September 13, 2007

Hiking Alone [matt]

I was raised with the distinct purpose of loving God and mountains. It has always been typical in my family to get a roll of film developed only to discover that at least half of the photos are of Mount Rainier. My family is a family of mountain people.

Adulthood came suddenly, and I realized that I was in a new place with a new mountain; Mount Baker. The issue for me in all of this was that I had a great new mountain to explore, but nobody to join me in my adventures. Sure, there were plenty of people who told me they wanted to go hiking, but few ever seemed to be able to go when I could. So for a long time, I just didn’t go. Instead, I sat at home and twitched like an addict in need of a fix. Finally I cracked. I became a solitary hiker.

Hiking alone is an adventure of its own kind. Finding roads and trails can be an exciting experience in themselves; I have no navigator or second opinion. During the hike, I have nobody to keep pace with, which usually means I spend too much time stopping to admire views, or go too quickly up trails where I could be enjoying the journey. I usually overdo it, going too far and coming home with severe back pain that leaves me bent over in pain for days. And of course there’s the wildlife. One year ago I found myself on the Skyline Divide ridge trail, staring at a black bear. Alone with a bear. There’s really no words for the feeling that arose within me. For the rest of the day, I walked with fear and trembling.

The grandeur of the North Cascades makes this the most beautiful place on the earth, in my opinion. I still invite people into the hills with me, but do love the experience of hiking alone. Standing at the base of Mt. Baker, as I did three days ago, is something that changes you. To stare at this behemoth volcano, with mountain goats literally all around and glaciers on my left and right, is to to glimpse the ineffable. What can you say in the face of such a thing? What can you think? The mind reels, tired legs wobble and my lungs gasp from awe and the crispness of thin air.

No wonder Moses, also a solitary hiker, kept looking for God on the mountaintop. No wonder he chose to look out over the Promised land, and ultimately die, while atop Mount Pigsah.

What better place could he have chosen?

A few years ago Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, a sociological lament over the American lack of community. It is a realization that community events are disappearing from the Western landscape, being replaced by solitary activity (or no activity at all). As someone who agrees and mourns this loss with Putnam, I feel more than a little hypocritical moving again and again into the mountains, with my only companion being a book and a camera. But to be honest, this probably will not be changing for me. I will continue to hike alone.


For the first time in my life I have stumbled into a spiritual discipline that works in my life; pilgrimage. When I go into the mountains, I find what Robert Brancatelli calls “unmediated contact with the sacred.” I see, hear, feel, touch and smell God. No, I do not believe Nature is God. But I believe God is in and with his creation. The Spirit of Life is moving in the mountains and I want to be in His/Her presence. Yes, God is just as present elsewhere, but sometimes I need to get away to hear Him and have Him remind me of this fact. Paying parking fees, braving bear attacks, getting lost on forest roads; it’s worth it for a moment of peace with the Lord. I invite you to do the same.

I hike alone because that is when I can begin to grasp that I am not alone.

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Have Mercy, Will Travel [justin]

It was God’s Smuggler who first started the fire in Naomi’s heart for China. In the book, Brother Andrew tells his story about smuggling Bibles into communist countries, about the persecuted church, and about discipleship in places where you can’t just tell somebody to pick up the latest Christian commentary at the bookstore. It’s been ten years since Naomi first started learning, crying and praying for China. Her heart has changed over those years, both dwindling in emotional zeal and expanding in maturing wisdom, and in a few days this husband and wife team will be flying to China for a three-month stay. While there, we will be assisting a long term missionary friend, finishing up a TESL certificate, and finding out what God has in store for us.

The past month Naomi and I have been feeling the birth pains of going to China. There is excitement and thrill when thinking of such a grand adventure – that is, until reality hits and preparing for the trip occurs. Passport and visa paper work, training job replacements, airline tickets, making appointments for vaccinations, verifying what our insurance did/did not pay for, and the other million tiny things that you don’t think of till the last moment kept knocking on the door. But our “romantic delusion,” as Naomi puts it, imploded while finishing one single task: packing up our apartment.

Some might think that there is a lovely aestheticism in becoming missionary-like, but for us it was more similar to running a gauntlet. We’ve just celebrated our two-year anniversary and there hasn’t been a time where we were closer to breaking down as a couple. That says a lot especially when compared with the past few years where we had to deal with newlywed issues, the premature death of a mother, and Naomi going back to school while working almost full time.

You see, we, like most Americans, have too much stuff. Stuff is a technical term; it isn’t “junk,” which connotes no practical or sentimental value, but it is not “essential” either, meaning that we actually need it to survive or be content.

Both of us, for one reason or another, hated moving our materialism around. Fighting over what to keep, what to trash, and what to give away was a daily activity that kept building upon the previous round. Part of it was stereotypical boy/girl issues dealing with clothes (especially shoes), but underneath, a big chunk of the fighting had to do with where we were and where we had been with money and having “nice things.”

Naomi, while not poor, grew up not having a lot of money. Shopping at thrift stores and never quite fitting in with the prettier people was the norm. If she did get something nice, it was kept and taken care of for as long as possible; she never knew if she would be able to get another one like it and not getting rid of possessions was considered good stewardship. While that mentality was in Naomi, I had been kicking around the whole burn your TV in your yard ideology. I started to see the wisdom in simplicity and thought that this was a great opportunity for us (but more so her) to get rid of extraneous items. As Tyler Durden from Fight Club once said, “The things you own end up owning you,” and I wasn’t going to let that happen to us. Add to all that our imperfections with control issues, passive-aggressive guilt trips, and self-centeredness, and you have a recipe for relational chaos.

There was a lot I needed to be taught from all the fighting and bickering and walking out on each other. The story in Luke’s Gospel of the widow’s gift was a starting point. While it might have seemed that I was getting rid of more belongings, percentage wise Naomi was making the bigger sacrifice, particularly since she was emotionally connected with some of the items. I had to recognize that just because a few things were superfluous, didn’t mean that everything was. I had fallen into the pendulum swing that the church is famous for, going from one wrong extreme (the blessedness of materialism) to the other (all matter is evil).

The most prominent lesson that came from our relational angst, however, was that of loving your enemy. My favorite professor in college once said that the strongest Biblical argument for not getting a divorce was that Jesus taught and commanded us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. It’s hard to admit when a marriage relationship is on the rocks and you feel like you are married to the enemy. Couples usually want everybody to think that their relationship is happy and fine. But the truth of the matter is that the person who brings you the greatest joy is also capable of bringing the greatest pain. A wife’s kisses are the sweetest delight; a husband’s wounds, the most cruel; loneliness is never more vibrant as when it appears between a man and a woman sharing the same bed. There is vulnerability in sincere relationships, none more so than marriage.

But marriage was not designed to stay as a continual boxing match between partners. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but two people admitting they have both done wrong sure does aid in reconciliation. Naomi and I went away for our two-year anniversary, leaving behind the things that still needed to be done so that we could focus on rest and just being with each other. Towards the end of the trip we pulled into a parking lot where Naomi continued to read to me A Severe Mercy by Sheldon VanAuken. She read about the deathly snows and a real life fairy tale relationship that ended in tragedy. We embraced each other, cried, and mourned with love both about the story we heard and the story we were writing out with our own lives, whether beautiful or ugly or both.

While myriad reasons aid in making people adversaries in our lives, it’s only the grace of God that changes an enemy into a beloved. It was the Father’s mercy through His Son that turned enmity into love and as followers of Christ we are called to be peacemakers and extend the mercy we’ve been shown to others.

On the refrigerator at the in-laws house, where Naomi and I are staying before we leave, is a little piece of paper with one of St. Francis of Assisi’s most famous quotes: Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words. It is key to remember that the Gospel is more than words. I hope that concept will be burnt into my mind for the next few months as I deal with verbal miscommunication both in a foreign country and in a marriage relationship.

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September 6, 2007

Identity [jenna]

A young guy I once knew from Anacortes--one John Van Deusen--used often to sing a song he'd written, three lines of which have haunted me over and over again.

"You're so damn lovely / Don't give your innocence away / Do you know who you are"

I have thought of those words in reference to children on the reservation I used to visit, to high school students that came through the youth ministry I worked for, to friends that had a bit of a hell-bent to them, and occasionally even looking in the mirror (and without thinking of my looks).

My boyfriend recently wrote "Today, we define adulthood less by the acceptance of responsibility than by self-definition through individual choice ..." He was right. We've all heard that "Nobody really figures out who they are till they're [insert number over 25 here]." The struggle for self-definition rules us, consumes us from adolescence until we have an image we feel good about.

The importance of an understanding of one's identity is real; I will not take issue with that here. What worries me is the terms on which we define ourselves. It has become much more of an image thing, an interest in discovering how our personalities would translate into a fictional character or a celebrity. For instance, I tend to define myself according to the kind of personal description I wrote for my various blog profiles: I write constantly and detest poor spelling. I like books, dogs and chocolate. Expertise: loads of random trivia about the Bible and Harry Potter, wearing the wrong shoes for an outfit, daydreaming. I prefer green to purple and Austen to Steinbeck. You could make a movie about this girl. All you need is a plot.

Those things, while superficial in and of themselves, may at least comment on my nature; they may tell you that I am shy and optimistic and that I value loyalty. But the layers of identity run much deeper than that. Those minute individual descriptions, by themselves, are very lonely things.

A deeper identity involves something more than little narcissistic me. Some of it is relational--I am a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend, a friend. Some of it puts me in touch with great heritage. I am a Christian, an American, a woman.

It is that heritage that seems most missing in our modern self-definitions; it is the loss of tradition that I feel most. As a Christian, for instance, I have two thousand years of particularly rich history--something that could stand to be rather more widely taught. I did not find it until I found the Catholic church. Christianity lived almost entirely inside the Catholic church for the first thousand years until the Orthodox church split off, and mainline Protestantism came several hundred years later. Whether those separations occurred rightly or wrongly--a debate outside the realm of this article--at least the first half of Christian tradition is found in the annals of Catholicism. John Eldredge and Brent Curtis said in The Sacred Romance that "One of the reasons modern evangelicalism feels so thin is because it is merely modern; there is no connection with the thousands of years of saints that have gone before. Our community of memory must include not only saints from down the street, but also those from down the ages. Let us hear the stories of John and Teresa from last week, but also those of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, to name only two." The legacy of the saints is of grace and community, of great faith and of love for Christ and man.

As an American, I am a part of a great tradition as well. We "mutts" of Western civilization tend often to define our heritage as Scottish or French or English or Spanish or Indian--all older countries--but we are American, and that means something. I, personally, hate hearing America demonized by the spoiled great-great-great-grandchildren of men who fought and died to give them freedom--not the freedom to raise hell, but the freedom to choose what is right. It is one thing to criticize politicians, who as men may have little or no moral principle; it is another to badmouth the country itself. We have a great country. It is being gradually destroyed by selfish ambition, lack of respect, and lack of virtue; but most of the time, most of us can still freely choose good without getting jailed for it.

Being a woman might not seem like heritage exactly, but femininity has its own culture--a culture shared with the wives of Jacob and the Virgin Mary, with Esther the queen and Rhoda the servant-girl, with Marilyn Monroe and the heavy, hardly-functional gal pushing a Wal-Mart shopping cart. There is an innate understanding of relationships, a sensitivity to beauty, and common romantic and motherly sensibilities across the world and throughout time. Femininity also gives me my relational roles, for I play all of them as a woman. My ideas, of course, do not go as far as feminism--few ideas have been as hard on womanhood as feminism. And it bears mentioning that masculinity has great traditions of its own, a heritage no less noble than that of woman.

These connections outside of my own individuality, this being a part of something greater than myself, frees up personality to be the decorative accent it ought to be. I like this line of James Thurber's: "Why do you have to be a nonconformist just like everybody else?" Individuality without heritage and tradition is meaningless.

Finally, if my identity is never self-effacing--if love for God and others never takes me outside of myself--then, as 1 Corinthians 13 says:

"... If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."

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Risk [jessi]

[Definition: exposure to the chance of injury or loss; put oneself in danger; hazard; venture. from Italian Rischio, old It. riscare—to run into danger.]

“It’s perfectly safe,” I told myself. I was standing on a bridge 160 feet above a swiftly flowing, silky green river. “Hundreds of people do this every year.”

I had picked up a small pebble in the unpaved lot; now I took it out of my pocket and tossed it over the side of the bridge, watching it all the way down. Despite my positive self-talk I became firmly convinced, watching that pebble fall, and being unable to see where it landed, that sensible people do not hurl themselves off of bridges. Nevertheless, after neither Bekah nor I would back down first (allowing the other to save face), that is what we did.

What makes a person take that kind of risk? Whether the motivation involves adrenaline, a good Youtube video, or double-dog daring on the part of the coolest person you know, it hardly seems worth trusting an oversized rubber-band to keep body and soul together.

It’s funny how much of life is like bungee jumping for the first time. Maybe you approach major life decisions by sort of scoping out the bridge, analyzing the options and weighing the worst-case scenarios. Finally, you sign the insurance waver—your first step toward surrendering your body to gravity. “Bungee Mike” and his crew strap you into multiple safety harnesses and instruct you very seriously not to fidget with the carabineers, “And whatever you do, don’t grab the rope.” Let go of everything and just step off? You must be crazy.

You do an uncertain sort of dance at the edge: at this point, 160 feet up in the air, you’ve still got a chance to back down. Your big, scary, possibly irrevocably life-changing decision can be put off. All you have to do is swallow your pride, unclench your fists and move away from the ledge. The crowd on the bridge is counting down, but you can still step back into safety…or outward into danger.

Why on earth would you step out? Human beings weren’t made for running knowingly into danger—not this one, anyway. I’m made for books on rainy days, hot soup on rainy nights, flower-picking and hand holding in the springtime, and kissing on a bridge at sunset, not bungee jumping off of one. Remember reading Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in General Psych? Bodily safety is only one higher up on the pyramid from physiological basics like air and food. Humans have a need to feel safe from harm before they can go on to pursue whatever else in life like small comforts, love and acceptance, desires and goals. Jumping off a bridge seems like the exact opposite of that.

But without risk, there is no chance of reward. With bungee-jumping, the payoff was threefold: 1) the adrenaline pumping, knee shaking high that overtook me as I was pulled back onto the platform, 2) bragging rights: let’s be honest—who doesn’t want to be able to drop “last weekend, when I went bungee jumping” into casual conversation, and 3) a sense of accomplishment. This was kind of a mountain conquered for me. I am afraid of heights. Also, I absolutely hate surrendering control in my life.

Sometimes I feel like the stories I read or see at the movies create a false perception of the risk to reward ratio. We like to hear the happy ending stories (both real and fictional) of greatness achieved or gambles that beat the odds. But for every William the Conqueror, there is a Godwinson, and for every Powerball winner there are a million losers. In all areas of life, there is no sure thing.

Sometimes the risk is low—like the odds of me getting hit by my city’s sole transit authority bus while I’m walking to the library this afternoon. Then, sometimes the stakes are much greater, like the risk that comes from relationships. What if I put my heart on the line? The question reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung, and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in a casket or coffin of your own selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

It would be fabulous if there was a success guarantee out there for me. Something that says, “Our safety rating is 100% -- the rope has never broken.” Why, oh why, can’t real life be like bungee jumping? So with nothing in writing—no assurance of a safe and happy outcome, should I still jump?


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August 27, 2007

Shoes Optional [guest]

I have been thinking a lot this week about Nebuchadnezzar. I am not sure why exactly, but his story intrigues me. I believe many of us have someone, or perhaps a list of people, that we know only from the pages of the bible and want very much to meet in heaven. For me, after I find my baby brother who I never met, and my great grandpa who is one of my heroes… I want to find Nebuchadnezzar.

But that is not what this story is about.

The human brain is the most efficient model of multitasking that I can think of. At the same time that I am digesting, circulating, breathing, and sensing I can also be working, playing, or resting, and in addition to any or all of those activities there is always a current of thought winding its way through my mind.

So, I have also been thinking a lot this week about my friend Jay. I spent two years working in camping ministry in California. During that time I worked for the Outdoor Education program at the camp, and that program is where I met Jay. The first day of work was horribly uneasy, we (the staff) were mostly strangers to each other and we spent the day doing initiatives designed to make us rely on each other. In the middle of a silent activity, my new pager went off… loud. I had no idea how to turn it off, or who was paging me at THAT moment. After a few minutes of laughing and blushing, and new co-workers trying to help me silence the fiendish new piece of equipment, we turned to see Jay holding his cell phone and grinning.

Special needs kids were a frequent part of our outdoor ed. program, but their needs require a certain amount of adjustment to our normal way of doing things. Julian needed a walker and a caretaker to get around. He drooled, and his little legs dragged behind him as if reluctant to join in the fun. So, when the time came to help Julian with the rock wall… Jay recruited my help. Jay strapped Julian into the harness, we ran an extra brake line on the belay, and while I belayed and Julian gripped the wall with his little hands Jay lifted his feet into each toehold until he couldn’t reach any higher. Julian could only climb as high as Jay could reach that day, but that little boy had never been lifted higher than my friend lifted him. I will never forget that moment.

Jay died two-and-a-half years ago. Sometimes it hits me that he isn’t here anymore and I have to remember all over again that he and I will never finish building that tee-pee that we started for the kids in our program. Jay was like a brother to me. He was one of the first to make me feel comfortable after I moved to California. Perhaps because he was so familiar with pain he recognized that I was struggling. I had just been through one of the hardest points of my life and I needed a friend. Jay was a tease and his antics breached the wall that I had set up against the world that seemed so hard at the time.

Sitting at his funeral, I thought I would be fine. I thought that all of my tears had been cried out on the shoulders of friends who sobbed along with me at the loss of our dear friend and brother. I think what brought the tears that day was the last line of the funeral program that had been handed out. On the back page under the photo of him standing on the pinnacle of a rock high in the mountains were two words in tiny print: Shoes optional. Doesn’t sound like much does it? But those two words somehow summarized my friend. That is how he approached life, especially the people around him who needed to know that sometimes it is ok to kick your shoes off and relax.

Jay died because he lost his battle with his mind. The ironic part of that being that he helped me fight mine. I didn’t say goodbye to him the last time I saw him because I thought there would be another day. But this isn’t meant to be a depressing story. Jay loved much, and he taught me some amazing lessons about practical ways to love others. Jay brought measured patience, good humor, strong decisions, and practical advice to his relationships with his friends. Those who knew him loved him. And he never laughed at me for being a nature lover who is afraid of ants. Okay, so he laughed at me… but not that hard.

Life with people is difficult and precious, and sometimes surprisingly short. I could say something trite here about how we need to treasure each moment we have with each other… but that amputates the thought process far premature of what I am trying to communicate with this story. Jay died at 27 and I am 27… in his short lifetime he taught me so much and I pray with all of my heart that somehow I can be faithful with those lessons. Lessons like knowing that sometimes laughter is an appropriate way of breaking tension, that patience with a person’s limitations is an extremely godly trait, and that sometimes a good hike can work out a lot of trouble.

Speaking of heaven… one day maybe we will finish that tee-pee, and I will get to thank him for being my teacher and my friend.

-- Elizabeth Olwin lives in Bellingham, WA. She is an Environmental Studies major; she wonders why grass is green and enjoys going boldly into forests where no man has gone before. --

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August 20, 2007

But There is a Conflict [editor]

She’s 66, mildly retarded, and dangerously overweight; twice a grandmother and a devoted member of our church. She lives with four generations of extended family in an overcrowded and dilapidated house but her buoyant spirit is undaunted. Since losing her youngest son in a senseless murder last Christmas Eve (he was shot while riding with his uncle in a taxi cab) she has redirected much of her affection to me. “You’re my buddy,” she says with a broad snaggled tooth grin, “I pray for you everyday!” Then she gives me a long bear hug. She wants to sit close besides me in every church service and although the smell of stale sweat and excrement is often nauseating, she makes me feel a little special. He internal plumbing doesn’t work as well as it use to and she leaves tobacco smears when she kisses my cheek, but I’m pleased do have Mrs. Smith by my side.

She often hints, sometimes blatantly, that she would like to come home with us for a visit. Nothing would delight her more than to have Sunday dinner with my family. But there is a conflict. It has to do with values that Peggy and I learned from childhood. We believe that good stewardship means taking care of our belongings and treating them with respect and getting long service from them. Our boys know that they are not to track mud in on the carpet or sit on the furniture with dirty clothes. To invite Mrs. Smith into our home means to have filth and stench soil our couch; there will be stubborn, offensive odors in our living room. My greatest fear is that she will want to sit in my new corduroy recliner. I wouldn’t want to be rude and cover it with plastic to protect it from urine stains but I know it would never be the same again. Unknowingly, Mrs. Smith is forcing a conflict, a clashing of values upon me.

Preserve and maintain – conserve and protect. They are the words of an ethic that has served us well. Over time these values have subtly filter into our theology. It is increasingly difficult to separate the values of capitalism from the values of the Kingdom. Stewardship has become confused with insurance coverage, with certificates of deposits, and protective coverings for our stained glass. It is an offering, a tithe dropped into a plate, to be used on ourselves and our buildings. Somewhere on the way to becoming rich we picked up the idea that preserving our property is preferable to expending it for people. Why should it be so difficult to decide which is wiser: to open the church for the homeless to rest or to install an electronic alarm system to preserve its beauty? Why should it be such a struggle to decide which is more godly: to welcome Mrs. Smith into my home and my corduroy recliner or to preserve the homie aroma of my sanctuary and get extra years of service from my furniture? Is this not precisely the issues of serving money or God? How ingenious of our American version of Christianity to make them both one and the same.

We did finally invite Mrs. Smith to have Sunday dinner in our home and she did just as I feared she would – she went straight for my corduroy recliner and it never has been the same. In fact Mrs. Smith even joined a Bible study in our home the next week. Every Wednesday evening she head right for my chair; she even referred to it as her chair. I thank God for Mrs. Smith and the conflict she brings me. In her, more clearly than in Sunday school lessons or sermons, I encounter the Christ of Scripture saying, “And as much as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it onto me.”

...from Bob Lupton...

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August 9, 2007

The Tragedy of Home [justin]

Long-term memory isn’t my strongest suit. But the memory I had walking into my Grandma’s empty house for the last time is still with me. She was in a car accident a few days earlier that claimed her life. She and some other ladies just had their girls’ lunch at the usual mom and pop restaurant when it happened. It wasn’t more than a few miles from home. One of the waitresses at the restaurant heard the collision and ran out to try to help. She held Mama in her arms and talked to her as they waited for the ambulance to arrive. The waitress told the family that Mama kept saying over and over again, “Tell my son, I love him.” My grandparents adopted my dad when he was young. He was their only son.

A few steps into my Grandma’s house placed me in a trance. The house was being sold and most of the items had been auctioned off. The space was bare and yet full at the same time. I could see the layout of the furniture in the rooms that basically never changed, but they were all just transparent placeholders in my mind. I recalled scenes at the dinner table of playing cards with Papa and being asked about school by Grandma. She would say, “You be good, now”, as I finished up my cereal. I was overly loved with the way grandparents care.

But now something wasn’t right. Something was leaving and fading from around and within me. It was the closest I had ever been to experiencing a ghost and I wondered how Dad was handling it. I had known this place for 20 some years; he, at least double that. And now his dad (who passed away a few years prior), his mom, and this home were essentially gone.

My wife, Naomi, had a similar experience during childhood. Her family lived in a trailer on the side of a mountain while her dad was building their house. With three other siblings and limited square footage, Naomi didn’t have a place of her own inside the tin box. However, she did find a home outside in the surrounding forest with its trees, streams and wildlife. It was in that place that she was formed. It was there that she was taught about many of God’s attributes.

As a little girl, it was traumatic for her when the area was logged. Her place of life and adventure and peace was massacred. Naomi came to know sorrow as she walked through the remaining wood and its corpses.

Through the agents of time, death, and injustice we all have and will experience the loss of home. So much so that the concept of home seems more like a myth or a fantasy. We dream of security in a place where we can always return, visions of joy in a people who always welcome us. But instead we wake to find utopias destroyed and made into ghost towns, havens that are filled with abuse, societies that are broken with greed, murder, and self-righteousness. We are all orphaned, widowed, homeless and incomplete to some degree.

Our physical needs tell of our spiritual needs, and vice versa. Together they hint that there is hope to be found. In Jesus, God fully dwelled in bodily form. The physical and the spiritual collided, in Christ, and embodied each other. The hope to be found in this is that there is an adoption happening that takes us from our dysfunctional homes. Jesus tells us that He is both preparing an everlasting place for us and abiding in us, creating His home in us, now.

When God dwelled physically on earth He announced in word and deed that His kingdom was coming. At a lecture I once heard Dallas Willard (an author, philosophy professor, and speaker) talk about the genius of Christ. He said, “[Jesus] understood that the basic problem for human beings is to find a spiritual home in which they can know that they are cared for, eternally cared for, and then from which they can care for others and not spend their whole life just fighting over what to do.” The wonderful thing about the kingdom of God is that it is not centered on us and yet all our needs are met. We are all looking for home and having our desires met gives us the freedom to love and serve others.

Recently, I read a report from the Barna Research Group that was very telling of my self and my generation. The report said that Busters (those born between 1965 and 1983) are most likely to be stressed out and too busy compared with other generations. Busters are also the ones most looking for purpose in life. My schedule and my discontentment fight each other for first place. I need not only rest - but meaning as well.

Home is the treasure we are looking for and the answer to our boredom. Home is the cure for both our anxiety and apathy. Those who know Jesus can wait confidently in anticipation of the fullness of our adoption to come. Until then, we can enter, by faith, into His presence at anytime.

“God Himself - His thoughts, His will, His love, His judgments are men's home,” George MacDonald preached. “To think His thoughts, to choose His will, to judge His judgments, and thus to know that He is in us, with us, is to be at home.”

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August 2, 2007

We Shall Get In [jessi]

There are moments in life where I lose sight of God’s purpose and plan for my life. In short, I panic. Here’s one such moment I recorded in January of this year:

I woke up this morning with a parched mouth and the devastatingly firm conviction that I have already made my first irrevocably wrong major life choice. More than a year ago. Oh, to turn back the hands of time, right? I think I really did know it at the time, and I made the wrong decision anyway.

And how easy it is to decide to be dissatisfied with life—to long for something different, more, or better—whether it’s something easily definable or something far off and hazy. The latter is more my tendency. I constantly wish for something new or different, but I don’t know what to wish for. I’ll look back on my year, on the eve of my next birthday, and mourn missed opportunities. Here’s a bit from an email to a friend about three weeks ago: I'm afraid that I'll slide through my whole life never having made any sort of difference.” It seems like this dissatisfaction, if fostered, nurtured and sympathized, only brings on depression.

But what if it has another purpose? This month, instead of sitting down and writing an essay of my own, I considered just posting the whole of C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory (published in full online at I’ve been musing on it over the last two weeks. Lewis says, “If we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object.” So if that’s the case, I suppose that a general dissatisfaction with life could mean more than I thought it did.

Obviously, the disclaimer that applies here is that if there is something you do need to change, you change it. Often discontent means change is necessary. But if my restlessness of spirit is directionless, if it’s just there and I can’t shake it, maybe I should be thankful that what I feel and what I believe to be true in life are somewhat in alignment. I might feel like there’s something missing in life, but that’s because there is. Eternity is missing, and the things I think I desire won’t fill that need. I may try to replace it with friends and family, activities or education, but it doesn’t make a difference. There will always be an unfulfilled part of me.

Still speaking of that misplaced desire, Lewis says,

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

And this makes me think of the part in George MacDonald’s Lilith, where Mr. Vane sees a dove flying, and is told it is a prayer: “I listened, and heard—was it the sighing of a far-off musical wind—or the ghost of a music that had once been glad? Or did I indeed hear anything?” It also makes me think of Romans 8 where it talks about the whole of creation waiting for its fulfillment—the final redemption of humanity. So I guess that what I think I long for here on earth is merely a portent of things to come:

“We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled the air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of a murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and modern poetry, so false as history may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Almost, but not yet.

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Scattered Thoughts on the Pursuit of Happiness [jenna]

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. –from the Declaration of Independence

There it is ... ink on paper. All of us have the right to pursue happiness. Amusingly enough, the right is only to pursue happiness, not necessarily to have it. The Founding Fathers apparently knew full well that human nature demands it all too readily.

Did they understand what a fleet and transparent quarry we have? I am sure they did, though I also wonder if they may have actually been happier than most of this particularly dissatisfied age. If we strip off the "faction" (fictional descriptions around factual events) and psychoanalysis about men like Washington and Adams and Jefferson and Benjamin Rush and Stephen Hopkins, we generally find a respectability, and often a piety, that denotes at least a greater peace with themselves and with life than the generations alive today (this despite the fact that they fought a difficult and bloody war against a much larger power.)

For the sake of defining terms, though: what is happiness? Not joy specifically, which is a virtue; not pleasure, which is an experience; not contentment exactly, which carries undertones of resignation. Perhaps it could be considered a sort of combination of the three; or, more likely, an attitude all its own that takes all three forms at various times.

But that isn't how we define it, not culturally. Why has happiness become this gigantic appetite for pleasure, this desperate need for a maintained high, when it is much more naturally found—for most people—in quiet contentment? How has it become that we pursue happiness at the expense of others’ rights; of others’ happiness, if not their lives and liberties? Not merely in the big ways like divorce or tyranny, but in everyday ways like driving recklessly and aggressively or in treating others—especially our parents, our employers and the elderly—with disrespect.

The answer to that, of course, is that we're human. We screw up. But neither the fact of our screwing up nor the outcome of our mistakes has captured happiness for us; that, at least, is so brutally obvious that it hardly merits stating here. Still, we have the right to refocus and continue our pursuit; continue we do, and continue we must, for a healthy (meaning unselfish) pursuit of happiness is vital and even righteous.

It is worth looking to the old and godly for help in that search. They often understand happiness in a very courageous sense. I have seen this personally, recently, watching a very dear friend about my grandmother’s age lose her son and almost immediately thereafter, face the loss of her husband as well. When I commented on her attitude after hearing her list several ways she considered herself blessed, she simply said “We are God’s witness. But I don’t know what people do who don’t pray.”

The pursuit of happiness will undoubtedly look different for each person, according to personality and talent and interest and numerous other factors. For me, for now, it means:

--spending more time with my family than in being involved in various programs and activities
--attending church faithfully, and making regular use of my Bible and prayer book
--devoting myself to the man I love, now that I am lucky/blessed enough to have him in my life (before I knew him, it meant choosing to hope that I would have this chance)
--leaving my job at work instead of bringing it home with me
--listening to good and cheerful music often, but opting more often for silence
--taking every chance I get to look up at blue sky through green leaves
--caring about the world and making an effort to help others, but without trying to solve every problem on earth

My question to my readers, for the comment-box or your own mind, is this: What does it mean for you? I would love to hear from those who are willing to share.

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July 27, 2007

Strangers [guest]

There was a summer when I began to come alive. It happened following a very dark, difficult and confusing period in my life. I began to know God in new ways, which also helped me to understand myself as well. I felt connected to the world, humanity, and was positive about my future, knowing it was good, although I didn't know exactly what my path was to be. It was during this time that I got a new hobby: talking to strangers.

I discovered that the people around me were fascinating. I met a girl on the bus who was reading her Bible. I asked what she was learning and she talked about the how the word "today" kept coming up in a certain passage and how God's faithfulness is new every day. I met a man in an airport who works with autistic children. It was fascinating to learn about his knowledge of autism and his role in training people who have autistic children, and how rewarding his career must be. Places of transportation seem to be good places to talk to strangers. It's easy to strike up a conversation because you know that you have something to relate to others about - you are both on your way to 'somewhere.'

I met a middle aged woman on my way home from work one summer day. I had an hour commute and shared about half of the ride with her. There was an empty seat beside her at the back of the mostly full bus. I sat down and glanced over her shoulder at the newspaper she was reading. I made a comment about the latest celebrity gossip, and we got to talking.

She was the kind of woman that you know a lot about just by looking at her. She was a little too thin, with overly bleached blonde hair --likely dyed at home rather than a salon-- that was straggly and hadn't been cut in quite a while. It seemed obvious that the lines in her face had were etched there by more than just age; she had evidently lived a difficult life. When she mentioned her daughter and the father of that daughter, I realized she must have lived through many things that broke her heart, things like love lost and relationships broken.

During the conversation I noticed that when I tried to add something to the current topic, she just kept talking. It was a bit frustrating to be ignored, but I eventually realized that this was not a conversation that was going to go two ways. She was a person who just needed to be heard, and hey, don't we all need that now and then? Her reason for being on the bus that day was very different from mine. I was heading home from work, and she was delivering cookies - not as a job, she had just promised some people that she would bring them cookies, and wanted to make good on her promise. It had taken her awhile to make the cookies because apparently she had run out of one ingredient after the other. She said her philosophy in cookie making was "go big or go home" so when she had finally gotten everything she needed, she made her cookies and I had run into her while she was on her delivery route. I liked this cookie philosophy, told her so, and she offered me one. I accepted. The cookies tasted just like the Dad's cookies my mom used to make when I was a kid.

Then, in the split second after I took that first bite, I freaked out. Who was this woman? A complete stranger? And not a clean, well-dressed, trustworthy, good-first-impression, sort of stranger either... and I had just put this stranger's food in my mouth! Maybe she didn't wash her hands, or had some weird germs or disease... I just took food from a STRANGER!!! What is wrong with me?!??

Then I had a completely different thought. I remember Jesus saying something about giving a cup of water in his name (Mark 9:41). I couldn't give a cup of water, but I could eat a cookie. So eat a cookie I did, in the name of Jesus. In a way, my receiving from her (listening, eating a cookie) was the best way for me to give to her.

As the cookie lady got off the bus that day, she asked me my name.

"Karen," I replied, "What's yours?"


"Hey, my middle name is Louise!"


We connected in that moment, but I think Louise and I share more than just a name and a love for cookies. We are people who are broken, who need to be made whole, and who just need someone to really listen to us once in awhile. What I've enjoy most about talking to strangers is finding out that they are not really so strange; we are not so different from each other at all.

Karen Styles is a 28 year old Canadian who is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. She enjoys knitting and conversations.... especially with strangers.

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July 26, 2007

A Change of Clothes [justin]

For sanity’s sake, at least one good road trip a year is needed. Road trips help in two ways with life. The first is that of getting away from what you know. The second is returning to what you know. The first deals with adventure, the expansion of worldview, and leaving your comfort zone. The second deals with stability and common day appreciation.

This year the trip happened to be a four and a half day, seventeen hundred mile, camping, hiking, burger eating road trip with the guys. As I was packing things up the night before, I decide to go simplistic on the clothes since I wasn’t going to be around the wife. And maybe it was the granola in me rebelling against the 9-5 desk job, but I felt kind of proud that I wasn’t taking as much of my wardrobe as I should.

On the third day, after two nights of sleeping and a three hour hike, it was time for a shower and a change of clothes. Luckily, the place we were at had the Hilton of campsite shower facilities: four minutes per fifty cents, hot water that didn’t take three minutes to attain, quality nozzle pressure, and a locked room all to your self that was bigger than most apartment bathrooms. Factor all those in together and it equals glorious. The smell of coconut, uhm… I mean manly musk, was present; the slight campers itch was gone; my hair didn’t hurt anymore! And as I put on a new pair of underoos, shorts, and a fresh tee, I was re-livened. I felt like a new man both emotionally and physically and was now ready for the next half of the journey.

Woven throughout Scripture, the model of changing and repenting present the ground rules for a godly lifestyle. We can see the Gospel message in Acts to turn from worthless things and turn to the one, true, living God (Acts 14:15). Paul encourages Timothy to flee from evil desires and instead pursue righteousness and its offspring (2 Ti 2:22). Even in regards to our identity and character we are told to put off our old self and its ways of darkness and to put on our new self and be clothed with Jesus Himself (Eph 4:17-24; Ro 13:12-14).

The concept of changing seems simple enough: step 1 – take off old clothes; step 2 – put on new clothes. But when changing involves more than our fashion trends and actually deals with the fabric of our souls, it can get messy in many ways.

For practicality’s sake, both putting off and putting on need to work in harmony and not in ignorance of each other. In my walk over the past few years, I can see where I’ve done one of the steps, but not the other. When we empty ourselves but then don’t replace it with something redemptive, we end up back to where our familiarity left us. Our junk returns with guilt and shame and oppression to reinforce it.

There are also times when we prematurely put on virtue without being undressed of vice. We become wolves in sheep’s clothing and attain a form of godliness that has no power because underneath we are still wearing the old person. It’s like taking up humility without putting pride to death. Nobody who boasts about how humble they are has really been cloaked in God’s grace.

I believe this is the harder of the two. We can know of good things but still not use or live them. And it’s so much harder to put down something that is inheritably good, but used in the wrong way, and have it be redefined to us after we thought we knew it. But God wants us naked. God wants to strip us to our core and work in us at an intimacy that is closer than our flesh. He also wants to clothe us with His Son... to have us experience the victory of His sacrifice and how deep and visible that redemption is.

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July 20, 2007

Play-World [jana]

My guilty pleasure…or one of them…is children’s or youth literature—the best of the genre, at least. I’ve been reading lately a variety of different authors lately, and just as a brief disclaimer, there’s a world of difference between the childlike and the childish but the lines are easily blurred, and of course, sometimes both childlike and childish elements occur within the same stories.

Childlikeness, especially for me as I’ve grown up soaked in Scriptural Sunday-school classes, is a description suggestive of childhood, innocence, and a simple way of viewing the world; the simplicity of the “Our Father, who art in heaven…” and of the loaves and fishes.

Childishness, on the other hand, is representative of a more simplistic view of the world and is associated with a sense of negative immaturity.

Childlikeness has a wisdom of its own, childishness is perceived as self-focused and a rejection of wisdom in favor of emotion-based reactions. Childishness views the world in black-and-white absolutes, childlikeness in black, white, and the silver of mystery, true and present.

This acceptance of the mysterious is a trademark of good children’s literature. Think of some of the best stories you remember…Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Madeleine L’engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, L. Frank Baum’s the Wizard of Oz, along with more modern titles like Kate DiCamillo’s A Tale of Despereaux, Louis Sachar’s Holes, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and Gail Carson Levine’s The Princess Tales. Also, titles that are less strictly “magical,” more of an imitation of childhood, like Katherine Patterson’s A Bridge to Terabithia, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. Even these more realism—focused works (I don’t say realistic) embrace imagination and the whimsical in a less obvious way.

I don’t want to get into a distinction of quality of writing, or the qualifications that make a good story into a great one. I know there are not-so-great children’s books which address mysterious concepts like Magic, witchcraft, fantasy, and even the Occult. And, most likely, even some of the titles listed above will garner arguments about their right to be included in this discussion. What I would like to discuss and hear from readers in return is more the subject of that quality of the mysterious or otherworldly in youth/children’s literature.

Why is the theme of otherworldliness or supernatural essential to almost any story you can pick in the youth section of Barnes and Noble or Chapters? The Newberry award winners’ shelf alone contains books on time-travel, magical practice, fantasy, utopian society, dystopian society…dinotopian society. Dragons, talking animals, mythical creatures, superhumans, even gods and goddesses are the players in these tales.

My idea is that it has something to do with the mindset of living in the present. Michael Card wrote an article for the Discipleship Journal some years ago called “Acting Like a Child: The more we become like children, the more we become like Jesus.” He writes that four areas of Jesus life are reflected in the outlook of a child: simplicity, naivete, living in the present, and reckless confidence. In regards to living in the present, he writes,”

When children are at play, their game is all that exists. The concept that we have to go somewhere by a certain time is lost on them. They are absorbed in the present moment, and for them, that is all there is.

I see the same quality displayed in Jesus’ life. Though the most important agenda on earth awaited Him, He lavished attention on even the most seemingly insignificant person. Anyone who had His attention was the most important person in the world right then. Jesus was absorbed in the present moment. {Discipleship Journal : Issue 61. 1999 (electronic ed.). Colorado Springs: The Navigators/NavPress.}

This willingness to absorb oneself completely into the story is part of that byline of non-realism writers, the “willing suspension of disbelief,” the name that is sometimes given to the ability to take in, wholeheartedly, the fantastic, the mythical, the unbelievable; making the choice to suspend factual judgment and accept a reality other than that presented by our rational senses.

How to end this post? My interest in this discussion is in parallels and possibilities, not necessarily conclusions and developing a position on the issue. In what sense have stories spoken to you about the nature and character of belief? And in simple, childlike writing can we find, as one of C.S. Lewis’s most-loved characters said, “…a play-world which licks your real world hollow…”? {The Silver Chair. C.S. Lewis.}

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July 13, 2007

F/Killing Time [matt]

I think there is nothing I hate more than admitting how much I have been shaped by the surrounding culture. Not the consumerism, nor the belief in redemptive violence. No, I have somehow been sucked in to the matrix that is American busyness.

For instance: I am at my computer, typing this on Friday, July 20th at 5:55 pm. The issue with that is, I was supposed to have written this two weeks ago! On top of that, I am taking a group of high school students on a mission trip in exactly 35 minutes. And I just started typing this! Who does that sort of thing?

I wasn’t always like this. I barely graduated from high school because I was more interested in being with friends and sleeping-in than being responsible. In college I was temporarily a recreation major for goodness sakes! Even today I value reading, writing, and time with friends and family. And yet these are often the things that I am too busy to do.

Life, and in particular the American life, fills time. Our time gets filled with small things that take an hour here, a day there, or even the occasional weekend. Days become full of things like “running errands,” followed with some cleaning, then putting up our feet after a long day and watching a movie. We work too many hours, or at least I do. I do a lot, yet how much of it is really meaningful?

Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Such a simple statement, and yet it strikes right to the core of me. If you are anything like me, you fill your time with too much garbage and ultimately kill your time off.

During the next six days, I will be taking teens around Bellingham. It is a mission trip, but it is actually much different. They are going to spend hours at local parks. We are going to meet people on the street and, instead of asking them “have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and savior” (I’ll write my thoughts on that question a different day) they will be encouraged to just chat with people and hear their stories. In other words, we’re going to spend our days “wasting time.”

Of course, wasting time is a phrase that belongs to the dominant culture and needs to be flipped on its head. “Wasting time” is a phrase used by the same sort of people who say things like “time is money.” But if “time is life,” than who really wants to spend all of theirs trying to “make it,” “work up the ladder,” or whatever other disgusting term you want to use.

I propose that we (I say “we,” though it may just be me) start wasting more time. We can change our language and call it “milling time” (not to be confused with Miller time). It’s not killing time or filling time. To mill can also mean to refine. This is the time that refines us, the time that is not enslaved to work or obligations or errands or chores. It is the conscious choice to slow down, to leave the race because it leads to a dead end. It is a choice to live a life that is worth living. The Bible calls it Sabbath. And that sounds like a better use of my time. I’m in.

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Everyday Stories [justin]

Visuals stimulate a part of the mind that awakens a need to know more. The actualities of the situations have already passed my sphere and cannot be known, but where fact has abandoned me imagination and wonder overtake. Covers of stories I will never read walk past my window, sit next to me on the bus, wake me on what was a Saturday morning slumber. We are all saying something. Some are screaming hoping that the reader won’t make it to the second chapter; others mumble like a shy sky wanting its high and wispy nuanced clouds to be gazed upon for more than just a fleeting moment. The truth past the glance makes not so much the difference now as does the hope of being seen (even if never known) and being re-created, painted over again into a fantasy, an everyday story, maybe farther away or closer to reality but nevertheless being read in a world of lonely people who think they are forgotten. To these souls I say, I see you…

The morning is warm but drizzly. Britney doesn’t mind the passing rain as it keeps her company while she waits for her dad outside the stamp and coin shop. It’s their day together once dad takes care of some things. Brit is at that age, around 8, where innocence and knowledge are not yet separated though will be within the next school year. She wears clothes that match a little too much and that cover her growing, bulging body but are a size too small.

Her time in limbo is mostly spent sitting on a bench kicking her legs back and forth, watching the sparse traffic of both cars and pedestrians. A few times, though, she’ll get up, not so secretively looking back to make sure dad isn’t watching though the shop window, and start walking up a concrete structure whose origin is the curb and inclines to barrier state to separate sidewalk from road. Little by little she goes, proud of her inching accomplishments and half scaring the motorists trying to judge which way she might fall. Not knowing yet how to be graceful, she awkwardly leaps with a grin sidewalk bound from no more than an average mans knee height. She lands with the force of her over-weight but rebounds like children do; she hasn’t bought in yet that “fat people” aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing. The shop door opens upon her last attempt and dad comes out with a brown bag in one hand and with his other reaches out for his daughter. Britney skips along to take his hand and they disappear around the corner.

Edward frequents the local Y about three times a week. He just recently retired and needs activities to fill up his days; the ten hours a week he helps out at the retirement community doing general maintenance doesn’t nearly occupy his hands and mind nearly enough. He always wears the same clothes at the gym – a plain white t-shirt tucked into not only his tan, lightweight corduroys but his underwear as well (which has its waistband showing slightly about his hips). Ed fights with appearing somewhat senile at times and just not caring. The normal machines greet him as he walks through the room quietly. Sets are not his goal – just doing enough to get tired is. His small frame hides his strength earned in the military and later refined in factory work where, if you didn’t move fast enough or push hard enough, you didn’t survive.

His small studio apartment is by choice, open spaces make him feel his aloneness. There is always some small breakfast food cooking in the kitchen area no matter what meal of the day. Laying the spatula aside and letting the eggs cook, he fiddles and turns his wedding band with a stare at the stove that is really a vortex into a memory replayed. He always cooked her breakfast… that was the one thing around the house she would let him do. Joyce, his wife, died fours years ago.

Edward still blames and forgives himself over and over for her death as much as any husband would. He asked his wife to run the errand that he was late in getting to. It was just a couple of blocks down from their house at the time where she was hit in a crosswalk. He didn’t see it, but felt it when it happened. He could barely make the last swing of his hammer that finished the wooden swing that he was making for them to enjoy their evenings together. The sirens creeping closer in the background made him nauseas as he connected his feelings with reality.

Ed and Joyce had a difficult marriage for many years as they battled with their only son’s leukemia which they eventually lost too. It had been for what seemed like an eternity before they connected again. As time healed them, a touch and a look started to mean something again… playfulness from their youth returned and a life together they thought they may never know was finally born in their days of gray hair and vintage faces. The recent years prior were a gift of grace. Still, Ed almost wishes that their love would never have truly been awakened. The loss of that love is now much more destructive than one can bear. He wishes to live his last years simplistic and well, but hopes for time to speed towards death where he can sit with his lover on their wooden swing for the first time.

Britney and Edward are real. Britney and Edward are fiction. They are no different than you and I. Our everyday stories that we see and write about in our minds and even live out may be immature and awkward, but why should we expect anything otherwise from creativity in puberty? We have and live these ordinary stories and can use them to convey a deeper meaning and truth without necessarily involving completely factual information. They can speak of childhood and family, love and death, fear and hope. We should always keep a hand in the dirt and an eye on the mystery of life.


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July 10, 2007

A Few Shelves Up [jenna]

Nobody appeared to notice me particularly the day I slipped into the children’s library and hid myself down the R aisle, but I felt conspicuous all the same. Besides being nearly six feet tall and having no small fry in tow, I hadn’t exactly gone in after Curious George and that weighed on my mind as I wandered in the aisles, unsure where to look. It took me nearly an hour of hiding and hesitating to find the Harry Potter books—on their own shelf, of course, neatly and clearly displayed near the front door.

I was one of the original cave-dwellers who never even heard of Harry Potter until the release of #4, and one of the suspicious types (ashamedly) who attended a church showing of Jeremiah Films’ Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged. When I picked up that first book, I fully expected to be bothered by dark thoughts and horrified by pagan ideas. Instead, I found a kinship to Harry and companions that took me through the story in less than two days, kept me reading and re-reading sections all week and made me hardly willing to return it to the library even to get the sequel.

My week with the first book proved to me that the Harry Potter stories are not about witchcraft. Nor does the backdrop of magical imagery bear any real connection with actuality. Harry Potter is to wizardry what Tim Allen’s Galaxy Quest is to space travel: fiction based on fiction. The forms of Harry’s magic—wands, brooms, cauldrons, spells, charms, etc.—may be traced to a wide selection of pagan spiritualities, but the use of those items is drawn from magical fantasy and fairy tale, and J.K. Rowling obviously took care to keep religion out of it. Rowling also pokes sly fun at some of it, having her characters use things like leech juice and beetle eyes in potions, and she openly mocks the “imprecise” art of Divination:

“Harry, at least, felt extremely foolish, staring blankly at the crystal ball, trying to keep his mind empty when thoughts such as ‘this is stupid’ kept drifting across it … Professor Trelawny rustled past.

‘Would anyone like me to help them interpret the shadowy portents within their Orb?’ …

‘I don’t need help’, Ron whispered. ‘It’s obvious what this means. There’s going to be loads of fog tonight.’”

I do, however, have a caveat on the books. Two, actually; neither having anything to do with sorcery, though I have heard it said that “young children cannot tell the difference” and for very young children this is reasonable. The first is simply that there is an element of horror in the books that will trouble people with certain sensitivities. The second is that Harry and friends get away with more than I’d want my children attempting—lying to get out of trouble they shouldn’t have gotten into in the first place, for instance. The stories are PG—I’ll not deny that, and as each novel matures with the characters, this applies particularly to books 4 and up.

But these are good books—great books, even. Friends of mine who have studied literary technique respect the books. I don’t have much expertise there; as a reader and writer, though, I can say that the plot is extremely well-developed, the prose clear and smooth, the use of mystery and humor brilliantly creative, and the scenery well-drawn. And of all the strengths of Ms. Rowling’s writing, her characters come out at the top.

Part of this is due to her apparent choice to keep agenda from cluttering the stories. Her girls behave as girls, rather than displaying unnaturally masculine emotions or fighting tendencies. Her boys think and act like boys, with the physical roughness and without feminine softness. Racial diversity is acknowledged and respect for it championed (centaurs, giants, house-elves), but it is not treated as though ethnicity were in and of itself a virtue. In the current culture of “obligatory reference”, a story that is just a great story without any kind of forced notice is refreshing and respectable.

Through the characters come the great truths and delights of the story. Courage forms a central theme in the books, as the main attribute of the House of Gryffindor and of Harry himself. Yet it is shown in complexity: tainted by evil (Bellatrix Lestrange), and in cowardice shown by the otherwise good (Horace Slughorn); also, courage is not limited to daring personality: Neville Longbottom is a Gryffindor student. Self-sacrificing love and strength of character also define the stories through Lily and James Potter, Dumbledore, Harry, and many others.

Throughout the books, as the good gradually marshal themselves against the rising of the darkest and most powerful forces of evil known to wizard-kind, the army-roster of Davids preparing their stones against Goliath reads not unlike the list of Christ’s disciples, or simple human heroes anywhere. Among the adults are numbered the werewolf, the thief, the poor couple with seven children, the convict, etc.; among the students are the know-it-all, the klutz, the school pranksters, the tabloid editor’s daughter, and more. And the whole admirable, ragtag lot pays honor to one of the brightest, most complex and offbeat personages ever to smile bemusedly out of the pages of popular fiction: Albus Dumbledore.

With the seventh book less than two weeks from release, and all us desperate nerds just days away from finding out who lives and dies, whether Harry’s scar is a horcrux and where Snape’s true loyalty lies, I look forward to reading and re-reading that last book like all the others. When I have my own children, I look forward to sharing Harry with them—gradually, for the stories are something to grow into. The books will wait for my children, a few shelves up; and if my kids gain half the understanding of courage and love and right through those stories as I have—not to mention enjoyment—the read will be worth their while.

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