Momma, Will You Tell Me a Story?

Ash and Baboo

“Momma, will you read me a story?”

No matter how tired I was at the end of a day, I loved hearing those words from my toddler daughter.  I never tired of reading her favorites—the princess fairy tales, The Paper Bag Princess, Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? andGoodnight, Moon.  Sitting with her curled up in the curve of my arm, her thumb in her mouth and her Baboo in her arms, was one of my greatest joys of being a young mother.

When she started kindergarten, she loved her teacher, but she really didn’t want to learn to read at first.  I gestured to all the books on her bookshelves and asked, “Don’t you want to be able to read all those books?”

She looked at me with sad eyes and pulled her Baboo to her chest.  “But then you won’t read to me any more,” she said, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Oh, honey,” I said, hugging her to me.  “I’ll always read to you, as long as you want me to,” I promised.  “And you can read to me, too!”

She smiled, and within days she began to point out the words she knew as I was reading, and she began to “read” with me, at first by reciting the words to the stories she knew word for word.  And eventually the stories became her own.

Stories are our shared heritage, our common ground.  The stories that resonate with one person are not always the stories that speak to another. One need only pull up a bestseller list from 20 years ago to see that the narratives that have great entertainment value are not always the stories that we still tell and read over and over again.  Time has a way of weeding out those stories that don’t help us learn how to be human in a world of other humans.

As an English teacher, I’ve been privileged to read again and again some of the greatest of those stories.  I don’t love them all.  Some speak to me more than others.  But in all of them, I can see why the stories are enticing—the language full of poetry that touches our hearts with both loss and possibility.

And so it is on this eve of Easter that I think about the stories that distinguish my faith from other great faith traditions.  Yes, to those who share my faith, they are the stories of a Savior—a fully human, fully divine being who has helped us glimpse the face of a sometimes unfathomable God.  But if I try to stand outside my faith and look at Christ as those who don’t share my faith might see him, I still see stories worth hearing—stories of a man who challenges everyone he meets to think about our responsibility to love our fellow humans, to minister to those in need, to have compassion for the least among us.

This week I’ve been reading some lost texts that didn’t make the cut for inclusion in the Bible but which have been validated as well-known texts in the time they were written.  I’ve found it interesting that none of these lost texts has a clear or powerful narrative from beginning to end, nor do they have the beauty of the language of the existing New Testament.  And reading those lost texts has reminded me, yet again, of the power of a great story—one that is true to the nature of humanity.

I’m grateful for the difference compelling stories have made in my life, both in literature and in the holy texts of my faith.  Every faith has such stories.  And the stories don’t stop just because a group of committed people decide it’s time to collect them in a book.  God didn’t stop speaking to people when the Bible or any other sacred book went to print.  Stories of goodness and light happen every day, and they only stop when we stop telling them.

So will you tell me a story, too?

The Gospel According to…Mary?

Osprey

Every time I visit the beach, I’m reminded that even though the rhythms are unchanging, life is never exactly the same from day to day.  The way the ocean waves break on the beach are a little different each day, the shells that wash up on the beach are infinitely varied, the osprey that make their nests on the sound bring new life each spring.

And while the words we writers use to describe the life around us are relatively fixed, the ways we put those words together are ever new.  And so discovering a new author is one of the great pleasures of reading.  I love that feeling—reading something that pulls me into the world of the book—even though I feel a little sad when I reach the end.  I rush to buy every other book the author has written, and I wait with anticipation for the next book to appear.

So imagine my surprise when I read in the WashingtonPost today that a group of theologians from most of the major religions have published a new book called A New New Testament—a book containing ten “new” books from the early years of Christianity.  Each of the ten books is prefaced by an explanation of its origins—some found only in the last century and others considered and rejected for inclusion in the original biblical texts.  But all have been researched and found to have been popular in the early years of Christianity.  The council that put this text together includes theologians from the United Church of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches, as well as two Catholic nuns and a rabbi—graduates of some of the most renowned seminaries in the country.

The titles alone are intriguing:  the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), the Letter of Peter to Philip, and The Thunder: Perfect Mind. The council theologians are clear that they are not trying to replace the traditional New Testament.  Instead, they offer readers an opportunity to reconsider the traditional texts in light of the new.  The primary editor, Hal Taussig, says in the Preface, “These new works neither revolt against the contents of the more established gospels and letters, nor do they blandly mimic them.  They tell new stories, from new perspectives, but they pulse with familiar passion and power in their depiction of spiritual experiences and deep quests for meaning.”

Predictably, some churches rejected the texts before they were even published and without having read them.  But I don’t see these books as a threat to the traditional biblical canon, any more than I see diverse new literary texts as a threat to the literary canon.  So I have already downloaded the book to my e-reader and will look forward to reading it as I have time.  I will continue to read each morning the traditional texts of my faith, but I’ll look forward to reading Thomas and Mary and Peter—three of my favorites from the traditional stories for their very human doubts and failings.

And I wonder what would happen if all of us could read our sacred texts with a fresh perspective and an inquiring mind—if we could appreciate new insights into our faith just as we are in awe of every new sunrise over the ever-the-same, ever-changing waves.

So tell me a story of your own sudden insights into something you’ve seen or heard hundreds of times.

Life in a Box?

Mom at Halloween

She squinted at me as I walked through the door and pursed her lips until I came closer—the kind of look she gives the staff when they come in—very unlike the broad smile and the happy “Well!” that lets me know my mother knows exactly who I am.  I pulled a chair up next to her wheelchair and took her hand in both of mine, and she began to chatter, though the sentences I understood gave no hint of the bonds we’ve shared for the past 57 years.

As I sat with her, it became clear that she knew I was someone who cared about her, and she seemed happy when I kissed her as I left, but she showed none of the emotion of my previous two visits, when she spoke my name and waved to me, clearly reluctant to let me go.

It was a difficult visit for me, coming on the heels of losing one of my best friends.  As I sat next to her, I wondered why God would leave my mother here, trapped in the haze of a stroke, and take my friend, who was still in the middle of doing so much good that he is mourned by hundreds.  And I wondered again at the unfathomable ways of God.

As so often happens when I’m wrestling with life’s unanswerable questions, a snippet of a line came to me from literature—from a play where the characters ask whether life in a box is better than being dead.  I pulled the play from my bookshelf and looked at the lines I had taught and highlighted.  Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead uses two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to ask the questions about life and death that make our heads spin.  My seniors either loved or hated the play, but no one was ever indifferent.  Some students loved the circular questioning, and others hated that Stoppard asks the questions but gives us few answers.  In the second act, Guildenstern says this to Rosencrantz:

“Ask yourself, if I asked you straight off—I’m going to stuff you in this box now, would you rather to be alive or dead?  Naturally you’d prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking—well, at least I’m not dead! In a minute, somebody’s going to bang on the lid and tell me to come out.  (Banging the floor with his fists.) ‘Hey, you, whatsyername! Come out of there!’”

I understand exactly how Guildenstern feels.  When I stood by my friend as he lay in a box at the viewing, I had to resist the urge to say aloud, “Get up. Come out of there and tell me this isn’t real!”  And as I sat by my mother, I wanted nothing more than to hug her and bring her out of the box that life has placed her in.

As all of us do when we’re dealing with pain, I reminded myself of the many people I know who’ve suffered far greater losses—the parents who lost their one-year-old, the 15-year-old who lost her single-parent mother, the 28-year-old son of my friend who lost his father.  I know how fortunate I am to have had both my mother and my friend for so long as a wonderful part of my life, my happiness.

Ultimately, I know that these are unanswerable questions.  Is life in a box better than no life?  Does knowing my loss is less than the unutterable losses I could have suffered make the pain less?  Does believing, as Stoppard says at one point in his play, that every exit is an entrance somewhere else make us grieve any less?

Again I look at the highlighted lines, searching for something more than just the circular questions we all ask.  And I find it in one of Rosencrantz’s insights later in the play:

Be happy—if you’re not even happy, what’s so good about surviving?  (He picks himself up.)  We’ll be all right.  I suppose we just go on.

That is exactly what we do, isn’t it?  Whether the box of our lives is small or expansive, whether we believe in Heaven or not, whether our pain is great or greater, we go on.  We look for the moments of joy.  We smile and sometimes even laugh aloud when we remember the people we’ve lost as they were when they were fully human among us.

So let us tell those belly-laughing stories and remind ourselves that we’ll be all right.

Are Our Views Changing?

Oceana Park

The small town where I grew up was—and still is—an anomaly, even in the surrounding county.  Though not everyone looked the same, everyone looked the same.  Some of us had blonde hair and blue eyes, some brown hair and green eyes, some black hair and brown eyes.  But all of us shared the same small range of skin tones, and at the time I graduated from the local high school, not a single African-American had ever attended the school.

The nearest Catholic church is still twelve miles away, in a town that also has some African-American residents.  The nearest synagogue is over 30 miles away.  White and Protestant throughout my childhood, my hometown remains so to the present day.  And yet that town has the same issues that face the rest of the country—unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction that is so pervasive it has become the subject of a documentary chosen to premiere at next month’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

In the absence of an intimate relationship with someone who is different, human beings tend to form their opinions by falling back on stereotypes.  As an avid reader in high school, I glimpsed characters whose lives were very different from my own.  I watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold on our television screen, but it seemed far removed from my own life in an all-white town.  And only as an adult did I learn that some of my childhood classmates were gay and lesbian.  That, too, seemed far away.  Though I grew up in evangelical churches, no minister ever felt the need to preach a sermon aimed at homosexuals because no one ever openly acknowledged a sexuality that didn’t conform to the social norms of the community.

This week the United States Supreme Court will take on the issue of same-sex marriage.  Journalists and commentators have speculated for months on the outcome of the justices’ deliberations, and while they disagree about how the justices may rule, they seem almost unanimous on one thing: Americans’ views on this issue are changing.

Just last week Rob Portman, a Republican congressman from Ohio, announced that he had changed his mind and now supports same-sex marriage.  Why?  Like a host of politicians before him, his views are changing because someone he knows and loves—his son—is gay.  It is impossible to hold fast to stereotypes when we know someone intimately who defies that stereotype.

Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision, it will not change the hearts and minds of people who make judgments from a distance—those who know not a single friend or family member who is homosexual.  We know this from history.  Giving women the right to vote and hold office did not lead to a flood of women elected to public office.  Granting African-Americans civil rights did not lead blacks and whites to live in the same neighborhoods or to come together in our houses of worship.  Granting citizenship to immigrants has not led us to understand that a person who is Muslim or Hindi has the common bond of humanity with us.

So even if the Supreme Court rules fully in favor of same-sex marriage, we still have a long way to go as humans living in concord and understanding with other human beings.

Since I left that small town to encounter people who have a wider range of differences than my hair and eye color, I’ve found that my life has been enriched almost every time I’ve been open to the colorfully diverse human beings around me.  Yes, sometimes they disappoint me by being very like the stereotypes.  But far more often, when I get past the surface of our differences, I’ve found something of myself in almost every person I’ve met.

Human that I am, I sometimes latch on to my first impression—not so much on appearances, but on the tone and color of the words that come out of a new acquaintance’s mouth.  I’m far more apt to judge that I don’t want to get to know someone whose views, rather than skin color, land far afield from my own.

And even then, when I don’t shut the door and pull down the shade of my mind before looking more deeply, I sometimes find that hearing others’ life stories can make a difference.  I don’t always connect in a way that makes me want to call that person a friend, and at times I still feel I have to oppose that person’s views in order to be true to my own conscience and sense of justice.

But I believe that if anything can make us live together in peace and come together to tackle the issues that face all of us, it is the power of personal narrative.  So invite us now to sit at your feet and hear your story.

Does God Make Mistakes?

Jordan's Drawing

Jordan’s Drawing

Returning to work today after the death of one of our family’s dearest friends, I gave myself a pep talk, trying to convince myself I could make it through this one day before the weekend.  I flipped on the light switch to my windowless office, and the first thing my eyes saw was this drawing by my friend Wayne’s grandson.  I smiled, as I do every time I look at the picture, but this time the smile was seasoned with sadness that Wayne would never again show up at my door with one of Jordan’s drawings in hand.

My sorrow has sometimes taken my breath away this week, and every time it does, I know that I can’t begin to imagine the grief of my friend’s wife, his son, his grandson, and his 87-year-old mother who lost her only child.  The first time I spoke with my friend’s mother, she amazed me by thinking of my pain in the face of her profound loss.  “Sweetheart,” she said, “I can hear the hurt in your voice.  We both just have to remember that God doesn’t make mistakes.”

I shared this with a colleague today who asked how my friend’s family were doing.  My colleague said, “You know, I hear a lot of people in my own faith say that, but I’m not so sure about that.”  And we both paused to share stories of the things that shaped our respective views of God.

And I think for the first time this week I may have at least a partial understanding of why Jesus told his disciples that they needed to be like little children in their relationship with the Creator.  As a person who values intellect and reason, I’ve always struggled with that story in Matthew’s Gospel.  Does Jesus mean I’m supposed to be gullible and naïve? I ask myself.  I can’t quite accept that I’m meant to put aside my intellect and accept the ways of God without question.

But as I’ve struggled this week to understand why my friend would be taken from a world where he was still in the middle of doing so much good, I’ve decided once again that it’s okay to question God—that if I believe in a God who is bigger than my understanding, then I’ll never have all the answers in this life.  When I think about how little children face the unfathomable, I know that they often ask life’s big, unanswerable questions and accept it when there isn’t a clear answer.  They ask their parents questions and then run off to play with complete joy, even though their parents have just given them a jumbled explanation, an uncertain answer.

And so I grieve.  But I know that when I walked this morning, I still needed to enjoy the beauty of the stars.  And when I go to the beach, as we so often went together, I need to put my toes into the sand and know that my friend is now a part of the incredible universe that surrounds me.  He is in the waves that wash over my feet, the ocean breeze that touches my face, the horizon that seems eternal in the distance.

So I remember, yet again, the words of the playwright Thornton Wilder:

“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

And so, my friend, I commend you to the eternal.  As long as I draw breath, I’ll give thanks that, for 20 years, you and I shared this earthly journey together.  It makes my grief a little less to believe that we haven’t seen the last of each other.

Does God make mistakes?  I think probably not.  And I have love and hope and faith that my friend and his loved ones will all somehow reunite as part of the great I Am–even if, like a little child, I’m not quite sure how that will happen.

So tell me your stories of seeing God through a glass darkly.

Have You Got This, God?

Wayne and MB

Wayne and Mary Beth

We were supposed to retire and write a book together.  It was going to be called Black and White: A Friendship, and it would have alternating chapters in two voices.  My chapters would be the serious ones, since I am terminally thoughtful.  Wayne’s were to be the lighthearted ones.  For as long as I’ve known him, he has joked about writing a book called My Life with the White Peoples, and it was to have chapters called “Hair” and “And They Call Us Cannibals.”

But Wayne’s gift was the spoken word—he filled the room with laughter and light.  I don’t think he ever had plans to actually write that book, but watching his eyes dance as he talked about it was a delight to me.  And when I started talking seriously about co-authoring a book, his wife Mary Beth, one of my best friends who brought him to me as a bonus friend, said, “Well good luck with that.  He can’t sit down long enough to write a book.”

I met Wayne when I was 36, my daughter was six, and I was newly married to my husband.  I had been offered a job as head of the English Department at Parkland Middle School, and I quickly became friends with his generous and gregarious wife, who was head of the Special Education Department.  When she went home and told him she had a new friend named Estelene, he asked, “Is she a sister?”

No, I wasn’t an African-American sister, but in the twenty years we’ve known each other, Wayne and I became what he has variously called his “soul sister,” his “West Virginia sister,” and his “sister by faith.”  We look at our Christian faith through very different lenses and accept each other’s views because we know each other’s hearts.

Yearning to get away from Washington’s sweltering summers, Mary Beth’s parents bought a small house on the Cacapon River near Berkeley Springs in West Virginia when she was a child.  Magnanimous in sharing their blessings with others, Mary Beth and Wayne could hardly wait to show me their little piece of my home state, and they quickly invited us to spend a weekend with them and their son, who is two years older than my daughter.  We rarely allowed my daughter sweets, so Wayne promptly invited her to go down to the little store at Stony Creek and bought her Sour Patch Kids and a bag of chips.  I can still hear his belly laugh when she showed them off to me, already open and half-eaten.

And thus began a friendship that enriched my life in ways I can’t begin to describe in the space of a blog.  For you to really know Wayne, I’ll have to write that book alone, and even then I don’t think I could begin to tell you what a profound impact he has had on my life.  Our families have gone to the beach together nearly every spring break since we met, and when my husband and I bought a condo there, it became one of Wayne’s favorite places to spend a vacation, even though it didn’t have a television with a 60-inch screen.

Wayne told me just last week that he might just buy his own TV and bring it down to our place the next time he came.  It wouldn’t be this year.  Wayne was preparing to have knee surgery and in the tests leading up to the surgery, the doctors decided he had a small spot in his colon that needed to be taken care of first.  And so I told him that my husband and I could use some time with just the two of us this year anyway because our jobs have given us so little time together in recent months.  I worried that his feelings might be hurt, and he responded, “Estelene, what kind of a friend would I be if I didn’t understand that you need some time alone with your husband? You go on and enjoy yourself.  And you make sure Matt gets lot of attention.  You know what I mean?”

I laughed and thanked him for his great big heart.  And then the conversation turned serious, and he told me he was scared about the surgery.  He’s had some issues with his health and his heart in the last year. I brushed his concerns aside and told him that he was going to be fine—that we were going to be around for a long time together to write that book—but that I’d be praying for him all the time, just to be sure.  In a reflective tone that I had been hearing a lot in recent weeks, he said, “I’ve given this to God, and I know that God’s got this.”

We texted yesterday morning, just before they took him down to run some tests because he’d been having difficulty breathing during the night.  He told me he was tired and was going to rest.  An hour or so later I texted his wife so that I wouldn’t wake him, and told her to tell him that I was praying for him and envisioning God’s healing hands hovering over him.  I hit send, closed the door of my office, and bowed my head to pray that God really did have this.  And even then, I didn’t believe the prayer was necessary.  But in those hours when I had no idea his great big heart was failing, I offered a prayer in complete faith that Wayne would be okay.

When I shared this with another close friend today, he said to me, “I don’t talk much about religion or God, and for the most part I really don’t think it’s possible to say what God has in mind. What I believe and feel is . . . well, what I believe and feel. We are small and imperfect, and the mysteries of Heaven are unfathomable. I have faith and hope, and most times I have these in abundance.”

I think he’s probably right.  But I believe the power of stories can help us glimpse the face of God.  And I’m thankful that Wayne and I have travelled some chapters together.

Have you got this, God?  “Yes,” I hear Wayne saying, “We’ve got this.”

Are You Kidding Me, God?

Family Bible

Mom’s Family Bible

There it is.  Right in the same chapter with the verse that Christians have quoted for 2000 years to say that Christianity is the only way to God.  And yet I’ve never heard a sermon that focuses on this verse, one of the most intriguing things that Christ ever said.  And it is, perhaps, the single biggest reason I don’t believe the Bible can be interpreted literally.

Thomas, always the one to question, has just asked Christ to explain what he means when he says that there are many dwelling places in God’s house, and Christ has responded that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” and that Thomas shouldn’t worry about having a place with God.

Philip follows up by expressing his confusion and pleading with Jesus just to be plain—just to show them God’s face.

Jesus’ response astonishes me anew every time I read it:

“Believe in me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe in me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14: 11-12, NRV)

Now I don’t know about any other mere human out there, but in all the years I’ve lived on this earth, I have never met a single person, Christian or otherwise, who believes he or she can do greater things than John describes in the thirteen chapters leading up to this scene.  Jesus turns water to wine at the wedding in Cana.  He accepts water from a Samaritan woman he has never met and tells her everything she has ever done.  He heals the son of a royal official without even being in the room where the sick boy lies.  He heals a paralytic—despite the fact that it is forbidden on the Sabbath—and gives a perfectly logical explanation of his actions to religious leaders.  He feeds 5000 people with five loaves and two fish.  He walks on water to stand beside the disciples who are terrified by the storm…and more than a little scared of what they’ve just seen Jesus do.  He saves the life of a woman who is about to be stoned for committing adultery, gives sight to a blind man, raises Lazarus from the dead.  And even people who see these miracles with their own eyes walk away in disbelief.  Not even his own brothers can believe him.

So are you kidding me, Jesus?  I believe in you—and I believe the world could be a better place if all of us had your compassion, your wisdom, your love.  I believe in the God who sent you.

But if I’m supposed to read the Bible literally, as so many of my fellow Christians do, then I can’t quite find it in me to believe that I could do a single one of the things you did in the books leading up to this moment when you tell me that I can do greater things than you did.

But if I’m to read the Bible literally, then I have to believe that I, too, could raise someone from the dead.  And in the wake of losing one of my dearest friends on this earth, there’s nothing I’d like to believe more at this moment.

I don’t think even the most conservative Christians in the universe would say that they believe they can perform a single one of these acts that John describes to us and leaves us to untangle 2000 years later.  In fact, if someone uttered such a belief, those same literal readers would probably label her a heretic.

So I will read these stories of God for the people of God as best I can in my limited human understanding.  I will have faith that my dear friend is dancing with the Spirit of the universe and just beginning to understand what I cannot about the great I Am.  I will do what I can to follow the example Christ set for me—to be compassionate, to seek wisdom, to love God with all my heart and mind and soul and strength.

And I will remember, as a woman of great faith once told me, that I have something to learn from everyone I meet in this life—from people who share my faith and people who do not.  Because the one thing I believe most of all is that if people of every faith and no faith worked together to be a Presence in the world, then we truly could do greater things.  We might all have life…and have it more abundantly.

What Do People Say About Your Hometown?

Oceana Sign

Washington D.C. is the murder capital of the United States—the most dangerous city in the country.  Baltimore is full of Baltimorons, hon.  Chicago is mob city.

We all know these stereotypes aren’t completely true.  Washington hosts thousands of visitors from around the world safely every day.  Baltimore is home to writers Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Tyler and to some of the smartest coaches around, as the recent Super Bowl showed.  Chicago gave us Barack Obama, and if you don’t like him, you must at least admit that he is a family man who has strong values—and if you can’t even do that, think Abe Lincoln.

And now…we have a documentary about my hometown, Oceana, West Virginia, that has been named as a feature film at the Tribeca Film Festival—Oxyana, a film about the prescription drug epidemic that has made Oceana a far different place from the town I knew when I grew up.  And even before anyone has seen the film, people are already taking sides about whether the film is a good thing or a bad thing for the town—as though it must be one or the other.

My family moved to Oceana when I was in sixth grade.  It was far more metropolitan than the coal town my family had left—it had a library and a two-man police force.  But it was still a small town—home to the Kathy Lou Drive-in that served the best hotdogs on toasted English buns anywhere. The Oceana of my childhood was a place where everyone knew everyone and where, if you did something wrong, your parents generally knew it before you even got home.  I once went along with a friend who was sneaking out with her boyfriend, and my dad found me before the evening was over.

I got a great education there, though much of the state was plagued by illiteracy.  My sixth grade math teacher insisted that we use our heads “for something besides hat racks,” and my English teachers, especially Jeanette Toler, encouraged me to go to college and helped me figure out how to make it a reality.

This was not everyone’s experience—not even in my own family.  My sister, who was in tenth grade when we moved to Oceana, was refused a place in college prep classes, and had it not been for her fiery journalism teacher, she might not have envisioned herself as a college student or a journalist.  One of my brothers, who had difficulty reading, slipped through the cracks, and his favorite teacher told my mother that somewhere along the line, the school system failed him.  And he has fought drug addiction for much of his adult life—an addiction that started with experimentation in Oceana.

Most tragic of all, the most affable of my siblings died of a prescription drug overdose at the age of 47, with six different prescription drugs in his system at the time of his death.  His flirtation with drugs began in Oceana, but it was not Oceana doctors who perpetuated his addiction.  It was the Veterans’ Administration doctors in Virginia who gave my brother six different prescriptions for painkillers within days of each other.  He died in my mother’s guest bedroom, and she has never gotten over it.  Even now that she has had a debilitating stroke that makes it impossible for her to speak plainly most of the time, she still gets tears in her eyes when she sees pictures of my brother who died, and among the few words she can get out to my brother who has, so far, survived his addiction, are to, “Be good.”  He has been clean for six months now, and I pray every day that he can stay clean.

And when my sister and I share our sadness about our brothers with others, we almost always have people whisper back to us that they, too, have a family member who is fighting addiction—or worse, someone they love who lost the fight, just as my brother did.

We have a problem in this country.  It isn’t just in Oceana.  It’s in every city and town in this country.  And almost every family is touched by it.  And if this documentary can encourage a conversation about this tragic epidemic, then I hope it’s a blockbuster.

But, as with every issue that faces us, we need to stop being an either/or world.  Either you have an addiction or you don’t.  Either you’re an upstanding citizen or you’re a parasite.  Either we do this or we do that. When, oh when, are we going to learn that we are just spinning our wheels in the mud if we keep insisting that we must either do one thing or its opposite, that we must either be on this side or the other side?

Oceana definitely has a problem with prescription drug abuse.  But my favorite teacher, Jeanette Toler, still lives on the corner of the two main streets in town, as do many of her students who grew up to be loving parents and hardworking people who stayed in the town.  My mom’s best friend, a lay minister, has used her talents to keep small Presbyterian churches going.  My classmates, with whom I’ve renewed friendships on social media, support each other and take care of the least among us.

All of us are tired of the negative stories others tell about the people and places we love.  So, come now, tell me your stories of the goodness of humanity.

Angry at the Church?

Fritz

We writers tend to tell the stories that traumatize us.  Whether we write fiction or memoir, suffering makes for better conflict, more passion, and—if it’s our aim to get published—higher book sales.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week—a week when I think I’ve finally finished with a year of revisions on a memoir that six agents told me last year was fascinating material when they asked for the manuscript.  All six ultimately rejected the full manuscript—for completely different reasons—but all graciously took the time to offer specific feedback.

And so I pulled the book from the queer world of the query and went back to my desk to see what I could do with their sometimes contradictory comments.  As I wrote and rewrote, I considered their feedback, but I didn’t let it drive the story I felt compelled to tell, a story about leaving behind a world of anger and conflict for a place where I could find a haven, a place of peace.

I tried to be patient with the process, thinking and rethinking what I’d written, and I understood for the first time why some memoir writers move so far from the truth that gave birth to their stories that they end up mired in accusations of fiction rather than truth.  And I vowed over and over again that I would not do that—that I’d find a way to honor both the hurt and the healing that has made me who I am.

In the past few days, I’ve been reading and rereading the manuscript to give it a last light touch—to be sure it’s exactly the story I want to tell.  I’ve taken my heart back again and again to the place where this journey began—to the place that made me understand that the power of love is greater than any hurt.

And so I want to give thanks for and to the man who opened the door in my mind that launched me on this journey, Dr. Fritz Schilling—a reverend in the truest sense of the word, whom I met when I was 22.  I’d been traumatized by the churches of my youth, particularly by the faith my parents grew up in and ultimately rejected.  The church’s hold on them was herculean—and though both fled the church, the scars they bore disfigured their lives and threatened their children.

The Sunday I wandered into Fritz’s church was the first time I’d felt the Presence of Grace—what my minister this morning called the God of the Embrace.  Though I’d heard hundreds of sermons from men who imagined themselves emissaries of a vengeful God, I’d never encountered a true reverend—a person who revered the quiet reverence of a gentle Spirit.  Fritz opened his arms to the congregation and said, “Welcome to this place where we’ve come to search for God together.”  And though I’d heard much fire from the pulpit, Fritz was the first to offer the warmth of God to me.

Because of Fritz, I’ve given up the wobbly legs of faith that were constantly being knocked down by the brimstone hurled in my direction. I’ve learned to stand more firmly and to walk with people who believe faith is a lifelong quest.

I’ve been in scores of churches that offer no such message—and every time I move to a new home, it takes me a long time to find a place that approaches faith as Fritz taught me to do.  Since the mid-80s, when Fritz headed south and I headed north, I’ve been fortunate to find a few good ministers—including a few good women and a gay man.  But I know that they are rare—those leaders in any faith, not just Christianity—who can share their faith without denigrating the faith of others who see God through a different lens.

And so, Fritz, I thank you for the wondrous gift you have given me.  Because of you, I have seen the face of God in many unexpected places—in other houses of faith as well as our own and even in the churches of my childhood after you once told me that those churches helped make me who I am.  And most of all, you helped me see God in the face of my own father, who had the courage to turn away before a church that thought it knew the mind of God did to his children what it had done to his own life.

And if my story can pass on that gift to someone like that girl who stumbled into your church all those years ago, then it will be because you first taught me about the God of Grace, the God of Love, the God of the Dance.

Thank you for teaching me that we are all the people of God.  And so, as you used to say, let us all join together to tell the stories of God for the people of God.

May it be so.

What is a “True Christian”?

Pentecost w Artist Effects

   This week a friend of mine, who’s an atheist, posted a link to a video of a guy who spent five minutes ranting about how he didn’t understand how any woman could be a Christian.  I respect my friend as a thinking person who has actually read the Bible before accepting it or rejecting it, because I know a number of skeptics and believers who have based their opinions on what they’ve heard is in the Bible.  So because I respect him, I watched the video all the way through as the speaker raged, making the same claims over and over again without ever pointing to much of anything specific to support his argument, as if repeating it endlessly might make him believe it himself.
 
   Afterwards, I wrote back to my friend, telling him that while I respected his opinions, there are far more logical atheists who actually have sound arguments for what they believe.  He wrote back to me, suggesting that, because I choose to focus on the messages of grace in the Bible, I am “cherry-picking.”  He said that if people are going to accept part of the Bible, they have to accept it all:  “A person cannot be a true Christian without believing in the teachings of the Bible.”  Translation—you, Estelene, are not a true Christian.
 
   So here we are again, in an either/or world—a world that so many of us want to see in simplistic terms—black or white, right or wrong, for or against.  I can’t accept such a world. The world is sometimes light, sometimes dark, sometimes dusk, sometimes dawn.  The world is sometimes sunny, sometimes stormy, sometimes both—resulting in an amazing rainbow.  People are sometimes good, sometimes evil, sometimes a mix of the two—simply complex human beings.
 
   And that’s the way I read the Bible.  It isn’t the inerrant word of God.  It isn’t a collection of mythical stories meant to teach a lesson.  It’s the stories of people who are struggling with good and evil, light and dark, hate and love.  Sometimes they completely miss the mark, and sometimes they’re close.  Just like you and me.  And my favorite stories in the Bible are those where Jesus is kind and understanding to the people who can’t quite reach him but can’t quite let him go either.
 
   First, there is the story of the woman who just needed to reach out and touch Jesus’ robe to know she will get the healing she needs. Jesus is being jostled in a huge crowd, and He suddenly stops and asks who has touched Him. The woman figures she will never get Him to give her the time of day with all those people demanding His attention, but she is convinced she will be okay the moment she touches Him.  And she is.
 
   The second is the story of the man whom we have come to know as “Doubting Thomas.”  Jesus appears to the disciples after the crucifixion, and Thomas can’t believe it unless he sees it for himself.  The part I love about the story is that Jesus understands Thomas’ doubt and tells him, “Here, stick your fingers in these wounds and see for yourself.”  I also love it that Thomas is willing to reach out his hands and take a chance that his doubts might be wrong.
 
   The third of my favorites is a father’s story.  This man’s child has been plagued by convulsions all of his life, and the father can do nothing. He asks the disciples to heal his son, and the disciples, too, are powerless. When the father sees Jesus, he cries out for help. Jesus tells him that if he will just believe, his son will be healed. The man declares his belief, but then, in the same breath, he begs, “Help my unbelief,” which shows that he really isn’t sure at all. The wondrous thing here is that Jesus seems, again, to understand the doubt of this tormented father, and He heals the man’s son despite the man’s wavering faith.
 
   Do I believe everything in the Bible is to be taken literally?  Of course not. I don’t believe God thinks a woman should be stoned for adultery or that women should just shut up in church.  But do I believe the stories of Jesus are simply stories—made up to make us think about what the world would be like if we live as we should?  No.  But even if I end up being wrong about that when I leave this earth, what a glorious set of stories they have been for me—helping me to see the world as it should be.
 
   To me, a true Christian is someone who lives a life like Christ—the fully human man who challenged the know-it-alls, who used the resources he had to heal the sick and champion the least among us.  Not such a bad way to be—and every bit as beautiful as that rainbow that we can only see when we’re willing to accept both the rain and the sunshine at the same time.
 
   So tell me the favorite stories of your faith.