Remember Your Roots?

Basil

I used to be a country girl, I thought to myself this morning as I stood looking over the fruits and vegetables at Jenny’s Market.  There was a time when I wouldn’t have had to stop in the middle of making summer pasta to go buy a vegetable I’d forgotten during the previous trip.

Jenny’s has become one of my favorite things about moving to western Howard County, Maryland a few years ago to get away from the congestion of the suburbs closer to Washington, where we lived for fourteen years.

The market is a family affair, and each summer I go there to buy vegetables—spring lettuce, green onions, baby potatoes, green beans, and tomatoes.  The family posts handmade signs on the main route leading north from the suburbs to their market, spacing them a few hundred feet apart and entertaining drivers during the evening rush hour:  Your wife said…to stop at Jenny’s…and pick up some…juicy strawberries…sweet corn…and fresh green beans.

Each time I shop at Jenny’s, I miss my parents.  My father, when he was alive and I was still living in West Virginia, supplied me with vegetables from his garden each spring.  And my mother, who is now in a nursing home, canned those vegetables each fall, making a sloppy mess of her kitchen but proudly giving me jars of corn and tomatoes every harvest time.

A little sad, I picked up vegetables my dad loved to grow and handed them to the teenager behind Jenny’s table, along with my earth-friendly recyclable bag.  As she calculated and bagged the produce, I cheered myself up by walking to the other side of the market to watch the youngest child walk underneath the table, chattering happily to himself.

As I got to the end of the table, I laughed at myself for being so nostalgic.  The last display at the end of the table held a basket of mangoes, clearly not grown locally by the family.  They, too, have modernized their business, buying and selling produce that isn’t available in the area.

And I realized that the basil I bought there and planted in pots on my deck was not something my parents ever grew or served at their table.  In fact, the herb that is a staple in my kitchen never even made an appearance on my mother’s spice rack or in her cart at the grocery store.

I shook myself out of the past and drove home to finish the summer pasta.  As I pulled into the driveway, I smiled at the flowerbed I planted last month, now lush and colorful from the summer rainstorms.  The last time my mom visited, she had told me how much more beautiful my flowers were than any she had planted.  And she frequently told me that I was a better cook.

But today I needed to remind myself that I’m still a bit of a country girl.  I needed to feel the earth in my hands, so I decided to repot a peace lily that wasn’t doing well.  I found a bigger pot and got out the potting soil.  Holding the base of the plant in my hand, I turned the pot upside down, expecting the soil to come out in the shape of the pot as it usually does when I replant.

To my surprise, only the soil in the middle dislodged, and when I set the pot down and looked at the plant in my hand, the roots were bound in the shape of the original flat and had never spread to the rest of the soil in the pot.  I realized that when I first planted it, I must have forgotten to shake those roots loose a bit so that they would adjust themselves to the size of the new pot.

In all the times this country girl has planted, I have never had this happen to a plant.  And I understood in that moment that people are like plants.  It isn’t healthy to stay root-bound in space and time.  To thrive, we have to allow those roots to grow and change—and sometimes to be replanted in a new place.

Had I stayed rooted in my parents’ garden, I would never have tasted basil or gone away to college or become a teacher or had a family of my own.  But they planted the seeds and tended the saplings that grew into each of those parts of me.

And part of me will always be a country girl, wherever I put down roots.

So tell me, where do your roots grow?

The Spitting Image?

Senior Portraits

“She looks a lot like her dad’s sister, don’t you think?”

I looked at the picture and thought for a moment.  I’d recently reconnected on social media with an old friend who hadn’t seen my daughter since she was a toddler, and she’d been browsing the multitude of pictures posted on my page.

Yes, my daughter did look a little like her aunt in that particular picture, taken about a year ago.  But most of my friends and acquaintances think she looks like me.  In fact, when some of my friends saw my senior portrait, they thought it was a photograph of my daughter.

When she was young, no one ever said our daughter resembled me.  But that was when her father and I were still married and most of our friends knew both of us well.  Now our circles of friends and acquaintances rarely come together, so people tend to see the one of us they know best in our daughter’s features.

It’s endlessly fascinating to me how I see glimpses of her father’s and my family members play across my daughter’s face or reveal themselves in her gestures.  A few days ago she and I visited my mother, and during the drive my daughter told a story, her face animated and her hands punctuating her words as we sat nearly still in a construction back-up.

My hands on the wheel and the car at a standstill, I turned to look at her, and her eyes widened just the way my father’s did when he was telling a story.  I know from comments that others have made that my eyes do the very same thing when I talk excitedly, but at that moment, I saw my father in her face.

Made in my image, made in her father’s image, our daughter is both of us and neither of us.  She is sometimes me, sometimes her father, and most times uniquely individual.  And as so often happens for me these days, as I’ve begun writing about the things that have contributed to my own worldview, I had a moment of insight into my faith.

Perhaps this is what it means that we are created in God’s image.  In our limited understanding, we box in the words of our holy texts, and many have used that phrase to justify their literal reading of the scriptures.  But how could all of us—in our colorful variety of skin tones and temperaments—be made in the image of a single God?

I smile.  For it is in the eyes of almost every human being I meet that I see some reflection of the Spirit we all share.  And just as my daughter is not a mirror image of me, we are not the spitting image of God.  But isn’t it interesting to think that each of us has a little bit of our Father-Mother-Spirit in us, even in that brother or sister or uncle or cousin or in-law that we don’t like so much?

So perhaps today I’ll try a little harder to look for that tilt of the eyes, that curve of the lips, that gesture from God in every person I encounter.

What about you?  Tell me a story of God with us and in us.

A Risk Worth Taking?

code orange, fountain, heat, silver spring

From the Washington Post’s Hot Summer Days in Washington

Delighted children jumped up and down on the swirled tile, waiting for the spray to burst forth.  When the fountain erupted, the children squealed and ran directly into the waterfall, lifting their faces in unabashed joy.

I stepped back, avoiding the spray, and watched, smiling at one little girl who started forward but then turned to put her face into her mother’s chest, clinging to safety just outside the circle of water.

She reminded me of myself.  All my life my first instinct has been to stand back timidly.  I didn’t learn to swim until the summer after eighth grade, and though I love the water, I only venture into the most docile waves.  Each time my family vacations on the Outer Banks, I sit in a chair at the edge of the water with a book while our adult children run headlong into the surf, waving their boogie boards in a greeting to the coming waves.

In high school, while all my friends enrolled in Drivers’ Ed, I avoided the class, terrified that I’d die in a crash as one of my cousins had.  I didn’t get my license until I was 22 and needed to drive to my first job.  In college, I took a class in golf, and after the class, I never golfed again after getting my only B.

As a young adult I briefly overcame my fear of danger and failure.  My boyfriend and his sister coaxed me to waterski, and though I failed over and over again, I’ll never forget the exhilaration of knowing, in that split-second before the rope pulled taut, that I was going to be gliding across the water because I had finally given in to the boat and allowed it to pull me to a standing position.

My friends also convinced me I should go white-water rafting, and we made an annual trip down the New River for a few years.  And even then, when we stopped at a cliff of rock and everyone took turns jumping twenty feet into the water below, I sat on a grassy knoll and watched, never taking that plunge.

After leaving West Virginia when I was 30, I didn’t raft again for another twenty years, when part of the festivities for my stepson’s wedding in Lake Tahoe included a lazy trip down the Truckee River.  The water was so placid that, for once, it didn’t even occur to me to be fearful or hesitant.  But near the end of the excursion I was thrown from the raft into the only rapids on a two-hour trip.  Instead of tucking my body and riding out the waves as I’d been taught to do twenty years before, I panicked and clung to the hands of my friends and family until they pulled me back into the raft.  For a week my body was a panorama of black, purple, and green.  And though there’s humor now in the memory, I can’t quite rid myself of the fear that I could have drowned in rushing water that didn’t come higher than my waistline.

I’ve long since accepted that being a risk-taker is not an inherent part of my character.  This characteristic isn’t limited to physical challenges—it extends into every area of my life.  But I’ve learned that being aware of this trait is the first step to overcoming it when the risk is worth taking.  My church once asked me to serve as an Elder, to help make decisions about the mission of the church.  But the nominating committee asked at a time when the denomination was in turmoil over the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians.  One congregation in the area had split over the issue, and a number of congregations in the country threatened to leave the denomination.  I feared I had neither the wisdom nor the virtue to serve.  But I did it because I knew it was important to be a voice for a gay pastor who had once taken very good care of my family.

I know I’m not the only one who hesitates to take risks.  But the people we hear most loudly—the people who get the most media play—tend to be those at the other extreme.  I’ve been reflecting about this a lot after hearing Sarah Palin’s comments at the Faith and Freedom Conference last week and reading Kathryn Parker’s column in the Washington Post.  While I’m sure Palin must have moments of personal insecurity, she exudes confidence to the point of recklessness.  And while Parker, also a conservative, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010, she told a story of self-doubt in her next column after winning—a story in which she credited a teacher for giving her the confidence to become a writer.

Parker’s most recent column had over 3000 comments within one day of being critical of Sarah Palin, many of them asking her who she was to bash someone who had actually done something.  When I responded that shehad done something, in fact, had won a Pulitzer, her fans attacked the Pulitzer and me.  Soon the comments bore no relation to the content of Parker’s column.  The posts quickly spiraled into the muck, and most rational readers bowed out.

I logged off, disgusted with how the loudest commenters spew venom that they would never voice if they couldn’t hide behind the anonymity of the Internet.  And in that next moment I realized that we hesitant people—we who stand back because of insecurity and danger—can’t allow the loudest and least rational to control the story of the people in this nation.

And I thought of those children at the fountain again.  What happens when little bullies push others out of the way to get the best spot under the falling water in the heat of the day?  Adults—either the bullies’ own parents or others—wade into the water, heedless of getting soaked, and pull those children out until they agree to behave with civility.

So tell me a story.  When have you waded into a geyser that made it worth getting drenched?

Have Unspeakable Doubt?

FPC

“I’m not all that sure I believe in the virgin birth.”

“Really,” I said, raising my eyebrows in surprise.  “Why not?”

Not an unusual conversation, certainly.  But close your eyes and picture one of those silhouettes on a news show, speaking in a voice that’s been digitally disguised to protect the identity of the speaker.

“Well,” said the silhouette, “that’s not exactly something you say if you feel called to be God’s minister in the world.”

I smiled a rueful acknowledgment and waited.  I don’t know how many others this minister confided in, but even now, years later, I feel privileged that this person I respect so much was honest enough to admit to questioning the faith we share.  It is one of the dialogues that has shaped my own faith journey.

I thought of this conversation again today when a friend of mine called and asked how I was doing.  She knows that I’ve been wrestling with why God suddenly took a close friend who was making a difference in the world and yet left my mom in a nursing home, trapped and confused inside a body debilitated by two strokes.

Having had the wind knocked out of me by my friend’s death three months ago, I have regained some equilibrium.  For me, it always helps to dump the unanswerable questions on the floor and wade through them with people I trust to understand.  I told my friend that my only certainty sometimes is that the Spirit is in the muck with me.  I study the holy texts of my faith every day, as best I can in my limited understanding.  Ultimately, I’ve decided to leave the details of what happened 2000 years ago and what will happen after I die up to an unfathomable God.  I can’t control either of those things, so I’ve decided that I will live my life as abundantly as I can for as long as I can.

“Funny you should mention control,” my friend responded.  She shared that she heard a sermon at her church recently where the minister explained that we must give up control—and that it’s not in our nature in the modern world to give up control.  She said, “So what am I supposed to do—quit my job and sit on my butt and wait for God to put food on my table?”

I laughed.  We both knew how ridiculous that sounded and that that isn’t what her pastor meant.  And like all human beings, we understand the struggle to find balance in a faith full of contradictions.

She laughed.  “I do struggle with that.  You and I are going to have to sit down over a bottle of wine some time and talk about all the questions.  I just don’t get why things like Sandy Hook happen.  And if God doesn’t answer our prayers to keep that from happening, why do we pray?”

“I know,” I said.  “For me, all I really know is that praying somehow brings me closer to that Spirit that is in us all.  And I know that every single time I’ve cried out, I’ve felt that Presence, and I can’t chalk that up to coincidence.  And when I cry out, I’ve seen the face of God in the people who love and comfort me.”

We both admitted that we pray we are never tested in the way the Sandy Hook parents have been.  It’s hard to breathe when I think about that.  Would I still cling to my faith?  I honestly don’t know, and I pray that I never have to find out.  But I do know with certainty that if the unspeakable happened, I’d see the face of God in people of any faith and no faith who would gather ‘round me and wrap me in their arms, just as they did ten years ago when I had cancer.

Today’s lectionary reading is the passage from the Book of Acts where the apostles choose a replacement for Judas.  And do you know how they do it?  They cast lots.  I’ve read that passage many times, but it is only recently that I really paid attention to that detail.  These men—who have seen Jesus perform miracles, who should understand God better than any of us ever will—ultimately leave the decision up to chance.  I chuckle.  And I suspect I’m not the only one who finds humor in the stories of ordinary human beings in the face of the uncertainty.

I think again of that silhouetted minister, admitting doubts just as Thomas did and spending a lifetime in search of the answers–and along the way, being the face and hands and feet of God in the world in spite of all the personal doubts.

And I wonder what would happen if we allowed our ministers and our leaders and ourselves to voice the unspeakable questions that—if we’re honest—we all ask.

Speak.  Tell me the stories of your own questioning.

A Dark and Stormy Night?

Closet Dog

 “It was a dark and stormy night.”  On my morning walk with our dog, in the aftermath of a storm that spawned two mild tornadoes near my home, I thought of Snoopy, sitting on top of his tiny dog house, typing that same line over and over.  In comic strips that never fail to make me laugh, Snoopy tries again and again to publish his stories, which all begin with the same line, only to face rejections that become increasingly rude.  In one comic strip he receives two rejection letters, and the editor tells him that the second one is for the next story he writes.

  Snoopy actually plagiarized his first line from British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford, written in 1830, which has been much parodied to poke fun at bad writing.  It tells the story of a valiant highwayman brought before a judge who sentences him to die.  The thief escapes to America with the woman he loves—but he also learns in a convoluted plot that the judge who orders his death is actually his father and the uncle of the woman he loves.   At the beginning of the first chapter the author quotes a poem by George Crabbe, a British poet from the late 1700s:  “How would ye bear to draw your latest breath / Where all that’s wretched paves the way to death?”

  Frankly, I prefer Charles Schultz’s funny, floppy-eared dog to either of these guys.  Snoopy is forever at the mercy of a cast of children who are no different from most adults I know.  He made his first appearance in thePeanuts comic strip on the day my husband was born—October 4, 1950—and by the time I was born in 1956, Snoopy had evolved to walk upright and voice his thoughts in speech bubbles.  I grew up reading his observations about the contradictions of the human beings around him.

  That my thoughts drifted to Snoopy made me smile at my own foibles.  At work yesterday as a fierce storm approached and unable to head home until after a 2 ½ hour meeting, I made a decision completely lacking in common sense.  I decided that if I were drawing my latest breath in a wretched path to death, I didn’t want it to be in the basement of a dreary cinderblock building built before 1950—and added onto again and again like the houses built around trailers in the hills where I grew up.   Panicking, I left work just after a tornado warning was posted for other side of the county.

  Ten minutes into a 40-minute drive home, the sky turned an angry blue-black, and rain plummeted in torrents.  The blare of a new tornado warning blasted from the radio, filling the car—the path this time directly across my route home, a winding road arched with the long limbs of beautiful, aging trees.  I pulled into the parking lot of the nearest public building—a 7-11—and joined a gathering crowd as we watched a number of cars and school busses forge ahead on the road we had left.   We all stood stupidly and gazed at the storm from behind the plate glass windows that formed the front wall of the store.

  I called my husband to check the path of the storm on radar.  He told me that I was safe where I was and that I should stay there for the next 15 minutes until the warning expired.  When my fellow travelers and I left a few minutes later, the sky was a cloudy gray-blue again, and the rain had slowed to a drizzle.  In fact, the glow of the sun filtered through the rain clouds in the west at exactly the point I’d seen a rainbow a few weeks before.  I looked hopefully to the east and thanked God for protecting fools and little children on school busses.

  When I got home, my husband hugged me, and we laughed at the dog, who hides in the walk-in closet of our first-floor bedroom every time there’s a storm.  The dog bolted toward me in what we call turbo-dog mode, racing in figure-eights around us until the next clap of thunder sent him scurrying back to the closet.

  Eager to walk this morning, the dog waited by the door, wagging his tail.  It was no longer a dark and stormy night, though the clouds spit droplets at us now and then.  It occurred to me that during the storm the dog’s instinct had been exactly the opposite of us humans—he went to the safest place and stayed there.  I realized that I had done exactly the same thing as the atheist mother I wrote about in a previous blog—the woman who had panicked and outrun the storm with her toddler in the car.  And I imagine we had both done the same thing as the apostles who went out on the seas to fish even though there must have been storm clouds somewhere on the horizon.

  We’re not all that different, we humans, when life’s storms threaten to knock us about.  And sometimes the animals seem to have more sense.

  Tell me your common sense and animal sense stories.

Can Jealousy Be Good?

Baby Ash

Note: You may want to read the previous post, Jealous Seas?, before reading this one.

Having moved to Maryland when I was seven months pregnant with my daughter, I didn’t get the kind of time with her as a newborn that I’d hoped to have.  The cost of living was much higher, and the townhome my husband and I bought cost almost twice as much as the single family home we’d sold in southern West Virginia.  We needed two incomes to make ends meet, so when the school year began as she turned five weeks old, I accepted a half-time position that paid about the same salary I made as a full-time teacher in West Virginia.

Given the circumstances, the job was the best of both worlds, and since the county hired few English teachers that summer, I knew that I was fortunate to have gotten it.  But in the beginning, I jealously guarded my time with my daughter, planning and grading essays as she napped.

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past week or so about the word jealous. Jealousy has been the focus recently of the Old Testament readings in the Common Lectionary that I follow each day.  The readings have included a recounting of the commandment that says, “the Lord your God is a jealous God,” as well as stories about people who are destroyed with their idols in volatile scenes of an affronted God exacting vengeance.

While I always explore the context in which Bible stories were written, my more natural instinct is to think about how the stories speak to my life.  And so a few days ago I had these readings in the back of my mind when I wrote the previous post.  I thought about how unpleasant it feels to be the woman at my office door or to be my 20-something self.  I know what it’s like to be a lonely person looking for love and companionship.  And I know what it’s like to be consumed with jealousy when the affection and love that ought to be mine are given to someone else.

I didn’t write about the texts then, though, because it’s taken me a few more days to wrap my head around the part jealousy plays in those holy texts.  I can’t quite see God as jealous, though I’ll admit that, like all humans, I see God “through a glass darkly.”  Perhaps, I thought to myself as I wrote that blog post, I’m limiting God because I don’t want to place my faith in a being that seems too much like the capricious gods of Greek mythology.

And then it occurred to me that not once in the four Gospels is there a story of Jesus behaving in such a way.  The only story that even comes close is when he angrily turns over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple.  But he doesn’t attack the merchants for worshiping the idol of money.  Instead, he says, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it into a den of robbers.”  That ends the story.  No destroying the money.  No killing the idolaters.  Unlike the God of the Old Testament, he just seems to walk away and leave the people in his wake to think about what they’ve done.

On more than one occasion Jesus tells the disciples that anyone who is not against him is for him.  Not once does he threaten or frighten people into accepting his beliefs.  And not once does he rail against the gods of other faiths.  He isn’t angry that they’re worshiping money.  He’s angry that greed drives them to take advantage of others in their own house of worship.

Then it occurred to me that the word jealous has two meanings.  The Old Testament God who smites the people who worship idols certainly seems to fit the most common meaning—characterized by suspicious fear or envious resentment.  He behaves in ways that are similar to jealous lovers.

But the word jealous also characterizes the way I felt about my time with my daughter—vigilant and watchful in guarding something.  Like most new mothers, whether they work outside the home or in the home, I was acutely aware of the importance of my time with her.  I guarded it jealously, and I grew a bit resentful when student essays or dirty laundry encroached on my time with her.

That kind of jealousy is an important trait for any parent to possess.  And that kind of jealous God I can understand.  Though my daughter is almost 27 now, I still guard my time with her jealously.  But over time, I had to let go—let her walk away, let her have her own life, her own time with all the people she loves.  But in spirit I know—and she knows—that I’ll be with her always, even to the end of the world.

And when I think about that, I can believe in a jealous God.

So tell me a story of your jealousies.

Jealous Seas?

Hawaii Couple

“Who was that man who was in your office earlier?”

I looked up from what I was doing to see an acquaintance at my door, someone new to my building.  Smiling, she had that hopeful look of women my age who have lost their husbands to death and divorce—and all too often to younger women.

I furrowed my eyebrows and focused, thinking about the two men who had stopped by my office—one a colleague from across the hall that she surely knew.  “You mean my husband?”

The upward tilt of her smile flattened in disappointment.  “He’s your husband?” she said, looking slightly embarrassed.

“You mean this guy?” I asked, pointing to a picture of my family on the bookshelf.

She walked to the shelf and glanced at the picture.  “Yes.  Darn it!” she said, and I knew that my instinct was right about why she was asking.

I smiled.  “Yeah, he’s pretty amazing.  Sorry, but he’s definitely taken.”

We talked for a few minutes and both went back to work.  And again I felt like the luckiest woman in the world to have someone who is so right for me.  There was a time when I never expected to find someone like him, so I found myself sitting at my desk, replaying in my mind the times earlier in my life when I felt very different about having someone show interest in my significant others.

Once, when I was in my early 20s, a woman in a bar sidled up to my boyfriend as we sat on adjacent bar stools and threw her arms around him, telling him how glad she was to see him again.  She pressed her body against his, and he held her for just a minute longer than someone who had no interest.

At my house later that evening, he and I had an explosive argument that would become characteristic of a relationship that ended when he refused to admit what I had already learned—that he was seeing someone else.  Frustrated that he wouldn’t say what I knew was true as we cleared the table of a dinner that neither of us had wanted to eat, I threw a handful of silverware at him, astonished at my own capacity to be so jealous.

All of us experience jealousy from time to time, especially when we feel insecure for one reason or another.  In the aftermath of dealing with what cancer surgery had done to my body image, I once found an unfamiliar picture on the laptop my husband and I shared.  I had gone to the download folder to get a document I’d saved, a folder where our computer puts any attachment we even open and look at.  Underneath my own document was a glamour shot of an unfamiliar woman in a sexy blue dress.

When I confronted my husband, he looked confused and asked me to show him the picture.  When I opened it, he belly-laughed and sat down beside me, opening a spam email he’d gotten at work.  He runs educational programs at an historic movie theater, and the email was from a Russian actress, written in very poor English, looking to advance her film career.  Two pictures had been attached, one of which was the photograph in the download folder.

When I told our daughter about this later that evening, she, too, chortled.  “Really, Mom?  Do you really think after all these years that he’d cheat on you?  And even if he did, do you think he’d be dumb enough to save the picture on your computer?”

She was right, of course.  But the scars of cancer were still too fresh for me to be rational.  Now, ten years after the surgery, we can laugh about the absurdity of my reaction.

Continued, consuming jealousy is usually a sign of distrust, a sign that something is deeply wrong.  Perhaps the distrust is justified, as it was when I threw those forks and spoons.  Or perhaps it’s just that one person is dealing with emotional baggage.  That’s not an easy thing to distinguish, and either one can be the death knell of a relationship.  But if the little voices are becoming a cacophony in your head, you have to sit down and figure it out.

Most of the time I’m apt to feel flattered these days when someone flirts with my husband.  And though it doesn’t happen as often as when we were first married, he can still tease me when someone at a party seems eager for my attention.  After all, isn’t it nice to think that you aren’t the only one who thinks your partner is special?

How do you deal with your own jealousy?  Tell me a story.

Live Together Before Marriage?

National Survey

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Most young adults I know live together before they marry.  When the topic has come up in my casual conversations with our children, their friends, and the young people I’ve taught, it’s never a matter for secrecy, embarrassment, or even curiosity.  At the risk of stating the obvious, the world is a very different place now than it was when my siblings and I, all of whom stayed with boyfriends or girlfriends at our apartments for extended periods of time, did not openly say to our parents that we were cohabitating.

In fact, some of my contemporaries wouldn’t admit, even to themselves, that they’d allowed a lover to move in.  I knew girls who would let their boyfriends stay for a week but would never let them put a toothbrush in the bathroom or leave an item of clothing.  And one of my friends, who lived in an apartment downstairs from my own, made her boyfriend leave in the pre-dawn hours, though everyone in the apartment building knew his car was in the parking lot every night.

If this makes you smile and shake your head, consider that most of my friends, including the one who banished her boyfriend before daylight, were evangelical Christians living in the heart of the Bible Belt.  Though we came of age after the sexual revolution of the ‘60s, all of us had been taught that sex outside of marriage was the gravest of sins.  Girls were told from church pulpits that it was our responsibility to draw the line when men experienced “powerful urges.”  We had been told countless times that no decent guy would marry a girl who “dished out” before the wedding, and we were frequently admonished with the story of the woman at the well, living with a man not her husband when Jesus tells her that he knows all about her life.

What I didn’t know was that at about the time that we were all making decisions about our relationships, the government began to gather statistics on cohabitation in the National Survey of Family Growth, done seven times since 1973, shortly after the divorce laws were changed.  Curious when I recently saw an article about the April 2013 government report of the most recent cohabitation practices, I searched to see why the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) would gather such stats.  I went to the site and was astonished to see that the survey asks about the most intimate details of Americans’ sexual habits, primarily to make informed decisions about health care.

The studies are fascinating for what they reveal about the difference in what we preached and what we practiced during my young adulthood.  The surveys consistently showed that the vast majority of women—83% of women ages 15-24 in the earliest study that asked the question in 1982—had engaged in premarital sex.  And that number has remained virtually unchanged—86% in the most recent study.

After laughing out loud about that, I went back to my original reason for visiting the site in the first place and discovered that the number of couples who cohabitate and break up has remained unchanged since 1995—a little over a quarter of them.  So over 70% of couples stay together once they live together, though in recent years the numbers who marry and the numbers who continue to live together without being married have almost reversed, with many more couples staying together and even having children without marrying.

What would the churches of my childhood say about this?  I’m certain, given the number of churches who ask their young people to pledge to wait until they’re married to have sex, that churches are still preaching abstinence.  And it seems to be working about as well as it was working in 1982—which is to say, it isn’t.

Since I left the evangelicals for a more liberal denomination, I’ve never heard such a sermon, though our young people do hear what the Bible says about sexuality.  But it’s presented in a very different way.  My present church and my former church, where my daughter was confirmed, opt to have the parish nurse conduct a workshop for our middle schoolers—with parents invited to some sessions-—in which we try to teach both our boys and our girls to respect and care for their own bodies and to take care of each other’s hearts.  It may not prevent them from being intimate, but after seeing these statistics, I’m even more happy that my daughter had this experience instead of one like my own.

And the good news for the young adults I know who are living together is that your odds of staying with the person you love are pretty good.  So when we older people shake our heads and talk about how much less moral young people are today, you can laugh out loud at our hypocrisy and hand us a stack of government statistics to show that—on the issue of sexual morality, at least—we’re absolutely wrong about your generation.

How do you feel about living with a partner, before or without marriage?  Tell me a story that has shaped your views.

What is Charity?

Poor Kids

What is charity?  Look in any dictionary, and you’ll find two strands of meaning: (1) giving material help to those who are poor, ill, or in need, and (2) showing love toward humanity.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that three things endure—faith, hope, and charity—but that the greatest of these is charity.  Almost every modern version of this letter translates the word as love rather thancharity—and the chapter that contains this verse is often read at weddings.  But Paul’s extended definition, read in context, clearly shows that he is talking about love for humanity and the actions that spring from that love.

There are times when no one questions whether an act is charity.  When my father lost his job in a coal mine and my family received food stamps and government cheese and bologna, everyone we knew would have agreed that we were receiving charity and that my hard-working father deserved it.  When my husband and I volunteered in a homeless shelter and helped a woman who had been badly beaten by a boyfriend, we knew we were offering charity.  And when we saw the woman a year later, working as a waitress in a restaurant a few miles from our home, we knew the charity the shelter had offered helped her get back on her feet.

Then there are times when defining charity isn’t so clear-cut, though one thing is clear from a reading of these definitions:  Charity in its truest form does not necessarily equal charity in the form of a charitable donation.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the wake of news stories about organizations that qualify as nonprofits.

So I went to the IRS.gov web site and searched a list of charities in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC.  The search produced 678 results, and many of them, not surprisingly, are houses of worship for various faiths.  But here is a sample of some of the other types of organizations that have nonprofit status:  National Coalition to Save Our Mall, Rockville Community Baseball, Heritage Theater Company, Community Ministries of Rockville, Rockville Daycare Association, Rockville Pregnancy Center, and the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department.

The list abounded in advocacy groups that have no mission to help the poor or needy—from political groups to arts foundations to social organizations.  On the list are groups that my husband and I have supported through our employer’s United Way campaign.  And while we also support charities through our church and through independent contributions, not all of the causes to which we’ve given money fit the definitions of charities, though we generally avoid political advocacy groups, even those whose causes we support.

Technically, I guess one could say that all these organizations qualify as being “in need.”  And I’m not sure where the line should be drawn.  I wouldn’t want groups that restore historical sites to lose their funding.  And I don’t want to see the arts lose monies that go toward preserving beauty that nurtures our hearts and souls and minds.

I think it’s fitting that when we donate money to political parties and candidates, that money is not tax-deductible.  And perhaps the same should be true of organizations that are blatantly political.  I could live with having tax deductions taken away from groups like the Tea Party and those on the other side of the aisle as well.  I could even live with having advocacy groups on both sides of issues I care about taken out of the mix, such as groups on both sides of the gun debate.

But an article in this week’s Washington Post online shows how hard it has become to distinguish among nonprofits.  The article, entitled “Only a Third of Charitable Contributions Go to the Poor,” gives a garbled explanation of which of the donations they qualify as going to the needy.  As far as I can tell, they don’t consider donations to religious organizations as part of that third, even though most churches give a portion of their money to groups that feed the poor and care for the homeless.

But surely smart leaders should be able to find a way to weed out groups on both sides whose aims are purely political.  If we could do that, then perhaps our political candidates would no longer be held hostage by big money that makes it nearly impossible for them to educate themselves and vote in an informed way.

So tell me a story that has shaped what you view as charity.