March 31, 2009

In Memoriam

I never believed that anything could defeat her. She grew up an only child. Her mother and father had to work. A lot. She had stories about days, nights, weekends, holidays, spent alone or with neighbors. It was a lonely place to be. I wonder how she managed. But she certainly learned to take care of business.

Maybe the nuns helped during eight years of Catholic school. Make that seven; she skipped first grade. The Baltimore Catechism, daily mass, perfect penmanship – she developed a keen sense of personal discipline that would carry her through life’s later troubles

Like getting pregnant at twenty. Imagine! She, the straight-A student, had to drop out of college to get married. But that didn’t stop her. Neither did the divorce less than ten years later, or the prospect of raising three young daughters alone. She took care of everything somehow. The years alone ended. She remarried and had a son. But through it all she never lost sight of what she needed to realize her goal for herself.

She finally finished her degree 25 years after she started college; we graduated in the same year. A year after that she was teaching elementary school.

She juggled teaching alongside service to the church, marriage, mothering, grandmothering, and caring for her own mother for ten years, managing to spend every spare summer minute on the beach in Tahoe, reading like crazy and laughing with good friends. I thought she could take care of anything.

But even she couldn’t take care of the leukemia. It took care of her, in six short weeks.

She was so many things to so many people, -- teacher, wife, daughter, friend, grandma – but I was the first one to call her “mom.”

Marilyn Grace Handley
January 10,1947 - April 1, 2000

March 29, 2009


"What if I'm lonely?" Daniel, age 5

He loves going, but he doesn't want to go. It's an ordinary Sunday morning, and, after weeks in a row of joyfully heading off to Sunday school, my baby is suddenly afraid.

"What if I have a stomach ache?" They've been frequent, but the doctor assures us that everything is fine. It's just a stage.

At first, it seemed like it would just go away, like most stages do, but then he asked this unexpected question: "What if I'm lonely?" He was imagining it, lonliness in a room full of others, teachers, friends.

I know that feeling. It's a cliche: Lonely in a crowded room. Then I knew it wasn't a stage that would soon pass.

At nearly five plus thirty-seven years, it hasn't passed for me. I remain aware that even in the most intimate of company, I can still feel alone. There exists this deep place inside where no one can really go with me. My baby still trusts that I, at least, can meet him in his deep place. For now, that's enough for him. Someday it won't be.

Daniel does not understand the absence, the longing he is beginning to recognize. I think I might. Barely. Another cliche: The God-shaped hole inside.

I used to try to fill it with other things -- food, fantasy, noise. Sometimes I still want to try, even though I know it never really helps.

"Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" (Isaiah 55:2, NRSV). Good question. Like Daniel's question: "What if I'm lonely?" What shall I do then?

"Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other" (Isaiah 45:22).

March 21, 2009

Carrying Cash

"Give to every one who begs from you..." - Luke 6:30

I hardly ever carry cash. My mother was appalled at the idea of paying for groceries with a credit card, so it was a long time before I could. But I pay the bill off every month, so why resist? Now I pay for everything with a credit card. It's so convenient. Most of the time.

Beggars don't take credit cards. Or debit cards. Or checks.

She was driving a mini-van with no license plates. Her daughter -- I guess -- was asleep in the front seat. Maybe she was eight or nine.

The mini-van just pulled up beside us in a parking lot, right in the middle of the middle class world in which we live. I thought she needed directions. She needed money.

She said the child was sick, and they needed medicine. They needed food. I only had a five dollar bill.

I gave her the five dollars, but I felt sad. I was on my way from talking with a contractor about making some improvements to our home. I'm about to write a check to that man for thousands of dollars. But I only had five to give the woman whose child needs medicine and food.

I intend to start carrying cash.

March 20, 2009


"Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle." -Helen Keller

My daughter said, "Every time you try to put chili in the crock pot..." The first time I sliced my finger open. The next time I opened the refrigerator and, for the second time in as many months, one of my glass milk bottles had shattered. There was a quart of milk dribbling all down my fridge and onto the floor. I thought about screaming, but instead I wiped a bit, walked out of the kitchen, read some e-mails, came back to the kitchen, covered the chopped onions so they wouldn't dry out and proceeded to empty and clean the refrigerator. I was fuming, but calm, and I tried to think about what happens inside of me at moments like this. I present to you some inner dialogue:

There are these three voices inside me. Voice one is my "Inner Bitch" (IB). She's a rebel. She swears (so please forgive her). She's gritty and edgy. She wears black and does funky things to her hair. She's powerful, but not terribly compassionate. She blames everyone and everything for her problems. She is put-upon. I like some things about her. She's funny and strong.

Voice two is my "Inner Priss" (IP). She is a scold. She knows very well what is right and what is wrong. She is quick to judge IB (and everybody else). She stuffs her feelings. She is everything on the outside that IB isn't -- socially appropriate, polite. Nothing is ever anyone else's fault. She thinks she's compassionate and loving, but really she is a repressed phony. I don't like her as well as I like IB, but she's around a lot more. Maybe I'm just sick of her. What I do like about her is that she keeps the IB in check. She allows my outward behavior to be appropriate, even when my inside feelings are not. She protects other people -- and me -- from the havoc that IB would like to wreck, which is good.

Finally, voice three is the mature adult me (ME). She is trying desperately to acknowledge IB and honor her voice while not letting her take over. She encourages IP to be more honest.

When we opened the refrigerator and saw all that milk, IB was on fire. She was so mad! Here we were, trying to get dinner ready in advance -- SO RESPONSIBLE! Now, instead of everything being ready we had to spend the whole blessed morning cleaning the refrigerator. And we just washed the floor too. And we're out a half-gallon of milk. Do you know how expensive milk is? Why does this keep happening? Maybe we need to stop getting glass bottles. Someone needs to fix that stupid refrigerator. Shouldn't someone be able to figure something out so this doesn't happen again? This is a real pain, you know?

But then there's IP twittering in the background. She's got the voice of every person on earth who is having a good day when we're not. She says that we should just calm down. What a lovely opportunity to learn something. Isn't it wonderful that the refrigerator will be clean?! Just go with the flow, let go and let God. IB wants to kick her ass.

Then, there is ME. You know what she did? She shut our mouth, because anything that was going to come out of it would be NOT HELPFUL. She picked up a rag and a roll of paper towels and little by little cleaned the refrigerator.

It takes the greatest act of tolerance for ME to accept the dueling IB and IP. But when I do, we don't fall off the bicycle.

March 17, 2009


"Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." - Matthew 5:5

Or the clothes.

Several months ago, my husband's grandmother died. She was in her late 80's and was driving herself to the store and church until the week she went into the hospital. My mother-in-law gave me bags and bags of Grandma's clothes to go through and keep or donate. My prideful thought was, "I don't want to wear old lady clothes." I was ready just to put all those bags on my porch for the donation pick-up tomorrow, sight unseen.

But then I thought, Would it kill me to at least look and see what's there?

Well. Most of it looks practically new, because she was a meticulous housekeeper, right down to the laundry. Most of it is much nicer -- and more fashionable -- than anything hanging in my closet. Most of it is the right size. And there is tons. And it's free.

Now, a new wardrobe may not be the earth. But, as an inheritance, it's a sight better than laziness and stubborn pride.

What if I hadn't looked in those bags? Of course, I'd never have known what I was missing. What other bags have I put out or given away without a thought, because I was too proud to think there could be anything in there that was good enough for me?

March 16, 2009


"Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain." ~Isaiah 53:10

There's no denying that the world is rife with it -- war, cancer, abuse, accidents, natural disasters, famine, heartbreak. The list goes on all day and into the dark, dark night.

Death is the shadow beneath it all, the darkest darkness. Our destiny. My destiny.

A former Christian, current agnostic, was featured on a radio interview program the other day. You might have heard of him. He's written a popular book about Jesus. He says what finally drove him from Christianity was his inability to reconcile suffering with the idea of a good God. He's not the first one to say so. But I don't get it.

Now, that's not to say that people can't come up with reasons to question the veracity of the Christian story. But suffering? Christianity offers the only reconciliation of suffering and a loving God the world has ever known.

"The last enemy to be destroyed is death," proclaims Paul to the Corinthians. Death, our final enemy. All of our suffering is ultimately unto death; death is the real and only weapon wielded by the powers and principalities. But its destiny is destruction. Death's destiny is death.

"For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death."

March 15, 2009


"Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." - Joshua 24:15 (NRSV)

I'm an addict. I don't mean that in some vague, metaphorical sense. Which behavior or substance is irrelevant. In my experience, an addict is an addict.

And addiction, in my experience, is a new-fangled way of saying, "idol-worship."

In the ancient world, there was a real competition going on. Which god was the most powerful? Most people didn't want to take chances, so they worshipped as many gods as they could. Most gods were fine with this. The more the merrier.

God said, No. Not in Israel. The foundational prayer in Judaism is the Sh'ma: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NRSV).

I've been intensively working the 12 Steps these past several weeks. I'm on the verge of Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.

One piece of sure knowledge that God has revealed to me is that abstinence from addiction is his will for me. "For us," says Step 11. All of us? Us addicts. Us idol-worshippers.

The "Big Book," Alcoholics Anonymous says, "Half-measure availed us nothing." It's God or idols. Take your pick.

March 2, 2009


I'm fond of jigsaw puzzles, but once I start, it's hard for me to quit until I'm finished. I don't have time for that kind of thing nowadays, but I have discovered a differnt kind of jigsaw work that God is completing in me. He's started, and it doesn't look like he's going to quit until the thing is finished.

I thought I "got" my life. I really did. I've always thought of myself as introspective, enlightened, self-aware. "The unexamined life is not worth living." And all that.

Lately I've been in for a dose or two, or ten, of truth, and it's brought some unexpected realizations. My life is not what I thought it was. I've got all these pieces, see? I had put them all together and they made a picture that I recognized as "me." But I've been noticing lately that some of them don't really fit where I've put them. The colors don't really match. The little bumps don't exactly fit into the little openings.

As I've stepped back, God has stepped in. He didn't just remove a couple of errant pieces either. He's disassembled the whole darned thing. Maybe he left the frame, you know, those edge and corner pieces that you do first, because they're easy to figure out. The rest, the whole middle, undone.

These pieces -- I recognize them individually, remember how I fit them together before -- are scattered about in front of me. God is taking them up, one by one, and putting them back together. The picture looks surprisingly different. That wasn't a snake at all! It's part of the sturdy trunk of the tree. This isn't a garbage heap! It's a garden.

The life I thought I knew? All the same pieces are there, but the image looks different now. It's still looks like me, more like me than ever, really. And the image looks more like God too.