • Describe your understanding of God’s plan to reach the nations (a biblical theology of missions) in the Pentateuch. Include in your answer at least three key examples from Scripture.
  • Explore God's plan for the nations in Genesis, or in Psalms.
  • Write an exegetical paper on "seeing God in his mighty acts: Gentiles who saw and believed." 
What I didn't realize is how much the class would force me to write tight sentences and paragraphs. Each word had to pull its own weight. That seemed the only way to answer these broad questions thoroughly while supporting  my statements and not exceeding the word-count for each assignment. That surprised me. In doing so much writing and editing for publication I'd left academic wordiness behind long ago. I was afraid I'd have to take it up again to get through grad school. At least for this class, the opposite was true. I had to write long and then edit down. My writing grew sharper.

I've also grown in the discipline of hermeneutics.
To write each of the three shorter papers for this class each student was asked to pick five passages, exegete them, draw out a universal, timeless truth, and apply it to specific life situations today. Much like writing a sermon. Now, I hesitate to preach. I cringe to hear sermons that try to make a universal point out of a historical event, especially if other passages suggest something that is just the opposite. I wasn't sure I could do it. I did not want to dishonor the text by making it say what it didn't. But on the other hand I didn't want to be so timid as to neglect discovering and learning from biblical principles that remain as true today as they were when they were written. That's a big reason we have the Bible! It was nice that I could pick my own texts. But these assignments pushed me. Initially I was marked down for being too vague. Now, having written 15 of these 200-word paragraphs, I think I have the hang of it.

My fall class is "Bible 5113: God's Message of Redemption and Judgment." It continues the Old Testament survey using some of the same textbooks and similar assignments, this time looking at the books of the Prophets. I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Forsaking My Fame with Strangers

About a month ago I left my  laptop behind and went to spent a few weeks in a city on the other side of the planet - leaving the blog untended. Yet to my surprise, "hits" skyrocketed, especially from Europe and Asia.

This was not due to my benign neglect. It was because Google picked up my blog as the source of a public-domain picture I'd probably discovered on someone else's blog. If you searched Google images on "book" or "books," Telling Secrets was now one of your destinations. Well, you could do worse. I am a bookish person after all... maybe some of the folks that got here through such means would want to stick around?

I finally decided to remove the image that was bringing so many visitors. More than I wanted traffic, I wanted clues to who, of the people I know and readers I've had some contact with, is actually stopping by. So: so long, strangers. At least some of you. I expect my traffic reports will go from 80 hits a day back down to 20-30.

>> Bloggers, have you ever had this happen? Did any of you make the choice I did and take steps to turn the new traffic away?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Reflections on Working and Going to School

The end is in sight. Just two more weeks and I’ll have completed my first seminary class. The first of twenty. Just in time to dive in on the next one: I’ll take a week of vacation time in June to fly to South Carolina and take a one-week intensive on “Contemporary Issues in Missions.” I will have some work to bring with me; Missions Catalyst must go out. But I’ll be in class from 8am to 5pm each day. And before the class starts I’m supposed to do about 30 hours of reading. Well, you know me; I can do it in less than that. Some of it I’m pretty familiar with already. But it’s still going to take some attention. Then, depending on how long the post-class assignments take me, I should have about a month off before I have to start work on my fall class (another online one, August 22 to December 6). Since it's a continuation of the course I'm taking now and I already have the syllabus, I might be able to get started early...

When I made the decision to go to graduate school while working full-time I knew it would be a challenge. I had a great sabbatical in 2010. Now, I wondered how I’d do on work/life balance when it really came to the test. It was one thing to live a sane and healthy life with all pressure removed, but how would I keep my head above water in the “real” world? 

It would be nice to cut my work hours back, but I don't see a way to do that within our organization's policies. Cutting back on work would really mean going to school on their time and dime. It’s a great agency, and they certainly encourage professional development, but they can’t fund or reimburse the expenses of schoolwork that’s not required by the job. The IRS doesn’t like it either. On the other hand, a recent large donation to my ministry account from a supportive friend may justify giving myself a raise to help cover tuition. I haven’t done that yet, but I could.

I also wondered how much time I should really expect to put into schoolwork. The syllabus for the three-credit course I’m taking now suggests investing 135 hours over the 13-week period; about 10 hours a week. Apparently that's typical for these courses. I may have done it in a bit less; not much. We’ll see if the 15 hours I put into the 8-10-page (OK, 11-page...) paper was sufficient; the syllabus suggests 30 hours.

While I may not have a heavy workload with my job this summer, this first class coincided exactly with what will be the busiest 13 weeks of my year. If you count all the travel time I’ve worked an average of nearly 50 hours a week since school began. Giving 10 hours a week to my studies on top of that – or, thanks to the travel, sometimes overlapping with that – made me one busy camper. 

I know, I know, a great many people in our world work 50+ hours a week (or more with a commute) and do it as a matter of course. It’s not like I have some kind of “right” to keep my hours down. Nor should I complain (or boast) when they are up. Yet I’ve found that, for me, a 45-hour workweek is optimal. If I go over that on a regular basis, my work and life start to show the stress fractures...

The hardest part these last few months has been time management. I couldn’t figure out how to take downtime. When I wasn’t focusing on work, I was busy with school, and vice versa. I ended up using my less-productive midday hours on school (which was more passive), and doing work stuff (which took more thinking) in the evenings. It worked pretty well for both, but I often felt guilty, like I was cheating at my job by not “going to work” all day, every day. 

Even when I was busy with school or work, I wondered if I ought to be finding a way to get more rest. Too many things on every front were not done until the last minute; too many relationships were neglected. I didn’t meet with my mentor or my pastor, didn’t make those spring appointments with my doctor and my dentist. Half a dozen things around the house are broken and I haven’t done a thing about it. Even when I could not make the conscious decision to rest, my mind and body rebelled and sought gratification in compulsive, time-wasting activities that hurt more than helped me, as such things usually do. When you’ve got too much to do and kind of resent it, procrastination is a natural response. I think I do it kind of on purpose. I want to fall/fail and get off the hook. Not a very healthy pattern.

Well, I'm not a total disaster, but I'm not functioning in top form, either. As I wrap up this school term and go into the next, I’m asking myself and the Lord: what must be adjusted? What can be adjusted? I’d appreciate your prayers, and any advice would be welcome too. 

By the way, "BIB5112" has been a great class! Watch this space; maybe I'll post about a few of the things I've picked up.

Marti's Upcoming Travel / Schedule
  • Feb 28 to May 27 - spring term (online)
  • May 27 to June 5 - trip to see Chris (Oregon)
  • May 30 to July 26 - summer term (live + online)
  • June 12 to 18 - to CIU for class (South Carolina)
  • Unscheduled but anticipated: more time in OR/WA
  • Aug 22 to Dec 6 - fall term (online)
  • Sept 29 to Oct 1 - "Reset" Conference (Arizona)
  • Oct 2 to 4 - teach Perspectives (Colorado)
  • Oct 6 to 7 - Multi-Cultural Colorado Conference (Colorado)
  • Oct 16 - teach Perspectives (Utah)
  • Nov 13 to 19 - agency meetings (Florida)

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Wedding and the Wine

The Wedding at Cana, Paolo Veronese
Here's how the story goes. 
     On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
     “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
     His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
     Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
     Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
     Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
     They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.  He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.
     Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
     What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-11)
What was going on at the wedding feast at Cana, and why is it in the Bible? Jesus said and did a lot of things; John 21:25 says if all of them were detailed the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. With so many stories to tell, why did this one make the cut? Just because it was the first public miracle?

Students and preachers throughout the years have drawn all kinds of principles from this story.
Sometimes it’s held up to defend wine. It’s perennially quoted at weddings to claim that by doing his first miracle at a wedding, Jesus was blessing the institution of marriage.  

Recently I heard this claim two times in one day. As I dozed off to sleep I re-read Jan Karon’s A Common Life (that's the one where Father Tim and Cynthia get married) and then a few hours later, when my attempts to fight jetlag flagged, I watched the royal wedding on TV. Yup, it’s right there in the words of the Anglican wedding service. I scratched my head and asked: Am I the only one that thinks maybe that’s not really the point?

To be fair, the Anglican service doesn’t go as far as many preachers do with this.
The version we heard at Westminster says: “holy matrimony… is an honourable estate, instituted of God himself, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee…”  

I decided it was time to dig a little deeper into this story. Is there some good reason people say Jesus likes weddings because he made water into wine at a wedding?

Wine for the Wedding

John says this miracle was “a sign.” A sign is given to point to or confirm something, e.g., to reveal his glory, to show that Jesus is the Messiah. Of course Mary pretty much knew he was, and the disciples suspected it. The servants and wedding guests didn’t see what was going on behind the scenes. The servants saw that something miraculous had happened, but didn’t know the reason. The guests just knew there was more wine.  

Is there something special about wine? Your oenophiles may say that’s obvious, but I had to study this a bit more. Looks like when the Bible talks about wine it usually represents delight – a holy joy. Oil is blessing, wine is joy. To run out of wine, to have no wine, means you are desolate (Isaiah 24:11). So maybe when Mary says there is no more wine it's like saying: these people need some joy; can you do something about it?

What's special about feasts? Maybe that's easier. I get it. And I read that the fulfillment of God’s kingdom is described as a lavish banquet prepared by God for all peoples and featuring choice meat and fine wine.
"The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;
A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,
And refined, aged wine.
And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples,
Even the veil which is stretched over all nations." (Isaiah 25:6-7)
Then, weddings. Is Jesus one of those rare men who really digs weddings? Or does this point to something else as well? The image of God putting on a wedding banquet comes up several times. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a marriage banquet (Matthew 22:1-14)  and John, writing again at the end of his life, describes heaven as the wedding feast for Jesus and his bride - the bride being a holy city or congregation of people from every tribe and nation purchased and redeemed by God.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 9:7-9)
When you tie together the miracle the wedding feast in Cana with the wedding feast of heaven, I start to get it. Jesus is miraculously providing fine wine, or great joy, in the context of a wedding. It’s not just about that wedding, or weddings in general. It's more about celebrating the fulfillment of the long-held hopes and promises of scripture: that's right, everything is going to come together.

Marriage itself points to this bigger reality. It seems the Anglicans got it right: human marriage itself is designed not just to perpetuate the race and comfort and strengthen human beings and communities - all HUGE blessings - but is also a sign, “signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.”

Seem a tad esoteric? Would you prefer a great marriage than to be united with your Creator? I believe we're designed to want and have great marriages partly so we'll get what it's like to be united with our Creator. At least that's what the Bible seems to teach when it talks about marriage.

Isaiah prophesies a wedding, John opens his description of the ministry of Christ with a wedding, and the Bible concludes with a wedding. Feasting and fine wine – God’s blessing, great joy – is part of all of them. Jesus announces his kingdom in various ways, but here he does it by changing water into wine – miraculously making something holy and joyful where it was not deserved or expected. And pointing to something that will shake the universe.

The final wedding feast, the one described in Revelation, is made possible by a much greater sacrifice: he's not just the host and the groom, but also the wine.
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." (Luke 22:20)

Friday, May 06, 2011

A Mother's Word of Advice

Wedding at Cana of Galilee - Coptic icon
Here in the U.S., Sunday is Mother’s Day. Happy day, mothers and the sons and daughters of mothers! Don't we have a lot to be grateful for?

One of the best words of advice ever offered, says my old friend Paula, came from a mother. You may know her. Her name was Mary. The words she spoke to the servants at that wedding in Cana ring out loud and clear:

“Whatever he (Jesus) says, do it.” (John 2:5 - context here.)

There's a lot more going on in this story but this advice alone can be broadly applied to good effect. What does Jesus say to do? What has he said? What does he tell us is right, is important? That’s what you should do. This requires cultivating the arts of listening, asking, praying, seeking – and yeah, responding and obeying.

As I’ve been working my way through the Old Testament this semester I’ve been impressed by how much Judeo-Christian spirituality is and always has been about responding to God and following him, not approaching faith and practice as a creative consumer. Human nature – aided in our time by postmodern culture but for time immemorial by our bent toward self-determination – likes to approach religion as something we build for ourselves. We decide how (and what or whom) to worship, when, and with what level of commitment or intensity. It’s all personalized to meet our needs. We write our own job description. God’s, too. And then we're indignant when things don't work out as well as anticipated.

I don’t know about you, but the God I worship is the same one who laid out detailed plans for the tabernacle and temple (not apparently consulting with local architects or artists) as well as the priesthood, the purity laws and the feasts and the sacrificial system. These weren't man-made; they came from God. When God's people get off course he raises up a prophet, and sometimes a conqueror, to keep them from getting further and further from him. He knows what is best, what we need, and what obstacles and temptations will take us down. In his mercy and compassion he guides and seeks after us to bring us back, when necessary (and it was) by making the supreme sacrifice.

Come back soon for a post about wine and weddings. I don’t drink and I’m not married but I had some questions about this Cana story and decided to dig a little deeper.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Women's Stories - A Central Asian Immigrant

Last week I got to say dastarhoningiz mubarak bolsin ("may your tablecloth be blessed") for the first time in ages. It's not every day you dine in an Uzbek home. And blessed the tablecloth was: I enjoyed the lovingly made manti and samsa, plates of sweets, fresh nan, hot chai, and the best tomato salad I can remember. (When you go to the market, ask where the produce is from. If the tomatoes come from Central Asia, they are going to be good.)

I wasn't in Uzbekistan, though, I was about 4000 miles away. The woman who had invited us to her house had fled the country of her birth seeking safety for her children and a new life in Russia.

An undocumented worker, G. was making ends meet by working three jobs as a cleaning lady, each of them faithfully paying her wages - unlike a place she'd worked last summer which had never come through with the money. The kids are well. She has some new clothes. And she’d recently been able to move her family into a rather nice brick-and-wood house of the traditional local style, complete with a well, gas heat, an outhouse in the courtyard, and a big garden out back. In this town, that wasn’t considered as desirable as a three-room high-rise apartment, but it’s a good place.

G. has a spring in her step, a smile on her face, and a light in her eye. A bit surprising when you realize she has suffered more in her three decades than many of us do in a lifetime. She was happy to give us the reason for the hope that she has. I listened and took notes.

To Earn a Blessing

Uzbek girls are brought up to work hard. Around the time of the morning call to prayer, she and her sisters would be up sweeping, cleaning, cooking. There was no question but that she would do everything required of her to support and care for her relatives; that’s what people do. Besides, there’s a saying that the one who gets up early in the morning will receive blessings from God. If you want your life to someday get better, you have to get up early to earn God's favor.

A Daughter’s Duty

Things took a difficult turn around the time G. was starting high school. Her father, a truck driver, disappeared. Nobody knew where he had gone or if he would ever return. And he was the main provider for four children. So now, after getting up early to do chores, getting her siblings off to school and completing her own classes, G. would come home and make samsa to sell. Yes, melt-in-your-mouth meat pastries like the ones I enjoyed at her house. She’d take them to a truck stop to sell, not arriving home until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Then she still had homework to do and would catch a few hours of sleep before it all began again. She was shouldering heavy responsibilities and did not see a way out.

Have a teenager in your house? Can you imagine them keeping that kind of schedule? “As a child in my family I had to work,” she explained. “But I dreamed of becoming a mother,” she added, “so I would not have to do these things.”

A Way Out

You catch the foreshadowing in that last statement, don’t you? G. knows how to tell a story. And this isn’t a happy one. Her home environment seemed to get worse and worse. Her father eventually came home but that did not help much; there was a lot of shouting and fighting, and then a new baby in the house. When G. met a boy, her mother jumped to conclusions and wouldn't listen; her father locked her up. She was accepted to college but not allowed to go. Her life at home had little hope.

“I thought the way to escape was to get married. I met my husband at that time and he asked me to marry him. I was very excited. I went to tell my parents and said ‘I think I love him!’ But I did not know what love was.”

“This man was nine years older than I was. I thought since he was older he would be kind, that he would honor me. But the first day of the marriage he sat me down and said, ‘here I am, I am your God, you have to follow what I say.’ He gave me a list of things I was allowed or not allowed to do during my day. It was posted on the wall.”

Things did not go well. He was a violent, controlling man, impossible to please.

Cycle of Abuse

Within the year G. gave birth to their first child, a girl. It didn't help. Her husband beat her frequently. “He would use chains. He’d tie me up and make me kneel and beg forgiveness for all my sins. Sometimes I fainted and it was only by the will of God that I would awaken.”

After particularly violent episodes he wouldn’t know what to do; he’d take her back to her mother’s or send her to the hospital. If it was as bad as that, he’d apologize. Otherwise not. Sometimes she wondered if he had been drinking. She had no idea he was doing drugs.

Would having more children make her husband happy? After one particular bad beating she had to have one of her ovaries removed. Doctors told her she should not have any more children for six years. “So it was a miracle to have my second child just three years later,” she says. But her husband was not pleased that both babies were girls. “It was while I was pregnant with my third child that my husband me he was going to take a second wife.” G. was so convinced of her own worthlessness that she was indifferent to the news.

Getting Away

Yet the violence was terrible. G. thought about running away. Sometimes her husband would open the gates and tell her she could go. But he’d always come after her and bring her back, beating her worse. “I learned to stay so I would not be hurt so badly." Finally, she got to the point that she started fighting for a divorce.

“In Muslim culture the understanding is that a divorced women is nothing. Such a sinful person. I was thinking of myself that way I thought my relatives will not honor or think of me at all. I would be nothing to them.

"Yet one day I really felt the cries of all three of my children; my husband beat the eight-month-old son. Hearing my children calling out I felt a great desire to run away. When the third child was one year old, I managed to get a divorce.”

Now What?

Her mother had little room in the house, and G.’s brothers (who had he last word) refused her a place there. So she stayed for a while in a house of her uncle’s which was still under construction. Her mother would bring milk for the children, a liter a day, but they had little else. Finally a brother sold their father’s truck, used the money to buy a flat, and moved out; G. was able to go back to her mother. It wasn’t a healthy environment; there was still a lot of fighting and shouting. The family struggled to live on her mother’s small pension, what with two young siblings still at home in addition to G. and her three little ones. Food was scarce, and so was peace.

“That's when my husband started coming around again. I thought I might die if I went back to him, but he would make sure the children had food to eat. Maybe someday his feelings for them would be awakened as well?”

G. returned to her husband and went through the ceremony to remarry him, but things were not good. The beatings were unbearable. “Two times I had bones broken in my hands and couldn't do things at home. I was disabled, trapped.”

“One day a good friend of mine called me. She had gone to America but called and told me, you have to run away and I will send you money. My friend suggested I should come to America. But how could I do that to her, to put on her the burden of me and my three children?”

But the conversation was enough to move G. to action. “I had a few gold chains. I sold them quietly, telling nobody, and bought tickets to leave for Russia.”

Starting Over

She had only one set of clothes, those she had been wearing when she escaped, and sometimes the children went barefoot. But G. met some people who took her in and let her go along with the men to a construction site and work alongside them. “But I would come home and the kids would gather around like chirping birds… I was just happy to see them eating.” When a factory job opened up, G. took it. A required medical checkup revealed a surprise, though: she was four or five months pregnant. Now what?

“I had thoughts about aborting the child. How could I raise a fourth baby? And what would people think? Me there alone, a stranger, without a husband. I was nothing. I knew I was a horrible person. I tried to go to mosque to seek advice and help but they threw me out. They told me I was a sinner and not allowed to stay.”

G. came across a flier for a pregnancy counseling center run by what she would learn was a group of Christians. A Russian woman came alongside G. and befriended her. Among other things, she helped G. decide to keep her baby. She also gave her a book to read that would help her think about where she was going in her life and what she was living for, inviting her to surrender her life to God. After much reading and discussion, G. realized that’s just what she needed. The woman invited her to church. “It just happened to be Easter time. Amazing, this holiday that celebrates Jesus raised from the dead. I repented at that time. … After that, I had life. I was set free. I had wings to fly.”

“You Are My Child Now”

As G. read the pages of the New Testament and came to understand the nature and work of God, she felt like her heart could finally see. And one of the things she saw was that the presence of God had been with her since childhood. She had been crying out to him all along.

Maybe I’m reading between the lines here, but as I listened to G.’s story I started to think God had taken her on a journey back through all the things that had happened to her and touched and healed those memories. Some of the details she included suggested that. At any rate, he gave her the love and acceptance she had not known and strength to start forgiving those who had hurt her. She started to pray for her relatives, and they started contacting her to ask her for forgiveness. Amazing. “It was really hard. But having a relationship with God, he tells me, ‘You have to forgive. You are my child now and I will show through your life how merciful and patient I am.’"

Praise to God

“Praise to God, I have clothes to wear, and my children have shoes, and food. I praise the Lord for listening to my prayers and providing what I need. He knows what's on my heart and he is a provider. He knows what I need and he is never late. How to describe it? It is with great honor I tell everyone that I am a Christian. I was baptized, praise to God. I'm trying to show my family how merciful God has been to me, but just now they can't receive it yet.”

G.’s fourth child, a second son, was born some months ago. I expect (hope?) he'll never know his father. As we sat in her living room, I reached out and touched him. Put my hand on his back, watched him wiggle. Precious life.

G.'s mother was there that day, too. She'd come from Uzbekistan to stay, or visit, I wasn't sure which. She helped with the children. But after hearing G.’s story a few days before I was surprised to see this woman. She had disappointed G. so deeply, had harmed her so greatly, had failed to give her the love, protection, and encouragement a son or daughter needs from a parent. Yet here she was, come to stay and help with the children. She was the one I spoke to in Uzbek, wondering, what might God do in her life, as well?

The story is unfinished. But will you pray for this family?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Blowing Hot and Cold

I hate being cold. Especially my neck, the back of my arms, my feet... so, year-round, I'm more dedicated to scarves, sleeves, and socks than sundresses, skimpy tees, and sandals. This works fine in the winter but requires fighting the fashions of summer. Summer's when I really get cold.

These days the issue, really, is not what the sun is doing (or not doing) or even what part of the country or world you live in, but how you or those around you use heating and air conditioning.

Have you noticed how strongly people feel about such things? Some of my favorite families are really committed to keeping energy costs down; I laud their economy but dread spending time in their homes in the winter - I can't relax when I'm freezing! The roommate and I are able to keep the house at mutually comfortable levels, summer and winter, but the rest of my world is heavily invested in summer air conditioning. The climate of my church is gauged to the needs of a pastor in coat and tie, not the scantily clad teenage girls who - sheesh, how do they manage? Similarly, come spring, the coffeehouses and other businesses I'd like to frequent are carefully kept too cold for my comfort (unless I dress more like a man).

So... there you have it. How much are we going to let things like this affect us? How much am I?

In recent years I've noticed what an edge things like maintaining a comfortable temperature, as well as minding what and when I eat, getting getting enough exercise, and dressing with care can make in my battle to keep a positive attitude and do good work as well as loving and serving other people. Since the latter things are quite important to me I've tried to take more control over the former.

On the other hand, making it my goal to manage, maintain, or control my environment creates stress of its own; often it simply can't be done. There's no sense sticking out my lip like a pouting preschooler or throwing a fit because I don't have my blankie or didn't get my snack or nap. Whether my situation supports it or not, I'm still responsible for my attitude and behavior. Excuses don't hold up. Though I lack the presence of an actual preschooler in my house or in my history, I'm still called to be a grownup in these matters. What does Paul say?
"I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (See these verses in context to discover his secret.)
Maybe you wonder how I dealt with the hot/cold thing traveling to Siberia last month. I made sure to bring  warm clothes, of course. When we got to the home of our host family and found the lady of the house in a light cotton house dress, though, I breathed a sigh of relief. It turns out Siberians share my point of view on this matter. Even in the winter, people keep their apartments so warm you may not need a blanket on your bed. When I was inside someone's house or business I was never cold. Didn't need my sweaters. On the street it was another matter, but again, we were prepared.

1. What "little" things like temperature do the most to help or hinder your ability to respond well to life?
2. What helps you respond graciously when such factors are beyond your control?

See also: Simple Solutions - The Hot Tub & The Tea Kettle (Nov, 6, 2008).