March 28, 2008

Epic Inconveniences [jessi]

Three weeks ago I was sitting on a train pointed West toward Genoa. I don’t say moving West, because the train had not been moving for quite some time. We were about 20 miles outside of Milan, and before a pesky wire fell across our train tracks, had been bound for the Cinque Terre town of Riomaggiore, where an elderly and decidedly non-English speaking Ugo was waiting for us to call from the train station so that he could guide us to our apartment. But the train (as mentioned before) was not moving.

The rocky Ligurian coast and a hot bath to cleanse my travel weary self were both visible in my mind’s eye, but the only things I could see out the window were a burning field, and several Trenitalia employees milling about in groups, pointing at the train, the wires, and the tracks. One of them bore a remarkable resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones.

Sitting on the train that stubbornly refused to carry me to my destination, I realized the my Romantic Ideal of Travel, the poetry of motion, if you will, does not actually exist. My rose-tinted, soft-focused lenses shattered.

I’ve always been in love with the idea of travel. Setting out for places unknown evokes feelings of excitement and adventure. It makes me feel like Shasta and Bree journeying across the vast ocean of desert to Narnia and the North. It’s poetic, this idea of setting out taking neither cloak nor staff nor pocket handkerchief, until you try it out in real life and you realize on your first international flight that travel can sometimes involve very long stretches without showers or changes of underwear. That, my friends, is not very romantic at all.

In reality, traveling in a foreign country is stressful. Simple things like finding food, or figuring out which track your train is leaving from become infinitely more complicated when you can only communicate through hand gestures and phrasebook Italian. But I stood in the doorway of our train compartment, watching the field burn, Tommy Lee talk on his cell phone, and 90% of the train passengers hiking along the tracks to the next town 5 km away, and the thought came distinctly to my mind that in my greasy, smelly state, 7 hours behind schedule, I was having fun anyway. We had given up hope of ever reaching the Cinque Terre. We were destined to stay forever on this stupid non-moving vehicle that had hundreds of wheels, and we would no doubt perish shortly after our granola and water bottle supply ran out.

Every expectation I had for my vacation went out the door—had maybe even left 24 hours earlier when we got the news of our first 5 hour flight delay. At any rate, me—expectations—gone. I remembered something G.K. Chesterton wrote in a newspaper column in the early 20th: “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered”—this was his response to half of London being flooded! This travel day had started with a sunrise over the Mediterranean from the plane window. The sun set in that field outside of Milan, and midnight saw us finally reaching our apartment, being meekly led by Ugo, who was scolding us for leaving the train station.

“There was no phone, and everything was closed, and it was raining,” I said.His hand gestures and mixed English and Italian indicated that hiking to the top of the hill in search of a phone booth, and waiting, shivering in an electrical storm on the steps of San Giovanni was not acceptable behavior. We apologized.

But in spite of the rain and the cold and the dark and the locked church doors, and in spite of how glad we were to see Ugo come up the street with the umbrella that dwarfed his small stature, I would trade none of those “inconveniences.” It was here that I remembered Chesterton, again. In the same essay, he writes,

Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains. I myself am of little boys' habit in this matter.

I swear I am not making any of this up, but huddled against the side of the building with the rain gusting, and the lightening crashing out over the sea, choral music started echoing lightly from inside the church like a surreal anointing. It sounded like it was coming from heaven.

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Light: Nine Thousand Words [guest]

In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.
:: Aaron Rose

Who is more foolish, the child afraid of the dark or the man afraid of the light?
:: Maurice Freehill

There are two kinds of light - the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures.
:: James Thurber

I will love the light for it shows me the way. Yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.
:: Og Mandino

We cannot hold a torch to light another's path without brightening our own.
:: Ben Sweetland

From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.
:: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Light, God's eldest daughter...
:: Thomas Fuller

He that has light within his own clear breast
May sit i' the centre, and enjoy bright day:
But he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts
Benighted walks under the mid-day sun;
Himself his own dungeon.
:: John Milton

In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't.
:: Blaise Pascal

Light - Ben Dillon

Ben Dillon lives in Bellingham, Washington and enjoys nature. Symbolism and metaphors are how he connects with truth. Rumor has it that a random girl once announced over a local restaurant speaker system that "Ben Dillon is hott." [Please notice the two "t"s].

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March 25, 2008

It is Finished [james]

Hey, you.

Yeah, I know... it’s been a while. I’ve been busy.

You should know that you’re not welcome here anymore. I could never really keep you out of a place you didn’t want to be, so I don’t expect you to stay away. After all, it’s in your nature; you can’t help it.

I have to admit...

I haven’t missed you all that much.

We had a long run together, you and I. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember a time when I was without you. It was like we’ve been best buddies since I was born. You hung around through thick and thin, better and worse. I wish I would have known sooner which side you were on... (I’m certain that you had little to do with the ‘better’ and lots to do with the ‘worse’).

Our relationship was mostly one-sided. You somehow convinced me that I was getting everything I wanted and needed. In reality, I was left wrecked and hurting. You beat me, and I asked for more; you took all I had, and I kept giving. It was all for you and none for me.

I gave you my affection, and everyone knew it. I did my best to hide it, but my friends saw through me. In their own gentle ways, they begged me to see you from their point of view. I can see now that they aren’t idiots like you told me they are. I was so blinded.

I was so wrapped up in feeling wanted that you trapped me in your pleasure in my worst times. When I was lonely, you gave me stuff to do; when I was bitter, you gave me sweets to digest it; when I was angry, you gave me people to take it out on.

These times with you... they were not my finest hours. But I’m not ashamed to admit what happened--it was a necessary step for me. I can only hope that the people we hurt will forgive me, and the wrongs that we did may be made right. But I don’t fret about these things anymore, and it is not your place to keep reminding of them.

In case it isn’t clear, we’re over. You are in my past. Done. Gone. The End. My future lies elsewhere, and with someone else. We are finished.

It is finished.

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Why I Fear Writing [jay]

Summer camp in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania is a highlight of my boyhood. Being raised in a Christian home required that I attend a Christian camp with a bunch of other church kids who were looking forward to hiking, creek-stomping, archery, swimming and farting in the poor cabinmate’s face who happened to be the first person to fall asleep on the first night.

At this camp, as I suppose would be the case at most Christian camps, we would grudgingly be dragged away from the adventures of the day for “Bible Time”. It was an obligatory, mid-morning devotional time in The Chapel, a blisteringly hot, converted 18th century barn that smelled like cedar and three hundred year old poo. Some poor sap – usually a retired missionary or overworked local church pastor – was asked to come and share biblical truths for half an hour with a group of thirty to forty ten year olds who could only think about the team competitions that afternoon or the S’mores awaiting them that evening.

For nine straight summers I attended that camp and to this day I don’t remember a single Bible Time teaching, save one. A story that one speaker told on a July morning when I was ten or eleven seared my heart with fear and trepidation and is still the strongest reason why I fear writing. The story went something like this:

Billy was a ten year old boy who lived with his parents and little sister. Little Billy loved his family very much and was, for the most part, obedient and good. If there was one thing Billy lacked though, it was an ability to control his tongue.

Billy’s elderly grandmother took ill with cancer and Billy’s parents asked Grandma to come and live with their family. This invitation displaced Billy from his room and, to make matters worse, Grandma’s treatment medications caused a foul odor in his now confiscated personal space.

The next day, Billy and his mother had an exchange. He was complaining about the living arrangements and his mother was pleading with him to lower his voice and have grace. Billy did not lower his voice though, in fact, he said even louder, “But Mom, Grandma stinks!”

Just then, Grandma walked around the corner with tears streaming down her cheeks. She had heard every word of their conversation.

Billy felt terrible. He begged Grandma’s forgiveness. Grandma didn’t say a word. She simply went upstairs into Billy’s room and emerged again quickly with a pillow and a pair of scissors in hand. She motioned for Billy to follow her outside.

As they stood together in the gentle breeze, Grandma took the scissors and cut open one side of the pillow. She reached in and grabbed a handful of tiny, white down feathers. With a sweep of the hand, she threw the feathers into the air. They danced and moved in the breeze, dotting the green grass with their white kisses.

Seriously…I remember the Bible Time speaker using that exact phrase: “dotting the green grass with their white kisses.” I’m obviously paraphrasing most of this, it was twenty years ago, after all, but I remember that phrase. I was hanging on every word.

Grandma turned to Billy and said, “Billy, go and get all the feathers and put them back in the pillow.”

“But that’s impossible, Grandma. There must be a million of ‘em!”

“That’s true, isn’t it, Billy?” She continued, “Billy, those feathers are like words. Once you release them, you can never retrieve them. They will go where the wind takes them. And the good or harm that they do can be forgiven, but it cannot be taken back.”

I have no idea what the speaker’s main point was. I assume it was something about controlling our mouths, but that story put the fear of God into me in regard to words.

That is why I fear writing.

Words matter. Words are powerful and intrusive. Words have the ability to bless or curse, to comfort or destroy, to breathe life or suffocate. Words come in so many forms, so many variations, so many links to so many other words that have so many of their own forms and variations.

As someone in pastoral ministry, words are what I do. The spoken word --that’s something I can handle. Those words are expressed from me to a person or audience and there is an ability to read the listener’s response. At any point in time, I can teach something different or call the person with whom I had the conversation to clarify a statement made.

The written word is completely different. I have no idea who is going to get their eyes on the stuff that I write and no way to gauge their response to my writing. It is a complete loss of control and a call for judgment on whatever it is that I put on paper and there is no ability within me to dictate who sees the words and who does not.

In college, I wrote a term paper about U2 and pop culture that I thought was pretty good, so I submitted it to a periodical for consideration for publication. The article was turned down, not because of my writing style, but for lack of worthy content. Reading over that paper again recently, the editor was right – that paper sucked. The words I would write now are so different from the words I wrote then.

So, the question is: if I am so afraid of writing words, why am I writing this essay? That is a good question. And Jesus has provided me with a good answer.

The New Testament says that Jesus is the Word. I think what that means is that as the Word, and all my words are wrapped up in His Word. As the Word, He realizes reality and defines definition. He controls all blessing and cursing, comforting and destroying, life-breathing and suffocation. God’s singular Word puts an end to my words and, to quote the Psalmist, “all peoples stand silent before Him.” My attempts to explain myself, write a poem, recite a monologue, call a friend, discipline my kids, preach a sermon, or write this essay are all pieces of me trying to engage my reality. The fact that Jesus is the Word in which all words hold together and have purpose means that my reality is contained within His Reality, and that is something in which I can rest…sort of.

I still am worried about people reading my stuff and hating it. But more than anything, I am worried about me reading my stuff and hating it. But the fact that Jesus is the Word is explained by speaking of Him as “full of grace and truth.”. The truth may very well be that the paper I wrote in college was lousy, but there is grace to redeem that. And there is grace to allow me to be who I was then, and grace to permit me to be who I am now. Once I began to equate Jesus’ grace with the eternality of His Word-ness, I felt a release from my fear of writing.

The reality of His grace is that He did comb the yard on His hands and knees with a pair of tweezers, placing every feather back in the pillow. He took Grandma’s hurting heart and healed it. He took my shame-filled spirit, poured His grace over it, and simply said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” And He does that for me myriad times a day in ways that are seen and unseen.

So I am choosing against my fear of writing. I still believe words hold incredible power, but I believe even more that the Word is incredible power. And, something even more comforting for this tenuous writer, the Word is full of grace.

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March 21, 2008

5,211 Miles of Transition [justin]

It’s been three years since moving to the Northwest. A long distance relationship of two years brought me to the evergreen state with its mountains on one side, the coastline on the other, and granola and coffee shops in between. I’ve quickly grown to love this place and look forward to returning to it again, but for now it’s back to Pennsylvania where family lives.

Mom died last year, and though coming back home for a few years was in the plans before all that happened, her death affirmed the desire to spend some time with family. I’m the baby in the bunch, almost an only child by some standards, with a brother 13 years older and a sister a handful more on top of that. Some of my nieces are going to graduate high school this year. When did they grow up and I hit my late twenties? My dad is looking to retire next year from the military and mentions it almost every phone conversation. I left home with parental anticipations of a new daughter-in-law and now return to a widowed father. Things have changed more that expected.

Naomi is leaving her security back on the West, and not being the best with change, we decide that a two-week road trip would aid in the transition. We have a Subaru packed up and weighed down, a few friends to visit, twenty some mixed CDs and audio books, plus 5000 miles before we arrive. There are no jobs on the East waiting for us, just people. And the way life works, saying hello to some friends means saying goodbye to others.

There is no better time to think, reflect, pray, and, of course, nap than over a road trip of this proportion. I’m not overly anything emotionally - though panic skips rocks with its companion, excitement, in the pond of thoughts in my head. We leave the West close to full moon and should be settled in the East once the new moon hides. I wonder to myself what that symbolism could mean about my time of transition.

Circa 397 miles
Tonight I felt small. The pass over the Blue Mountains with its snow and dirt and dark is what did it. Tractor-trailer trucks were pulled over to the side, chaining up. One was even being towed. I felt alone, driving up the pass in blizzard-like conditions, and, though sparse, welcomed the white headlights behind or the red taillights ahead to keep me company. It seemed primitive and mysterious as I clenched the wheel questioning what sight the dark was hiding on the other side of the guardrail I tried not to slide into. It was aweful.

That’s aweful with an “e”, as in full of awe, which I would describe as the genuine sense of fear combined with wonder. The sensation reminded me of what I took from A.W. Tozer’s book The Knowledge of the Holy, which I finished right before the trip. The book drives you to think of God’s character and attributes and if we would take time to meditate on them, we would become awe struck by His otherness, again both with fear and wonder.

When it comes to God, every person, in part, must be agnostic... or better yet, a mystic… for an agnostic can be apathetic while a mystic passionate about the beauty of the unknown. Yet, thanks be to God for sending His Son in the flesh - lest we all be atheists or pantheists. And thanks be to the Son for not leaving us as orphans but sending the Holy Spirit - lest we be left to our own destruction and devices - suffering from dementia and amnesia.

Circa 586 miles
The mountains, though still large, turned into rolling hills. They are laid bare for the most part - covered in white like a bride with a secret; vulnerable with no trees to hide their true nature. They are well defined, whether in youth with curves or age with wrinkles and crevasses; smooth, with no harsh or jagged peaks. Those mountains know who they are.

Before we left, our pastor took us out to lunch and was trying to describe how his concept of holiness has been changing. Morphing from a do-this/don’t-do-this model to an identity issue, he said that the most holy and righteous thing we can do is be who God made us to be. We are to be conformed to the likeness of Christ – uniquely conformed. It is hard to wrap my head around that. How can a jillion followers be distinctively different from each other and yet be specifically like Jesus?

Yet… I believe its true. Maybe the enigma is rooted in a shallow view of freedom. Maybe we’re scared (rightfully so) of who we are as fallen people but even more scared of the freedom that comes with the truth of “Christ in me”.

Circa 2,057 miles
A side trip yesterday put us at the Grand Canyon. As you stand on the edge of the rim and take in the vastness of it, you feel like you are going to fall into it or maybe that it is somehow going to swallow you into itself. Interestingly, however, because of the sheer grandness of it you almost think you can reach out and touch a canvas backdrop that would expose it as fake. But it is sincerely there. I suppose that’s how it is with items more complex than what we can comprehend – we doubt that they are authentic, whether people or events or God. The problem is that the things are the most difficult to explain are also somehow the things that awaken life inside of us.

Circa 3,357 miles
A three-day layover in Houston has us visiting Naomi’s grandma. I got the car checked out and the brakes cost an unexpected 400 smackers… ugh. I sit on the curb next door to the mechanic at a closed down Chinese restaurant waiting for the work to be finished. Financial strain has me thinking about mediocrity again.

I survey the landscape of mediocrity and, though I feel the creeping temptation, I know I do not want to settle there. I don’t want to merely accept a job that pays bills but brings no satisfaction to my soul, or a marriage that is committed but not connecting. I don’t want to have a freedom that looks more like laziness than liberty, nor a life of spirituality that has the form but no substance. I truly value faithfulness and understand that these years on earth won’t always be peaches and cream, but I don’t want to negate the divine spark or breath that turned inanimate dust into a living being. I want those black and white days from It’s a Wonderful Life with its violent lovemaking and passionate necking, where money was mainly important only to help others.

All of us have been sold the American dream, but what we really need is a dream of our own… or better yet, a dream of God birthed into us. And that dream can be confusing because fulfillment could be found anywhere from being a stylish cultural arts director to a godly janitor to simply a father of three and husband of one. The normal Christian life should be anything but mediocre since we carry the Spirit of Christ within us.

Circa 4,628 miles
Damien Rice lowers his tone and sings, “Time is contagious, everybody’s getting old.” For one reason or another, it’s easy to forget that others are changing too. The people I left three years ago are not the same. There has been death, marriage, babies, and everything in between.

Even if it’s what everybody is anticipating, I don’t want to go back to the guy I was three years ago. Nor do I want to hold my friends and family to that expectation either. Changes will come and—whether people, places, seasons of life, or even myself—I should appreciate things for what they are, not criticize them for what they are not.

It’s now Don Chaffer’s voice in my ear, “We’re a strange old pair, me and eternity.” I suppose the whole redemption phase of history is a time of transition. Maybe, looking back from eternity, I’ll somehow miss these times of instability and musings. Maybe.

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March 18, 2008

Newton Was a Prophet [sean]

Mr. Isaac Newton, why do you always give the hard truths?
I lay out on my bed with my head under the pillow.
Every time I lift my head up, gravity brings it back to earth.
And I’m just too tired to see the good in the ugly and the ugly in the good.

Somewhere downtown on the busy side of Winnipeg,
I got an apartment and tried to make the ends meet for a while.
This girl, she had long hair and one of those old-time movie star smiles.
That girl, she was the best kisser that ever stepped foot into the world.

Oh it’s true what they say that for every thing done, there’s an equal and opposite reaction;
I laid my head down at night without joy and with no satisfaction.
Listening to Cobain and Duritz raging and wailing ‘cause life’s got no meaning;
I spent last night laying awake and observing the ceiling.

There’s a newspaper on my table and a fork in my hand,
And there’s a waitress; she’s asking me about my breakfast plans.
And there’s a waitress; she’s asking me about my dinner plans.
And there’s a waitress; she’s asking me about my supper plans.

…but I just want a friend.

And there were nights of old-time movies (playing on a makeshift movie screen),
But here I am again looking for another pass-the-time routine.
The smoke rises and I lose another game of penny poker, it sets and the night is done.
We’re singing “blessed is he who lives fast, leaves a good looking grave, and dies young.”

Twelve bells ring out and I am done.

“Meaningless, everything is meaningless.”

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On A Lighter Note [guest]

After church the other day, while a few of us were standing around in the sanctuary trying to decide where to go for lunch, two friends whipped out their wallets to exchange some money. I teased them, saying, “Didn’t Jesus tell us not to change money here?” One guy found the joke mildly amusing and chuckled as he moved on. The other, however, told me that I had missed the mark with my interpretation of the biblical passage I was referring to and spent the next five minutes explaining the hermeneutically correct way to understand Jesus’ actions in the temple that day.

As a good Christian girl, I tried hard to listen intently. I made eye contact, nodded and looked pensive. After all, misinterpreting God’s word is a serious thing, and here was someone who earnestly wanted me to know what he knew. But, honestly, I didn’t catch most of what he said because this small voice in my head—that sounded, disturbingly, like Keanu Reeves—kept repeating, "Dude, lighten up."

We live in somber times, and we are all well aware of it, thanks to the news media. There are wars and rumors of wars, warnings of environmental catastrophe and economic collapse. Social injustice reigns supreme, people are hungry, families fall apart and, as the song goes, we are so fragile, and our cracking bones make noise, and we are just breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys. There are so many issues that need attention, all of them equally important. There are so many facts to learn, eyes to open and truths to comprehend.

Yes, this is a serious life—but I just can’t believe that an extra measure of gravitas will carry us on to victory. Sure, I could set my mouth in grim determination and soldier onward with the best of them through these dark days, but I am looking to transcend.

I’m looking to lighten up, to let Jesus’ grace wash over me with effervescence, a rush of tiny bubbles lifting me out of the depths. And I don’t mean grace as a profound and weighty concept, which it can be. I mean grace manifest in its lightest, most gossamer form: little birds hopping through piles of dead leaves, a smile shared among strangers, the scent of a freshly cut lemon.

When this kind of grace gets into your system, you can’t help but lighten up. It reminds me of a Volkswagen ad I saw on television a few weeks ago. A guy is driving his VW City Golf around and around in frustration, looking for a spot in a multi-level parkade. He finally reaches the rooftop, sees one spot open and puts on his left blinker. A woman in another car pulls up to the same spot, seconds too late. She looks defeated. But instead of claiming the spot that is rightfully his, the guy gets a funny look on his face, then relaxes, smiles and waves the woman in. The voice over calls it a “blatant act of road joy” because “when you get into a Volkswagen, it gets into you.” I call it marketing genius because, at that point, all I wanted was to buy a City Golf and be a kind and decent person.

It’s all about staying buoyant in the heaviness of life. Buoyancy lifts us outside of ourselves. VW guy, I’m sure, needed the parking spot as much as the woman did, and he certainly could’ve taken the spot with a clear conscience. But he chose to let it go and, in doing so, lightened his load a little. I mean, aren’t we all sick of being anchored to our giant sack of personal wants, needs and concerns? Wouldn’t it be nice to just let a few items fall out and not even turn to see where they’d floated off to?

So, this spring, I’ve asked God to help me lighten up, to help me commit blatant acts of joy, and to help me throw off that which hinders. It’s the right time, I think, as the snow finally melts and our thoughts turn to new life, the return of hope and the wild promise of a risen body.

Teresa Wong lives in Calgary, AB and works with words. She thanks God for spring.

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March 14, 2008

Exile [matt]

The temperature had finally dropped, making the weather bearable for a new adventure. Taking advantage of the August day were two of my cousins, me, and a new friend. We took to our bikes and went exploring into a wooded area that we had never ventured into before. The forest was buzzing with the sounds of water running and trees rustling in a slight breeze. We found a bubbling spring mixing fresh water with decomposing Washington mud, where the rocks we threw disappeared as if into the center of the earth. We discovered a hidden rope swing that propelled us over a massive ravine, sending us to exhilarating heights. Deer darted through the trees and birds sang overhead while squirrels sprinted and leaped across branches. The woods were alive and gave us life. At the edge of our known world new discoveries seemed to be begging to show themselves. We crashed through the underbrush, yelling and laughing and feeling the sort of goodness that only comes when you are young. Towards the end of our ride, nearly out of the woods, we crossed a creek and stopped to explore. This was the most beautiful spot we had seen all day.

The creek was nearly large enough to call a river, but still quiet enough to feel more like the typical streams you find in the Washington woods. There was moss everywhere with interspersed ferns, Vine Maples, and saplings growing up wherever the larger Evergreens and Cottonwoods let the sun break through. We relaxed and played by the river and would have been on our way had we not suddenly seen an event that too few humans are allowed to witness. With no warning, seeming to come from the earth itself, a salmon nearly three feet in length came crashing through the water heading upstream. Half its body stuck out of the surface, always shining, absolutely glistening when the sun hit it. The racket that came from the stream silenced the birds around us and for a moment we were moving against time, watching something primordial, seeing an ancient ritual reenacted as if only for our benefit. It was a moment of peace, where the abundant generosity of God shines through and reminds you that the world is full of mystery and beauty if only you look. Unfortunately adolescent boys are seldom aware of mystery, grace, or anything else that hints at the boundless beauty of our Creator.

Two more salmon soon came crashing through the water and an idea entered four heads at once. We grabbed sticks and rocks and stationed ourselves at opposing sides and intervals of the creek. Another fish came by, thrashing through the water with little interest for the stones and noise and abuse being hurled its way. Two more came through and I managed to land a large hunk of granite onto the tail of the leader. A cheer resounded through the forest as it careened off path into a muddy pool to the side of the creek. Quickly we built a small wall around the area, leaving no exit for our quarry. It was trapped.

The pool in which the salmon had entered was no more than ten feet long and at most three feet wide. The water itself was never even six inches deep. Yet it had disappeared. Methodically we dropped rocks into the water’s edge, moving towards the center, occasionally slapping the water with a stick, working to draw out our prey. Nothing stirred. After twenty minutes we gave up and sat down. We had been outsmarted. It was time to throw in the towel. We began to discuss what our next adventure might be, where we should go, when seemingly out of nowhere our victim made a mad dash towards freedom. Its speed, strength, and determination were tremendous as it crashed through our dam without losing the smallest bit of momentum. It was on its way to freedom, gloriously fighting and splashing and thrashing and crashing into the larger body of water! But we were determined as well and in a mad rush four yelling boys entered the water and began wildly swinging sticks into the beautiful shining body of an animal once considered sacred. We swung uncontrollably, frantically, with bloodlust in our hearts and joyful hatred in our eyes. The thrill was exhilarating. I had never felt such single-minded determination. My heart pounded and my eyes glazed over with the pleasure and excitement of violence.

The thrill seemed to last forever. Our prey was elusive, tough, and continued to struggle as its body took blow after blow. We surrounded the ancient salmon in the middle of the stream, dropping rocks, slapping it with sticks, kicking and punching, even hurling insults. Even when it was obviously done trying we continued our assault. Finally it quit moving in any sort of natural way and let the water push it into the bank. It writhed and contorted its body, fighting for the past.

I will never forget the sight of my cousin struggling to pick up our prize. It was massive, well over three feet in length. Its face was stoic, its wisdom and moral superiority obvious. Gasping its last breaths, convulsing, the salmon remained awe-inspiring. There was no blood. Its body amazingly looked intact. But it was dying all the same. Nobody wanted to touch it. Mouths agape, we just stared. Finally, letting the awkward silence work as a funeral liturgy, we lowered our olden victim back into its watery home and watched it slowly float downstream. It rolled with the current, bounced off boulders, and disappeared towards the Pacific.

Four adolescent boys climbed onto their bicycles without a word, crossed over the creek and left the woods. They went back to the lives they knew before they entered the forest. And they never came back.

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Markings [liz]

The markings on our body tell a story
Some wish to forget and some grateful you can’t
We fall, get pushed, punched, burned, or worse
Our skin doesn’t forget, recording a testimony with new tissue
When I bare my ankles to the world, my scar reads,
You wouldn’t even have this leg if it weren’t for me.
Others, more mundane:
A mosquito bite in the sticky August air
A quick knick off a sharp corner
The bumpy face of adolescent humility—
They write our memoirs

Sun gives life and takes away our years
Leaving inverted constellations to examine
Choice and a needled pen create art beneath the layers
Metal studs fill holes of emptiness revealing a concealed beauty
These impressions mark time and place
But all they tell isn’t enough
It’s only the surface

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March 11, 2008

Facebook Religion [karen]

When I finally got sucked into signing up for a Facebook account (after first rejecting the pressures several of those email invites from friends), I caved because I secretly thought my little sister really had discovered something cool that I was missing out on. So I signed in, filled out my profile and discovered the wonderful world of writing on walls and tagging pictures and starting poke wars with my friends. This was fun for about 9 days (okay so it was longer, but the “9 days” thing made me feel coolly aloof). Like so many fun and very useful technological inventions, it’s gotten old. But there’s one part that continues to intrigue me.

What I find fascinating is what people choose to enter in the ‘Religion’ field of their profiles. I’ve seen a wide variety of descriptions, from the more average “Christian” to the vague “Liberal” to “God Exists.” There are others that grab your interest because of their uniqueness, such as “Obsession with the Virgin Mary” and the ones that seem to have stemmed from an in-depth philosophical journey, like “I and Thou as Martin Buber describes it” and “Existential Theo-Humanist.” From the mind-numbing, to the simple “Jesus loves me,” Facebook’s religion status has it all. And that’s not even a cross section of the people who are on Facebook, those are just the people on my friend list.

There are also plenty of people whom I know are religious, but who have chosen, for whatever reason, to leave the religion section off of their profile completely. Some, no doubt, think it’s nobody’s business and don’t want their information out on the internet for all to see; some don’t want to be limited to a single category (read: box), and others don’t exactly know how to express the meaning of faith in a few short words. I fall into the latter two categories.

I refrained from simply putting “Christian” because, in the spirit of Donald Miller (whose refers to his religion as “Christian Spirituality” see Blue Like Jazz), I know that that one simple word (category? stereotype?) could be interpreted in far too many ways, most of them negative. Let’s be honest, the term “Christian” is often associated with hypocritical, close minded, anti-abortionist, right-wingers who inflict their religion on unwilling recipients. Though Christians have been given (and have made for themselves) a bad name, Jesus still seems to have a fairly good reputation. I’ve decided that I’d rather be associated with Jesus than with “Christians.” I was going to put “Follower of Jesus” on my profile, but felt that was a little arrogant, or I worried that people would think me arrogant, since I’ve never felt like I was really good at following him, so I simply settled on “Learning how to follow Jesus.” I’m still not completely satisfied with this description, but as I said before, attempting to condense the meaning of your faith into a few words is difficult task. At least, I haven’t been able to do it in a way that I’m satisfied with.

Through Facebook, I’ve come into contact with a lot of people that I knew when I was growing up. The interesting thing is that the (Christian) category I would have put them in back then is sometimes surprisingly different from what I find as their ‘religion’ now.

I found my best friend from elementary school. We attended a Christian school, back when private schools were few and far between in my city. Her religion status says “God and I had a falling out.” That statement brings up a lot of questions in my mind. What happened? Did she ask something of God? Didn’t he answer her? I wonder what she’s gone through. I only know a few things about her life and about a couple of events that may have broken her heart. It seems that something deep and painful must have happened for her to define her religion as a non-relationship with God.

I’ve also come into contact with a few friends who were a part of an excessively conservative home-schooling group. My family joined this group for a few years, but we weren’t in as deep as many others. Looking back, it was quite cultish. Girls had to have long hair and wear skirts, birth control was evil and the “good” families multiplied like rabbits, having 8-12 or more children. Rock music was evil, and we were to be suspicious of everything worldly. Two girls whose families were in a part of this group are single mothers. I found a support group on Facebook where people were recovering from the religious/emotional abuse that they felt they had endured. Many were not religious, or wished they could be, for the sake of their children, but only felt judgment and pain when they even thought about getting near a Bible. One man expressed that he had finally found freedom and acceptance in Wicca. I felt sad for these people, and lucky that my family hadn’t completely bought into all of the principles of this home school group.

It’s interesting that I find myself on quite a different path than many I have walked with in the past. My ‘religion’ status is technically in the same category it has been for most of my life, though many I know, with similar backgrounds, families and education have gone in different directions, and I’m not quite sure how to reconcile this. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking down at them with pitying eyes, pretending I’m a faithful disciple; I’m not lamenting that they have fallen away. I just wonder why I haven’t. What makes the difference? I certainly don’t attribute it to my unwavering faith – it has been far from consistent. If anything, God has been has been holding on to me more tightly than I’ve been holding on to him.

But that presents a problem. Wasn’t he holding on to them too? How is it that I’ve become comfortable with a religion that is truly my own, and not just left to an existence inside the religious structures around me? I’m grateful. I have to be. I’ve been saved from so much, mostly crap of my own making. I suppose there’s still time, and he hasn’t necessarily let them go. I hope that these people who have been hurt by religion or feel abandoned by God will discover that that he’s still present. I also hope that all these ‘religions’ that have pushed me to think, will lead to questions and conversations about faith. I know that I also need to remember not to limit people to the ‘boxes’ on their Facebook profiles. We are more than we seem to be.

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Meaning and Melancholy: Four Music Videos [justin]

When visuals and melody are integrated into each other, something powerful can happen. The story behind a song can be redefined, reaffirmed, or simply deepened by a good video. While there are some great, quirky, upbeat videos with interesting special effects, it’s the more downhearted ones that I remember and stir my soul. In some ironic way I find hope in the melancholy; maybe it’s because when we are in the pit, the only thing have left is hope.

Everybody Hurts – REM
when your day is night alone - hold on, hold on

The lost 90’s, traffic jam, internal thoughts captured, Michael Stipe. Enough said.

Rabbit in Your Headlights – UNKLE featuring Thom York
fat bloody fingers are sucking your soul away

This is a wildcard that was discovered while trying to jog my memory of videos by searching the Internet. Cryptic to say the least, but able to make a connection to anyone feeling like they are getting run over or are simply in the wrong place in life.

Hurt – Johnny Cash
everyone I know goes away in the end / you could have it all, my empire of dirt

Whereas REM’s video displays the shared communal aspect of pain and strife, Cash seemingly makes this his personal end of life confession. Originally by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, the images and tone of this cover reaffirms why Johnny is the Man in Black.

Down the Line – Jose Gonzalez
don’t let the darkness eat you up

The consistent acoustic drive mixed with not too many lyrics and coupled with visuals that glimpse at a story, which you want to know more of, makes this video a recent favorite. The dark, realistic symbolism haunts you with thoughts of human nature.

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March 7, 2008

Ignore the Beasts in the Room [mark]

“Ignore the beasts in the room,” he said, sweeping a single drip of sweat from his forehead. My gaze lingered a moment longer and he repeated, “Ignore the beasts in the room!”

I had been in and out of sleep within the darkest throes of the night. My eyes dipped into a strange world as a dolphin dips into the cool air above the sea. They closed again and I was in a bedroom.

A balding, portly man fished through a case of dirty trinkets occasionally wiping his hands on his tattered t-shirt. Evidence of an earlier meal lay hidden from his sight under the curvature of his stomach. With each swish of his knobby fingers covered in hair through the brown leather case the high posts of the bed on which it sat shook like poplars in the wind. The eyes in the room watched me shift my weight as I stood waiting by the door. I ignored them.

“Aha! I found it.” The man exclaimed, thrusting something small and brown into his pocket. He slammed the case shut, turned the clasps and tossed it onto the floor by the night stand. He quickly pushed past me to get out of the room. Despair slipped off the chair in the corner blinking twice, my heart sank. A hairy fist seized my sleeve and pulled me from the room.

My eyes opened again, still dark, still cold, now 2am …writing down my dream. Why is it that dreams continue to play over and over again as you wake up from them? They elaborate upon themselves as you focus on details. Ignore the beasts in the room… I slip away.

The sound of fur moving and nails clicking on the hard wood floor followed me down the hallway. It was too dark to see the way so I kept close to the man. Click, click, click. In a moment I realize that I am alone and my bare feet are no longer on wood but sand. The sun begins to rise.

The sun begins to rise.

The sun begins to rise casting an orange glow around my feet; the lapping waves are not cold on my toes. As I look in the new light, Despair is gone. The beasts surround me and feel like my long missed cocker spaniel as they gather close. They are warm. These are not the beasts in the room. These are not the familiar beasts I live with. These are the beasts that you must travel to, Comfort and Peace. They are gentle.

The beasts were in my room. Despair sat on the edge of my bed with a quizzical look upon his wrinkled and haggard face. I did not fear him as he had grown accustomed. I rolled over.

The man was there again, it was a new room, he handed me a tiny, brown pull-knob for a cabinet. Twisting the knob onto a screw, I pull letting the light in…

I step out of bed. There are no beasts in the room. Despair is gone and all that is left is to explore the places near and far to find Comfort and Peace.

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March 4, 2008

Wordless: Four Thousand Words [liz]

I like to write; it is often how I work through what I am thinking and feeling. It might take more than an hour, but in just a few succinct phrases I can sum up the tragedy or elation of the moment. Unfortunately, words aren't always there to greet me and fill the page. So on those days it is better to forget the words, pick up some oil pastels (choose your preferred medium), and draw in which ever way my hands will move. Somehow, from simply drawing lines and mixing color I feel a release, and that is enough for me.

Wordless - Elizabeth Janik

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March 1, 2008

The Breakfast Club [editor]

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us... in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That's the way we saw each other at seven o'clock this morning. We were brainwashed.

And so it goes. Like the Breakfast Club we are all trying to escape the brainwashing that has ensued us much of our lives. It has come from the media and our peers, from our churches, educational systems, and parents - even from ourselves.

If honest with ourselves, we would say that we feel sub normal too many hours in the day. Normal is the goal. Not normal in a common way, but in a sacred, standard way that branches out in more directions than the Tree of Life.

My wife wisely said the other day that the biggest slap in God's face is to try to be like someone else. Salvation conforms us into the Son of God's likeness - what is happening on another level is the redemption of the Image of God within us. Paradoxically it makes us both unique and similar, connecting us and releasing us into life.

The form of religion leaves us empty. Morality for it's own sake is a facade. Lawlessness eventually shows it's colors as unfulfilling and self-centered masturbation. We've mistaken emancipation and defiled ourselves; we've idolized what we adore and stripped it of its reflective glory; we've defined truth rather than being defined by it.

Truth, Beauty, and Freedom are cut from the same cloth. It is after those things we must progress.

The most excellent and sincere thing we can do is be ourselves; it is to learn and to fail, to strive and be still; to see that we are royalty and convicts - that we need something outside ourselves to truly become ourselves. It is to find out what really matters and pursue those things not only in word but in deed. The truth be told, there is only one trunk, but we have been sold that there are only a handful of important thing branching from its center. This is a lie. There are many profane things in this world, but the Tree of Life is lush and fruitful, with a vast expanse not only reaching to the sky, but also with hidden roots that are grounded in the depths.

Don't settle for convenient definitions.


Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us... In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain... and an athlete... and a basket case... princess... and a criminal. Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours,
The Breakfast Club

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