Monday, November 22, 2010

Where thou art - that- is home

--Emily Dickinson

We're getting ready to put our house on the market. Its 1200 square feet, which seemed like so much space to own after shared dorm rooms and a small apartment, are now growing tighter and tighter. With two boys and baby #3 on the way, we are fast approaching three little people in a vaguely rectangular room with one dresser, one bookcase, one rocking chair, two beds, and only one closet. I don't know how long we could sustain this 3:1 ratio, especially if baby #3 happens to be a girl. Then there's the issue of the living room. I don't so much mind all three kids playing in that relatively small space, but since we entertain a lot, there's a certain point (about 6 people, maybe 8 if they're children or very friendly) at which everyone else is just going to have to sit on the floor. I know in college, this was the kind of thing that made for great parties--everybody crammed into one tiny, probably crappy space--but as we look toward our 30s, I'm not sure this is the kind of situation our friends and family are really digging. Then, in addition to the issue of capacity, there's the glaring issue of the fact that this house is currently valued at about 37% of what we paid for it. Keeping this house long-term would likely mean decades, which, with our family and some other factors, is simply not a possibility.

Still, it's been a difficult decision to make, whether or not to move. It's heartbreaking, in some ways. Despite its limitations, this house has held so many memories, hopes, and firsts that I picture them all ballooning up, filling the vaulted ceiling and spilling out through the chimney. Our First Place. When we bought this house, it was being rented by a couple in their 70s who apparently thought all the original fixtures and decorating from 1984 were A-OK. We threw ourselves body, soul, and bank account into remodeling, repainting all the peach walls and ceilings (yes, peach ceilings), removing every scrap of rattan, and completely overhauling the kitchen. Once we had kids, we closed off the loft to make a nursery and put in grass in the yard. We used to sit in the gazebo in the yard at night and just behold our home, illuminated. We would say to each other, "Can you believe we own this place?" And now, as surely as our things begin to get packed in boxes and bags, packed inside this house are five years of dinners around our table, of crying babies, of White Elephant Christmas parties. The thought of someone foreign owning OUR house and calling it home warps my brain.

Eventually, though, I knew we would be leaving this place. Somehow I just held to the illusion that when you own a home, it's truly yours, forever. To marry the concepts of "own" and "home" provides a profound sense of security--like pretending this is heaven and not earth. Like anything is really permanent; like a good thing would never go and change on you. And it's funny, because I know that leaving this house is the best choice for our family. It's another, different good thing--a better thing, even, than staying would be. But it's that famous C.S. Lewis sandbox vs. beach analogy. If it feels comfortable, it must be best, and la-la-la I'm not listening! I don't want to think about what else out there might actually be better!

So now we're in that surreal stage of looking at our home with different eyes: potential buyer eyes. I'm asking myself how long that applesauce stain has been on the wall and whether people will notice the postmortem-style outline on the ceiling where the kitchen cabinets used to be. And now that we're trimming stock and taking names, I'm also asking myself why I ever thought of a gold and black sequined shirt in the closet, But I might wear it someday, or why I still can't part with the quick-drying camping towel I used on European backpacking trips. (We haven't gone camping in 6 years.) But at the same time, looking around here, I think, Wow, these people kinda have it together. The lighting is ambient; all the furniture fits in all the right places; there's a color scheme; and (at least since I finally took out the trash yesterday) it doesn't smell like diapers and old salmon. And those are the aspects of home we'll take with us anywhere we go (can't promise on the diaper smell). We've come this far in five years, turned this hodgepodge ode to the 80s into a place comfortable and inviting. Wherever we go from here, I know we will carry that same spirit and create a home where we can continue the life of our family.

So if anyone tries to feed some cheesy line like "Home is in your heart" or "Home is where the heart is," I'm going to shoot them now and ask questions later, but secretly…..

… know what I mean.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Thanksgiving and Lent: What Feasting and Fasting Have in Common

I'm starting to view November as a holy month. That might sound odd, as the one event most of us associate with this month is a festival of gluttony unrivaled during the rest of the year, but go with me on this one…It started in an unlikely place: my three-year-old's preschool calendar. Along with the shape of the month and clip art of cornucopias, the calendar exhorted parents to discuss with our child things that they're thankful for. In our family, we have a Thanksgiving notebook that we all write in on Thanksgiving day (well, those of us who can write--those who can speak just tell us). We jot a couple of pages of all the things we find ourselves grateful for this year. I love this tradition--I love that we have any Thanksgiving tradition that pertains to the actual giving of thanks. But Gabriel's preschool calendar started me thinking about taking the entire month of November as a devotion of thanks to God. I've heard of people doing this before, and it always sounded a little cheesy and overdone to me, but really, what could be wrong with being more thankful? So every day I am trying to call to mind and give thanks for the innumerable blessings and gifts God has so graciously poured into my life. And once I purposed to do this, I began to realize how such an exercise could prepare me even more fully for the Christmas season.

Christmastime, as we all know, seems to begin in a headlong rush to the mall no sooner than the giblets have been wiped from the good china. (I know, I know, the cliche of Christmas commercialism is rivaled only by the cliche of our bemoaning that commercialization.) But truly, as much as I love the season, it can be at times a going-through-the-motions that leaves me feeling more weary than worshipful. But my hope this year is to turn my November, as Lent is to Easter, into a pre-Christmas preparation of heart. By focusing every day on the things I am thankful for, I believe I am readying my heart for the great gifts the Christmas season holds: gifts of time with family, material gifts (not gonna lie!), and of course the gift of the child in the manger. If I can train my heart and mind now, maybe I will also even be better prepared to weather the storms of stress and strain that are also bound to come with the Christmas season. If I can begin to shape my own attitude, maybe I will be more likely to bless and less likely to curse the people that inevitably cause some of that stress and strain.

As a Catholic, I am (sometimes painfully) familiar with the value of Lent--that time of abstinence and sacrifice that whittles the soul into a shape of humility for Easter. Though it's a time of fasting, I think it parallels with this time of feasting. Both are powerful activities that draw us nearer to God. Both are instructed by and practiced in God's Word. Both prepare us to receive even more abundantly of His goodness. And interestingly, I noticed yesterday that Philippians 4:6 (which is basically the biblical recipe for peace) includes thanksgiving as a key ingredient: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." I hope this path of thanksgiving will lead (bonus!) to an increased peace in my life.

And if it does, thanks be to God!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Who Were You / Who Are You--Reflections on the Ten-Year

Last night was my ten-year high school reunion. The San Marcos Resort back ballroom played host to somewhere between 100-150 late-twenty-somethings with one thing in common: we were all eyeing that amazing margarita cheesecake. Oh, and we all happened to graduate from Chandler High School a decade ago. I thought I would write a few words about the experience, partly as a way for myself to process the evening (because wow, it was a lot to take in) and partly for those who might read this who did or did not attend.

Soooo, high school, you crazy big fish, you. You spat us out onto the shore of adulthood, and look at us now………exactly the same as we were ten years ago. Well, maybe not quite. But the thing that struck me the most about the reunion, upon reflection, was actually how little people have changed. By which I mean that the midgets and dwarves are no longer midgets and dwarves--isn't that weird? Just kidding. By which I REALLY mean that the girls who were popular in high school--at least the ones who attended--still mostly look amazing and all showed up in runway-worthy cocktail dresses. (I'm starting to think that some people are just born with style genes. I have no other way to explain how they were born dressing like stars and I am still shopping at Target.) Also, the people who brightened up my boring chemistry and civics classes have remained witty and intriguing--have become even more interestingly so as adults. And then the people I just could never seem to find much to talk about with…you get the idea. The same gaggles of girlfriends who did everything together in 10th grade are the same gaggles cramming into the photo booth like the Japanese getting packed on the bullet train. The same gangs of guys who beat up on each other in wresting are, come to find out, still good-naturedly beating each other up. And to me, all of this is really sort of heartwarming. My group of friends more or less fell apart after high school, so I'm glad to see so much camaraderie remains among my classmates.

Going in to the evening, I had very few, if any, expectations. But there's one thing I had been warned about: posturing with a capital P. After hearing about my brother's reunion two years ago, I expected people to pad their accomplishments like a white-lying resume. But they didn't. Because guess what? No one became an astronaut. No one has their own VH1 talkshow. No one invented Post-Its. The fact that our class has (frankly) achieved only modest success was actually a big relief. Because of this, I felt last night was a very gracious evening. I'd be surprised if anyone felt like they didn't measure up, because most of us are doing rather average, normal things. A lot of people seem to be on the verge of something--they're in law school, they're studying for a certification, they want to go abroad. Maybe that's what it means to be 28 and an American in the 21st century. We're a bunch of late bloomers who are still searching, still looking to get it just right. And fortunately for us, we live in a forgiving culture--or perhaps we've created that forgiving culture by our lack of trajectory.

In my case, I went in thinking I wouldn't have much to show for myself since my career never got off the ground and I "just" stay at home with my kids. I figured everyone would have expected more of me. After all, I was Vice President of National Honors Society, by gum! I did not take the gravity of that immortal office lightly. (Ha.) But the more I heard myself repeating out loud my own little sound byte of what I do and why, the more I was reminded that I genuinely believe in what I'm doing with my life. I believe in the importance of making a loving home and being my children's primary caretaker. I don't want anyone else to spend more hours in the week raising them than I do. And I've spent so much time wringing my hands over jumping ship from my career and wishing I had something more impressive to put on paper, but in the end, I would so much rather spend this time in my life building the foundation of my family than building the foundation of my career. There's nothing wrong with a career--I want one, desperately! please! eventually!--but I have been given children, and I am doing what I believe I am called to do in their best interest.

Lastly, I have to say how truly hard it is to condense ten years into a few sentences--you tell people what you're doing now, but what about everything in between? There's a part of me that wished I could have explained all the transformative events of my twenties to these people. The tragic: my step-father turning out to be a pedophile, a stalker, and a larcenist; the melon-sized tumor in my body that traumatized my early days of motherhood. The joyful: the thrill of months traveling Europe; the blessing of how far we've come financially since our first apartment (where your housewarming gift from the management was a "club" for your car); the miracle of becoming a parent. But in the brevity of the moment, you get only about as much space as fits on your pin-on nametag. For me, that's "I stay home with my two kids and I'm having another." And that's okay. I know there's more to me, my life, and the last ten years than that--and I know the same is true for everyone there last night. I only wish I had time enough to hear it all.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Time for a Kale Change

I just got done planning our meals for the week--something I do each weekend with (I'd like to think) careful consideration. I have certain rules, like always make sure there's fish, never more red meat than twice a month, etc. But this week, I've given it even more thought than usual. Reason being I'm pregnant (surprise!). I have of course been pregnant before, but this time around, the morning sickness has been worse, which means I am constantly eating in an effort to drive it away. The unfortunate reality of this, however, is that I am constantly eating GARBAGE. In the last two days, I have eaten hot dogs, pizza, cake, bowlfuls of chocolate chips, frozen yogurt, Eggs Benedict heaping with Hollandaise sauce, and maybe one total serving of vegetables. For shame! And as we all know, when you eat garbage, you feel like garbage. So stuffing myself with these less than healthful foods has proven only to make me feel worse physically AND emotionally. Garbage + gluttony = guilt.

So thank God for another clean slate of the week ahead.

Last night after the regret that followed the cake that followed the pizza that followed the frozen yogurt, I sat down and made a list of vegetables. All the vegetables I could think of. Wow, that sounds kind of sad…have I really gotten to the point of listing vegetables? Anyway, I've realized over the years that if a food is not something I grew up eating, I rarely (if ever) make it. My husband's family eats eggplant, but I, like a stubborn child, have something in my head that says eggplant is revolting. Truth is, I don't remember ever trying it. But oh man, nary an eggplant has crossed the threshold of MY house! Well, it's time I grew up, isn't it? So I listed all the vegetables I could think of and marked the ones I've never brought home from the grocery store. And this week, in a colossal effort for change, I'm going to brave it and start with….kale! Sounds friendly enough, like one of those new baby names. I also decided to go whole hog (or whole asparagus or something) and plan super healthy vegetarian meals for this one week. We already eat vegetarian about half the time, so it's not too huge an adjustment. Monday, I give you Roasted Vegetables on Goat Cheese Toast. Tuesday, I present Black Bean Tacos (already a favorite). Wednesday, bring it on with Kale, Cannellini Bean, & Potato Soup. And on it goes.

I may not have the willpower to keep quite this healthy indefinitely, but I truly want to make lasting positive changes for my family. The way I cook is already significantly healthier overall than what I grew up eating (or even what I started my marriage eating) and for my children's sake, I want to continue in that direction. Everything I have learned about health (mostly from searching the web in a frenzy of hypochondria) tells me that the biggest component of health is prevention. And I want so badly to ensure that I and the ones I love don't fall prey to something that could have been prevented by eating better, exercising more, getting more sleep, etc. When nearly 70% of our nation is overweight or obese, with diabetes and cancer diagnoses on the rise, we've got to sit up and take notice. Meat and potatoes may have been fine for our farming ancestors, but they were also working outdoors ten hours a day.

So it's time to make some changes, even beyond those I've already made in the six years since I've been cooking as a wife and a mother. How about you? What positive food changes have you made for your family? How is what you eat now different from what you grew up eating? And what work is left to do to make it even better?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Top Ten Signs You're a Parent of Little Kids

In the grand tradition of top ten lists, here are ten things that have actually been true of me…and if you have little kids, may be true of you, too.

1. You have ever called another adult a "stinker."

2. Your purse contains 3 pacifiers, 2 plastic dinosaurs, 1 coupon for diapers, and 0 pens.

3. You've resorted to using the blender in the garage because it scares someone too much.

4. You think of clipping your toenails as "doing something for yourself."

5. Amazon suggests you might like a teething giraffe. (They know you so well, don't they?)

6. You have fabulous biceps but a poochy middle.

7. You know that a binky is not a blanket, a sucker is not a lollipop, and a Nuk is not a kind of Eskimo.

8. You've given more than a passing thought to the emotionally complicated relationship between Bob and Wendy on Bob the Builder.

9. You have a mental map of every drive-thru in four cities.

10. You've ever spent hours waiting for the kids to go to bed, and then when they did, you wanted to wake them back up again because you love them that much.

Friday, September 17, 2010

History Lesson

It was my first day at Chandler High School, back in A.D. 1997. I shuffled with the other students in to my after-lunch class, World History with Mr. Lowell-Britt. When everyone had settled, we watched as Mr. L-B wrote in wide white letters on the chalkboard: "Why is Learning History Important?" My first high school writing assignment! I thought. Goody goody gumdrops! (Later that day, I was inducted into National Nerds Society based merely on this thought.) Why is Learning History Important? Hmm…yes, that's a good, juicy question. I'll have to really knock him out of the park with my reasons why.

That night, when I sat down to write Ye Olde 5-Paragraphe Essaye, I found I was stumped. I had the vague notion that learning about history was unequivocally important--everybody knows that--but had serious trouble expressing any concrete reasons for this pillar of truth. I think my completed essay went something like this:

Paragraph 1--Introduction:

There are many different reasons why learning about history is very important.

Paragraph 2:

First of all, history is very important.

Paragraph 3:

Secondly, if you don't learn about history, you're doomed to repeat it. (What exactly did I mean by this? That if I didn't learn about cave drawings, I'd someday wind up in a loincloth scratching at walls?)

Paragraph 4:

Also, learning about history is very, very important.

Paragraph 5--Conclusion:

In conclusion, there are many different reasons why learning about history is very important.

Somehow I don't recall getting an overwhelmingly fantastic grade on this. Oh, well. As they say in French, "C'est la guerre!"

At any rate, the years have gone by and I have accumulated more history of my own…thirteen brutal and bloody war-torn years of it. Whoops! Again, getting historically confused. But with those years of personal history, I have come to embrace ever more the concept that learning about history is important. And now that I'm an adult, I think I can better elucidate the reasons why I believe this to be true. (Don't worry, it doesn't involve loincloths.) Here goes:

1. Your personal history is immeasurably important--to know your identity, even to realize why your family is crazy like they are. Something as simple as knowing your family's health history could save your life. Similarly, to know other people's history is to know who they are and how they got that way.

2. To be an educated member of society. I'll put it plainly: tuh nawt bee dumb.

3. To understand why the world is the way it is, to have at least a smattering of understanding of why people and cultures are unique, why they do what they do, love what they love, hate what they hate. To understand the backstory of a group of people is to understand how to better operate with/among them.

4. When you know something of history, your experience of life is enriched. If you don't know anything about Chinese history, the Great Wall is just a freaking gigantic long wall. If you visit Germany not knowing anything about German history, you're going to be rather confused about how strangely bilateral Berlin seems. (And you'll be totally put to shame by a German 14-year-old who can list every U.S. state.) I promise you your vacations will be much more interesting if you go with an idea of the background of your destination.

As an adult, I don't believe we are doomed to repeat history if we don't learn about it. That sounds more like a rumor some cranky old history teacher made up. But I do believe that even in a perpetually forward-reaching culture, we can still learn a lot by looking back every so often.

And so, in conclusion, there are many different reasons why learning about history is very important.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Forgiveness Equation

Today I was hurt by a friend. Actually, it's been building up for a long time, but today various sins of omission added up to one big, ugly wound. Upon coming home, feeling the emotional damage of this situation, I turned to that source of wisdom and knowledge…Google. (Yeah, I know there's a better Source. Google is just usually more amusing.) I started reading about what makes a bad friend, and man, there are a lot of ways to be a bad friend--which, incidentally, are mostly just ways to be a bad person, like the Gossip, the Fake, the Egotist, etc. After deciding the online quiz "Are You a Bad Friend?" was lame-o and didn't have enough multiple choice options, I came upon a quote from William Blake. It rings truer than most of the fluff on the internet.

"It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend."

It's funny, there are so many verses in Scripture about how to treat your enemies--how to love and forgive them--that I've rarely given thought to how to forgive a friend. Not that I haven't been hurt by friends before. But when I have, I've mostly either swept it under the rug or simply pulled out of the relationship. Confrontation is a dirty word in my vocabulary. (And I feel like I'm about to convince myself that I need to confront this friend about these hurts…which was not supposed to be the point of this post!) So allow me to sweep THAT under the rug for the moment ;) and state the obvious: friends have far greater potential to hurt us than enemies. Friends know us intimately; we trust them. A true enemy is by comparison easy to forgive because we have not opened to them that fragile place within that seeks love and connection, and they have not opened theirs to us. We can justify an enemy's behavior, and justification is like the butler who ushers you in to the forgiveness parlor.

Oh, but a friend! We know they should know better. We know their intentions, their heart. We know when they are acting inexcusably--if there is such a thing as inexcusable to a Christian.

I know I will need grace to figure out how to "ex" (remove) the "cuse" (accusation) from this friend. In my mind, I see a kind of algebraic equation in which I must move around my variables to change my "inculpate" ("in" = assign, "culpa" guilt/blame) to "exculpate" ("ex" = remove "culpa" = guilt/blame).

I think it looks something like this:

In(culp)ate = Ex(culp)ate

In In

That cancels it out, right? ....But I digress. The point is forgiveness, and ultimately, the discomfort of I'd-rather-be-at-the-proctologist-than-this confrontation of a friend. Ugh…wish me courage.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book Review: The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin & Alex Malarkey

A week ago my mom handed me this book and said, "You should read this." Though I usually trust her book suggestions, this one made me kinda roll my eyes. A six-year-old quadriplegic's near-death experience and descriptions of heaven? I believe in both near-death experiences and heaven (and six-year-olds, as a matter of fact) but this sounded awfully cloying--like a poor disabled kid has more rampant imagination than real inspiration. But seeing as I had just finished another book and a day without a book feels like a ship without a compass, I took the book home. I figured I'd give it a chance. Perhaps the authors' last name was just a funny one and the contents would not actually be malarkey.

The book opens with the events of a morning in November 2004, when therapist Kevin Malarkey and his son Alex experienced a devastating car accident. While Kevin escaped virtually unscathed, Alex suffered what is known as an "internal decapitation," meaning his spinal cord was severed from his head. While family, friends, church community, and a number of strangers "coincidentally" on the scene prayed, Alex managed to survive this horrific injury (though hospital staff said they had never seen a child do so). As Alex lay in a coma for two months, hundreds if not thousands of people continued their petitions to God, and further miracles began to occur. But that's not even the crazy part yet. When Alex returned from The Big Sleep and regained the ability to speak--another miracle no one could have hoped for--he brought with him detailed descriptions of where he had been…heaven. The book is structured so that Kevin tells his perspective in longish, narrative chapters endcapped with mini-chapters written by Alex, explaining some of his spiritual experiences.

I was pretty surprised to find that by the end, I believed the entirety of both Kevin and Alex's stories. Now you're probably rolling your eyes at me. And maybe you'll have to read it yourself to fully understand how such a preposterous premise could be totally credible, but allow me to explain my own arrival at this conclusion. First, Kevin makes quite plain that supernatural experiences like miracles, angels, and prophecy were never part of his personal faith prior to the accident and its aftermath. He is as skeptical as he expects anyone reading his book to be. He says he probably wouldn't believe any of this had it not happened to him and his family. Secondly, nothing in the book is unorthodox whatsoever. I never read a chapter--or even a sentence--and went, "Okay, spiritual creepazoid. Done." Lastly, (minor spoiler here) Alex was able to describe vivid details from the scene of the accident, though he was completely unconscious at the time, as well as details of what transpired on the scene after his body had been air-evac-ed to the hospital. To me, this is evidence in favor of his having been in the spirit and out of his body.

Beyond whether or not I believe Alex's supernatural experiences, the take-home point for me in reading this book was that it really stirred up my faith--my faith in the phenomenal power of prayer, my faith in the wonderful place God has prepared for us when we leave this mortal coil. It jarred my memory to realize that angels are real beings who act on behalf of God here on earth. It reminded me that nothing is truly hopeless, and like the woman to the judge in Luke 18, we can and should keep on praying, even when circumstances look impossibly lost.

My only criticisms: Kevin's chapters could have used some editing; he does tend to repeat himself at times and wax a little too profusely on some basic spiritual points. (But hey, the man's not a writer by trade, so that makes it more forgivable.) Also, since Alex's experiences in heaven are primarily what give the book its intrigue factor, I wish he would have shared at greater length about them. Then again, he claims that God instructed him not to share certain details. So if that's the case, I guess I can deal.

All in all, I highly recommend The Boy who Came Back from Heaven. It's a quick read that just may have you marveling at how clear God's intervention in our lives can be, not to mention the incredible future He has planned for those who hope in Him.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I can't believe I'm writing this. Because writing it--and sharing it with others on my blog--means it's real. If I make it public, I might actually have to do it.

What is "it," you ask? I am considering training for a half-marathon.

Pause for half of my brain to screech, "Are you INSANE???" I am not really a runner. In school, I was one of those P.E. weaklings who drag themselves past the finish line of the one-mile run gasping raggedly and asking for last rites. Those kids who chose to do cross country always seemed to me like some pack of deranged animals running in formation--just running, madly running. I didn't get it. Give me a nice, tame, indoor racquet sport. Running is for the crazies.

First of all, it's painful. It's constant movement; no breaks. Over and over, your feet slap down on hard, unforgiving ground. This is Arizona, so usually the sun is turning your skin the color of sweet potato casserole and you're sweating like you're in a Gatorade commercial. Your side starts to cramp. After awhile, your breath feels like it's being squeezed out of you by a rusty accordion. The end. Gee, wasn't that fun?

That's all what I used to think. (And what half of me is clamoring that it still thinks.) But when I worked at the YMCA several years ago, it was highly encouraged that everyone on staff participate in the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Trot 5k. I figured 3.1 miles was a fairly innocuous distance, and it didn't matter if I walked most of it. Then my competitive, perfectionistic edge kicked in. Walking it would be lame, I thought. I'm stronger than that. So I started to train, and by the day of the Trot, I was actually looking forward to the race. When the race began, I was near the back of the 100 or so runners, but then something magical happened. Little by little, I gained ground, passing people I checked in to the Y every day working at the front desk. This gave me a thrill, and I started passing more people. Finally, I was on the last stretch of the race with no one left ahead of me. (I wasn't winning the turkey; there was just a wide open space between me and the next person before me.) My two bosses, whom I loved, picked up the ribbon that had been broken by the winner and held it up for me to break through. Suddenly, everyone started cheering for me. I covered that last stretch in record time and sailed through the ribbon like the real thing. And a runner was born.

Well, for a while. Then I had kids, which stopped me in my tracks--literally. I finally joined a gym early this year, less for the exercise benefits and more for the childcare. I figured I could sit on the recumbent bike for a leisurely thirty-minute reading break while my kids worked out some of their wiggles under someone else's supervision. Enter once more my competitive edge. (If it weren't for competition, I'd probably be 300 pounds.) Seeing so many others pounding it out on the treadmills motivated me, and I started running again, just a little. Then last week I heard the gym is offering a free training program for people who want to do the P.F. Chang's marathon and half-marathon in January. Somehow these words have planted themselves in my brain ever since, and I find myself turning it over in my mind.

Here is why I want to do it:

1. Because I think I can't. I have always said I could never run a really long race. Well, never say never. If I've learned anything in the last few years, it's that the most difficult things in life are the ones that make us grow the most--spiritually, emotionally, and in this case, even physically.

2. Because I supposedly have fibromyalgia. Yes, I was unofficially diagnosed with this in the absence of any other answers for the pain that hops around my muscles like a misguided trolley. Running a half marathon is a way of blowing raspberries in the face of this medical hex. I refuse to allow a scary-sounding five-syllable word to keep me down. My body is capable of this, and I want to prove it to myself and everyone else.

3. Because it's a goal to work toward; it's a great accomplishment. Enough said. Can I put this on my resume?

4. Because it will keep me motivated to continue really exercising. More real workouts and less recumbent biking at mai tai-sipping speed.

5. Because it might actually be fun. When I think back to my Turkey Trot experience, I can still feel the thrill of a crowd cheering, a heart pounding, a good race completed. There is a reason so many people get into marathon running. I know it will be exhilarating.

So, dear reader, with your accountability, I believe I have decided to embark upon this journey. Call me a running fool.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The SLED Test: Not Just a Winter Sport

One of the most valuable sessions I remember attending during RCIA (the program by which adults enter the Catholic Church) was the one on the Church's position on abortion. As a Christian, a parent, and a self-described thinker, I already knew my own stance on abortion. In fact, I served as a volunteer counselor at the Crisis Pregnancy Center in Mesa for about eight months, for which I was required to attend some pretty extensive training on the topic. But until that RCIA session, I had never heard of the SLED test, a four-pronged argument for the unborn's right to life beginning at conception. Perhaps you are already familiar with it; if so, fabulous! But since it was new to me, I thought it might also be new to others, and since I find it an extremely sound argument, I'd like to pass it on. (And to give credit where credit is due, the test was created by author Stephen Schwarz in "The Moral Question of Abortion.")

The basic premise is that those in utero differ from those of us who are "ex utero" in a limited number of ways. We can all (probably) agree that we ex-uterites possess basic human rights, including the right to life. So let's compare ourselves with the in-uterites in these four ways:

S - Size

L - Level of Development

E - Environment

D - Degree of Dependency

Size: A toddler is smaller than me. I am smaller than Shaquille O'Neill. Does Shaq win? Or do all three of us have the same human right to life? Does a fetus or an embryo lack that right because of its size? Because it doesn't have enough cells yet?

Level of Development: An 8-year-old is less physically developed than me. I am less physically developed than Dolly Parton (if you know what I mean). My pre-schooler is less mentally developed than me. I am less mentally developed than Stephen Hawking. Are we going to let Stephen and Dolly live, but not the kids and me? While I'd sort of like to see the two of them ruling the world together, it doesn't make much moral/logical sense. Neither does withholding the right to life from the unborn.

Environment: Did you know that there are modern-day cave dwellers? Wouldn't you say they have the same rights as the mansion-dwellers in Malibu? Or let's think about astronauts in space--do they check their human rights at the atmospheric door? No. So why would we deny someone human rights just because their home happens to be a uterus?

Degree of Dependency: Our government has gone to great lengths to protect the rights of the disabled, who have a different degree of dependency than the rest of us. At one time or another, even as adults, probably all of us have been dependent on others for our very lives. Does it mean we relinquished our rights during those times? Does an embryo/fetus lack the right to life because of its sole dependence on its mother?

Last, I'd like to add that DNA is determined at conception. Even if you consider an embryo "just a clump of cells," it is a clump of cells that is genetically unique. So whenever I hear someone argue pro-choice by saying, "A woman has the right to do what she wants with her own body," my response is, we're not just talking about her body. We're also talking about another genetically unique being within her body. Which some might also have the audacity to call her child.

If you are already pro-life, I hope you find this argument helpful. If you are not, I hope you find it intriguing and (I especially hope) convincing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

One of a kind kid

If you've been a sentient human being for the last, oh, ten years or so, you've probably noticed that there's a certain trend happening in the realm of baby naming. Increasingly, parents are seeking to give their children names that are unique, unusual, even invented. Strange spellings, last names as first names, words spelled backwards to make names (such as "Nevaeh"), opposite gender names, and shameless I-came-up-with-this-stone-drunk names--Brecklyn? Really?--seem to have taken over the market. The percentage of children who are given the top ten names on the U.S. Department of Social Security's list has shrunk significantly in the last several years (and even those top ten reveal the changing nature of baby naming). This article lists several revealing statistics, such as the fact that "in the 1950s, the average first-grade class of 30 children would have had at least one boy named James (top name in 1950), while in 2013, six classes will be necessary to find only one Jacob, even though that was the most common boys' name in 2007."

So what's the deal? Researcher Jean Twenge of San Diego State University theorizes that this trend toward interesting/unusual baby names represents a cultural shift toward ever-increasing individualism, which may have the unfortunate side effect of increased narcissism. And celebrities have clearly paved the way for regular parents to take the plunge and give their kids outlandish names (I give you "Bronx Mowgli Wentz"). Though I am no social psychologist, I've given this topic some thought, and would like to offer some theories of my own.

Those of us who have a common name grew up hating it; it made us feel common and unspecial. Believe me, I am a drop in the river of Sarah Elizabeths that feeds into the ocean of Sarahs. Growing up, kids like me sort of admired those kids with the weird names because they never had to use their last initial or some weird derivative of their name to be identified. They simply were who they were. (In college, I knew a girl named Jessica who went by "Seeca" because as a child, she had been in a carpool in which all the girls were named Jessica. Someone got to be Jessica, someone Jess, another Jessie. Seeca apparently drew the last straw.)

Essentially, we all want to be unique. We want to believe and know that we possess an identity all our own. I am no Generic, Dime-a-Dozen Sarah. I am Sarah Superquirk, Defender of Idiosyncrasy! I do things no one else can do; I think thoughts no one else can think! …Except that I shop at the same stores and eat at the same restaurants as all the other Sarahs (and all the other people, too). And I go to a giant church filled mostly with strangers, just like everybody else. And every new neighborhood I see being built looks exactly the same with the same three floorplans and limited variety of exterior flourishes.

Wait a minute…what if I'm really just like everybody else? What if my child, the extension of myself, is just like every other child being born today?

No, that can't be. MY child will stand out above the sea of Wal-Marts and beige stucco. MY child will be special. And I will show him how special he is by giving him a name--an identity--that will be all his own.

Just like everyone else.

And therein lies the problem (in my opinion) with the unique naming trend. If the majority of children have unusual or unique names, the value of that uniqueness diminishes. If you really want your child to stand out these days, you could really buck the trend by naming him something like Mike or Steve.

At any rate, I don't mean to offend anyone who has given their child an unusual name. Plenty of my friends--probably some of whom have enough grace in their hearts to read this blog--have done so, and their children (like their parents) are wonderful little people. But it isn't their names that make them wonderful and interesting. It is the essential self God has placed in each of them, and the tending and watering of those little souls undertaken by their parents. They will stand out as special people because they are special people who have been cultivated in their upbringing to be unique--not because of what's on their birth certificate.

What's your take? Especially if you've chosen an unusual name for your child?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Adult Playdate

Years ago, before I had children, I remember having a conversation with a friend about why I did not particularly like children. She lived with her parents, who served as foster parents for kids in limbo, so there was always some little person or other scampering around her house. I can recall telling this friend that it frankly bothered me that all kids do is play all day, that I really kind of felt like they should have to put their tiny noses to some non-lead-based painted grindstones rather than just run wild and free. When I got to the part in the rant when I actually used the word "lazy," my friend snapped. I got an earful from her and learned a valuable lesson that day: never tell your friends your honest opinions. Just kidding. Actually, I don't think I learned any lessons that day. Rather, I slogged on with my misanthropic stance on children and play, never realizing that when I said kids were lazy for getting to play and not work, I meant that I was jealous.

I now have two children of my own, whom I love dearly and in whom I take great delight. I wish I could also report that I relish playing with them. I don't. I love hearing them play, I giggle while eavesdropping on their adorable and sometimes impressive storylines, and I get a genuine rush of pleasure buying them toys I know they'll enjoy. But sitting down for the thousandth time to play cars and trucks--the one thing my older son positively LIVES for--usually makes me suddenly realize I've left a curling iron on. Maybe if my kids could enjoy the things that I enjoy (like German literature, Magnum, P.I. trivia, and silence) I would find it easier to spend more time on the floor crashing ambulances into firetrucks and then rushing all the occupants to the hospital. And as I've grown, I've realized that part of this stems from something in me that remains jealous of my children (or any children) for being allowed to not have responsibilities, for being allowed to play all day long. The less of that I get for myself, the more I begrudge them their play--and my participation with them.

So in a strange way, wanting to enjoy playing with my children motivates me to play on my own as an adult. I know it's not realistic to expect my children to become more like me (i.e. work, shoulder adult responsibilities)--after all, they're only 1 and 3--and deep down, I know I want them to get as much play in these early years as possible. It's good for their brains, it's the way they process emotions, and it's what they love to do. So if they can't (yet) become more like me, I am trying to become more like a child. I am trying to re-learn how to play.

When I was a child, I of course loved to play. Anything could be a toy. I remember pretending the salt and pepper shakers from our dining room table were a married couple--the wife wanted to leave him, but the husband wooed her back by singing Amy Grant's Don't Run Away ("Don't run away, you're headed nowhere…You feel alone, who do you know there?") Barbies, My Little Ponies, and Cabbage Patch dolls inhabited the world of my imagination and sometimes intersected with my friends' in some metaphysical Venn diagram of play. Then as a teenager, play meant hanging out with friends doing silly and/or stupid activities like calling ourselves "The Banditos" for shooting Supersoakers at the cars driving on the road behind my parents' house. College saw more outrageous play--if you lived on 4South at Fischer Hall, you will remember "Lounge Tennis," an impromptu indoor sport I am surprised never required disciplinary action by the dean.

But it seems to me that play--or at least play that is genuinely FUN--falls by the wayside for those of us who have followed life's timeline of marriage and childbearing.

I mean, what do white Christian women do when they get together with friends for fun? They go to…..drum roll please……are you ready for the excitement……COFFEE SHOPS!!! I'm sorry, I hope that didn't just titillate you to the point of sin. Whew! Cause that is some serious, hard-core FUN, I tell ya. Going to the same place you can and probably do visit several times a week to sit in a comfy chair and talk. Livin' the dream, ladies, livin' the dream. Now, maybe if you are a really passionate coffee aficionado and there's going to be a demonstration of how to brew the perfect Costa Rican cup, I can understand. And I know coffee shop talk has its place. A pleasant space, a sweet drink, some catching up about husbands, kids, jobs. Nice. But for the most of us, when do we go beyond nice with our friends? Do we have fun with them? Do most adults have a friend with whom we can play? My feeling of the average American adult's perspective on the words "play" and "fun" is that they involve either sex or very expensive sporting equipment…or perhaps both.

And so I hereby propose: the adult playdate. Before you get grossed out, let me explain. My best friend Joy and I have been doing these for awhile now, and they've been so much fun, I wish everyone could do something similar. In fact, I knew Joy was going to be a great friend when we agreed for our first get-together to do anything BUT go to a coffee shop. (We ended up carving pumpkins instead.) It's not that Joy and I don't ever get together for coffee or a meal or something nonspecific or non-thrilling. But we also have made a point of scheduling activities that are the grown-up version of playdates. We've gotten together and created collages out of magazine clippings and we've colored in coloring books. Once we even dragged out my old Barbies from my garage and staged a photo shoot of them--even the ones with limbs bitten off--in ridiculous 80s outfits. This October will be our fourth annual pumpkin carving extravaganza. I say all this not to sing my own praises about the awesome things I do (because I'm sure you're thinking playing with Barbies when you're nearing 30 is awesome, right?) but to say, hey, it works for me and it's a lot of fun. My hope is that I am gradually lightening up toward myself and my kids. So whatever is your play, I say do it and do it with a friend. I have been amazed at the way that "playing" with a friend brings us closer than hours sitting at a Starbucks. So if your thing is scrapbooking or Zumba or photo shoots or raiding the Dollar Store, do it. I conclude by quoting that great sensei of play, the Cat in the Hat:

"It is fun to have fun but you have to know how!"

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Cup

Like most Protestants, I grew up with the "cup" portion of communion as that highly sanitized, generally inoffensive tray of mini-cups passed down the aisles. You know the one I mean--the one that looks like two car upholders got together and had an out-of-control multiple birth. The only concerning thing about this tray is the fear that you might potentially spill the whole thing as you try to deftly hold with one hand, extract cup with the other. This could be its own Church Extreme Sport. But once you've withdrawn your mini-cup, you're in the clear. "This do in remembrance of me," and down it goes into a second cupholder awaiting it on the back of the pew. (Where do they get this stuff? Is there a catalog? And does it also include all-occasion biblical robes?) At any rate, when I became Catholic, like most Protestant converts, I was rather apprehensive about the Catholic experience of The Cup. Like, I am not exactly jumping at the chance to sip out of other people's Frescas…and you're telling me to put my mouth on that thing that every single other person in line has just put their mouth on? It's enough to make you want to sit in the front row to be First Drinker. I don't mind sharing a drink with my husband or my children, because I know they don't have cooties. But as for everyone else in church…well, the statistics are not terribly encouraging.

I've generally dealt with my misgivings about The Cup in the fifteen months since I've been Catholic. Like most things, if you do it enough, it begins to feel normal and safe. (Plus, the alcohol in the wine acts as a sanitizing agent--bonus!) Yesterday, however, I had an experience that reminded me of my earlier trepidation and also opened my eyes to new insights on this crazy-amazing thing we call communion.

Anthony and I were celebrating our sixth anniversary on Coronado and decided to go to the Saturday evening mass on the island. As communion began and we filed into the center aisle to process toward the elements, a few of the people in front of me caught my attention. Hmm, I thought. That's one weird-lookin' lady. Who told her that outfit looked okay?…And what's with that old guy? Yikes. It's called a toothbrush. With every step, I began to feel more apprehensive about that Cup. Began to doubt whether I wanted to drink from it this particular mass. Maybe I'd just skip it. They say Christ is fully present in either element. I don't have to take the wine today.

Still, something in me desired the completeness of body and blood, taken as they were given: together. So I stood in line, bowed in reverence, and took The Cup. But I walked away, I realized something was terribly wrong. What was this on my tongue? It had definitely come from The Cup. Oh no, I just got a piece of someone else's bread from the cup!


I didn't know what to do. Reach in and take it out of my mouth? Then what? You can't dispose of the Body of Christ, for goodness' sake! So I swallowed it. And was sincerely bothered for the next several minutes. But somewhere along the line, the symbolism began to dawn on me: me getting a piece of someone else's bread is like a picture of the Church. Here I am judging my brothers and sisters in Christ, trying to keep my distance from those I deem undesirable, when God allows exactly what I feared to occur. He allows me to come into contact with another in an uncomfortable way for the purpose of unity in His body. Communion and all it entails reflects the truth that we are one; Christ makes us one, and sometimes it is uncomfortable, sometimes it is awkward, sometimes it is downright gross. Yet here we are--His body, His beloved. And where Christ is, the boundaries, walls, and judgments that would keep us apart can come down. He calls each of us to the table, whether we are an "undesirable" or a judgmental sinner like me. It is one Christ we all receive in the elements, and through Him, we are unified.

I'm not eager to have this experience again--though, presumably, it's only a matter of time--but I know it taught me about God's character and my foolishness. To receive Christ in any way is worth the risk of my 21st-century squeamishness. One bread, one body, one Lord of all.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Humor and Holiness

"God really must have a sense of humor." We've all heard this said, usually when something ironic or surprising happens in people's circumstances. It's like the spiritual version of "Ain't that a kick in the head?" I know it's just something people say, but this little platitude has always seemed a little unsettling to me--it's almost like it implies that God likes to play tricks on us as His version of humor. I hope not. We'd all better watch our backs if that's the case. I have often wondered, though, what God's sense of humor actually is like. Yes, I believe God has a sense of humor (that doesn't only involve pranking us). I can't imagine that any gift that brings humans so much pleasure couldn't have started with God. But I also wonder what God thinks of our humor sometimes. By "sometimes" I mean when it's not overtly holy and clean, like a popsicle stick joke. In this age when anything goes, I'm asking where, as Christians, our humor boundary lines should be drawn, especially humor that pertains to spirituality.

The main reason I'm asking these questions is a Facebook debate I played a very small (but evidently very controversial) role in recently. A Christian friend on Facebook posted an image comparing Christianity to atheism. The point, apparently, was to use an ironic, outrageous form of "humor" to show how much faith both belief systems require. Atheism was described as the belief that things happen for no reason with no cause and the universe came out of nowhere. Christianity was described as believing in a "cosmic Jewish zombie" one must "telepathically" accept in order to be saved because "a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree." Of the thirty-some comments, mine was the only one that took issue with a Christian putting such a comparison on display. My citing of Romans 14:16 ("Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil") was condemned as un-contextual and my offense dismissed as "faux."

So I'm going to use my own blog to do a little ranting and raving. Feel free to disagree with me. I'm not looking for a fight. I'm looking for truth (spoken in love…please be merciful!)

When did Christians become comfortable with humor that mocks or derides our faith--or even our Savior? When did humor become a value that trumps reverence, even for followers of Christ? It seems to me that our culture has fed us the lie that if it's funny, it's okay--and we've bought it hook, line, and sinker. I'm not talking about poking fun at our own silliness as Christians. Blogs like "Stuff Christians Like" can shine a needed spotlight on the ways Christian culture sometimes has nothing to do with Christ. I'm talking about treating our faith, on which we base our lives, with derision, or mocking our God, who paid the price for our souls with His own blood. There is a line between acute insight and mere ridicule.

So which is the higher value, holiness or humor? I don't believe we have to choose with exclusivity. I'm all for humor, and not just the creepy Veggie Tales/church stand-up comedian humor universe (in fact, I think I'll pass, thanks). But when these two heavyweights meet in a dark alley, which do we let win the fight?

I think my humor rule of thumb is two-fold: 1. If that Little Voice in my soul gives me any pause, it's probably off limits, and 2. It's a question of character. I am not okay with poking fun at the character of my faith, my church, or my God.

So with that off my chest….the Pope and Billy Graham arrive at the Pearly Gates…

Monday, July 5, 2010

America: My Top Five

If I had been alive in the '60s--and just a little more crotchety--I can clearly imagine my Chevy Chevelle or Dodge Dart sporting that classic bumper sticker: "America: Love It or Leave It!" Or allow me to make a slight emendation to make it just right: "America: Love It, Leave It, or Do Something to Improve It Rather Than Just Complain!" A tad long for a bumper sticker, I suppose. But on this Fourth of July, I am reminded of how much I love this country and how proud I am to call it home. You don't have to look far these days to find a native-born American citizen who doesn't realize that their birth certificate is a winning lottery ticket. As someone who has devoted much of my life to the study of a foreign language and culture, I have encountered many such people. People who seem to wish they had been born with a different birth certificate, a different language, a different latitude. On my study abroad trip to Germany during college, several of my fellow Americans dreaded being recognized as "Amis." They pinned Canadian flags to their backpacks so as not to be detected. Turncoats! To me, it seemed like they might as well have burned the American flag while they were at it. Maybe it's the way I was raised, but not only do I believe that the way we honor our country is a reflection of our own honor, but that this is still a wonderful nation worthy of our pride. I am well aware of its faults, but in the last balance, I am proud to be 1/300 millionth of the USA. Here are my top five reasons why:

Freedom: The obvious top contender. This country may not afford us as many freedoms as some (particularly Libertarians such as my husband) would like, but it's still pretty hard to beat life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am free to believe what I wish, say what I wish, move about where I wish. I thank God for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the many other laws that protect my freedoms as an American.

Majesty: Just the landscape of this expanse of Earth is enough to provoke undying awe. Government, culture, and individuals aside, this space between Atlantic and Pacific is an incredible imprint of God's glory. The Grand Canyon, the Redwoods, the Great Lakes, and all our State and National Parks prove that this nation is a mosaic of grandeur.

History: Whatever our opinions about America's present, its past tells a story of honorable ideals. (I'm not forgetting the sad realities of slavery, the Trail of Tears, or internment camps--just focusing on the good, which I believe has prevailed overall.) Remember the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe? Remember the Berlin Airlift, which brought much-needed supplies to Germans in need? Remember the many millions who have been given new opportunities here? Oh, and remember the founding of this nation, based on principles of democracy and human rights?

Innovation: So many exciting things are going on every second of every day in this country. The research being done at America's universities paves the way for medical advances and solutions to social problems. New technologies are constantly being invented here that affect the well-being of the entire world. And that's only referring to the present. Just think of all the amazing innovations Americans have produced in the course of our history. You could never list them all.

Civilization: If you've ever spent time in a Third World country, you know the relief of returning home to the First World. The mere ability to drive across the U.S. on reliable roads is a gift we take for granted. Or how about not having to bribe the guy behind the counter at the DMV to get your driver's license? We might get frustrated at bureaucracy we sometimes have to deal with as Americans, but in my opinion, it's a lot better than widespread corruption and disorganization.

I could go on and on. But suffice it to say (if I can type this without succumbing to sloppy sobs like I do every time I hear it on the radio) that "I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free / and I won't forget the men who died and gave that right to me / and I'll gladly stand up / next to you / and defend her still today / 'cause there ain't no doubt I love this land / God bless the USA."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"Your Faith has Healed You": Questions about Prayer

Before you discount me as a heretic, may I just say that the following are simply honest thoughts and questions. "Intelligent people are always open to new ideas. In fact, they look for them." Proverbs 18:15 (Though I suppose you could use that verse to defend anything unorthodox….haha.)

In my search for healing of a physical problem that I believe is what they call "psychogenic," that is, mind/body related, I have done quite a bit of research. In the last year, I have read numerous books on the mind/body connection, some more farfetched than others. One such book, which I don't even exactly remember how I came across, was the self-help classic The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. Written in the 1960s by Joseph Murphy, a lapsed Catholic and "Divine Science minister" (I didn't know this when I checked it out from the library) the book mostly contains what I would consider heresy and foolishness. I thought I was checking out a volume on the interplay between the subconscious mind and the body; rather, this book makes a lot of outrageous claims about having everything you want. You just have to convince your subconscious mind to get it all for you--that's right, your subconscious mind knows all. Just tell it to obtain whatever you want--anything from healing of cancer to a new purse--and said outcome/object will be yours. There are some instructions on the process of going about this, but that's what it basically boils down to.

Maybe I should have stopped reading right there. But I was curious about what else the crazy old coot would have to say. In my many months of research and in my own personal experience, I can say with certainty that our minds have tremendous power over our bodies, our attitudes, and sometimes even our circumstances--so while I was entirely skeptical of Murphy's initial conclusions, I wondered if he might eventually make some good points. It turns out Murphy references the Bible quite a bit (after all, he was a Divine Science minister--that makes him a reliable theologian, right? Oh, wait….) Specifically, Murphy gives his own unique interpretation of the many healing miracles of Jesus. On multiple occasions where Jesus heals people in the Gospels, he tells them, "Your faith has healed you." According to Murphy, it is the power of the subconscious mind--or, put differently, the placebo effect--that does the healing. Once the person is convinced they will be healed, their mind tells their body to do the healing and, boom, healing occurs.

Okay, so I don't believe for a second that that's exactly the way it went down when Jesus healed people. But reading this very different evaluation of Christ's miracles got me thinking…where do the divine power of God and our own thinking intertwine to effect healing? What exactly did Jesus mean when He said, "Your faith has healed you," or "According to your faith it will be done to you"? Is it heresy to think that it almost seems like He was downplaying His own role in their healing, almost as though He was saying that some of the power to heal lies within the sufferer? In linguistics, such declarations are called "illocutionary speech acts," that is, language which changes reality merely by the act of being spoken. (For example, "I now pronounce you man and wife.") Those who had faith in Christ's "speech act" were healed. When people didn't have faith in His words, such as in his hometown of Nazareth, He refused to do any miracles among them. So why does faith play such a huge role in miracles--specifically miracles of healing? Is it because it shows God we're doing our best to believe in Him and trust Him? Is healing a reward for this faith? Or does our faith also have a healing effect upon us all on its own?

I am coming to believe that it's both. Between the Bible and modern-day science, we know that our mental state changes how we feel physically. Psalm 38 is an example of sin--an issue of the mind/spirit--ruining a person's health. ("My bones have no soundness because of my sin…My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly.") And while not everyone who believes they will be healed of something actually receives that healing, evidence substantiating placebo cures can hardly be ignored. When people believe their health is improving, believe they will be healed, believe in the power of a certain treatment, they are statistically more likely to see their goal realized. And I believe that this is a power God has placed within the human body--the power to heal itself.

Ultimately, I believe that all power is God's. Any power we humans possess has been placed in us by His hand. But I do find the sleuthing of the details rather interesting--as if I'll ever get to the heart of the mystery.

So what do you think? What is the relationship between our faith, God's power, and physical healing? Could Christ have been referring to the healing power of faith itself in His words in the Gospels, or does the entirety of the work lie with Him, and our faith is merely the bridge that takes us across to His power?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Worry as Meditation

A wise person told me recently that worry is a form of meditation--just in the wrong direction.

When I think of meditation, I picture soaking a certain subject with my thoughts, bathing it, covering it, wrapping it up like a present. Turning it over and over like a smooth stone in my hand. Ingesting it like food. Encircling it with long, inevitable arms. Becoming one with it. When I meditate on God's peace, for example, I want it to become my identity. I want to speak with its voice; i want it to be the voice speaking inside my head--the noise beneath the noise. I want to know it.

When I compare this with the experience of worrying, I see the similarities right away. Whatever I am worrying about (usually the same thing) becomes my mantra, coordinating my jagged breaths. "What if?" on the inhale, "Why?" on the exhale. I turn the same fear over and over till it wears dents in my palms, as though looking for some new angle or facet I've never seen before. Worry sets up camp in my head, erecting Checkpoint Charlie to control what other thoughts may pass. Mr. Brood? Kommen Sie, bitte. Miss Carefree? I'm afraid we're going to need some ID.

I've only recently begun the practice of meditation, but this comparison seems so apropos, since part of the reason I have taken it up is to reverse the effects of worry. We all worry and I think we believe we can get away with it. It's a mere peccadillo, a practice that can be taken up and laid back down like Hammacher Schlemmer. We don't realize how cumulative it can be. There is such a thing as "generalized anxiety disorder," in which people are perpetually plagued by anxiety, and I can't imagine it comes out of nowhere. We cede territory to it and its gang of savage pals every time we engage in the meditation of worry. Just as study after study continues to come out praising the health benefits of meditation, I believe the cumulative effects of the meditation of worry can lead to disorders of both mind and body.

In our hubris, we think we can "get away" with worry and stress. It's not like turning to alcohol or drugs, right? It's not like I could get addicted. It's socially acceptable--even praised. Worry means you are responsible. Stress means you are earning your keep. In my own life, I walked--or, rather, hurtled--down the path of overachieving, outdoing, and self-demanding that kept me in a cycle of worry probably from the time I could walk (or hurtle). I have worried about everything from my grades to how I'm going to die to whether my son is eating too many strawberries and is going to turn irreversibly red. Now I begin to ask myself, with all those years of worry, just what was I hurtling toward? The end result is not a pretty picture.

Life will always be fraught with infinite opportunities for concern. We can choose the twisted meditation of worry, or we can embrace a meditation of trust in God's goodness and control, which is the only avenue to real peace of mind, body, and spirit. I have distilled these thoughts into two sentences that anchor me. Call it a mantra if you like:

If I fear anything, may I fear only God. If I cling to anything, may I cling only to the hand of Christ.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Why I Love the German Language, Part 1

I can't tell you how excited I am to write this series, but, first off:


If you feel about languages the way most people feel about, say, integral calculus or spiny lobster fishing, you may want to skip this series. If, however, you, like me, view language as a fascinating extension of humanity, the medium through which all other subjects are understood, an entity which substantiates the very concept of knowledge, then you might want to stick around. Also if you have been sitting around wondering which European language to delve into with great passion and fervor. Then this would be for you, too.

German has gotten a bad rap. My personal theory is that the events of the 20th century made Germany the nation everybody loves to villainize, and snarky attitudes about the nation's language were thrown in for good measure. Although I suppose it may go back further than that. There is the famous quote from Charles V (1500-1558) that goes, "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse." Very funny, Charles V. What did you ever do with your life that was so great? But ever since, it seems that German is the perpetual bootay of language jokes. Mark Twain had some kind of love/hate relationship with German, for years making zinging remarks that bordered on the flirtatious, such as "I can understand German as well as the maniac that invented it" and "I don't believe there is anything in the whole earth you can't learn in Berlin except the German language." Come on, Mark Twain. I hear that hint of longing in your tone. And then there's the Monty Python sketch about the funniest joke in the world, which, when translated into German, becomes a method of warfare because it makes Nazi soldiers laugh themselves to death. The sketch works so well, of course, because everyone knows how unfunny German actually is.

So, sadly, it seems to be universally accepted that German is a harsh, perhaps even barbaric, language. In fact, when I typed "ugliest language" into Google, its autofill feature immediately supplied me with the alternate "German world's ugliest language" before I even got to the search results. Sigh…. Still, the purpose of this series will be to convince you--yes, you!--that German is, in fact, an amazing language with many beautiful features. You may not want to listen to it while you're getting a massage, but I hope to surprise you with its aural and structural delights.

So without further ado, Part 1: Flavoring Particles!

Ah, flavoring particles. That little packet you sprinkle on your Ramen noodles. Or a set of untranslatable German words that defy classification and can change meaning from one usage to the next. How enchantingly hopeless for students of German! When I taught the chapter on flavoring particles to my German Conversation students, they looked at me like I was, well, speaking a foreign language. As in, you're telling me there's no literal translation of any of these words? How the hell am I supposed to learn them and, more importantly, pass the test on them? I told them they had two options: a.) move to Germany and immerse yourself for approximately four years, or b.) flashcards. (Kidding.) Even when I gushed that English actually does have similar words to German flavoring particles, it apparently wasn't fascinating enough to make a difference at 8:30 in the morning when you're hung over from a frat party.

Flavoring particles, to give an approximate explanation, are used primarily in spoken German to add emphasis or reflect the speaker's mood or attitude. I'll give you a reasonably equivalent English example: the word "even." We throw that word around in a lot of different ways beyond its function as an adjective or a verb. "I don't even know what you're talking about!" That sentence doesn't actually need the word "even"; it's just there for emphasis. Or take "just." "I just wish I could bring myself to part with my Vanilla Ice memorabilia!" That sentence doesn't need the "just," but it adds emphasis and reflects the speaker's existential despair. So these strange little particles do also float around in our English atmosphere, they're just a little more predictable and less frequent than in German. Some German flavoring particles (which include aber, auch, denn, doch, halt, ja, mal, nur, and schon, as well as some other outliers) may actually already look familiar to you if you've had even an introductory course in the language. You might recognize aber as the word for "but" or ja as the word for "yes." This, unfortunately, is the part where we pull the rug right out from under you. Because when you see a sentence like "Das ist aber schoen!" you'd want to translate it as a kind of protest, like "But that's pretty!" when in reality, the aber functions here to add emphasis: "That's really pretty!" A similar dilemma with ja. German instructional materials always make these really genuine but ultimately lame attempts to contextualize each individual particle. For example, here is how Wikipedia (I know, not a reputable language learning source, but go with me) explains the particle ja: "Ja indicates that the speaker thinks a certain fact should already be known to the listener and intends his statement to be more of a reminder or conclusion." Thank you. We'll all be sure to remember that when we're fumbling for our passports in a crowded airport.

By now you're probably wondering what opioid narcotic I was on when I said I intend to show beauty and appeal in the German language. I admit that figuring out flavoring particles can be murder, even to an experienced speaker of German. (I still don't get how to use halt.) But it's a lot easier than it looks on paper. Because these words are intended for emphasis or attitude, it's actually pretty easy to determine how the native speaker is using them because you can frequently already tell from their tone, their body language, etc. what type of statement they're trying to make. And like we saw in our English examples, these words usually aren't technically necessary to establish meaning. They're more just for fun, to make things interesting. As you get used to hearing and understanding them in context in spoken German, you can begin to make attempts of your own.

And you want to know why I really love these funny little words? It's their fluidity, their flexibility--the ability of a word to slip into something a little bit more comfortable and show up where you don't expect it. The ability in your speech to add emphasis without having to just get louder or more profane or add gestures. It's all possible within the language itself, with an intricacy that defies unraveling. Plus, how awesome is it when your language is so unique that it possesses words that cannot be translated into any other language? I think that's beauty right there.

So bring on the flavoring! It may even be biblical: "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Colossians 4:6). May we all find that perfect balance in our speech, whatever the language.