Do Words Fail You?

Moon Apr 2013

5:20 a.m. on Thursday.  I opened the front door and gasped.  A golden round moon hung just over the rolling hill, rendering my tiny flashlight superfluous.  I stopped in my tracks as the dog, impatient for our morning walk, tugged at his leash.  “Wait,” I commanded, and he stopped, cocking his head and looking at me in confusion.  “Look at the moon, Beck!”  He waited patiently as I stood and breathed in the pre-dawn air.

We walked our usual path, and the moon followed, lighting our way through the silence of a neighborhood still asleep.  When we returned from our walk, I darted inside and pulled my cell phone from my purse as the moon prepared to drop behind the western horizon.  I hurried to the top of the hill and snapped several photos, increasingly frustrated at the quality.  I considered waking my husband, but by the time he pulled out his Nikon and dressed to go outside, the moon would be gone.

The next day I took my camera with me, but while the moon was still spectacular, it had lost its crisp roundness and its golden glow.  And the best camera couldn’t have done justice to being in the presence of even that less spectacular moon.

While technology is increasingly able to capture sight and sound, I’m struck by how often I’m disappointed.  A few years ago, I was introduced toJonathan Butler, a South African musician who came of age during apartheid, when friends invited my husband and me to join them for a Dave Koz Christmas concert at the Strathmore Theater in Bethesda.  Butler brought the entire crowd—a very diverse audience in both ethnicity and faith, since Koz is Jewish—to their feet.

A former evangelical who has converted to Presbyterianism—a faith sometimes laughingly referred to as “the frozen chosen”—I’m not entirely comfortable with overt expressions of religious emotion.  But hearing Butler sing “O Holy Night” made me feel I was in the presence of a spirited and joyful God.  I went out the next week and bought a Butler CD.  I love the CD, but each time I listen to it, I’m reminded of seeing him on that stage, and the recording can’t come close to the power of his presence in a live performance.

As I try to describe both experiences now, I understand all over again how words are so often inadequate.  To describe the perfect incandescence of that full moon in its beauty or the power of Jonathan Butler’s talent is beyond my capability.

But I’m comforted that far greater writers have tried to describe the awe of nature or the power of an event.  Today’s lectionary tells how Jesus was asked, after performing a multitude of miracles in a single day, if he were the Messiah or whether they should wait for another.  Jesus doesn’t give them a direct answer.  He simply tells them to go tell the people who are asking about what they’ve just seen.

I love to read—great literature, entertaining stories, the holy texts.  And yet knowing how many times I’ve experienced something that is so much more powerful than anything I’ve read about the experience, I know that even the holy texts fail to capture the magnificence of God, of Jesus, of miracles.

Sometimes, I just have to take a leap of faith and go out and experience the world for myself.  So I’m going to go take a walk on the beach now.  And though it’s just an ordinary spring day on the Outer Banks, I know that I’ll revel in the sensory experience of that resplendent ocean.

So while vicarious experience may not do it justice, tell me a story.  Bring me close to your experience of the world.

Live in a Stressful State?

Hawaii

Standing on a promontory in Hawaii above an ocean of cobalt blue, I knew that I had seen the best of two worlds.  Born in the heart of the West Virginia hills, I’d grown up surrounded by trees of nearly every shade of green on the color wheel, but I didn’t see the ocean until I was 24.  And I’d never seen an ocean like the one I saw 30 years later from a precipitous cliff in Kauai.

The island weather had been colder than we’d expected, but my husband and I donned our swimsuits that morning and covered them with layers and jackets.  This was nothing I hadn’t done countless times during my childhood in West Virginia, where the chilly mornings slowly gave way to the warmth of the sun.  Undaunted by the absence of tropical breezes, we eagerly followed our friends across the rocky terrain to what they assured us would be a breathtaking view.

When we arrived at the peak, my eyes didn’t know where to look first.  The ocean stretched to the horizon, broken by clusters of lava rock that punctuated the landscape, allowing me to take a breath before my eyes read on.  Though we stood high above the surface, the waves crashed against the rocks, spraying us with water as I backed away, holding my breath.

Again I thought of West Virginia.  I’d taken the beauty of my surroundings for granted for most of my childhood, until I visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state.  I remembered holding my breath and backing up from the overlook in the same way—the first time I really became aware that great beauty and great danger are sometimes separated by the tiniest of invisible lines.  The towering pines were bare on one side, stripped by the force of the constant wind.  In that moment, I’d felt just as I felt on that cliff in Hawaii—that I might be small and insignificant but that the God I believed in was small enough to fit inside me and big enough to create a world of awe-inspiring places.

I thought of those moments again when I read the morning news today and learned that this year’s Gallup survey results show that the least stressed people in the country live in Hawaii.  No surprise there.  But I was surprised to learn that the most stressed people in the country are the residents of West Virginia.  I was so surprised that, as I sometimes do, I checked the original source.  I wasn’t disbelieving, as I usually am when I turn to a primary source, but I wanted to read the original report without the spin of journalists.

Because I’m skeptical of surveys, which are often designed to get the results the sponsor wants, I read about the design of the survey.  I was impressed to learn that Gallup, unlike many other companies, had used both landlines and cell phones, though the balance was a bit in favor of landlines—400 cell calls for every 600 landline contacts.  And they also made an effort to find respondents who were diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and education.

Satisfied that the survey seemed credible, I read the summary and discovered that Hawaii has ranked as the least stressed state every year for the past five years and that West Virginia has consistently been ranked in the five most stressful states.  As one might expect, there was a strong correlation to the rate of employment—more stress in states with higher unemployment.

But when I checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site, I found that the unemployment rate in West Virginia for 2012 ranked only 23rd of the 50 states.  So what explains that the people in a state filled with beautiful, peaceful places to calm the soul would feel so much more stress than people elsewhere?

Perhaps it’s easier for the people of Hawaii to disregard the troubles that plague the mainland.  After all, it takes six hours by plane to get to the turmoil on the continental U.S., and one can always turn off the television when the sadness creeps across the airwaves to paradise. And while those of us on the mainland could choose to do the same, we tend to be bombarded by images that accost us even when we turn off our televisions.  As children during the ‘60s and ‘70s, my classmates and I saw the news only for an hour each evening, and the turmoil of those years didn’t seem as close as every conflict seems now.

I wonder, too, how faith figures into the equation.  We know from other surveys that having a strong faith helps people live longer, more abundant lives.  But I also have many friends in my home state who are traumatized by a faith that makes no room for questioning a God they’ve been taught offers more vengeance than comfort.  And when I read the results of the Pew Forum’s research last year which shows that young adults are leaving churches in droves, I have to wonder how many people are struggling because they were taught that if their prayers aren’t being answered it’s because they don’t have enough faith or aren’t “right with God.”

Each time I scan the Charleston and Beckley papers online from my home state, I read articles that reflect how little control most of the people in the state have over their economic well-being.  The coal and gas companies, in an attempt to preserve the riches they’ve reaped from the state, convince the masses that sustainable energy is a threat to their way of life.  The last time I drove into the county where I lived as a young adult, I was greeted by a hate-filled billboard denigrating the president and urging everyone to be a “friend of coal.”

At that moment I thought of those trees on Spruce Knob and wished I had enough money and know-how to fund clean energy businesses—perhaps windmills—to replace the strip mines that surround the cemetery where my father is buried.

Stress and depression, as a good therapist once told me, come from feeling that we have no control.  “All of us have choices,” he told me, “so look at your life and take control over what you can.”  And he’s right.  So my prayer for my home state is that they will somehow find a way to break free of those who chain them to a style of life where others get rich from the burdens they carry.

So how is your state of stress?

Grateful for an Older Sibling?

Marcella and Me

Like everyone, I’ve spent the week trying to wrap my mind around another senseless tragedy.  My heart a swirl of emotions, I went from incredulity to anger to fear to sadness for the victims, especially for the Richards family—innocents who’ll bear the physical and emotional scars of that single moment in time for the rest of their lives.

But as someone blessed to have an older sibling who has looked out for me from the moment I slipped into the world, I couldn’t help being sad all over again when I read the description of the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, bloodied and broken, hiding in a boat that would never carry him to calmer seas.

Yes, he’s an adult—barely.  Yes, he is the one who made the reckless decision to join his older brother’s descent into madness and hatred.  But as someone who spent my childhood following my sister everywhere she would allow me to go and listening to her as she talked about what it was like to be the first of my grandparents’ 57 grandchildren to go to college, I can’t help feeling sorry for someone whose life went so terribly wrong because he followed in his brother’s footsteps.

And what of Tamerlan Tsarnaev?  I can’t find it in me to understand him enough to feel sad for him.  It makes me angry that he followed the logic of a religious extremism that says alcohol is forbidden but that mass murder is encouraged.  How can any human being with a brain possibly accept such tenets of faith? It makes me furious that he lured his younger sibling, who worshipped him, into a fanaticism that urges its adherents to jihad.

This morning I read an article in the Boston Globe that gave a glimpse into the lives of these two young men.  And as always in these tragedies, we’re left with more questions than answers.  How do we find and help such angry young people before they are helped by terrorists who feed on their rage and vulnerability?

How do we honor all faiths but expose extremists who commit atrocities in the name of God?  How do we live in religious freedom but restrict the rights of fanatics who believe their faith justifies taking away the lives and freedoms of others?

I don’t know.  But I do know that today I am especially grateful for an older sibling who has always, always taken care of me and wrapped me in love.  And while I stopped following in her footsteps long ago—but well after I was 19—I’m thankful that if I did follow her, she would never have steered me wrong.

Here’s to all the big sisters and big brothers in the world who are like my sister Marcella.

Tell me your stories of gratitude to the siblings who came before you.

True Friends?

Friends of Estelene

In my early 20s and planning a wedding that my fiancé and I could barely afford, I confided to a colleague that I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but that we were paying for the wedding ourselves and couldn’t afford to invite the staffs of the two schools where we worked.

Nearly twice my age, my colleague laughed at my earnestness.  “Look,” he said, “think about which people will still be part of your life when you’re my age.  You’ll find you’re lucky to have three or four true friends in a lifetime.”

His advice was no help in putting together my guest list, and I lost touch with him a couple of years later.  But I’ve often thought about how he defined friendship.  And I think that I must be far luckier than he was to call so many people my friends.

But I’m not nearly so lucky as today’s 20-somethings, who have hundreds of friends on social networking sites, while I have only 169 after years on the site.  I could probably have more if I’d only broaden my definition to include the new verb defined in Dictionary.com:  “to add (a person) to one’s list of contacts on a social-networking Web site.”

Recently, I ignored friend requests from two people who I felt had treated me badly.  When I told my daughter about it, she said, “You’re right, Mom.  They’re mean girls.  But you and your generation take Facebook way too seriously.”

So what does it mean to call someone a friend?  I like Judith Viorst’s definition in “Friends, Good Friends—and Such Good Friends,” an essay she wrote for Redbook magazine:

There are medium friends, and pretty good friends, and very good friends indeed, and these friendships are defined by their level of intimacy.  And what we’ll reveal at each of these levels of intimacy is calibrated with care.  We might tell a medium friend, for example, that yesterday we had a fight with our husband. And we might tell a pretty good friend that this fight with our husband made us so mad that we slept on the couch.  And we might tell a very good friend that the reason we got so mad in that fight that we slept on the couch had something to do with that girl who works in his office.  But it’s only to our very best friends that we’re willing to tell all, to tell what’s going on with that girl in his office.

The best of friends, I still believe, totally love and support and trust each other, and bare to each other the secrets of their souls, and run—no questions asked—to help each other, and tell harsh truths to each other when they must be told.

I would never define friendship in the narrow terms of my former colleague.  But neither can I find it in me to feign friendship with someone who I feel has a track record of using people and casting them aside.

Friendship is sometimes fluid.  I have often found friends in unexpected places at the times when I needed them most—when I’ve been sick or weak or discouraged.  And I have been a friend to others in such times of their own need.  Accidental angels on gossamer wings, we drift out of each other’s lives when the moment of need is past.  And I’m truly thankful for those willing to be friends in moments of need.

In Luke’s version of Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples, Jesus speaks of friendship in these terms:

Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves ; 6 for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed ; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. 9 “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find ; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 “For everyone who asks, receives ; and he who seeks, finds ; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.  (New American Standard version)

My dearest friends and I would give each other that loaf of bread on the first knock at the door.  My good friends and I would step in when the intimate circle of friends is not enough.  My friends and I would respond when we’re asked for help.  And even those Facebook friends and I who are really only acquaintances would offer our prayers and positive energy when one of us posts a need.

So friends?  I feel lucky to have them in whatever level of intimacy we can offer each other.

How about you?  Tell me a tale of a friend, a good friend, or a dear friend.

Locusts Next?

Butterfly 2

“Muhahahaha!  This is your God speaking.  Who else can make you switch from an early morning walk in a down coat to a sweaty walk in shorts with your hair pulled back in a scrunchy in the same week.  (And, no, I’m not responsible for naming it a scrunchy.  Well, maybe I am, since I created the brain that couldn’t think of something more creative.)

“What’s that, you say?  You still don’t believe in global warming?  Careful now!  You’ve got that whole Washington summer ahead, and next on the agenda is your regularly scheduled appearance of locusts.  And you thought those nasty little stink bugs were annoying.

“What’s that?  Yes, I like hearing your prayers.  Think about it—even when your own kids are asking for things you know they don’t need, you’re still happy they’re talking to you, right?  You and I are not all that different, as I’ve reminded you for over 2000 years.

“What’s that?  You’ve got a list, too?  Well, let’s hear it. 

“You’re not asking for things?  You’ve got a list of questions?  Okay, go for it.  Are your loved ones happy here?  Yes, they’re fine, but I’m not giving you the details.  You could come here and find out for yourself, but you’re not ready for that now, are you?

“What else?  Why do I allow tsunamis and hurricanes and other weather disasters to kill thousands of people?  See Paragraph 2 above.  You can’t give me ALL the blame for that.

“Why do I let bad politicians make a mess of our world?  Well, I don’t think you people in the U.S. can blame me for that either, now can you?

“So go on….

“Why do people suffer?  Why do I take little kids and leave those with Alzheimer’s trapped in their bodies in nursing homes?  Why do bad things happen to you and the people you love?

“Hmmm.  Has it ever occurred to you to ask me why good things happen to you? Why I brought you together with the people you love?  Why I give you that beautiful beach you walk on?  Those sunsets no painter can replicate?  Those spring flowers and butterflies that are more beautiful in real life than your camera can capture, even with HD?

“No, I thought not.  Let’s keep talking, and maybe one day you’ll figure it out.”

This message is brought to you by the girl with more questions than answers.

Believe in Angels?

Angelheart

Angelheart VII by Rayhart

Tired of the cold and joyful at the promise of a weekend of spring weather, I rose from bed this morning and walked barefoot into the dining room to turn up the thermostat.  I tilted my head back to let the sunlight from the second story windows fall across my face, bright with possibility but not yet warm enough to banish the freezing night temperatures.  As I lifted my eyes, my gaze fell on an angel, and though I couldn’t see her features, I knew she was smiling as she hovered over the room.

Was she real?  Yes.  One of my favorite artists, Rayhart, breathed life into her, and I saw her on the antithesis of this day—in the middle of the humid Washington summer.  Irritable at the heat and wishing for fall, I crossed the grassy field of a local wine festival, sapped of energy and longing for my air-conditioned car and home.  But I stopped abruptly when my eyes fell on an array of angels hovering around the opening of the artist’s shaded tent.

Forgetting the heat, I paused in front of the display, intrigued that the artist had created angels so akin to the ones I see in my head when I need them, hazy and surreal but drifting in calm serenity.  I bought one for myself and one for my friend, who died unexpectedly last month.

I’ve been thinking a lot about angels in the wake of losing my friend.  Are they real?  I think so.  I think of them as they are present in the stories of Christ’s life—singing at his birth, soothing after his temptations, ministering in his suffering, rejoicing in his infiniteness.  And so it is that I can sometimes feel their presence in opaque clarity—singing in my joy, ministering in my hurt, promising in my darkest hours.

There are angels.  And then there are angels.  It’s easier to believe in the angels we see in tangible ways—those human angels who rejoice with us, who minister to us, who sustain us.

Are they real?  Yes.  And sometimes they surprise us, coming to us from unexpected places.  On the day I lost my friend, I left my office building in tears and ran into a colleague that I don’t often talk with about my personal life.  She took one look at my face and hugged me, crying with me over the loss of someone she didn’t know well—crying for my loss.

This week that same colleague lost her 99-year-old great-grandmother, who was a role model and a dear friend to her.  She shared with me how this was her first experience in being present at the moment of someone’s death.  Almost everyone’s initial reaction to her loss has been that her great-grandmother lived a good long life.  And while she acknowledged the truth of that cliché, we talked for nearly two hours about how death, no matter how expected or unexpected, takes our breath away, knocks the wind out of us.  And in being accidental angels, we connected in a way that makes us seem more real, more human to each other.

Yes, there are angels.  And in the face of the inevitable end of this corporeal life, it’s good to feel the presence of those hazy, intangible ones. But it’s even better to be lifted up by angels of the human variety.

So tell me a story of your angels.

Afraid of the Madness?

Crab

Watching the sand crabs at the beach, I sometimes think I understand exactly how they must feel.  They creep tentatively out of their holes in the sand, their big bug-eyes darting this way and that, looking for danger in the world.  They do their work hurriedly, rushing back into their holes at the first sign of menacing humans who step threateningly close.

Held at gunpoint at the age of five, I know what it is to feel vulnerable. When I tell my friends in the Maryland suburbs about my early childhood, the stories sometimes leave them speechless, unable to comprehend being so close to such danger.

But as large as those scenes loom in my memory, they don’t frighten me nearly so much as the reports of random violence that fill the news on any given day.  When I talk with the many teenagers and young adults I know, I’m concerned about the long-term effects of a 24-hour news cycle that plays and replays scenes of violence.  And in the Washington area, where we hear endless reports of citizens who are arming themselves because they distrust our government, the possibilities for tragedy are omnipresent and oppressive.

While my exposure to violence as a child was not commonplace, even the most vigilant parent today finds it difficult to protect little ones from learning about evil early in life.  Anyone born after CNN became the first 24-hour news network in 1980 has never known anything except news all day, every day.  Think about that.  The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.  The massacre at Columbine in 1999.  The anthrax attacks of 2001.  The carnage in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on 9/11.  The Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.  The Aurora theater shootings and the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in 2012.

One need only look at the dates to see that these tragedies are happening with greater frequency and more massive devastation.  They are happening on a greater scale than in many war-torn third world countries.  Why is this happening in a country that has the world’s greatest share of wealth and creature comforts?

And according to the CDC, the number of people who were prescribed anti-anxiety medications has more than doubled since the mid-1980s.  And this statistic does not include prescriptions for anti-depressants or more serious psychotic drugs.  Nor does it include the number of people who self-medicate with alcohol or illegal substances.

What can we do to combat the madness and anger in such a world?  The problem is complex, and our needs are overwhelming.  But it would be a start to have leaders who don’t add to the vitriol and who can work together to tackle the problems that face us.  And it would help if the news networks would balance out reports of evil with stories of human kindness.

Yes, it would be safer to mimic that little sand crab, frightened of contact with the world.  But then we would miss the beautiful sunrises over the ocean, the play of the waves as they change each day, the feel of a loved one’s hand in our own as our toes make parallel prints in the sand.

In the past two weeks, since one of my best friends lost her husband, I’ve been reminded of what’s best about being human.  Hundreds of mourners overflowed the church in honor of a man who devoted his life to helping struggling students that others had forgotten.  Close friends and acquaintances lifted up my friend and her son, crying with them, laughing with them, feeding them, holding them.  And my friend learned that she was stronger and more gracious than she had any notion she could be.  In the tragedy of my friend’s sudden death, I learned yet again that even when we’re surrounded by danger and sorrow, maybe especially when we can’t flee from danger and sorrow, it’s worth coming out of hiding.

So tell me a story of what’s good about our world, about us.