Fighting with Evil: Road Edition

I picked a fight with my husband on Sunday. We were in the car, driving somewhere we’d never been before, a situation that makes easy pickings for a fight. Wrong turns. Missed exits. A married fight is hardly news, but for us it’s not typical. My own angry words exhausted me. For days I was out of sorts. I cried for no apparent reason. In the evenings I reached for a glass of wine, then didn’t sleep well. One restless night I realized that the road upsetting me wasn’t the one we fought about last Sunday. It was the unknown road that lay ahead.

After spending years writing a book, I’m preparing to launch it. My readers know that the book is about a dark time in my life. To put it simply: my book is a rape memoir. “Memoir” means it’s a personal story about something that actually happened to me. That’s redundant, I know, but people often ask. In fact, they ask twice. Really? Maybe we’re all used to watching traumatic stories from a greater distance — stories unfolding on a screen, written by strangers, about fictional persons, witnessed through the impersonal lens of a camera. Maybe it’s inherently shocking to realize that a traumatic story is first written on the body of an actual person. Written on their skin.

So yes, the book was difficult to write. It took me a long time. Five years, off and on. I had to re-enter certain dark places over and over again. The manuscript was baptized by my tears. And eventually I was done! For the past few months it’s been a source of joy and pride to admire the pretty cover. I have revelled in feeling finished.

But now the book promotion has begun and I no longer feel finished. Instead I must surface from the seclusion of my “lonely writer’s garrett” (as Harry Chapin called it in “30,000 Pounds of Bananas”) and set out on an unknown road, a road of reviews and speaking engagements. There are missed exits and wrong turns waiting for me. What’s more, I will have to revisit the dark places.

For all the tears I’ve shed in the past, I’m realizing that I’m not finished. Maybe I never will be. My painful story will elicit other people’s painful stories. Which is a good thing, of course. Telling their truth is the only way forward. And I want to be present to hear those stories. But even truth-telling is not a magic bullet against evil, if you’ll forgive the metaphor. Trauma is not conquered once and for all. Terror has a long memory. Shame is never completely eradicated. There is power in this opponent of ours. Evil has a force that arises over and over again.

We progressive Christians don’t like to talk about evil. In this Easter season we talk about resurrection power. We might say we’re Easter people in a Good Friday world. We’d rather talk about broken systems or hammer at the hallmarks of brokenness — injustice and inequity — as if these states were merely the absence of some pure, whole thing — justice and equity — things we would surely recognize if we saw them.

But evil is not so present in our lexicon. Do we trust ourselves to recognize it and name it? Perhaps evil is stronger than we want to admit. Evil pulls at a person, both in memory and in actuality. Even after it’s been beaten down, it can rise up again. Who wants to admit that evil has a recurrent power?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m happy for you. That means you aren’t personally acquainted with evil.

Which is why I come back to Jesus. There are many things I don’t know anymore, but I know this. Jesus was personally acquainted with evil. He wrestled with evil in all of its forms. From the internal drama of desert temptations to the external systems that were bent on his destruction. Evil eventually killed him. Because that’s what evil does. It snuffs out the light. And Jesus had so much light. Thank God that’s not the end of the story. But let’s not pretend it’s not also a part of the story.

I’m trying to not be afraid of the tears. I’m trying to be ready for the twists and turns of the road ahead. I will get things wrong. Maybe I will get lost. I will try to lift all that to the One who finds the lost, who dries the tears, who heals the broken. That One is trustworthy.

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Pausing in the Swirl of Life

Have you ever looked forward to an event, only to have your plans crumble? “Life intrudes” we say. Or “God laughs when we make plans.” Responding quickly to change can be difficult. At least it is for me. If you know people of Dutch descent, you will understand. We are not known for our flexibility! We are known for our tenacity, which is also a virtue, but quite a different one.

Right now I’m in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I came for the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College, which I’ve been attending every-other-year since 1996. There is no other gathering that I attend with such regularity. FFW pulls together many threads of my life: 1) As a former member of the Christian Reformed denomination, Calvin is my alma mater; 2) As a pastor, I have found lots of fodder for preaching and ministry; 3) As a reader, I have been bathed in words, and the ways that words evoke meaning; 4) As a budding writer, I have met editors, publishers and agents over the years; and 5) I can do all this and simultaneously visit my parents, who moved to Grand Rapids in retirement.

In fact, my favorite festival events have been the ones my parents attended with me. In 2006 I even convinced them to register for the whole festival. That was the aerobic FFW. I fondly remember pushing my mother’s wheelchair across campus at high speed — whirring her to one event, then running off to attend a different one myself! My parents are 87 and 90 now, and the festival events are too difficult for them logistically. The crowds are hard to navigate and they have difficulty hearing. Recently my father has slowed down quite drastically. His breathing has become labored.

Months ago I registered for this year’s festival and bought my plane tickets. Then my father’s doctors scheduled an elective heart catheterization right in the middle of FFW. I was concerned about the changes in my father’s health, grateful that I would be in town, and disappointed to miss hearing the authors.

How the days worked out has been a gift, a different configuration of the threads of my life. I had already set up a number of appointments related to my books, and was able to honor those. I was even able to attend the opening lecture by Tobias Wolff, whose writing I especially appreciate. On the day of my dad’s heart procedure I was at the hospital with my mother, sister, and niece. The medical care that my father received may be considered “routine,” but it is truly amazing. What a privilege to pray over my father’s bed, hands joined with family members.

Today will be a similar patchwork of events, including picking up my father from the hospital and attending a lecture by Nadia Bolz Weber. At least, that is the plan! We shall see what transpires.

I’m pausing to write this as I begin another busy day — a day that feels complicated, messy, and beautiful! I know your days often feel the same way. There are unwelcome adjustments, but also unexpected blessings. Perhaps these messy days are when God’s activity becomes most apparent to us — in a swirl of events that the finest planning could not have orchestrated.

Breakfast with my parents the day before the cardiac catheterization.

Breakfast with my parents the day before the cardiac catheterization.

Front and center at the Tobias Wolff lecture.

Front and center at the Tobias Wolff lecture.

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Spying on Dinosaurs

I didn’t mean to become a birdwatcher. It’s one of the results of long-term marriage, I suppose, this bleed-over of hobbies. And if you’re going to watch birds, the spring is the time to do it. Between migration and nest-building, there is a lot to watch.

Last weekend Doug and I spent hours and hours outdoors together. We found two places where herons roost. These are called rookeries. I had always thought of herons as solitary creatures, so was surprised to learn that they cluster their nests together, often along a riverbank. The picture below doesn’t do them justice, of course, because those herons are very large, and the nests are very high.

Another thing that made watching them fun — three teenagers happened along and saw us with binoculars. They asked us what we were looking at. When we pointed to the nests, they were immediately, and appropriately, awestruck. One of them was carrying an actual camera with a telephoto lens, and he was thrilled to take pictures. They sat down on the grass and Doug, who is a Science teacher, conveyed a bit of knowledge, but even more importantly, his passion for the birds.

I like to think that this moment may have mattered to the young photographer. I’m sure his turned out better than mine did, which I snapped with my phone.

Heron Rookery

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Green Pastures

Where do you go to restore your soul? For me, spring always brings a bit of restlessness. On an unseasonably warm day last week, I drove out to Holy Cross Abbey to restore my soul.

I emailed Brother James that morning and he responded that he’d have time to see me after midday prayers at 2:00. I arrived 45 minutes early to have time for a walk. The Abbey’s road cuts through pastures used as grazing land and I love to see the black cows. This day the pastures were unusually active. The cattle were on the move. They traveled with a sense of purpose, an undulating stream of black shoulders and haunches. And one lone white one.

Holy Cross Abbey cattle

A tractor had just deposited lunch onto the field — a long snake of sweet-smelling feed — and a farmer was calling the cattle to Come Get It.

But there was other commotion as well. Two small vehicles buzzed about the field. A farmer stood on the road near me, next to an open gate. He had a long branch in his hand, which he swung. Soon the vehicles had singled out a bull, who came charging across the field. They pursued him right through the gate and across the road into another pasture.

Once across, the bull stopped in his tracks, snorting. He swung his imposing head, great streams of froth and snot dangling from his nose and mouth. He lifted that head and bellowed. Loudly. Repeatedly. Back in the first pasture, a couple of cows answered him, coming up to the barbed fence as if they wanted to press themselves right through it. The cows sounded plaintive. The bull sounded angry. For some five minutes the bull and cows called back and forth, with me and the farmer between them.

I’ve always enjoyed call and response.

Holy Cross Abbey cattle

Because I wasn’t there on silent retreat, I talked to the farmer. He said there were three bulls in that pasture, and they’d been in there long enough to get all the cows.

How long is that? I asked.

We’re supposed to give them sixty days, but they’ve had a hundred or so. It’s time.

How many cows?

He shrugged. There’s about 750 cattle in that field.

I finished my walk and then it was time for midday prayer. Afterward, Brother James and I talked about our usual subjects — vocation and writing — but also shame and guilt, Jungian archetypes, instant coffee, the Pope, and hashtags. It seems that social media is an essential part of ministry these days, even for monasteries.

Monks aren’t real big on selfies, but he indulged me. So we can tweet it.

Holy Cross Abbey, Brother James

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Looking for Christ in the face of the Other

The “connectivity” of our world can bring such blessing. I received an email the other day from The Very Rev. Canon Dr. Gregory Jenks, who is the Dean of St. George’s College in Jerusalem. Perhaps you will recall that St. George’s hosted the pilgrimage which I wrote about in Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land.

The Dean wanted to let me know that one of their employees, Khalil Bassa, had recently died. Because I had included a conversation with Khalil in my book, he wondered if I would like to write a few words for their website. I was happy to do so.

Rest in peace, Khalil.

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Virtual Pilgrim: Underneath Jerusalem’s Western Wall

Are you looking for ways to “walk with Jesus” during this season of Lent? I invite you to check out the videos produced by Eran Frenkel in Jerusalem. His most recent video takes us through the Western Wall Tunnels. This is a place I wasn’t able to see on my pilgrimage, and I so enjoyed “being there” virtually.

Visit Eran’s site — JerusalemExperience.com — to find transcription of the narrative and many more videos. You can also subscribe to Eran’s YouTube channel and share these resources with others.

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Kirkus Review — Starred!

RUINED_SC_FinalI feel like I’m seeing stars! Kirkus gave my memoir a starred review and I’m thrilled.

The review gives a synopsis of the book, calling it a “perfectly balanced volume” and a “consistently riveting book.” It ends with these kind words: “Forthright, compassionate, and expertly crafted—everything readers should want from a memoir.” Yep, those words are going on the cover!

Here’s the review.

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Conversations with Strangers, Hairdresser edition

While I waited for my hair appointment, I chatted with two women over the magazines. They mentioned they were sisters, so I said, “How nice to make your hair a family affair.”

“It is nice, but it’s not for a nice reason. Our mother died the other day.”

I felt surprised at this, and glanced at the other sister. Tears sprang from the woman’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She wiped them with the back of her hand. She said, in a still-stunned voice, “She was only 90.”

“You’re never ready to lose someone you love,” I agreed.

They told me all about their mom, how she had dementia, and had a cough that turned out to be Stage 4 cancer. How their father took care of her at first, but he’s 92, and had a broken neck himself. So eventually they moved Mom into one sister’s home. One sister quit her job in order to help with the care full time.

“We fed her well right up to the end,” one said.

The other nodded with satisfaction. “And we surrounded her with love.”

“That’s obvious,” I said. “It’s obvious how much you loved her.”

Fresh tears rolled down their faces. “I’m worried about Dad. What will he do without her?”

“At least they got to celebrate their 70th anniversary. It was last November, about the time she was diagnosed. Oh, she died too soon!”

“But she saw her new grandbaby, remember. She got to meet her.”

I watched them grieve, together and separately, finding bits of solace and offering them to each other, like a piece of music passing the melody line from soprano to tenor and back again.

Then it was time for my haircut. Jen put a cape around my neck. Jen’s an artist when she isn’t cutting hair, and a priest-confessor when she is. We usually talk about love and death and art. We ask each other the questions all artists should ask each other, but seldom do. Plus I get a haircut.

I told Jen: “The women over there are sisters who just lost their mother.”

Jen groaned and shook her head. “It’s always too soon,” she said. “Always.”

To think I get to inhabit the planet with such giants, these ordinary people who know what love is.

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The Lincoln Hutch, on this Presidents Day

Today we celebrate the lives of two presidents — which is your favorite?

Like every American, I admire George Washington. During an election year, I often reflect on the reason we invest so many powers in the presidential office — because of our exceptional first president.

But I will admit to being a Lincoln aficionado. Perhaps that’s because I grew up playing with Lincoln Logs, and my family visited Lincoln sites on our family vacations. That fondness grew during the six years I served a church located a few miles from New Salem. That’s where Lincoln attempted to run a general store, along with a partner named William Berry, an enterprise which failed. It was William Berry’s father, the Reverend John Berry, who founded the church I served, so there were many connections.

When my family moved to northern Virginia, we had easy access to other Lincoln sites in Washington, DC: the Lincoln Memorial, the Lincoln Cottage and Soldier’s Home, Ford’s Theater and the Peterson house, as well as the trail of John Wilkes Booth. I didn’t think there were many sites I had missed!

Then, this past fall I visited Greenfield Village, in Dearborn, Michigan (blogpost here) and discovered that the Logan County Courthouse, where Lincoln first practiced law, was moved — actually physically relocated — to Henry Ford’s mythical village. Here it is:

The Logan County Courthouse, moved from Lincoln, IL to Greenfield Village, Dearborn, MI.

I was impressed to hear the story behind the corner hutch (far left). That piece of furniture was hand-built by Abraham and his father Tom as a way to thank the people who cared for Abe (and his sister and cousin) after his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, died. Father Tom went off to procure a stepmother for the family and left the children in the care of friends.

Amazingly enough, this historic piece of furniture isn’t held by the Smithsonian, but by Greenfield Village, a place which has no claim to it, other than Henry Ford’s wealth. It strikes me as ironic that an emblem of one man’s ordinary, humble beginnings could be purchased with the fruit of another man’s astounding financial success. But perhaps I am being too hard on the old tycoon. I’m sure Ford had his reasons for revering Lincoln.

Don’t we all wish our next president could have the same level gaze and fortitude as the man we picture in a stovepipe hat? Lincoln’s leadership was shaped by his humble beginnings, but also by his melancholy. Lincoln knew full well that life is hard. That simple truth is wisdom we all seem too eager to escape.

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Ashes & Valentines: Love is endless, life is not

Ashes & Valentines collide this week. Every year, this span of days reminds me of a little book our kids loved when they were little: “Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. This little picture book revolves around a song, which a parent sings to their child:

robert-munsch-love-you-forever“I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
as long as I’m living
my baby you’ll be.”

To me, the song is written for the collision of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. After all, love may be endless, but life is not.

In a few days we will celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s a good time to remind the people we love that our love is endless.  “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always.”

Today we observe Ash Wednesday. It’s a good time to meditate on the fact that everything –including we ourselves –will some day die. Ashes to ashes. “As long as I’m living my baby you’ll be. “

The two events create a certain tension. What dies and what lasts forever? Love may be endless but this life is not. Knowing that, what do I hold onto tightly? And what do I hold loosely, knowing it will someday slip from my grasp?

~ As a pastor, I know how it feels to try to hold onto a church lightly. It’s not easy to manage this on a day to day, week to week basis, but a church does best if we can hold it on our open palm, rather than inside a closed fist.

~ As a mother, I know how it feels to watch children grow up and find their own way. It’s not easy, but children do best if we can give them roots and wings, as the saying goes, and watch them fly away.

~ As a wife, I know how it feels to keep my marriage as my primary intimate relationship. It’s not easy to navigate a relationship that shifts over the years as career demands wax and wane, as the kids grow, and as the Yes to one Great Love means saying a hundred other Nos.

Do any of these speak to you? What items would you add?

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