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?